Winfred “W.J.” Williams, 95, starts his mornings with two cups of coffee, some peanut butter and chewing tobacco.
He spends most days sitting in his wheelchair parked on his driveway along Bareback Trail. He greets everyone who passes by and shares stories with many who stop and chat with him.
Most of his stories detail his time in the military and his close calls with death.
Williams enlisted in the Army Air Force in 1942 as an aviation electrical specialist, and not long after was shipped out to the combat zone. He spent the first several months in North Africa before making his way to the European Theater where he bounced between France and Italy. It was a life-changing experience, he said.
“You never knew when an attack would be,” he said. “It just came whenever the Germans decided they wanted to show us that they could do it and it was hell.”
As part of the crew that serviced B-24 bombers, Williams also helped off load the injured and killed troops that were placed on aircrafts.
“There was one day there was 37 boys in the airplane that were dead,” he said. “They were buried in a mass grave side by side wrapped in a new GI blanket.”
Williams said the soldiers had crosses that grave registrars placed over them.
Combat fatigue soon kicked in for Williams, as he endured the freezing temperatures of the war zones and other troubles. “It rained and snowed in Europe it seemed like every day,” he said. “It was ugly and muddy and the hospitals were tin.”
The field hospitals left a major impression on him, as he recalled the nurses, each guarded by men with submachine guns, moving between the tin shelters caring for the wounded. “There were a few times they had to take cover, but it was just part of our day at the mill,” he said.
The days seemed endless and Williams often went without food, he said.
A year before the war ended, he was wounded by shrapnel. “I didn’t know I was hit, it was purely a flesh wound,” he said.
All he could think about were the hundreds of fellow comrades around him who were butchered and dying.
“You didn’t have time to worry about your injuries,” Williams said. “I was looking at the other guys out there that needed help.”
He recalled another traumatic episode where his “battle buddy” had a piece of shrapnel knock out his teeth, cut his windpipe and lodge in his backbone. Williams held his friend as he died in his arms.
Williams received a Purple Heart for that experience, but he refused the medal because he felt other soldiers deserved it more.
“There was people there that had their guts blown out and legs blown off and half of their heads,” he said. “We witnessed that and it was hard on the human mind — it racked your mind something fierce to have to see those boys die and not a thing we could do about it.”
It was a miserable time, and Williams said the No. 1 rule was to stay alive. But things started to look up when the war ended in 1945.
“We were on the ship out for two days in the Atlantic and they made an announcement that we were not going home,” he said. He was sent to South America where he spent several months in rehabilitation. “I was through with the killing.”
But Williams proved to be a valuable resource for the military, and he was called back to duty during the Korean War. He was in charge of training troops in the United States before they deployed to Korea. “I was wondering if it was WWII all over again,” he said. “But they told me I was educated and I won’t have to go overseas.”
Williams received an honorable discharge in 1953. He used his military benefits to go back to college, then worked as a mechanical engineer with Exxon-Mobil Oil Company for the next 40 years. His niece, Joetta Riley, and her husband, Cliff, who live in Harker Heights, enjoy hearing the stories he tells.
“He’s a character and keeps you on your toes,” Joetta Riley said. “We really enjoy him because he has so much knowledge and he tells me stories about my family.”
Cliff Riley agreed.
“You are talking to one of the last people that ever experienced (World War II) and probably in several years they may all be gone.”
Williams credits his faith and love for God for the life he has today. He celebrates his 96th birthday on April 21 among family and friends.
“It’s been more than 65 years (since the war) and once in a while it feels like it was just yesterday,” he said. “It still works on your mind, but I just pray and talk to the Lord and it eventually goes away so I can start my day.”