His favorite aircraft is the PT-13. You would have to Google to find a replica or go to a flight museum. It’s the old open cockpit bi-plane that looks like what the Red Baron flew in World War II.
That’s because Col. R.L. Wood learned to fly in the early 1940s on just such an airplane. But it was cargo planes that he flew under the command of General “Hap” Arnold in the Pacific theatre that makes him a war hero. “Woody,” as this tall Texan has always been known, was among a small cadre of pilots who “flew the hump” during the War.
For the uninitiated, which is just about everyone, we weren’t the only ones trying to beat back the Japanese in World War II. While Ike and the allies were wrangling Hitler in northern Africa and Europe, the U.S. and its allies, particularly the Australians and the Chinese, were tackling the Japanese. While the Navy and Marines were island hopping or “leap-frogging” into Tokyo in well-known battles like Iwo Jima, the Allies including the Chinese were fighting them in China, Burma, and Indonesia. To supply the troops, pilots like Woody transported tons of munitions and supplies flying out of India, over northern Burma into southern China, over the impossibly high Himalayas, “flying the hump.” The Chinese were astounded.
“They were pretty intimidated by us. But they gave us a real treat — scrambled eggs for chow. That was pretty good during the war,” recalls the nonagenarian. Since the end of that war, there has been a memorial honoring U.S. pilots in southwestern China. The Japanese were more than intimidated. They were defeated.
The airplane had only just been invented during the childhood of this farm boy from Wingate, Texas, one of eight children. Woody did not want to farm and the war was looming. He signed up with the Army Air Force — as it was then known — and was sent to Reno, Nev., to learn to fly in the mountains. Now, at age 94, he’s tucked away in the memory unit at a local senior center, having outlived two wives. At a striking 6 feet with twinkly blue eyes, he’s very dear to several ladies at the center. He has to pause and struggle a bit, but he lights up and laughs recalling the hijinks in the cockpit as the pilots teased each
other over the radio on boring nine- and 10-hour flights with games of “Who dat?” much like any Cajun Saints fan.
He recalls Chiang Kai-shek fleeing to Formosa, now Taiwan, as the revolutionary Mao took over China. For his service did not end at the Armistice. Woody made a career out of piloting for 40 years and was in Vietnam before his service ended. In addition to certificates of thanks from the commanding general of the Army Air Force (Arnold) and his commander in chief, Harry Truman, there’s the “Breast Order Yun Hui with Ribbon” awarded with thanks from the Chinese government, and several commendation medals and letters for meritorious service.
A dozen years ago, when he escorted his granddaughter down the aisle, his uniform was laden with medals. So when the slightly bored but pleasant nursing-care young attendant went over to his supper table at 4:30 p.m., which is chow time for the elderly, and cooed to “Woody” like a mother would a child about the menu, I just had to let her know that she was talking to Col. Woods — war hero, a man whose life would be a superhero action film, a man who is just one of the reasons she was speaking English and not German or Japanese. Her entire demeanor changed and her eyes bugged out, as should all of ours.
Note: the local chapter of M.O.W.W. (Members of World Wars) and Daughters of World War II seek to identify and honor just such veterans. Let’s help them. No telling what gold we could mine from our senior centers. And for all those history students, the “Happy Warriors,” consisting of more than 150 WWII veterans, meet with a sack lunch at the Frontiers of Flight Museum on the fourth Friday of the month.
Run with those cell-phone recorders and honor a vet by learning his (very important) story. Nov. 11 is Woody’s 70th Veteran’s Day.
Len Bourland can be reached at [email protected].