Above: Crew members of the C-130 Hercules, including Capt. William Munson, standing far right, in 1961. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
Capt. Munson, aviation hero and East Greenwich regular guy
This piece is based on the saying, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but, the size of the fight in the dog.” I have tried to use it as an example for several of my smaller ballplayers, one of my grandsons, and several others I have met along the path of life.
This article was written by Greg Munson, son of the subject of this story, “Captain ‘Lightning Bill’ Munson at the South Pole.”
I knew Captain Munson well. He and his family settled in East Greenwich in the mid-1950s. His son Bill played on the football team with me and I was a mentor to him and I believe I left him something in the class will. He has since passed.
Captain Munson was not a big man. I remember him as shorter than my 5-7 or 5-8 height of the day, despite his wife’s protestations that he was taller. He did carry himself with the rigidity and authority of a Navy captain.
You would have never guessed it by looking at him, but he was a true hero. We tend to judge our heroes by the screen stars and athletes we see in the movies and on TV screens. Though the Marine recruiting poster shows a 6 foot tall, 200 lb. manly hunk, in reality, the average size for a marines is 5’7″, 145 lbs. Our heroes are not always what we think they are. Audie Murphy, the most decorated war hero ever, was average sized, as was the hero of Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss.
So sit back and read this tale by Greg Munson, about his father, a real American hero, who lived right here under our noses in East Greenwich. Who’da thought? – Bruce Mastracchio
My father, Captain William H. “Lightning Bill” Munson, (RN1908) Clan Solomon, so named for his alleged speed on the baseball diamond, was a Navy pilot, and veteran of three defining events: The Great Depression, World War 2, and the Cold War.
He grew up in Port Chester, N.Y., where his father, Halsey, was the mayor, cousin Fred was chief of police and his uncle, Willy Wenkenbach, owned and operated the local speakeasy, the White Horse Tavern. The family was thoroughly acquainted with the local townsfolk both from behind the bar and behind the bars.
After graduating from Cornell, Bill spent a year at Columbia Law School. The he decided that his real desire was to fly airplanes. He joined the Navy and got his “wings” at Pensacola NAS in 1938. He spent most of the pre-war years in the South Pacific and Caribbean, where he met Admiral Byrd, the famed Arctic explorer. Upon America’s entry into the war, then Lt. Munson flew anti-submarine patrols out of Greenland and Newfoundland. The experience he gained flying in frigid and harsh weather conditions was to serve him well in later years.
Munson served as executive officer and commanding officer of the aircraft carrier Point Cruz and then did a stint at the Pentagon. Then he was chosen to lead an all-volunteer squadron, VX-6 Antarctic Development Squadron, nicknamed the “Puckered Penguins,” which was part of Operation Deep Freeze, supporting naval and scientific research and exploration at McMurdo Base in Antarctica.
The squadron would spend the six-month “summer” at the South Pole and then return to the States, leaving a small contingent of scientists and naval personnel to winter over the six months of constant darkness and severe winter storms. Since no one had ever flown in, or out of, McMurdo in the winter, the crew was totally isolated until spring.
In 1961, the Americans and Soviets had agreed to an exchange of scientists as the Soviet Union (aka Russia) had a base there also. Antarctica was divided between the two major powers. While wintering over, the base radioed that one of the Russian scientists had become seriously ill with a duodenal infection and they feared it was a life-threatening situation unless he could be evacuated to a medical facility in New Zealand.
Captain Munson and Commander Loyd Newcomer, his executive officer, volunteered to fly the rescue mission, based primarily on their confidence in the recently deployed Lockheed C130 Hercules, a plane that 40 years later is still one of the mainstays of aviation worldwide.
Munson loved the 4-engine “Herc.”
“It lands and takes off on pavement, grass, dirt, ice or snow; flies on two engines and can land on one,” he used to brag. Beside, Loyd Newcomer was a fine pilot.
Once, when encountering directional equipment trouble and having no idea where they were, Munson’s plane radioed Newcomer in McMurdo, and, in an uncanny display of flying skill and daring, Commander Newcomer flew out to fetch them, a very small moving needle in a very large, three dimensional haystack. He escorted the very relieved, if somewhat red-faced airedales back to their base.
End Part One
Were the Russians “playing us,” much like they are trying to do today? What did Captain Bill do that stamped him a hero? Did he succeed? Stay tuned and find out in Part Two of “The Size of the Dog”! – B. Mastracchio