Retired United States Air Force bomber pilot Bill Halbert, 92, is a veteran of three wars, but he refuses to claim bragging rights for doing the right thing.
Serving the country is a duty and a responsibility, he said, and one that he reflects on with fondness and pride.
Halbert is among a shrinking number of living service members who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
He’s flown a variety of aircraft during his lengthy career, logging more than 4,000 hours of flight time and about 50 missions.
Decades later, he carries memories of those days close to his heart.
“There’s not many of us left now,” he said. “I think quite a bit about things, mostly good. The bad I just disregard. I get a good feeling talking about the good things.”
YOUNG AND AT WAR
The Kilgore native is part of what history describes as America’s “Greatest Generation,” so named for their selfless, seemingly limitless energy devoted to war efforts intended to unify the world.
Halbert grew up in East Texas, the son of an oilfield worker, and joined the service at 17 years old before completing high school. His 35-year tenure with the military that included several years at the Pentagon didn’t start in earnest until 18, when he was assigned to the European Theatre during World War II.
“Everybody had to go to the service,” he said from his Tyler home. “I joined because I thought it was my responsibility. … I tell my friends I got there early and stayed late.”
Halbert’s career with the Air Force started with training to become a combat fighter pilot and by the age of 19, he was flying missions over Europe in a B-26 Marauder.
“I’d never been out of Kilgore, Texas, in my life,” he said. “I often wonder what the crew might have thought. I learned my task and my job and the crew, and I felt that I did it correctly.”
His upbringing likely played a role in his meticulous preparation.
His father, a World War I veteran, instilled in his children the importance of working hard, respecting elders and attending church.
Halbert completed his wartime service and returned home to complete his education, later attending Kilgore Junior College and University of Oklahoma.
He continued serving in the Air Force reserves and learned soon after graduation, he was needed to support the Korean War efforts.
He flew F-86 Sabre Jets and F-100 Super Sabres in that conflict, paying special attention to the smallest details of his missions.
“I think there was additional preparation,” he said. “I spent more time being prepared. In my case, when you’re a flyer, you don’t think about not coming back. You do what Uncle Sam wants you to do.”
Halbert said he holds good thoughts about his time in Korea, believing the efforts benefitted the lives of innocents.
His service in the Vietnam War was vastly different.
When the war broke out, Halbert envisioned a return to the sky.
“I requested to fly,” he said. “I was unlucky enough to not have a flying assignment. I had a staff assignment.”
Time was spent largely plotting missions rather than flying them, although he managed to make his way into the air on numerous occasions to research conditions ahead of critical missions.
He cites as examples night flights aboard the iconic war bird of the day, the Douglas AC-47, dubbed Puff the Magic Dragon for its explosive, smoky bursts of gunfire.
The goal in taking these flights was to identify potential hazards and give young flyers every possible advantage he said, adding, “I felt I needed the understanding.”
POST WAR LIFE
Halbert eventually retired from the military in the 1970s as a Lt. Colonel and returned to civilian life, later developing a respected career in professional golf.
He is quick today to downplay his role in the wars, saying his experiences were different than many other service members. He’s mindful to point out their sacrifices and hardships.
“I didn’t fight in the trenches like the Army and Marine Corp,” he said. “I had a bed to sleep in, three square meals a day … my experience was different.”
Those men deserved his best efforts and Halbert said he was committed to making sure they got it.
Avis Halbert, his wife of 66 years, said she never tires of hearing his stories or watching others respond to his insight.
“I always wondered what the crew was thinking,” she said. “He was 18 years old … not everyone could do what he did. We are very proud of him.”
Daughter Rebecca Mohr said her parents, who first met in high school, didn’t make a big deal out of her father’s extended absences.
“We just had a normal life,” she said. “I was only three when he was in Vietnam. Our lives were just normal.”
Others, including Mrs. Mohr’s husband, Gerald David Mohr, see it differently - he spent months interviewing Halbert about this service recollections and used the information for his Master’s thesis at Sam Houston State University.
Though years have passed, Halbert said he thinks often about the long-ago battles that played out throughout his youth.
His trademark ball cap - which mentions all three wars - seems to trigger conversations with complete strangers, who often express gratitude for his role in defining America.
Halbert still devotes time to helping shape future generations, through speaking appearances and community service activities that speak of his love for the country.
“I take great pleasure being a mentor,” he said. “A lot of guys don’t want to talk about it. I didn’t at first, but now I really enjoy it.”