BY LEANN DILBECK –
Some heroes wear capes… others wear combat boots. COL. [RET] Billy R. Wood embodies all that makes this nation great… a love of country, God, and family. He doesn’t consider himself a hero in any sense of the word but he does consider himself blessed.
COL. [RET] Billy R. Wood was born in Ada, Okla. in 1944. His family lived in Polk County between 1955-1957, and Wood attended 6th and 7th grade in Mena. His father was a partner in Smith-Wood Mining, where he had a manganese mining operation and mill on Brushy Creek by Eagle Mountain.
Wood remembers clearly those impressionable years and described it as “the greatest” time in his life. The family lived in a green rent house where the Sun Country Inn stands today. Wood remembers fondly fishing in the creek where the “old drive-in” used to be (where Wendy’s/Baskin Robbins stands today.) He remembers Rogers Sawmill and buying milk for 50 cents a gallon in the rock house on Hwy 71. “My father taught me to drive a bull dozer when I was 11 and I got to set fire to dynamite… what boy wouldn’t enjoy that?” He and his family attended the First United Methodist Church and Wood was also in the Boy Scouts.
Eventually, Wood graduated back in Ada, Okla. He, like many young men at that age, thought he had it “rough” at home. He went to college and maintained a 1.8 GPA his freshmen year while occasionally attending classes, working, and being in his rock ‘n roll band. He had a “typical father, son, teenager disagreement” and chose to enlist in the U.S. Army at the tender age of 17. “It wasn’t very long after I had been through Basic Training that I realized I didn’t have it rough at home… at all. My parents were great. My father wasn’t dumb, afterall.”
Excelling as a soldier, Wood’s scores landed him an opportunity to graduate from the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery Officer Candidate School in 1964/65. He attended U.S. Army Officer Rotary Wing Aviator Course at Fort Wolters, Tex. and Fort Rucker, Ala., graduating in June 1966.
Achieving the rank of First Lieutenant, Wood was assigned to Vietnam, with the 1st Air CAV’s A Battery 2/20th Aerial Rocket Artillery Unit at An Khe, flying UH-1C gunships. In early 1967, he flew UH-1D slicks with the 174th Assault Helicopter Company Qui Nhon and Duc Pho.
Wood speaks humbly of his service during the Vietnam War and said he was blessed with a wonderful memory. “I remember going to Vietnam and I remember coming home… and very few things in between. Those of us who have served in combat, did and saw many horrible things.” But Wood refuses to focus on the horrors of the war. “Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever seen. The people are just like you and me… but totally different… the language, their religion, their culture, their priorities. Although we thought we were there to help them, to give them a democracy, it was impossible. Our Oriental enemy, North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, could outlast us. We killed thousands of them, but there were millions of replacements waiting to step in the unending battle. The American people were not in support of this war and were unwilling to sacrifice enough to defeat the communist. We lost 58,148 men and women during the war in Vietnam. One more U.S. soldier dying was too many. The North Vietnamese, the Viet Cong, and the South Vietnamese suffered over 1,300,000 deaths during this war. The North was willing to lose many, many more. Later, I served in the 174th Assault Helicopter Company at Qui Nhon and Duc Pho in 1967.” Wood explained it was a lift company that transported soldiers, picking up an infantry company or battalion, and inserting them into a new location or landing zone. “When we got home to the states, some folks would ask ‘what was it like to fly helicopters in Vietnam?’ Wood explained, “One of the most difficult things in life is to be truthful about oneself or your feelings… or what you’ve done. My response was always simple, ‘Flying helicopters is hours upon hours of sheer boredom marked by moments of stark terror.’ The truth is you can actually see the enemy’s 50 caliber bullets and tracers as they zoom up past you. You not only see them… but hear them also… then you try not to. Each morning after a combat assault mission briefing, we’d walk to the ‘flight line,’ almost as if walking into a casino. The crew chief for that helicopter was already there getting it ready to fly and he’d be there working on it late into the night should we return later. Each combat assault was like a Russian roulette. One bullet is placed into the gun… you spend the cylinder… you don’t know if you’ll be back tonight or not. Living life to the fullest is the biggest high anyone can experience.”
Wood and his wife, Carolyn, share four grandchildren. “Three are in college and one is a starving actor in New York City. When one of the three boys was in high school, he had an assignment in a Civics class to interview a war veteran… and he chose me. He asked ‘Grandpa, what did you do in the Vietnam War?’ Once again, my answer was simple, ‘Not much! I just flew the infantry soldiers to and from work.’”
In July 1998, Wood retired from active duty as a full colonel, having served 28 ½ years in the U.S. Army. Wood flew both helicopters and airplanes in the Army and was a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter instructor pilot. He also holds Type Rating (S-58) Airline Transport Rating (ATR), Commercial, Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor civilian FAA ratings.
Wood earned his Bachelors of Science degree in Aviation from Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a Master’s of Science degree in Natural and Applied Science from Oklahoma State University. In May 1998, he was inducted into the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery Officer Candidate School Hall of Fame at Fort Sill, Okla.
Today, Wood enjoys touring the United States and Canada with his wife Carolyn on their Honda Gold Wing motorcycle. Wood will proudly tell you that he has been to every contiguous state in the U.S. They enjoy singing in the choir at the First United Methodist Church. They have taught Sunday School and Wood is active in the Methodist Men’s group as well. He also enjoys woodworking, where he builds furniture and handicap ramps for those in need in the community.
Wood is also active in the American Legion and is a member of the Polk County “Honor Guard”, which is made up of members from American Legion, VFW, DAV, and Marine Corps League). “We attend funeral and graveside services for military veterans of Polk County and render military honors, which include folding and presenting the Stars and Stripes American Flag.”
November 4, Wood was inducted into a second Hall of Fame, the seventh class of the Arkansas Military Veterans Hall of Fame. The ceremony was held at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock. Wood was presented a special medallion by U.S. Senator John Boozman and was joined by over 20 of their close friends and family.
Wood was nominated by his good friend and fellow veteran [RET] CAPT. Bob Young. He and Young work together putting out the American Flags on National Flag Holidays ten times a year. He and Young also enjoy touring the U.S. on their motorcycles.
With his decorations, world travel, and recognitions, some might call him “lucky,” but Wood considers himself “blessed.” “Not everyone who lost their life in Vietnam, died there. Dying is so easy. Living is the hard part. I am not lucky but I am extremely blessed to be alive today. I’m very proud to have served 28 ½ years in the U.S. Army, also in Vietnam, and all around the globe. And, yes, I would do it all again.”
John 15:13 – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”