(EDITOR’S NOTE: Retired longtime Gilmer businessman and World War II hero Don Williams was among veterans who were honored on Memorial Day at the Longview senior living community where they reside, Buckner Westminster Place. In a May 18 interview there, the 95-year-old Williams reflected not only on his long-ago military service, but on other aspects of his past life as a longtime Gilmer civic leader and family man. He also discussed his life today, which is surprisingly active for a nonagenarian. While the author of this article is a longtime friend of the subject and they share the same last name, they are no known relation to each other.)
Don Williams has a story to tell.
And he has lived long enough so that, with modern-day technology, there he is telling it on YouTube, an Internet site with millions of videos devoted to just about every conceivable subject.
For nine minutes and 15 seconds, interviewed by his sister Sarah Conger and his nephew John Conger on his 95th birthday on April 6, Williams recounts the day in World War II when he performed a heroic act.
As ably summarized by Amy Jones, who handles public relations for the facility where Williams now lives, the story is this:
“He saved 50 U.S. servicemen who were stranded in the ocean after a submarine sank their aircraft carrier. The men on the submarine were shooting at the U.S. servicemen in the ocean. Don flew overhead and bombed the submarine, saving 50 lives. He volunteered to help on this mission right after he finished a 12-hour mission in combat.”
Small wonder Williams received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In the video (entitled WW II 95 yr. old tells bombing missions), the former Navy man details how his mission was to “blow out” German submarines attacking U.S. ships and how he got down to only 50 feet above the water in dropping his bombs.
After playing the video for this story, Don Williams recalled that upon learning of the aircraft carrier’s sinking, he had told his crew to jump in a plane rather than wait for another crew to go to the rescue. They traveled about 100 miles, he said, to find a semi-circle of men with “just their heads sticking up” out of the water, and under fire from the submarine.
Under Williams’ attack, the submarine sank and he continued circling until the men could get help.
TODAY, more than six decades later, Don Williams is comfortably ensconced in Westminster Place in Longview, where he shared his current apartment with his late wife of 66 years, Mattie Ruth, before her death Feb. 15, 2008.
The former longtime owner of Gilmer Lumber Co. walks without assistance and, while his voice is slightly weaker than it once was, it is easily understandable and his mind is remarkably clear for someone of his longevity.
Perhaps not surprisingly for one of his advanced age, religion is among the first things the veteran member of the Church of Christ mentioned for this story.
He showed me around his spacious apartment, where a Bible rests on the kitchen table inside the front door.
“I read my Bible,” he said. One day, trying to concentrate better, he was reading it aloud when a woman passed by in the hallway.
“I just want to ask you if it’s all right if I listen to you,” she told him.
“I found out she can’t read,” Williams said. So, he noted, the lady who lives next door sits with him daily at his kitchen table for him to read the Scriptures to her.
“It just really makes her feel good,” he observed. “It helps me, too, I guess.”
Williams no longer drives, but still attends Sunday morning Bible class at a Longview congregation of the Church of Christ.
VISITORS WOULD likely not be surprised to see the Bible in his apartment, but there is something else there that one might not expect to discover in a 95-year-old man’s home.
It’s a computer.
Don Williams is tickled to be on the Internet.
He recalled that he told one of his sons, Steve Williams of Gilmer, twice not to install the thing when Steve proposed it. But one day, “when I was gone,” the computer was installed.
“And it’s been the best thing I ever had,” said Don Williams. “I spend at least two hours a day on it.” In fact, a man he flew with in the U.S. Navy, Earnest Beauchamp of California, e-mails him two or three times daily, he said.
ON THE WAY down the hall to his apartment for the interview, Williams showed the visitor the facility’s impressive exercise room, where he works out.
Works out? A 95-year-old man?
In fact, Williams pointed out, he attends a thrice-weekly morning exercise class where the instructor is a woman he guesses to be perhaps 89. And she exercises nonstop, he said, for 40 minutes!
“It’s better than anything I had in the Navy or in the Marine Corps,” he declared.
One day, while leaving the facility’s dining room, Williams heard a female voice order him to “straighten up your back.”
It was the exercise instructor. “She’s looking straight at me, too,” he said.
He said exercise helps, but his longevity seems almost a surprise to him. He professed not to know why he has lived so long (although genetics perhaps played a role—his father, P.K. Williams, lived to be in his nineties).
He noted he has “been run over three times,” including once when he accidentally caused a car with an “undersling” to overrun him while trying to crank it from outside during his high school days.
Williams graduated in 1934 from Gilmer High School, going on to graduate from Texas A&M. At GHS, he was manager for the football team under its legendary coach, the late Henry McClelland, and “I did all the work,” Williams said with a laugh.
IN ANOTHER ASPECT of his past life, one asset Williams had a role in procuring for Gilmer was Robroy Industries, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Gilmer operation this year. And he remembers the fascinating story of how he had to intervene to keep the plant from going to a nearby city.
The Gilmer Industrial Foundation had a committee which was supposed “to meet anybody moving around East Texas” businesswise, Williams recalled. It learned about Pennsylvania-based Robroy from a contact in Shreveport, La.
Williams met with the firm’s owners, the McIlroy family, in Florida. The late Bob McIlroy “was scared about the money situation in case they had some hard luck and had to borrow some money.”
McIlroy was making the arrangements to expand the company’s operation into East Texas. And, said Williams, “Longview thought they had him. . . He was the one they had a deal with, and I told him, ‘We want you in Gilmer.’ ”
As Williams relates the story today, McIlroy told him Longview could give him financial backing if he needed it. When Williams asked how much money he might need, McIlroy stated a figure, and Williams replied, “No problem.”
In fact, he guaranteed it.
“You mean you’d guarantee it personally?” McIlroy asked the Gilmer businessman. Yes, Williams replied, and set to work selling the virtues of Gilmer.
“We’ve got good people. . . You’ll like them,” he told McIlroy. And, Williams pledged, acreage would be saved for the company to expand if it ever wanted to (which it later did).
To land Robroy, the Industrial Foundation “had to borrow a little money,” Williams recalled. So he visited the Longview bank that was going to back Robroy if it came to that city, and made an unusual pitch.
“Will you furnish the money for them if they came to Gilmer?” he asked the banker.
“He looked at me,” Williams recalled laughingly. “I knew him pretty well.”
“You make it sound one-sided,” the banker said as the Gilmerite went to bat for his city.
“We need it, and you don’t,” Williams argued.
The plea worked. Later, McIlroy and Williams talked to the bank and “got it finalized. Oh, I was happy.”
And he said it gladdens his heart that Robroy is still in Gilmer today, 50 years after starting operations here.
“That’s something. Instead of leaving, they improved themselves.”
Williams had played a key role in the starting of the Gilmer Industrial Foundation. In the late 1950s, he told his fellow businessman, the late R.B. Cook, “We need to start a foundation of some kind” to recruit business to Gilmer, and a number of men met concerning that.
In talking to business prospects, “we would tell them the foundation was behind what we said to them,” he remembered. “About four of us said, if it got down in our pockets, it’d be all right.”
HIS DAYS of bringing business to Gilmer long over, he reflects on the events of the past few years that led up to his current situation.
“Well, I’m fortunate. When Mattie died, I was sitting in here in this apartment and I was unhappy. . . I had lost her, and I had broken away from the lumber yard.” And he had given his Gilmer home to his adult children.
He could return to Gilmer, but “I thought, Well, if I go back. . . I’d just be there by myself.”
Many of his old companions had died. And he feared that if he returned here, his sons (Steve Williams and Paul David Williams) might think he didn’t believe they were running the lumber business properly.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he recalled. “Then all of a sudden, I ended up in the hospital.”
And the event which precipitated that helped Williams determine his future.
A month after leaving the hospital, his daughter Nancy Sawyer took him to Longview physician Dr. Russell Warden (who once practiced in Gilmer).
“You had a stroke,” Dr. Warden informed Williams.
Williams learned he had gotten to the hospital quickly enough that “they stopped it with medicine, and they were proud.” Had he been home in Gilmer when he was stricken, nobody would have been there to help, he said.
“So that took some of the sweat off. . . being a lonesome fellow here,” he observed.
He then had an idea for dealing with his loneliness. Williams began eating at different tables and getting to know his fellow residents at Buckner, which houses 36 veterans among its residents.
“And that helped me,” he noted. “These are all nice folks.”
“We all look at things the same.”
MATTIE HAS BEEN gone now for four years. The memories are sweet, though, and their four children are attentive to him (Steve and Paul David live in Gilmer, still operating the lumber business. Nancy and her sister, Donna Farris, reside in Longview, and at the time of the recent interview, Nancy was about to take him to Gilmer for a rare visit back home.)
Don Williams still thinks about his children’s mother.
In their 66-year marriage, he said, they “never had a bad quarrel. ’Course, she was always right and I just did what she said,” he quipped, laughing.
Just before they married, he said, he told her “Go in there and tell your boss you won’t be back tomorrow.”
Why? she asked.
“You’re through working,” her husband-to-be said. “I’m going to work and you’re going to raise children.”
And, as wasn’t unusual in that day and time, that’s the way it was. Mattie Ruth Williams would never work again, except for church work.
“She was great,” said Don Williams. “That made me the best life that I could ever have.”