Posted on Nov 17, 2016 in Alumni News and News
More than 50 years after his first mission as a flight navigator in the U.S. Air Force, Lt. Col. Jim Williams boarded another flight, this time as an honored guest. The 23-year veteran was one of 22 retired military servicemen selected for the Nov. 10 Honor Flight from Kansas City to Washington, D.C.—an opportunity, Williams says, “I could not have done on my own.”
The Honor Flight Network honors America’s veterans with an all-expense-paid trip to our nation’s capital to visit the war memorials. The program was conceived in 2005, and since then, more than 159,000 veterans have made the trip. Williams, b’60, applied at the urging of his niece.
“I don’t know how I got to go on this, because they have about 90 people on the waiting list,” he says. “I suspect they saw some of the diseases I’m dealing with and figured that should bump me up a little bit on the priority list. That, and maybe my age.” Williams, who is undergoing treatment for Type 2 diabetes and multiple myeloma, turns 80 in January.
Williams joined the Air Force and applied for navigator training in November 1960, just months after graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in business. “My theory was, if I was gonna have to go to war, I was gonna ride,” he recalls. “I wasn’t gonna walk.”
Williams began his career as a navigator on the Douglas C-124 Globemaster II and spent more than five years and 3,000 hours on the cargo plane, which was affectionately dubbed “Old Shaky.” From 1963 to ’72, during the Vietnam War, Williams and his crew carried out several missions over Southeast Asia in Lockheed C-141 Starlifters and AC-130 gunships.
“I flew 155 combat missions and accumulated 750 combat flying hours in the AC-130 gunship,” Williams says, recalling a yearlong deployment. “I felt very fortunate, as there were 40 men who didn’t come home when I was assigned over there. We started with 18 airplanes, and we had four airplanes shot down and several more that were shot up bad enough that they didn’t really fly again.”
Williams retired from the Air Force in 1984, but his passion for flying kept him in the air: He was a flight test engineer for the B-2 bomber project at Northrup Grumman and also worked at Hughes Aircraft Company, where he retired in 1997.
Given his long history with the Air Force, it was only fitting that Williams was one of three veterans on his Honor Flight selected to place the wreath at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. “It was emotional, as well as gratifying, to be able to do that,” he says. “It was an awesome event. To me, it was one of the highlights of the trip.”
Another highlight, Williams explains, was the warm welcome he received at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where nearly 150 military personnel were lined up to shake hands with the veterans and thank them for their service. Another reception line of schoolchildren awaited the veterans at the Korean War Veterans Memorial.
“They all wanted to shake your hand, and they were on both sides of the sidewalk,” Williams says. “I wound up with my left hand out the left side and my right hand out the right side of the wheelchair as my guardian took me down the line.”
Although Williams wasn’t able to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial due to a special event, his tour included stops at the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery for the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
“It was just really an inspiring trip,” Williams says. “We had a lot of fun, shared a lot of stories. It was just a phenomenal trip.”