Robert G. Tills – Ensign, United States Navy

Robert G. Tills, Ensign, U.S. Navy
Service # 0-081538
Entered the Service from: Wisconsin
Died: 8 December 1941
Missing in Action or Buried at Sea
Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery, Manila, Philippines
Awards: Purple Heart


U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
News Release

December 01, 2008

Sailor Missing from WWII is Identified

The Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) announced today that the remains of a U.S. serviceman, missing from World War II, have been identified and will be returned to his family for burial with full military honors.

He is Ensign Robert G. Tills, U.S. Navy, of Manitowoc, Wisconsin. He will be buried on March 23, 2009, in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

Representatives from the Navy’s Mortuary Office met with Tills’ next-of-kin to explain the recovery and identification process and to coordinate interment with military honors on behalf of the Secretary of the Navy.

On December 8, 1941, two PBY-4 Catalina Flying Boats moored in Malalag Bay, in eastern Mindanao, Philippine Commonwealth, were strafed and sunk by Japanese aircraft. All of the crew on board the PBYs escaped the aircraft with the exception of Tills, who was seen by another crewman to have been hit and killed by machine gun bullets. Tills was the first Navy officer to be lost in defense of the Philippine Islands. His body was not recovered.

In October 2007, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) was notified by U.S. authorities in the Philippines that aircraft wreckage had been discovered in Malalag Bay. A fragment of the wreckage bore the markings “PBY-4.”

In November 2007, a JPAC team, along with the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group-Philippines and the Philippines Coast Guard (PCG), surveyed the site and recovered human remains and non-biological evidence. Later that month, the PCG recovered additional remains from the site.

Among other forensic identification tools and circumstantial evidence, scientists from JPAC also used dental comparisons in the identification of Tills’ remains.

USS Tills (DE 748) Named For Ensign Robert G. Tills, United States Navy, Commissioned 8 August 1944.

According to the Navy's historical records:

Early on December 8, 1941, one PBY seaplane began a search of the Philippine seas for signs of the Japanese. Two other seaplanes, including Tills', remained in Malalag Bay.

Shortly before 8 a.m., nine Japanese fighter planes “strafed the helpless PBYs, turning them into collanders of metal and fabric and setting them afire,” according to the Navy records. “Ensign Robert Tills died in the fusillade of bullets.”

Tills enlisted in the Naval Reserve as a seaman second class in 1937. He was 19 years old. Two years later, he was commissioned an ensign in the Naval Reserve. In April 1941, Tills gained regular Navy status and was soon flying patrols in the Philippines.

In June 1943, the USS Tills, a destroyer escort, was commissioned in the ensign's memory. It was launched less than four months later, providing escort service against submarine and air attack for Navy vessels and convoys.

After the war, the Tills was converted into a training vessel. In 1969, the ship was sunk as a training target off the U.S. East Coast.

Woman gets to say goodbye 69 years later
Her fiance's plane was shot down during World War II; his remains were recently identified.

HENDERSONVILLE, North Carolina – A woman will finally get to say goodbye to the fiance she lost nearly 70 years ago at the start of World War II.

Vicki Quandt Lee was 22 when she learned her fiance, Navy Ensign Robert Tills, had been killed in the Philippines. Department of Defense officials said Tills' plane was shot down at Malalag Bay by a Japanese fighter plane December 8, 1941.

He was the first Navy officer to die in defense of the Philippines Islands during the war.

Lee met Tills in 1936, when they were students at Northwestern College in Watertown, Wis., according to an interview in The Times-News of Hendersonville.

Tills later went to another college, then joined the Navy. The two wrote each other often while they were apart, and planned to marry after Tills returned to the states in December 1941.

“It was very sad,” Lee said last week from her home in Hendersonville.

The Department of Defense said the PBY-4 Catalina plane that Tills was last seen in was found in Malalag Bay in October 2007. Human remains were with it. They were positively identified as Tills' through dental records December 1, 2008.

Tills' sister Jean Aplin, 78, was 11 when her brother was killed in the war. She said the Navy notified her when her brother's remains were recovered with the wreckage. Aplin, who now lives in Arizona, searched for and found Lee in Hendersonville to tell her about the discovery.

“I can't believe they found him under 60 feet of water,” Lee said. “That was a shock, that they found his body.”

Vicki Quandt had mourned the loss of her love, then later married Robert Lee. The couple were together for 53 years before Robert Lee died.

Tills' remains will be buried March 23, 2009, in Arlington National Cemetery. Lee plans to attend.

Navy records show Tills had a Navy destroyer escort named after him in 1943. It provided escort services against submarine and air attacks for Navy vessels and convoys through the war. After the war, the USS Tills was converted into a training vessel. The ship sank in 1969 in a training exercise off the East Coast.

Home at last!: Robert Tills of rural Manitowoc finally comes back from war

Monday was a beautiful cloudless spring day at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

They would have 24 burials that day and in many ways it would not be unlike most days at the historic, serene setting along the Potomac. But on that day, America laid to rest one of her fallen heroes from Manitowoc. And this day had been a long time coming.

Sixty-seven years ago, Ensign Robert George Tills gave his life defending liberty and the lives of his fellow servicemen. On December 8, 1941, just eight hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese fighters from the carrier Ryujo strafed two PBY-4 Catalina Flying Boats (patrol bombers) that were anchored in Malalag Bay, in eastern Mindanao, Philippines. Tills, one of the pilots, was killed by a fusillade of bullets and his aircraft was sunk as the rest of the crews swam to safety.

Last year his remains were discovered in the wreckage in 60 feet of water on the floor of Malalag Bay. The cockpit where he was found was strewn with hundreds of spent 30-caliber shell casings. For sure, somebody was firing at the Japanese aircraft from the forward guns as the Japanese made their attack run on the PBYs.

To honor the sacrifice and contributions of Tills, the USS Tills, a destroyer escort, was commissioned in the ensign's memory in June 1943. It was launched less than four months later, providing escort service against submarine and air attack for Navy vessels and convoys.

Burials with full military honors are not a common occurrence at Arlington. They are normally reserved for top ranking officers — men who have given long careers to America's service. But on this day, special tribute was paid to a 23-year-old newly commissioned Navy ensign. The funeral service was held at the Old Post Chapel. A caisson pulled by six dapple-grey horses carried the flag-draped casket nearly a mile across the grounds to the burial site with an honor guard and full Navy band leading the procession.


Bible verses were read by the military chaplain, “Taps” was played by the bugler and a 21-gun salute given by the rifle corps. As the ceremony was taking place, commercial airliners were lined up awaiting takeoff clearance at nearby Reagan National Airport. Airspace had to be clear for the four Navy F18s that would conduct the “missing man fly-by.” The fly-by would mark the end of the internment ceremony.

One might not know what to expect when a burial is held 67 years after a death, but included in the celebrators of Robert Tills' life were his younger sister, Jean (Tills) Aplin of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and his then-fiancée, Victoria (Quandt) Lee now of Hendersonville, North Carolina. Robert Tills' family from throughout the U.S. gathered in Arlington to honor a man they barely knew or had never met at all. For Bob's sister and Lee, this day would close a chapter that had been left open far too long.

At the time of his death, Bob was living his passion. He had always loved flying and now he was a pilot. Jean, who was 11 at the time of Bob's death, recalls, “airplanes and flying, that was his passion. He wanted to do that from the time he was little.”

One dream that would not be fulfilled was that of spending a long life with his “soon-to-be” bride. He had met Victoria while finishing high school at Northwestern Prep in Watertown.

“He was tall and handsome, blonde-haired and brown-eyed,” she said. “He played the guitar well and everyone loved being around him.”

The two built their relationship through letters and short visits as Bob made his way through aviation school in Indiana. According to Navy historical records, Tills enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 1937 at 19 years old. Two years later, he was commissioned as an Ensign in the reserves and in April of 1941, he gained active military status.

Bob was scheduled to return home to Wisconsin on leave that Christmas … to be married. Christmas of 1941 came, but there would be no gathering of the families for a wedding. Ensign Robert Tills was officially listed as missing in action, but through personal accounts of fellow crew members, they knew that Bob would not be home now. Instead of a wedding, there was a memorial service.

“It was very sad, we were meant for each other,” said Victoria. She went on to marry Robert E. Lee. They spent 53 years together and he recently passed away. She never could bring herself to call him Robert and instead, just called him Lee.

So they came to Washington. Jean, now 79, with her husband, Dick, and their children and grandchildren, and Victoria, 89, who was wearing the string of pearls given to her by Bob. And there they were, sitting side by side, not at a wedding, but to say farewell. Separated from the Bob they loved for 67 years, but joined together one more time to say, “Welcome Home.”

Pete Kappelman, a farmer in the town of Kossuth, is a relative of Robert Tills. Kappelman's father and Robert Tills were first cousins.

DATE OF BIRTH: 03/09/1918
DATE OF DEATH: 12/08/1941

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