← Back to Blog

Virginian-Pilot Veterans Day special section: William Jenkins

Col. William Jenkins, U.S. Navy
Navy Reserved, National Guard

In 1942, WWII was heating up and Bill Jenkins, age 18, was not a man to let a mere 4-F classification stand in the way of his plans to serve in military. “I had decided I wanted to be a Navy pilot,” recalls Jenkins. “So I went to the recruiting station and they told me I had a herniated condition and they wouldn’t even draft me.”

As far as the Navy was concerned, that was the end of it; Jenkins had other ideas. Through his physician, he located a surgeon who could repair the condition. “I went at my own expense and had an operation and went back to the recruiting station,” says Jenkins. This time, the Navy passed him.

“So then I had to go to the Widener Building in Philadelphia for three days of intensive physical and mental tests; that’s how the Navy was in those days,” Jenkins says. He passed all of those tests as well.

“They swore me in – but then they gave me one final test, which is the recovery rate on your blood pressure,” describes Jenkins. “They said we’re sorry young man, we’re going to have to discharge you.”

The persistent Jenkins managed to talk them into retesting him. “I went out and had lunch, came back and passed. And I’ve passed every physical since,” says Jenkins.

Now an official naval aviation cadet, Jenkins was sent home to wait for an opening in the flight-training program. “The weeks and months went by and every able-bodied man was drafted and I’m still waiting for a call,” Jenkins says.

The long-awaited call came in mid-1943. “But the Navy had all the pilots they needed by then, so I went to boot camp in a holding process,” says Jenkins.

Just as well. The Navy requires their pilots to be able to swim; Jenkins didn’t know how. That extra time at boot camp gave him the opportunity to learn, he says.

Finally Jenkins made it to flight training, ending up at Naval Air Station Pensacola. “I was supposed to have a choice of either multi-engine or single engine planes,” he says. The Navy chose for him – single engine float planes. Jenkins was happy to take anything that flew.

The young pilot had just completed his training when the atom bomb was dropped in 1945, bringing WWII to a close. “They told me I could leave the Navy or fly in the Naval Reserve,” says Jenkins. He chose to continue flying. “And like so many other GIs, I used the GI Bill to get my education,” he says.

Jenkins flew planes for the Reserve and later transferred to the Army National Guard as the Korean War broke out. He trained to go to Korea with an air defense artillery unit but drew a stateside assignment instead. “Then in the early 60s, the board calls me in and tells me to go out and recruit some men to form a brand new aviation company,” says Jenkins. “I got aviators who had been flying helicopters and set up a training program.

“We’d gone through Bells, Hillers, Sikorskys, now we had Hueys and Viet Nam was in full swing,” says Jenkins. “We’re at full strength, I said we’re ready to go. But our team was never called up.”

Jenkins remained in the National Guard until age 60, retiring a full bird colonel. During his 42 years of military service, he flew planes, trained other pilots, and worked in air defense, the signal corps, intelligence and civil defense. His civilian life has been just as full. In between teaching agricultural science, biology and chemistry, Jenkins earned a Ph.D. He also worked his own farm and become a certified flight and instrument instructor.

At 92, he’s retired now. Framed photographs and mementoes from his earlier days as a Navy pilot line the walls of his home. “I served because I felt Uncle Sam needed me,” says Jenkins. And whatever assignment I had, I was willing to put all I had into it.

“The training I got as a naval aviator was the best training I ever got anywhere. It made a man out of me. Flying over the ocean for many hours out of sight of land, having to find your way back to the ship and all you had was dead reckoning navigation, that training enabled me to become successful in other walks of life,” says Jenkins.

He may be retired, but he hasn’t been grounded. Yet. “I joined the Tidewater Soaring Society,” says Jenkins, flying gliders. “This past spring they said we still want you to fly, but we want you to have somebody in the backseat with you when you go up. One of these days I’ll quit forever.” One of these days. But not today.

Article written by the Virginian-Pilot for their 2016 Virginian-Pilot Veterans Day special section insert