David Cudahy Wilhelm (1919–2018) is a former Colorado rancher, World War II Fighter Ace, humanitarian, and Congressional Gold Medal recipient. A world traveler as well as a family man, Wilhelm brought his work ethic and love for adventure to every endeavor in his life. Having lived for nearly a century, he made many contributions to Colorado’s farming and ranching industry, served his country valiantly as a pilot in World War II, and volunteered to help farmers and ranchers overseas.
David Wilhelm was born in Chicago, Illinois, into a modest middle-class family. In 1932, at the age of thirteen, young Wilhelm was in for a change when he enrolled in the Arizona Desert School (ADS) near Tucson, Arizona. The ADS was founded as a boarding school for boys aged eight through fourteen. Along with academics, young men were taught other skills such as camping, horsemanship (including polo), trail building, and animal husbandry. Wilhelm had many adventures, including a polo match in the Sonora desert played between ADS students and members of a Mexican army unit.
In his autobiography, Cowboy Ace: The Life Adventures of David Wilhelm, Wilhelm explains how the ADS prepared him for the rest of his life. He gained self-confidence, learned to be independent, and came to understand the value of loyalty, teamwork, and discipline. Finally, his experiences with horses and other livestock would prepare him for his ranching career.
After graduating from Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts, Wilhelm went on to attend and graduate from Yale University in 1942. At Yale, he played polo and had a four-goal rating (players rated at five-goal or better are typically professionals). Upon graduation, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Army (field artillery) and fought in World War II as a fighter pilot.
Wilhelm developed a strong interest in flying as a child. He often went with his mother to local air shows, and she even took him on an excursion ride. It was no surprise, then, when young Wilhelm decided he wanted to be a fighter pilot. He endured lengthy, rigorous, and challenging training in Oklahoma and throughout the Southeast, fine-tuning his abilities as an airman.
World War II
Arguably the most laudable part of David Wilhelm’s life was his military service as a fighter pilot during World War II. Wilhelm entered the US Army as a second lieutenant as a result of his ROTC training while at Yale University.
On June 17, 1943, Wilhelm shipped out from Newport News, Virginia, and headed for Casablanca, Morocco. Wilhelm was in charge of some 5,000 inexperienced troops who were housed in the belly of an old, decrepit Australian cruise ship. They were eventually dispatched to the European Theater and first saw action in Italy.
During the first part of his tour, Wilhelm flew a Spitfire V English fighter plane. The “Spit,” as it was known, was soon replaced by the newer Curtis P-40. This model was then supplanted by the famous P-51 Mustang, the newest, best fighting machine from the United States. Wilhelm was delighted to have the opportunity to fly this new machine, which reportedly impressed Nazi leader Hermann Goering so much that he is quoted as saying, “When I saw Mustangs over Berlin, I knew the war was lost.”
In all, Wilhelm flew 148 combat missions in enemy territory in Germany and the Near East. He had his share of close calls and scares, but he kept a level head and remained focused. Wilhelm achieved the title of “Ace,” since he had five witnessed kills of combatant aircraft. For his efforts, he received two Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Family and Postwar Career
After his military discharge, Wilhelm was employed by the Cudahy Packing Company, one of the nation’s four biggest meatpacking companies. His father was the vice president and his uncle was the president, so obtaining employment was not difficult.
In 1946 Wilhelm married Anne Jackson, whose father served as chief justice on the Colorado Supreme Court. The couple had four children: David, Jeannie, Peter, and Andy.
His duties as a cattle buyer required him to live and work in Denver as well as Omaha, Nebraska. Because of his background with livestock at the ADS, as well as his experience working in a slaughterhouse, Wilhelm was well-suited for this job. But he disliked Omaha and felt that the job in Denver gave him the chance to not only manage horses and cattle but to live in a healthier environment and meet new friends.
An expert stockman, Wilhelm recognized well the complexities of putting together bids, factoring in such things as the live weight, the meat, age, demeanor, and health of the animals, while also considering current market conditions. The daily, dynamic demands of the tasks at hand were truly fulfilling for him, and he proved to be excellent at his job.
After moving from Omaha, David’s life took a dramatic turn. He left the gloomy slaughterhouses and moved to Denver. He then decided to invest some money he had saved in his own ranching operation in the small town of Fraser, Colorado.
Fraser, located a mile from the Winter Park ski area, was then a lumber and ranching town with a population of around 200. Wilhelm and his family lived a rugged and austere existence there. He describes their home as “a summer uninsulated one-story shack with a wood stove for cooking, a primitive bathroom, an oil heater, two tiny bedrooms, and a screened porch looking out at 14,000-foot mountains.”
As well as managing 500 yearlings by himself, he also grew and harvested more than 900 tons of hay. After three years in the business, he realized that mountain ranching was not profitable enough to support his family, and he sold his operation. The selling price was $78,000, which was what Wilhelm originally paid for it.
After three years of brutal work in Fraser, Wilhelm bought a farm near Longmont, where he and his family would spend the next four years. Life was more comfortable there, but it brought new challenges, such as complications with farm machinery.
Branding time offered Wilhelm considerable escape. Early on, Wilhelm held a cattle-branding party at his Longmont ranch. Among the participants were his friends and future US senators Peter Dominick and Floyd Haskell. Both men were novices at branding, and Dominick suffered an open sore for several months after inadvertently putting dehorning paste on his shin. Haskell pulled a muscle in his back, causing him to walk bent over for some time; neither injury hampered either man’s political career.
After forming a partnership with a local farmer, Wilhelm opened cattle feedlots in Rocky Ford, Fort Morgan, Sterling, and Brighton, in addition to a ranch in Walden. While living in Denver, Wilhelm flew himself to his various enterprises around Colorado using the company’s private plane.
Even though he found success in Colorado, Wilhelm yearned to help farmers and ranchers in other parts of the world. In 1978 Wilhelm became familiar with an organization called the International Executive Service Corporation (IESC), whose mission is to supply American experts to other countries to help small companies improve various enterprises. Wilhelm's expertise in agricultural management took him to assignments helping ranchers in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park and in Guadalajara, Mexico. Due to local issues that were largely beyond his control, Wilhelm met with only measured success in Kenya, but his tenure in Mexico was more productive. Later, under the aegis of St. Phillip’s Church in Tucson, Wilhelm advised a Honduran orphanage on crop-raising operations.
Gold Medal Recipient
On May 15, 2015, Wilhelm turned ninety-six. Five days later, he found himself in the United States capitol building in Washington, DC. It was there, along with thirty-five other surviving World War II fighter “Aces,” that Wilhelm received the greatest award a citizen of the United States can receive—the Congressional Gold Medal.
Wilhelm’s multifaceted career as an athlete, rancher, farmer, humanitarian, and fighter pilot distinguishes him from many others in his generation, and he continues to be admired and appreciated for his defense of the United States as well as his many contributions to agriculture in Colorado and beyond.
David Wilhelm died in Denver on October 26, 2018, at the age of ninety-nine.
–Congressional Gold Medal, May 2015
–Two Distinguished Flying Crosses
–The National Aviation and Space Exploration Wall of Honor, January 2004
–20 Air Medals
–Discharged from military service with the rank of captain