ENCINITAS — Lt. Col. Willis King landed his wartime helicopters on the USS Midway during the Vietnam War. Now, almost 50 years later, the former Marine Naval aviator is back on the Midway, yet in a more peaceful capacity. King, 73, is now one of about 250 docents at the Midway Museum. But he accomplished a lot in order to make it back full circle to his former landing grounds. He says good karma helped.
Besides flying helicopters in war zones where about 33% of his colleagues did not return home, King was responsible for developing operational plans for the 3rd Marine Air Wing, some that were reviewed by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during Desert Storm. His plans were so sensitive that the FBI forbid him from telling his wife, Eileen and their children for 20 years.
In a phone interview, King acknowledged that he was a maverick who often disagreed with superiors. Like in 1979 when his op-plan to rescue 52 American hostages in Iran was changed by President Jimmy Carter. “If they would have used my plan, it would have been successful,” King said. He explained using too many branches of the service made the plan incompatible and ill-fated.
One of King’s most memorable run-ins came when he stood ground to the uncompromising colonel known as “The Great Santini” portrayed by Robert Duvall in a 1979 motion picture. “The Great Santini (Donald Conroy) ordered me to learn to fly jets. Since I was No.1 in my flight training class, I was able to go against his orders and learned to fly helicopters. The Great Santini thought I embarrassed him and ordered me to a mini-court partial type hearing.” The case was ultimately dropped.
“I always spoke my mind even when I was on the brink of becoming a senior officer,” King said. “I was passed over for higher ranks because of it. I was a patriot, a Boy Scout, played baseball, helped take care of my father before he died of prostate cancer, something that I survived. I retired in 1990 with a bad taste in my mouth.” He disliked that there is too much influence regarding military decisions given to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and Senate “whose goals are often to award costly, wasteful contracts to pay back political favors.”
Despite his frankness, he was constantly among the top officers in advanced training classes which made his input sought after. Because of his extensive training he was assigned in the mid-1970s to help design and develop three CH-46 helicopter simulators which allowed trainees to learn in a controlled environment. At $2 million each, King felt they saved the taxpayers millions in the long run. The simulators were basically the blueprint to current computer games.
Ironically, a version of those same simulators is featured permanently at the Midway Museum. King says the simulators are so realistic that the $8 charge to operate them comes with a barf bag.
He feels volunteering as a Midway docent is rewarding in many ways. When asked if anything special is planned for Veterans Day, he replied that something special is planned every day at the Midway Museum, considered America’s No. 1 symbol of freedom.
“We have a new audience every day and docents get to tell them stories that we’ve held back 50 years,” he said. He named Jack Scott and John Harris, two World War II vets in their 90s who still give back as docents. King said most of the docents are Vietnam vets who lived in an era when the military was told not to wear their uniforms because they would be targets of public humiliation. “It was nothing like my father’s proud return from World War II.”
Along with volunteering at the “most magical and colossal ship anywhere,” King remained active as a high school and college sports official for 20 years. The longtime Encinitas resident umpired at the 1996 Olympic softball qualifying trials and continues to operate his Umpire Attire business which sells sports related clothing and equipment.
Docent Program Director Jim Reily at the Midway Museum called King a terrific docent due to his vast experience. “Willis inspires, educates and entertains our million-plus visitors annually,” he said. “He has accumulated over 3,900 volunteer hours since he joined the Midway Museum volunteers in 2013.”
King says he is a strong believer in karma, something that he thinks led him out of harm’s way a number of times. “One time our helicopter was hit by lightning while flying over Korea and we lost power,” he said. “I heard that little voice inside that navigated us out of trouble.”
King claims karma somewhat brought him back to the Midway in a good way after 50 years due to “what goes around comes around.” He says he’s now proud to be able to wear his flight jacket. “Something we couldn’t do 50 years ago,” he said.