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Local veteran looks back on long career
by Dan McGee
Nov 07, 2012 | 3114 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune photo by Dan McGee - Retired Air Force Colonel Harry Williams looks at this retirement portrait while sitting in his Southwest Reno home. He explained when the photograph was shot it had to be a serious expression.
Tribune photo by Dan McGee - Retired Air Force Colonel Harry Williams looks at this retirement portrait while sitting in his Southwest Reno home. He explained when the photograph was shot it had to be a serious expression.
Long-time Sparks resident and Retired Air Force Colonel Harry J. Williams is one of those area veterans who will be looking back at a long military career this Veteran's Day.

Growing up on is father's cattle ranch, and while attending high school, he learned to fly in the pre-WW II Civilian Pilot Training program.

I got out of Sparks High School in 1940," he said.

A year later, while goose hunting with friends at Washoe Lake, he heard about Pearl Harbor.

Hearing the news he said, "I went over and told them to take my geese and I said I'm going to enlist."

At first, his father refused to sign for him.

"And I said, 'OK, I'll just forge your signature'. Anyway he signed and I enlisted in the Army Infantry as that was the only way you could get in back in those days," he said.

In Arizona, he transferred to what was called the Army Air Corps, which became the Army Air Force then the Air Force after WW II.

After flight school, Williams checked out in the P-40 and then headed for Europe in 1943 where he joined the first unit to get the P-51 fighter.

Assigned to the 362nd Squadron, part of the 357th Fighter Group, he flew with several aces including Leonard "Kit," Carson, Bud Anderson and Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier after the war.

Williams first flew as wingman for Carson.

Asked about that he laughed and said, "Carson said to me, 'Williams, you're flying my wing. Your job is to protect my ass and if I look back there and I don't see you, don't bother coming back to the base.'"

His primary mission was ground support but one day he encountered a German ME 262, the world's first operational jet.

"I'm flying near France and I saw what I thought was one so, me like a dummy, went after it," he said. "Well he just made big circles around me, he got off to my left, pulled right up along side of me, waived and took off. And I couldn't touch him."

Back home he helped form the Nevada National Guard, attended UNR, graduated, with a Pre-Law degree in 1949 and was called up for the Korean War.

"I was the first one to go as I was the only one qualified in the P51," he said.

Again he flew ground support but was tasked with an unusual mission. During negotiations for the armistice, both sides agreed an unarmed aircraft could fly along the demarcation line to confirm everyone was on their respective sides.

"So I would fly up and down once a week and these guys (North Koreans) would be lying in the sunshine and flipping us the American bird," he said. "That bothered me so I got a six pack of Coke bottles and the next time I threw a Coke bottle at them."

Eventually Williams was busted for this and threatened with grounding if he did it again.

Coming home, he married his wife Virginia, transitioned into jets then, with the Boot Strap Program, was sent to the University of New Mexico to complete his degree in Civil Engineering.

After graduation, in 1961, he was a civil engineer at a base in St. John's Newfoundland. There a general and his base commander got him to switch from a reserve to a regular commissioned officer.

As the Air Force needed engineers, it was back to New Mexico then to Stanford University.

"At Stanford, he did two masters at the same time, one in civil engineering and one in industrial engineering," Mrs. Williams said. "It had never been done before and we're not sure there was another idiot that did it since."

To receive both degrees, Williams had to appear before a special board and then was awarded them in 1966.

He later was posted to PACAF headquarters in Hawaii, then to Vietnam where he flew missions in F-4 Phantom jets.

"I went from the 8th AF to the 7th HQ," he said.

Finally, he was Deputy Base Commander at Edwards Air Force base, which he really enjoyed. His boss was General Bob White, the first "Winged Astronaut," and Williams became friends with Colonel Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.

Three years later, despite being on the list to become a Brigadier General, Williams wanted to retire.

When asked his wife told him, "You've done enough Harry, you've been in three wars and you just do what you want to do."

Retiring after 32 and a-half years of service, the couple returned to the Sparks-Reno area and Williams started raising cattle.

This year, the couple celebrated its 60th wedding anniversary in May and Williams finally retired from the cattle business.

Veteran's Day reminds Mrs. Williams, who helped the Red Cross in Hawaii, of the heroes she met then.

"That flag brought my husband home and many other boys. That's what they fight for and I don't think we give enough honor to those kids," she said.

Then Williams added, "I honor all the people that flew with me and went to war with me and the people who died, for the country, something that would help the country become greater than it is."

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