ACE RUM RUNNER
William T. Ponder, ca. 1932
William Thomas Ponder was described in The Lafayette Flying Corps, Volume 1, pp. 388-89 as, "...the ideal Westerner, large, good-natured, and laconic. He is essentially a man of action, and it needed the setting of the Front to throw into relief his splendid qualities of daring and aggressive skill." This Dartmouth College graduate was an ace during WWI, downing seven (although this source, page 8, cites only six).
His experiences during the War moved rapidly. Ponder enlisted on June 4, 1917. He was assigned to the French aviation school at Avord, France from June 19, 1917 to February 1, 1918.
He arrived at the Front on February 3, 1918, going to the Escadrille Spad 67. On February 27 he transferred to the American army, with the rank of second lieutenant, and was soon sent to the front again at his own request. He took part in some of the heaviest fighting of the War and made a name for himself. He was promoted to first lieutenant November 2, 1918, and to captain on May 12, 1919.
For his service he received the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) for breaking up a an attack by 13 enemy planes on a lone American flyer near Fontaines, France on October 23, 1918. He shot down one enemy aircraft on that occasion. He also received the Croix de Guerre with four Palms, and three unit citations. Below, right, from Popular Aviation (PA) magazine, July, 1935, is an article describing the circumstances of his DSC award.
W.T. Ponder, DSC, Popular Aviation Magazine, July, 1935 (Source: PA)
It is not clear from the NASM record when he left the military. He married a French woman and returned to his home in Mangum, OK where he was city manager for two years. He then moved to Ft. Worth and had, "an agency for an aircraft corporation."
Ponder signed the Tucson Register twice as a civilian. Each time he flew Cessna NC4724. His first landing was solo on Monday, September 10, 1928 at 11:30 AM. Based at Ft. Worth, TX, he departed westbound at 12:30 PM to Los Angeles, CA.
His second landing was on Friday, September 14, 1928. This time he was eastbound from Los Angeles carrying three unidentified passengers. They did not list a departure time or destination.
Four years later, an article in The Washington, DC Evening Star of Friday May 27, 1932 is headlined, "ACE GIVES BOND AS BEER RUNNER". The article says he was followed in the air from Mexico by U.S. Customs agents as he flew north and landed at San Angelo, TX. The agents searched his airplane and charged him with, "unlawfully receiving and facilitating in the transportation of certain imported merchandise, to wit: 627 bottles of Carta Blanca beer."
Ironically, the Customs agents were flying in another aircraft confiscated from a rum runner. Notable is the fact that, "The capture marked the first airplane seizure where both the Government and the hunted craft were in the air." It is not clear from the article what Ponder's airplane was, or if it was confiscated. Chances are good that it was, however, as the article continues, "Three old planes seized from smugglers are being used by a special detail of customs agents in the fight to stop narcotic and liquor smuggling across the Mexican border."
The Washington Post of the same date has details a little different (citing two different customs agent names as the captors and 1,000 bottles of beer as the contraband), but provides a little more insight into Ponder who stated, "I took a sporting chance and here I am .... I'm not pleading guilty to anything." He was held in $1,500 bond. We also learn that his airplane was a blue biplane, which had been used commercially in a Dallas-Chicago run.
This wasn't enough for Ponder. The Washington Post of November 19, 1932 records another smuggling incident. This time he was chased again by the same customs agents and brought down under threat of rifle fire in a field 30 miles east of San Antonio, TX. He had crossed the Rio Grande River between Eagle Pass and Laredo, TX this time carrying "80 gallons of alcohol."
The Washington Post of Saturday, April 8, 1933 is headlined "Flying Ace Sentenced In Alcohol Smuggling". He was sentenced to six months in the Federal detention camp at La Tuna (north of El Paso, TX; still in operation) and fined $1,000. It is not clear from the record if his pilot certificate was revoked. Today it would be.
The New York Times of February 28, 1947 published his obituary. His portrait, top, is from this article. He died in a hotel room in Amarillo, TX of a "heart ailment." He was 53 years old. The article summarizes his WWI exploits. No mention of his smuggling activities was made. His obituary ends simply by saying, "After the war Captain Ponder engaged in commercial aviation enterprises."
UPLOADED: 07/01/08 REVISED: 06/29/14