OAKLAND CITY – Twice each year, military veterans from across southern Indiana board a plane for Washington D.C. to tour the memorials there, courtesy of Southern Indiana Honor Flight.
World War II-era veterans, the most senior among them, are given priority, as well as those who are terminally ill. For this reason, Oakland City resident Bill Woods was surprised when he was notified he would be traveling to the nation's capital May 5 to take in the memorials built to honor veterans.
"It's an honor," Woods said, about being chosen to take the honor flight.
When he was drafted to serve, he and about 25 other Gibson County teens left around the same time, he said.
He was drafted into the Army and became the crew chief on a helicopter in the 328th Helicopter Company.
"It didn't take off without me," he remarked.
He didn't fly the helicopter, but could if an emergency situation arose, he said. His post on the chopper was the seat next to the pilot, from which he commanded the crew of 12 in the bottom of the aircraft, most often for rescue missions.
In an emergency situation in 1955, for which he was later presented a medal from the Queen of England, Woods led his helicopter crew to the site of a demonstration gone horribly wrong. During a presentation, a warhead exploded and left more than 300 British soldiers either injured or dead in the ocean.
"We hauled bodies and troops for two days," Woods remembered.
Woods also recalls the time he volunteered for a rescue mission and left his usual crew back on the ship. Another emergency situation came to the attention of his crew while he was away and a good Army friend offered to lead his crew. While en route, the helicopter crashed.
Back in the states, Woods' wife, Marianne Woods, got the news that a crash had occurred involving her husband's unit.
"His mother and I both read it and we knew we still hadn't heard from him," Marianne Woods said.
It took another week or two for her to get the news that Woods was not aboard the crashed helicopter. It came straight from Woods when he called her.
"There was always a lot of stuff that happened that no news was supposed to be put out for two or three weeks," Bill Woods said.
"It seemed like that it was forever before we knew whether he was alive or not," his wife added.
Woods never served in an active war zone, but played a support role, providing transport from the right side of the cockpit.
Upon receiving discharge orders, Woods returned to Gibson County and worked various jobs while earning a degree in tool engineering and design.
He retired from Siemens Corp. as a manager in his department. He spends retirement either playing golf or spending time with family, which includes five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. He and his wife recently celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.
Woods said he is proud to be part of the Honor Flight.
"It's an honor to get to go do it, because there's a million people who have been in the service," Bill Woods said.
His eldest daughter, Ellyn Horrall, will fly with her father to Washington. She has seen the veterans memorials there before, and said she wants to be there for her father's first time viewing them.
"I get to be his guardian and boss him around that day," Horrall said.
Guardians are assigned to some veterans who may not have someone who is able to go with them to the nation's capital.
Southern Indiana Honor Flight personnel also sponsor wheelchairs for veterans while in Washington, and sponsor a mail call for people to write to veterans and thank them for their service. Additional information can be found at honorflightsi.org.