Thurman P. Woodfork


Thurman P. Woodfork: An Unforgettable CharacterJohn T, a smiling little Irishman, was my first active duty Air Force crew chief. No, wait; he was my second crew chief. I remember my first crew chief now, but I can’t recall his name, although I can still see his face. He reminded me somewhat of the movie actor Guy Madison. I guess old John T must have made more of an impression on me. I’ve certainly never forgotten his name after nearly fifty years.

John T was a much-decorated WW II Army combat vet, and a really, really gentle little guy. He had a puckish sense of humor and an encyclopedic knowledge of electronics. He also suffered from the effects of PTSD, although that term wasn’t used in those days. I just thought he liked to drink, and never wondered what caused his attraction to booze, or his need for it.

Matter of fact, I don’t believe I ever really saw John T completely sober from the day I met him until the day he was unceremoniously ushered from Uncle Sam’s Air Force some two years later. By then, I was the crew chief. John T had been relieved of all duty responsibilities and was no longer allowed to enter the operations/maintenance facilities.

John T, even in his mellowest state, still knew his radar. After I took over as crew chief, I called him one day with a problem I couldn’t solve. This ‘drunk’ had me get out a schematic, and he walked me through it to the problem’s source. He was in the barracks without benefit of a schematic, supposedly unfit for duty. Yet, he could ‘see’ the schematic in his mind’s eye.

I’m not excusing his drinking, although he never drank on duty as far as I know. He just never completely sobered up before he got to work. Sometimes, he was a little late getting there. Still, he took great pride in his crew, and he taught us to have that same pride in how we did our jobs.

He brooked no laxness from us. To him, keeping the radar in top operating condition was our only reason for being on site, and he made sure that we lived up to that obligation. He may have been a drunk, but he certainly had character. Too bad the term ‘Shell Shock’ was regarded as an insult back in those days, and PTSD had never been heard of. John T might have gotten the help he needed.

He was still smiling the last time I saw him as he finally departed the Air Force, busted from five stripes to two, his uniformed chest resplendent with service ribbons. He had earned more than anybody else I ever personally knew or served with. (It was rumored that he had only one or two less decorations than the famed Audie Murphy.) His mental demons were probably also smiling.

A few years later, when I was stationed in Spain, I met a survivor of the Bataan Death March. One thing that I noticed almost at once: he and John T had the same smile – big, wide, lots of teeth – never quite making it to their eyes.

Submitted for the September 2002 IWVPA Club Theme Project, “My Inspiration