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Building castles in the sky
Call it luck. Call it fate. Call it being in the right place at the wrong time.
In any event, William Wallace is not among the hundreds of thousands of U.S. military men, and women, that we pay tribute to on Memorial Day, those who died in the line of duty. But just barely.
The former Army pilot and decorated WWII veteran celebrated birthday No. 94 exactly one week before Memorial Day, on May 19, in the company of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, only because he managed to survive being shot down not just once, but twice, and lived to tell about it. He doesn’t spend much time thinking about it nowadays.
“Like everything else, the military has its ups and downs,” Wallace said. “I’ve got a knack for putting things I don’t like out of my mind, so I don’t have many downs.”
As harrowing as those death-defying combat missions must have been (he crashed during a training flight back in the states as well), Wallace’s life is more than a survival story. It’s a tale of determination, of overcoming the odds to fulfill a dream, and of blazing a trail that the next generation, and the next, would follow.
Inspired by his father, Gary Wallace, a Vietnam War veteran and retired U.S. Marine, would learn to fly. Likewise, Wallace’s grandsons, Richard and Mark Mattox, became hooked on aviation at an early age and would learn to fly as well, and still do, professionally.
A graduate of the Annapolis naval academy, Mark Mattox soloed for the first time, at the age of 16, at Boeing Field. He went on to fly F-18 fighter jets on patrol over Iraq after Desert Storm and over Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, terrorists attacks. As a fighter pilot, Mattox achieved something that his grandfather was denied, which, to this day, does not sit well with him.
“He had a tough time going through flight school just because of the way he looked,” said the 40-year-old Navy pilot, who lives in San Diego and now flies for Delta.
Badly burned at his Bellingham home at the age of four, William Wallace’s face was permanently scarred when fire broke out in the family’s wood-stove. Still, like many kids of his day he dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot and, inspired by an uncle, a navy pilot, he went to enlist in the navy, but quickly found out that he didn’t “look the part.”
“They turned me down because of my scars,” he recalls.
So, in pursuit of his dream, he enlisted in the army instead. But he found resistance there as well and, had it not been for one particular officer, one who recognized Wallace’s determination and courage, and went to bat for him, he may never have ended up in the cockpit. And, although his ambition of becoming a fighter pilot never materialized, he did end up piloting cargo planes in the European and the Pacific theater throughout the second half of the war.
“Being alive, that’s not so simple,” Wallace said. “Being up in the air, that’s freedom.”
Following the war, Wallace became an aeronautical engineer, worked for companies such as Boeing and Northrop, and later a technical aviation writer with McGraw Hill. It was at an international aerospace convention in the ‘60s that he unexpectedly met the Luftwaffe pilot that shot down his cargo plane.
“It was very cordial,” Wallace recalls of the conversation between the two.
Wallace moved from Bellingham to southern California shortly after the war, with his wife at the time, returned to Everett 25 years later, and then to San Juan Island seven years ago to be closer to his daughter, Krista, and grandson Richard and his family.
Although it’s something they share, the men of the family rarely sit down and swap stories of their military service. That’s mostly because the experiences of each and the type of war and conflict they saw tend to be too different for much common ground, Gary Wallace said.
“Our wars were all different,” he said. “(William’s) was one of necessity. Mine was, well, a big mistake. Our experiences were all too different, all too personal. We don’t really talk about it all that much.”
And yet, perhaps that common ground may just be up in the air.
“They all love planes,” Krista said.