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Despite inherent pacifism, Brawley veteran chose to serve in WWII

May 28, 2001|By ANTHONY LONGORIA, Staff Writer

BRAWLEY — He is one of the last few of a fast disappearing generation of World War II veterans, the last from an era that includes the Enola Gay, Pearl Harbor and the Anschluss.

Bill Byrd, 83, a longtime Brawley resident and retired attorney, is a World War II veteran.

During a recent interview, Byrd recalled his World War II experiences.

There is a marked shift in Byrd's demeanor as he speaks about his war experiences more than 50 years ago. He is more animated. His speech is filled with abrupt energy as his experiences pour from his mouth.

Byrd's military experience began in summer 1940, shortly after his graduation from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in political science. Later that year he entered law school, but was soon called to serve in the war.

After completing the U.S. Army's pilot training program in 1941, Byrd soon began a military career with the Army Air Corps. In the Air Corps, Byrd saw most of his principal combat experiences as a B-17 fighter pilot.


"It was a horrible war," recalled Byrd. "We were losing our men at a rate of 300 to 400 a day. The air losses seemed the heaviest of all."

Byrd completed 52 missions and served as squadron commander. He was decorated with several honors, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Byrd's experiences as a fighter pilot were the fulfillment of a childhood interest and dream.

"As a child I remember seeing those strange contraptions in the sky and wanting to fly in them," Byrd said.

His father, a World War I veteran, was strictly opposed to his son flying in an aircraft.

"I suspect that had he known of my flying activities, he wouldn't have liked it much," Byrd said.

Byrd's father died before his son entered the Army.

Byrd's involvement in the war created a moral dilemma.

"I had grown up in kind of a pacifist background. My church, my friends and I had elected to become pacifists," he said.

Byrd said while he was torn between the duties of his military service and his inherent pacifism, he ultimately chose service in the war.

"A lot of bad things were happening in Europe. I wanted to participate in the war," Byrd said.

After the war, Byrd was transferred to Columbus, Ohio, where he was a pilot trainer. There he met and married his wife, Gail, in 1945, an experience Byrd considers "one of the luckiest events" in his life.

A glimmer shines in Bill Byrd's eyes as he pauses to think about his wife. A smile forms across his face as he views a photo from their 1945 wedding.

"She was a lovely person and I do miss her," Byrd recalled.

Gail Byrd died of liver cancer in 1999.

Shortly after their marriage, the Byrds moved to Los Angeles where Bill Byrd enrolled in the University of Southern California Law School. After his graduation the couple moved to Brawley in 1949, where Bill Byrd opened a law practice and they raised five children.

He served in the Air Force Reserves for many years and retired as a lieutenant colonel.

In 1994, he retired from the practice of law.

Byrd counts receiving the Brawley Chamber of Commerce's Branding Iron Award in 1996, his work with the Boy Scouts of America and his membership and work with the Brawley Rotary as highlights of his life.

As he speaks of a memorial for World War II veterans he would like to see in the nation's capital, Byrd points out the shortage of surviving veterans.

"We're a fast-dying breed," he said. "We fought the battle of World War II and now we're battling another battle of survival.

"The things that I fought for are those things, I think, that we Americans hold dear, things like the Pledge of Allegiance."

His hopes for the generations that he precedes are simple:

"Perhaps we will have world peace, for the future. That's my hope at least."

Staff Writer Anthony Longoria can be reached at 337-3452.

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