Stephenville’s Col. Billy Mobley spent 27 years in the U.S. Air Force, most of it as a pilot of all kinds of aircraft. His story is particularly important in regards to Memorial Day because it is the day we honor those American service men and women who have lost their lives in service to their country.
“I don’t want this to be about me; this is Memorial Day and I’d like this to honor some of my friends that didn’t come back,” Mobley said during the interview.
So that is what we’re going to do in this article, let Mobley tell us about those he knew, served beside and lost.
“I’m from Early, near Brownwood,” he said. “Born and raised there, went to Texas A&M and graduated in 1954. I was in ROTC, worked for the Department of Agriculture for one summer after graduation, and then went into the Air Force in September of ’54."
Mobley recalls his early days as a pilot during the Cold War and said, “I fear that the history revisionists will not treat the Cold War warriors as they deserve. We lost people before Vietnam. I flew initially in the Air Defense Command in the old F-94C during the late 1950s when we were fearful that the Russians were coming.
“I was flying out of Dover Delaware and our mission was to intercept unknown aircraft coming in toward the National Command Authority in Washington,” he said. “Our alert commitment was a 12-hour commitment and we would have probably three of those a week.
“We would fly out over the Atlantic to intercept unknowns. I had a friend who in intercepting an unknown airplane was sent too far out and then had high winds coming back and ran out of fuel. He and the radar observer bailed out over the icy Atlantic and were lost. So we lost people during the Cold War too.
"His name was Nikolai, he was the pilot, from New Orleans and his radar observer was a guy named Lewis from Arkansas. The SAC people flying all the time because of the commitment were never at home; families were disrupted and broken up so it was some tough times before the Vietnam War.”
Once he was in Vietnam, he explains, “The mission was night interdiction of trucks on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Some missions were over North Vietnam and diverted sometimes over South Vietnam, but not much."
Mobley flew an astonishing 286 such missions over a period of one year. “People today see these smart bombs hitting little bitty targets. We didn’t have anything like that. We were trying to bomb a truck at night using napalm, and strafing.”
The next friend Mobley wants to remember is Jim Treece.
“Jim had been a Marine ground pounder in Korea, got out, went through Aviation Cadets and became a pilot.
“He was killed on a photo reconnaissance mission. As he ingressed over the land in North Vietnam for his mission, the plane disappeared from the scope and there was never any trace of it. Very dear friend.”
Next is his friend, Terry Koonce and Mobley explains, “It was Christmas night 1967 and I wasn’t flying; I had airdrome duty. The airborne control ship lost contact with him. When time came where his fuel would have run out we declared him as lost.
“We lived in trailers with a room on each end. I went over and woke up his roommate to tell him. His roommate sat on the side of the bed awhile. There was a Christmas tree with a bunch of packages around it. He got up and went over to the table and picked up a note and handed it to me. It said, ‘Stan, don’t open your packages until I get back. We’ll have a package-opening party.’ But Terry never got back.”
Mobley continues the roll call of the fallen. “Carlos Cruz and Bill Patten died in an A-26. The A-26 did not have ejection seats and you could not climb out of them.
“I was en route out to the area they were working and I called Carlos and said, 'hold up, I’m on my way and I’ll give you some help suppressing ground fire.'
“But Carlos said, ‘I don’t have time; I have trucks.’ As I approached the area I saw tracers all converging on one spot and knew they were tracking Carlos.
“Then a fireball and I hear, ‘I can’t get out of this S.O.B.’ All because [Defense Secretary] Robert McNamera wouldn’t spend $12,000 per seat to equip them with extraction seats. So we lost them.”
The next friend he lost was Joe Byrne, who he says had flown a B-25 in World War II in combat over the Pacific.
“Joe got out after the war and got his degree, then was recalled for Korea and flew a B-25 there for a year.
“He was my next door neighbor for about two years. He had six kiddos. I had been in country [Vietnam] about four months when Joe arrived at the same base I was at in Thailand. I saw him the night he arrived. The next day he checked in.
“The next morning I was returning from a mission about 5:30 in the morning. Joe was just getting up to have breakfast and then go get briefed for his first mission in Vietnam.
“So we had breakfast together. I went on over, got to bed, woke up about two in the afternoon and people are talking about the loss of another A-1 [aircraft].
"I asked who it was and someone said, 'Some guy on his first mission named Joe Byrne.' Third war, first mission in Vietnam and he doesn’t make it. His six kids were left with his wife, Jen, in Lubbock.”
As tragic as his experiences have been, Mobley concludes his amazing story on a positive note.
“I lost contact with the family but after the article appeared here in the paper about my skydive, I got a letter from a lady saying, ‘You won’t remember me, but I’m Joe Byrne’s oldest daughter.’ So I re-established contact with the family.
“The rest of the story is beautiful. I learned that Joe had a twin brother who’d never been married. After we lost Joe, his brother married Jen and they raised the six kids.”
So there is a brief glimpse of Billy Mobley's life as a warrior and those of some of his friends that he lost.
It's exactly why we have Memorial Day, to honor and thank all our veterans who have given it all for our country.