Robins historian never forgets

bshreve@macon.comMay 25, 2014 

Next month, William Head will mark his 30th year as chief historian at Robins Air Force Base.

BRIAN SHREVE — For The Telegraph

For William Head, Memorial Day is more than a day off work watching old war movies.

Surrounded in his office by a hodgepodge of Air Force memorabilia, old photographs and a seemingly endless collection of books, Head, chief historian at Robins Air Force Base, keeps reminders of military past close and memories of those who served America even closer.

“There’s more to it than just going to the beach or heading to the golf course,” he said of Memorial Day. “It’s a good time for us to remember who these folks were and what they did for us. We have to keep focused on those things that are important.”

With next month marking Head’s 30th year as base historian, it doesn’t take a trip to Arlington Cemetery for him to reflect on the nation’s fallen heroes. But Head acknowledged that for many Americans, that isn’t the case, and to a certain extent, he understands.

“It’s silly to expect that people are always going to be thinking about those sorts of things,” said Head. “Because I’m an historian, I know so many stories about heroic deeds, and it has a particular effect on me. But we have a Memorial Day. And I think it’s just a really good time for us all to think about some of these things then and be grateful we live here.”

But as the U.S. winds down the war in Afghanistan, Head -- also an instructor of American history at Middle Georgia State College -- said he disputes Tom Brokaw’s notion of the Greatest Generation. Young people today, particularly those now serving, may be more aware of military sacrifices than they were in decades past, Head said.

“Every American generation has great heroes,” he said. “I’ve worked with airmen here of all ranks, and if you’re worried about the next generation, don’t be. These are some of the finest people. I don’t think we have anything to worry about.”

Though Head has never personally suffered the loss of a loved one in war, an experience his late father had in World War II reminds him how close that came to not being the case, and history is not always something that can be siphoned down into book collections.

It was sometime in 1944 when Head’s father, a master sergeant serving the Army Air Forces, looked forward to flying in a mission over Italy.

But to his dismay at the time, he lost a coin toss.

Another man -- known to Head only by his nickname, “Blackie” -- got to fly in his place, a bombardier like his father who couldn’t be found immediately following the mission.

After searching the nose of the B-26 bomber, his comrades discovered the man had been struck in the neck with a piece of shrapnel and killed.

“That could’ve been my father. So I’ve always thought about that,” said Head, gazing away reflectively. “How close our whole family came to not existing. How hit-or-miss it is for any of us. And there are a lot of stories like that.”

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