Friday, May 28, 2021

‘Sweet baby:’ The short life and times of John Willie Woods Jr.

The gravestone of John Willie Woods Jr. in Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery in Franklin, Tenn.

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A version of this story also appeared in the Williamson Herald print and online editions.

ON A SPECTACULAR SPRING MORNING, a large American flag, a much smaller one, and faux flowers adorn John Willie Woods Junior’s gravestone at Toussaint L'Ouverture Cemetery in Franklin, Tenn. More than a half-century after his death in Vietnam, Mattie Lee Kinnard surely would be touched that her son is so well remembered. 

Close-up of John Willie Woods Junior's
Purple Heart.
Woods was only 19 when the helicopter he was aboard plunged into the jungle in a fiery explosion, killing him and three of his crewmates on Oct. 30, 1966. He was one of 342 American military deaths that month during the Vietnam War; one of 6,350 that year; one of 58,220 for the United States in the lengthy conflict.

He earned a Purple Heart for sacrificing his life, as thousands of others did. His death was covered in four paragraphs in his hometown newspaper, not unusual for the era. His name was etched among thousands of others on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, the same size as every other. 

John Willie Woods Jr., buried on ground the Union Army defended during the Civil War in the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, was unexceptional ... and yet extraordinary -- to his family, who agonize over what might have been; to friends and classmates, who remember a “super kid,” a football star “as fast as a jackrabbit” and a "hero"; and to many Vietnam veterans, who yearn to forget but can’t quite shake the demons and ghosts of the past.

LEFT: Woods (35) was a star running back at all-Black Natchez High School in Franklin, Tenn.
His coach, Bill Reynolds, appears at far right. RIGHT: The building that housed the school
 now houses a senior living center. (Left photo courtesy of Curtis "Sneaky Pete" Allen.

BORN ON FEB. 20, 1947, John Willie Woods Jr. grew up in “Hard Bargain,” a predominantly African American section of Franklin, the son of Mattie Lee and John Willie Sr., a World War II veteran. The couple reared two children, but the marriage didn’t last. After Senior and Mattie Lee divorced, she married J.T. Kinnard, with whom she had six more children. Mrs. Kinnard and Woods’ part-native American maternal great-grandmother were protective of Junior – grandma even gave him an Indian nickname: “Sorghum.” Family and friends called Mattie Lee “Bunny.”

John Willie Woods Jr. grew up in "Hard Bargain,"
a predominantly African American section of Franklin.

In the late 1950s, Woods – “intelligent and rambunctious,” according to a childhood friend -- played for the Rucker Park baseball team at the ballfield off Downs Boulevard, one of the few places Blacks could in Franklin at the time. His teammates were nicknamed “Stick,” “Turnipgreen,” “Eyebrow,” “Tadpole,” and, “Rabbit.” In a team photo of them from the era, Woods appears to be having a good time -- few of his friends today would be surprised if he were gabbing while the photographer took the image.

“He loved to talk,” says lifelong Franklin resident Thelma Battle, who attended all-Black Natchez High School with Woods.

Blacks weren’t allowed in the massive Willow Plunge pool off Lewisburg Pike in Franklin in those days, so in the summer, John Willie Jr. and his buddies splashed in the “Dinky Track,” a swimming hole behind his neighbor Jocelyn Jordan’s house on Green Street. Wiry and muscular, Woods was among the few of his friends who could swim -- sometimes the boys would even skinny dip in the hole, raising a few eyebrows. When he wasn’t out rabbit hunting or fishing, John Willie might be found shooting marbles with four of Jordan’s brothers.

Woods (far left) with teammates on a Rucker Park
baseball team in the late 1950s.
“He loved all sports,” she says of Woods. “He was always there as a leader of his friends.”

“A very likable person,” says Battle.

“Popular and outgoing,” Natchez High schoolmate Carolyn Wall says.

Never gave me any trouble, his momma said.

In his senior season at Natchez High School in 1964, Woods – about 5-7 and 165 pounds-- starred at running back and was a team captain. John Willie’s White peers in Franklin attended Franklin High School or the private Battleground Academy; Woods’ Panthers never played them in the era of segregation. And unlike well-funded White schools in Franklin, Black schools, Woods’ classmates remember, were sub-standard and supplied with “hand-me-down books.”

Woods in his high school graduation
photo. (Courtesy Woods family)
In the sports section of the local newspaper from his senior season, Woods’ name frequently appeared in boldfaced type: “[He] was [the] wheel horse ball toter,” the Franklin Review-Appeal wrote after he rushed for 147 yards on only 14 carries in a 13-7 victory over Springfield. 

“Helluva athlete,” says Curtis “Sneaky Pete” Allen, who attended Natchez High with Woods.

“Best player on the team,” says Woods’ football coach, Bill Reynolds, who recalls a father-son relationship with him. “I wish a lot of people had his personality, character, and integrity,” says Reynolds, now 84.

In 1965, shortly before he graduated from high school, Woods told friends and family he would join the Army. “He felt like he needed to go there,” says his uncle, Fulton Patton. “He felt like he was doing something for his country and his people.” 

Later, Woods posed for a photograph sporting his new military uniform and an “I’ve just won the lottery” smile. But the day he left Franklin for eventual deployment overseas, Mattie Lee’s son sat on the back steps of the family’s house and wept for an hour. Perhaps then was when Woods had a premonition of death -- in a letter to his mother from Vietnam months later, he wrote that he did not expect to return home.

In a circa-1960 photo of a youth basketball team, John Willie Woods Jr. appears in first row, bottom left. (Courtesy John Willie Woods Jr. family)

THE NEWS WAS OMINOUS from Southeast Asia when Woods began his tour of duty there on May 2, 1966. In late April and early May, American and Communist troops exchanged machine gun fire over the Cambodian border as the conflict threatened to spiral further out of control. North Vietnamese soldiers reportedly were infiltrating the South at a rate of 7,000 a month; and in the air, an American RF101 Voodoo reconnaissance plane was shot down by groundfire near Hanoi.

Front-page headlines in The Nashville Tennessean
on May 2, 1966, the day Woods began his tour
in South Vietnam.
At home, where Blacks faced rampant discrimination, Dr. Martin Luther King returned to Alabama in the closing days of the gubernatorial campaign to get out the African American vote. Lurleen Wallace was running as proxy to succeed her segregationist husband, George. It was just a ploy by the incumbent, who by law could not run for another term, to maintain his grip on the state. To ensure all Blacks could safely vote, U.S. attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach sent Federal agents to Alabama. 

Meanwhile, desegregation of public schools remained a white-hot topic. “Now, today,” a University of Tennessee vice president said on the jump of a Page 1 story in the Nashville Tennessean, “Americans are awakening to the fact that the American Negro has been shut off from access to public life.”

In the public square of Franklin – a booming city of 65,000 people now, roughly 7,500 in 1966 – loomed the nearly 40-foot-high Confederate monument, dedicated in 1899. Locals call the 6-foot-6 statue of a Confederate soldier atop its base “Chip.” An inscription on the monument reads, in part: “In honor and memory of our heroes both private and chief of the Southern Confederacy. No Country ever had truer sons, no cause nobler champions.”

Blacks didn’t pay “Chip” much attention. 

Photo from summer 1969 of Ban Me Thuot City Field showing the "Corral," where
helicopters parked. (Courtesy: Larry Pluhar)

IN VIETNAM, Natchez High School’s star running back morphed into Specialist 4 John Willie Woods Jr. It was a junior rank -- “Spec 4,” they called it in the Army. Woods, who initially served in an infantry regiment, became a door gunner on a UH-1 “Huey” helicopter flown by the 155th Assault Helicopter Company, based at Ban Me Thuot City Field in South Vietnam.
 
John Willie Woods Jr. in a wartime image.
(Courtesy John Willie Woods Jr. family)
The Huey was a U.S. military workhorse, used to transport troops and cargo, provide gunship support, and evacuate wounded from a battlefield. “The machine left the ground,” a pilot wrote years later about the helicopter, “like it was falling up.” The Huey could take a beating, too. “Some of them came back with so many holes,” another pilot recalled, “you just wouldn’t believe they’d ever fly again.”

In mid-October 1966, two reconnaissance patrols clashed with North Vietnamese forces near Plei Djereng – a camp established in December 1964 by U.S. Special Forces to monitor enemy infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Days later, Americans launched Operation Paul Revere IV, sending two brigades into the jungle of the Central Highlands. In the first 12 days’ fighting, 22 U.S. servicemen were killed. Nearly 400 U.S. military personnel would be dead by the conclusion of the operation on Dec. 30.

The area near Plei Djereng, where the 155th often operated, was a hot zone. Cambodia – a sanctuary for North Vietnamese troops – was a short helicopter ride west. In late October, two 155th helicopter pilots, escorted by two gunships, rescued an Air Force pilot shot down over the hostile territory. The unit also supported long-range reconnaissance patrols, a classified operation. “This … turned out to be one of the most interesting and challenging missions for the unit pilots and crew members alike,” a 155th pilot recalled.

On Oct. 30, 1966, Woods boarded a Huey, tail number 64-13587, with three crewmates for a mission to re-supply elements of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division involved in Operation Paul Revere IV. A “slick,” GIs called the lightly armed (two M60 machine guns) troop/cargo carrier.

FROM LEFT: Pilot Wilmer Jay Willingham, commander Michael Noble Coryell, and crew chief
James Lloyd Walker, a private first class. They were Woods' crewmates on the ill-fated
helipcopter flight on Oct. 30, 1966. (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Wall of Faces)

Like Woods, his crewmates were so damn young. The helicopter was commanded by Michael Noble Coryell, a 21-year-old from Santa Barbara, Calif. He had been flying in Vietnam for 11 months and was nearing the end of his tour of duty. “Combat hardened and the best Fort Rucker ever qualified,” recalled a veteran who flew with Coryell in Vietnam, referencing the U.S. Army’s Alabama flight training installation. The pilot was 24-year-old Wilmer Jay Willingham of Monroe, La., the only married man aboard. He had been flying in Vietnam less than a month.

A 1966 image from Vietnam of Hueys like the one
John Willie Woods Jr. was aboard when he was killed.
(National Archives and Records Administration)
Crew chief James Lloyd Walker, a private first class, was a “fun-loving” soldier from Blackfoot, Idaho, who enjoyed the outdoors. Like Woods, he was only 19. After Walker was caught vandalizing houses with friends, the high school dropout was encouraged to join the military by the juvenile court detention judge who attended his family’s church. Walker manned the other machine gun in the rear of the chopper, near Woods. The group was a melting pot of sorts – John Willie and Willingham were Baptist; Walker, a Mormon; Coryell, a Presbyterian. Woods was the only Black soldier aboard.

At about 10:30 a.m., after the Huey flew below 1,000 feet about 4.5 miles north of Plei Djereng, a burst of small-arms fire knifed through the sturdy helicopter’s engine. The Huey exploded and crashed, killing all aboard. A reconnaissance platoon, backed up by tanks from the 69th Armor Regiment, recovered the bodies in the jungle in Pleiku Province, South Vietnam.

After 21-year-old commander Michael Coryell's death,
the 155th Assault Helicopter Company's base
 in South Vietnam was christened Camp Coryell.
(Camp Coryell Vietnam newsletter) 
The shootdown unleashed a furious response from the U.S. military – gunships and a U.S. Air Force strike blasted the area where enemy fire was thought to have originated. The next day, an official report noted, “Task Force McDonnell searched for the enemy automatic weapon position without positive results.”

In memory of the Huey’s commander, comrades in the 155th Assault Helicopter Company christened their base “Camp Coryell.” Willingham, who, like Woods, displayed a beaming smile in his Army photograph, left behind a widow named Linda. Shortly after Walker’s funeral in Idaho, his best friend joined the military, vowing “to take the same bastards out who killed Jimmy.” Each soldier was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart. Woods had served barely six months in Vietnam.

On Halloween 1966, a U.S. military representative knocked on Mattie Lee’s door at her home on Natchez Street to deliver awful news. John Willie’s death rocked his friends and family. “Took the life out of me,” says Doug Lane, Woods’ classmate and a Vietnam veteran. “Hurt so bad I was sick.”

And, oh my, did “Bunny” grieve.

At John Willie Woods Junior's grave, his niece, Valerie "Pluckie" Harris (left), holds his framed
Purple Heart. At right, Woods' half-sister, Tammy Brooks, holds the American flag presented
 to their mother at his funeral on Nov. 8, 1966. 

ON THE AFTERNOON OF NOV. 8, 1966, Franklin’s tiny Primitive Baptist Church was packed with mourners for the funeral service of John Willie Woods Jr. A military honor guard and military chaplain were there, too. 

Mattie Lee, Woods' mother.
Friends and family called
her "Bunny."
(Courtesy Woods family)
“Uncontrollable, crying and thrashing,” a witness described Mattie Lee Kinnard’s demeanor that day. (More than a decade later, “Bunny” would lose two more sons, Belafonte Kinnard, in a freak accident at a softball game, and Barry Kinnard, also a “Spec 4” in the Army, in an apparent fall from an overpass in Hawaii.)

At Woods’ graveside service, a member of the military honor guard presented Mattie Lee a folded American flag. The guard fired a salute, echoing in the cool Tennessee air, and mourners quickly dispersed.

Fulton Patton remembers his nephew as a hero. “They do things on the spur of the moment,” he says. “They know they have to do something now.” Many in the 155th still are reluctant to talk about their experiences in Southeast Asia: “I believe that every single one of us lives with PTSD -- varying degrees, to be sure,” a former helicopter pilot says.

Decades after her son’s death, Mattie Lee, old and frail, visited John Willie’s grave on the hill overlooking town.

“He was a sweet boy,” “Bunny,” who died in 2011, told a reporter. “He was a sweet baby.”


Williamson County Archives public service archivist Leesa Harmon assisted with this story.

A close-up of the American flag presented to Mattie Lee Kinnard at her son's funeral.

-- Have something to add (or correct) in this post? Email me here.


NOTES AND SOURCES

  • American Military Deaths in Vietnam, National Archives web site
  • Coffelt Database of Vietnam Casualties. 
  • Franklin Review-Appeal, May 29, 1987.
  • Mason, Robert, Chickenhawk: A Shattering Personal Account of the Helicopter War in Vietnam, New York: Penguin Books, 1983. (Source for ability of Huey helicopter to take off quickly.)
  • MacGarrigle, George (1998). Combat Operations: Taking the Offensive, October 1966 to October 1967. Government Printing Office. ISBN 9780160495403. 
  • Phone interviews with Cheryl Craft, James Lloyd Walker’s sister (May 10, 2021); Jocelyn Jordan, John Willie Woods Jr. neighbor, childhood playmate and schoolmate (May 10 and 17, 2021); Carolyn Wall, Woods’ schoolmate (May 11, 2021); Bill Reynolds, Woods’ high school football coach (May 12, 2021); Les Davison, 155th Assault Helicopter Company unit historian and former pilot in unit (May 13, 2021); Chuck Markham, 155th Assault Helicopter Company veteran (May 14, 2021); and Woods’ friends Bill Grimes (May 16, 2021), Doug Lane (May 16, 2021), and Curtis "Sneaky Pete" Allen (May 23, 2021); and Fulton Patton, Woods' uncle (May 25, 2021).
  • In-person interview with Franklin historian Thelma Battle, Woods’ high school schoolmate, May 10, 2021.
  • The Nashville Tennessean, May 2, 1966, Nov. 7, 2005.
  • Vietnam magazine, August 2002 issue, (Source for quote on sturdiness of Huey, from former U.S. pilot Richard Jellerson.) 
  • Williamson Leader, July 19, 1979, July 5, 1980.
  • 155th Aviation Company unit history


VIEW GOOGLE EARTH IMAGE of crash site of helicopter.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this American story, John, and may the memory of John Willie Woods Jr be a comfort to the family and friends who love him 💔

    ReplyDelete