On Jan. 18, 1969, 26-year-old U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. William E. Townsley was flying a Cessna O-2B Super Skymaster near Da Nang, Vietnam on his seventh day of combat training flights with an instructor pilot.
The training would have enabled Townsley to fly over the Ho Chi Minh Trail solo, but one too many left turns would find Townsley and his instructor pilot parachuting out of the plane.
Townsley’s aircraft was shot down by enemy forces.
“I can remember my main thoughts were on my grandmother,” recalled Townsley. “She had lost her eldest son, a B-24 Liberator navigator, somewhere in the Mediterranean or Atlantic Ocean during World War II, and I didn’t want her to lose me, too.”
The sound of enemy fire surrounded Townsley as his parachute slowly descended into the forest below, eventually landing approximately 15 feet from the wreckage of his jet.
With a scraped right knee and leg, Townsley moved to a safe spot to radio for help.
Once he made contact with the search and rescue aircraft, Townsley began to feel there was hope he’d be rescued soon.
Within hours, a rescue helicopter extracted Townsley’s instructor pilot.
However, when another rescue helicopter attempted to pick up Townsley, the enemy fired at the aircraft. After sustaining 50 rounds, the helicopter crew was forced to abort rescue.
The crew told Townsley, via radio, he would have to stay on the ground for the night, and the rescue mission would resume the following morning.
“I immediately thought to myself, ‘I am an Airman. Some of us make it and some of us don’t, but I am going to try until I die,’” said Townsley.
The next day, Townsley resumed communication with the rescue team. Soon, his ordeal was over, as the helicopter arrived to escort him to safety.
Townsley said the day he was rescued was the “most memorable day” of his Air Force career.
“After the crash, I was asked by my squadron commander if I wanted a command post job,” said Townsley. “I responded, ‘No, I have to get back on the horse.’”
When all was said and done, Townsley was able to take away a greater appreciation for all Airmen, pilots and crew members.
Townsley was awarded a Silver Star 11 months after being shot down.
“I celebrate, at least in my mind, every Jan. 18 and 19,” said Townsley. “The 19th was the first day of the rest of my life.”
Townsley went on to serve a career spanning 27 years, retiring in 1992 as a colonel.
Since retiring, Townsley has been active in community, veteran, political and charitable organizations.
“Retiring as a colonel has given me an opportunity to do a lot of good in the community,” explained Townsley, now 71 years old. “I’ve been able to volunteer, teach and speak at a lot of events.”
Townsley has also been a substitute teacher in the York County school district.
“Having been in the military, the kids at the schools want to hear the war stories,” said Townsley. “So, my career has had an impact on kids, especially Junior ROTC cadets.”
The career that Townsley had as an Airman helped shape the man he is today. He successfully survived a crash into enemy territory and used that experience to enhance his Air Force journey.
“I had a wonderful time throughout my Air Force career,” explained Townsley. “There was always a challenge to be a better man, and I was able to live up to who I was taught to be.”