Theose “Tilly” E. Tillinghast is a native of Providence, Rhode Island. He was born on 29 May 1893, the older of two children of Pardon and Emily Tillinghast. He attended local schools in the Providence, Rhode Island area and entered Rhode Island State College (RISC) in September 1913 with the class of 1917. Theose was a member of Delta Alpha Psi fraternity, the hockey team, the baseball team, and participated in the Army ROTC Program.
Theose graduated from RISC in 1917 with a Bachelors of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, United States Army. After attending flight training at Brooks Field, San Antonio, Texas, LT Tillinghast deployed to France on 9 February 1918, joining the 17th Aero Squadron at Matigny in Somme, France. On 15 July 1918, the 17th Aero Squadron entered combat for the first time. Taking off from the petite Snythe Airdrome, the squadron engaged in combat operations almost daily afterwards, frequently engaging German aircraft in aerial battles over the skies of northern France and Belgium.
The 17th Aero Squadron was ordered to move to Auxi-le-Chateau Airdrome on 18 August 1918, flying their first combat patrol over the lines on 21 August 1918, shooting down four enemy aircraft. The Chateau Thierry offensive was in full swing, with the squadron flying low-bombing patrols and attacking gas balloons and infantry with their machine guns. Each pilot went on two patrols each day from dawn until disk.
The 26th of August was the squadron’s most tragic day. The squadron was called for a patrol about 1630 hours with a mission to attack numerous enemies on the lines as well as some friendly “low-straffers” in trouble on the Bapaume-Cambrai road. The squadron took off; and upon crossing the line, five German Fokkers were seen attacking friendly forces on the line. Immediately afterwards, a Camel aircraft was seen being attacked by the five Fokkers at a height of about 1,000 feet. At once, the patrol went to the assistance of the Camel and attacked the enemy aircraft. Several other flights of enemy Fokkers were then seen diving from the clouds. A major engagement took place in which still other flights of enemy Fokkers came down from higher altitudes. Three 17th Aero pilots, including Captain Tillinghast, were shot down; and a fourth pilot just succeeded in getting back to the Auxi Airdrome with a number of Fokkers on his tail and firing continuously. All of the downed pilots were given up for lost; but about a month later, word was received that one was killed and the other two were prisoners of war.
Captain Tillinghast, along with four other captured pilots, spent four days cutting a hole in the roof of the house they were locked up in with a broken saw. The pilots escaped and set out toward Holland. During the nights, they were passed from house to house, like an underground railroad system. In Brussels, they could walk about the streets freely; and Captain Tillinghast took a trolley to investigate a nearby German aerodrome. He made friends with a Belgian engineer who was in charge of the electric power plants. Helping him to escape, the engineer informed Captain Tillinghast of what wires were electrified and what were not. He cut his way through the wires and went on to freedom. It had taken him one month to trek from the POW camp to the Netherlands, arriving there on 23 October 1918.
Upon returning to the United States, Thoese joined Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company as an Executive Engineer and later as Sales Manager. In 1942, he was elected Vice President and Director. He later became President of the United Aircraft Service Corporation. When he retired in 1958, he was awarded the William E. Mitchell Award by the American Legion Aviators Post #743 as an individual who made an outstanding contribution to aviation progress. He continued to provide leadership and vision to the aviation community during his lifetime.
Theose Tillinghast died on 16 March 1982 and was buried at Saint John’s Episcopal Church Cemetery, West Hartford, Connecticut with full military honors. Captain Theose Elwin Tillinghast, United States Army Air Service, was a son of Rhode Island State College who answered the call to service for Rhode Island and America during World War I.