LEGACY – Wings of Love: The Story of a Pilot Who Flew President Johnson in Air Force One
On May 28, 1999, Lt. Col. W.J. Williams USAF and the 1254th Transport Group wrote a memoir to his family. In part, it read…
I know all of you have asked exactly what I did in Korea while I was in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. I guess you are all old enough to learn how “I won the War in Korea.” Why talk about an insignificant, senseless war so long ago? I now realize that I never fully explained my small role in the Korean War conflict to any of you. Not even your mother. The reason was because of the violence and loss of life and I was reluctant to talk about this unpleasant subject and turbulent time in my life. You should know that I kept a large framed picture of your mother in my closet of my living quarters. Married only four months prior, I was ordered to complete 50 assigned missions before I could return home to her.
I wasn’t concerned about the humanitarian, moral consequences, or political issues concerning the use of U.S. forces during the war in Korea. I felt it was part of my duty and part of the job when I signed on with the U.S. military to be a U.S. Air Force pilot. We flew mostly at night with little visual reference and were often times not sure exactly where we were. Our mission was to force the North Korean/Chinese to keep their heads down and slow the flow of equipment and troops to the front by inflicting as much damage to their supply system as possible. We had no opposition in the air, but everybody and his brother seemed to be shooting at us from the ground. Flying night combat missions in an antiquated B-26 during the chaos of and confusion of the Korean War was not fun and not something you would normally write home about or want to remember. However, I believe we should be made aware of the more stressful and difficult times that we all manage to live through, once in a while, to better appreciate the many more important and pleasant events in our lives.
I remembered telling my crew, after one of our first missions in Korea, that “I didn’t see anything in North Korea worth our lives and all three of us have a lot of living to do after we complete our tour”. No greater words have been spoken in my opinion. I know that I have done a lot of living since that time, long ago, and I hope my two companions and friends have also. Millions of words have been written describing the Korean War as a war that should be forgotten. I’ll never forget it, because I was there. I will always remember the great sorrow that 54,246 Americans died and 103,246 were wounded. 5,178 are still missing. Let’s hope that future generations learn about war from books. Since that time, the few remaining photos of my time in Korea are slowly fading away, along with the memories of my time served.
A cheerful, spry man, now 91, Mr. Williams’ eyes smiled as he, surrounded by his family, proudly shared the events of his life as a young Air Force Pilot. After marrying his sweetheart, Helen in 1952, at the ripe age of 22, William obtained the rank of 2nd lieutenant in the Air Force. “When I flew Air Evac as a 22-year-old First Pilot flying a DC3 and had 7 or 8 wounded patients in the back, that’s when I learned how to fly. I realized the terrific responsibility to get them to a burn unit, or wherever they needed to go so they could get home.”
Shortly thereafter, while only 25 and Helen only 22, he was sent to Korea on a combat tour. He was unceremoniously assigned as a B26 pilot in the Korean War. “As B26 crews, the group of us were a motley, disorganized, minimally qualified, cocky group eager to do our part in bringing this senseless and unpopular war to an end”, he proclaimed. “We each had to complete 50 missions to fulfill our deployment and return home.” A risky and life-threatening task, he completed 56 missions over 10 months before being transferred back to the U.S.
It was 1952, in North Korea. We patrolled and attacked targets of opportunity when we saw lights. We flew low to the ground with 500 lb. bombs, dropped them on Rail Road tracks and fired our 850 caliber guns. We did this when the moon was out so we could better see. Our wing Commander ordered us to drop to 50 feet so we were sure to see our targets and limit movement of the N. Koreans. I never saw a train, never once. The whole country was devastated. There were just a bunch of bomb craters. This one particular night, my flight navigator was searching for our target. We spotted the bridge in a canyon we were supposed to hit. The navigator was in the right seat, the bombardier was in the left seat, and the gunner was in the back. We approached the bridge and fired four bombs. We missed. We had photo flash aboard and proceeded to light up the whole sky. We looked again and after the second pass, there were six craters. Again, we had missed the bridge. We flew by sight only and depended on the photo flash to light our way, but we had exposed ourselves plain as day to the enemy. The North Koreans search lights then lit up our planes. We were under heavy artillery fire and we lost a couple of planes on that mission. I had worried this would be the one mission that would cause us to not return home. We got very nervous and started racing back to the base in the south. Out of the dark, we noticed a light approaching quickly upon us and realized it was a U.S. jet from the Navy carrier. It was chasing us! Many planes were downed by friendly fire. Fortunately, we were finally able to authenticate ourselves to control. My crew and I landed and debriefed.
A few days following the mission, there were still photos of the results of our strike on the bridge. My crew and I stood there looking at the bridge with 10 bomb craters all around it. This was the scariest mission I had flown, but there the bridge stood undamaged. I wanted to swipe the picture from the board to one day show my grandchildren how I “won the war in Korea”, but someone else beat me to it. We were fortunate that night. We received many sly comments from our fellow airmen when they realized it was our crew that rearranged the North Korean countryside by drilling ten good sized holes in the frozen ground and river near the bridge. I said, ‘At least we take good pictures’.
Once I completed my missions, they started preparing my papers to return home. When I safely returned to the U.S. was when I knew I was fortunate, and had truly “won the war in Korea.”
New orders arrived. In 1955, Lt. Col. Williams received orders to report to Washington DC, where he embarked on an elite assignment flying dignitaries such as Eisenhower, Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson, Pentagon Officials, and Foreign Dignitaries on what we now refer to as Air Force One. William became a 1st Lieutenant, later assigned to Special Air Missions in Washington DC for the next 8 years and became a Captain in the Air Force with Top Secret clearance.
As part of Special Air Missions he was selected to fly Air Force Two. There were only about a dozen highly trusted pilots assigned with the distinction of Special Air Mission pilots to transport dignitaries and some of the most prominent historical figures.
One of his most memorable, high profile missions was on April 16, 1958. On this day, with his Top Secret clearance, Captain Williams was ordered to fly an elite group of men. Brigadier General Richard Steinbach, General Patton’s Chief of Staff; Dr. Karl Fischer, Director of Department T (codename for German Chemical Welfare effort), Federal Ministry of Defense who was also a chemist that in 1935 developed the Karl Fischer Titration Method still used today. Also on the flight was Captain Marvin Heckendork USAF, Commander of the Special Missions Aircraft who flew the famous ‘Memphis Belle’; Lt. Col. Hans-Georg Biedermann who was a State Officer for the German Army; Lt. Col. Werner Repenning who was a German Air Force Ministry for Defense; and The Honorable Franz Joseph Strauss who was the German Minister of Defense, the German Minister for Atomic Affairs, and later became the German Minister of Finance. A self-proclaimed Officer that plotted against Hitler, he was praised by Reagan for being instrumental in the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is unclear why such a distinguished group of men flew together on this day in history, but Captain Williams proudly posed with the group for a picture alongside the plane that day.
Even though he was awarded several Medals of Distinction, survived 10 months as a young man of 25, flying combat missions in Korea, shook hands with Presidents and dignitaries as an Officer for the Air Force, Mr. Williams directs himself to his family for his most treasured accomplishment and legacy. “I was just a throttle junkie and flew airplanes all those years.” “Helen and I did a lot of traveling in our lives.” It was in that journey of life that inspired his kids to navigate their own adventures. His daughter, Susan, said that her “dad passed along a travel legacy and love of adventure to us all. I’m the luckiest girl on the planet. All of the kids and grandkids have a bit of dad’s travel gene in them.” Mr. Williams taught his children and grandchildren how to “fly” by enriching them with a sense of adventure, exploration, life, and living. He and his wife together taught a legacy of love and that “family is everything.” Life is about learning from the past, living in the present, and anticipating the future. Ultimately, our legacy as a human is not created by material items left behind “for” our family when we die. Instead, it’s about what is left “within” our family that becomes the legacy passed from one generation to the next.
Through the years, it all too soon becomes apparent that everyday life and family is everything. December 14, 2017, his Helen passed away. It is in these moments of life and death, that a family reflects on tender and meaningful moments uniquely their own. Mr. Williams is most proud of the encouragement of adventure and exploration that he shared with his wife of 65 years, his three children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. The day of our death has been said to be the most important day of our life because this critical day is one where our entire life is measured.
Have you considered what your legacy will be? Does your family share a famous or meaningful legacy? Please share it with us so we can enrich the lives of others with this gift. We believe that our nation’s seniors are living legacies by calling 1-866-320-8803 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Denoff, Owner of Advanced Imaging and Administrator for Advanced Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Orange City. In the medical imaging business for 18 years, Kim has experienced healthcare from the perspective of patient, provider and spouse of a provider.