Twin brothers stuck together through 41 years of military service

Elizabeth Fire, Chattanooga Times Free Press via the AP 

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Like many twins, the Markham brothers shared secrets. But most twins’ secrets probably don’t involve duping the United States military.

Wilbourne Markham said his twin brother, Weldon, was determined for them to join the military in 1952 (Wilbourne thinks it’s because he watched too many John Wayne movies). But Wilbourne had a stipulation: they had to stick together.

After securing assurance from President Harry Truman and the U.S. Air Force that twins would never be separated, they made the trek from their home in Chattanooga to Knoxville for their physicals.

Wilbourne passed the test and turned to celebrate with Weldon, whom he thought was right behind him. Instead, he found Weldon crying off to the side.

“He said, ‘They don’t want me. I’ve got a heart murmur,’” Wilbourne recalled, replying, “’If they don’t want you, pal, they don’t get me.’”

The boys came home and decided Wilbourne would go back and take the physical again in his place. He passed as Weldon.

“The next day we both raised our hands, and off to the Air Force we went,” Wilbourne said.

Only once in 41 years of service were the twins separated. It was during their first deployment near Okinawa for the Korean War. Weldon showed his commanding officer the president’s letter and cited the Air Force regulation regarding twins. The officer happened to be from Atlanta and took a liking to Wilbourne’s accent. The twins were reunited within two weeks.

A highlight of Wilbourne’s early military career was working for Maj. Gen. William H. Blanchard Jr. — the backup pilot for Paul Tibbitts, who as a colonel who piloted the Enola Gay, dropping the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Blanchard went on to become a four-star general and vice chief of staff of the Air Force. When Wilbourne told Blanchard that he wanted to go to college rather than enlist, the general said that’s what he should do.

“I always appreciated that,” Wilbourne said.

The twins moved into the active reserves to attend college at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where Wilbourne majored in political science and minored in history. They moved back to Chattanooga after graduating and remained in the reserves.

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