Colonal William Bryan Byrd, Jr., USAF, flew his last flight July 7, 2023. Bill was born in New Bern, North Carolina, to William Bryan Byrd and Louise Knowles Byrd, late of Bunnlevel, North Carolina, who predeceased him. He happily spent his childhood in the fields around Bunnlevel developing an early love of cultivating the land with crops and trees. He would nurture his affinity for harvesting land throughout his life and throughout the world.
Bill graduated from Lillington High School; he attended Oak Ridge Military Academy before graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in Forestry. While there, he joined the Arnold Air Society and learned to fly, beginning a lifelong passion for navigating the skies. Bill was commissioned into the United States Air Force in May, 1962, and completed his pilot training at Webb AFB, Big Springs, Texas. It was during this time he went on a special assignment to France: the American military was leaving France, vacating the air bases established during World War II. The deeds specified that lands returned to their owners would be done so in the condition from which they were received. Bill oversaw the demolition of one of these bases, leaving rubble for the local people to reuse in fences, roads, and buildings. The land was plowed and furrowed and left ready for planting. Bill had the pleasure of returning the deed to the farmer who had relinquished his land eighteen years prior. An emotional and astonished farmer said, "I never thought I would see this day! Merci."
Bill flew B-52's in the Strategic Air Command until he volunteered to transition to fly helicopters and go to Vietnam as a rescue pilot. He was assigned to the 37 Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Squadron, referred to as Jolly Greens, due to the huge green helicopters they flew. Based in Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam, he rescued downed pilots and other American military members in North and South Vietnam often in conditions of great peril. On one fateful day, Bill was shot down twice. Racing through the jungle, he was finally spotted and rescued by a United States Army First Cavalry Air Squadron helicopter pilot.
Bill would return to Asia for three more tours of duty including two assignments at Clark Air Base on the island of Luzon, the Republic of the Philippine Islands and an American Embassy assignment to the Defense Liaison Group in Jakarta, Indonesia. While at the Embassy he was contacted by USAID to design a reforestation plan for certain areas throughout Indonesia. Sixteen years later, in 1992, Bill was at the Chelsea Flower Show in London, England, when he encountered a booth devoted to the successful results of the Indonesian reforestation plan he had created years earlier.
Returning from Vietnam, Bill had cross-trained into Aircraft Maintenance. He loved this aspect of the Air Force as much as he loved flying. He thrived being out on the flight-line interacting with members in maintenance from Airmen to Chief Master Sergeants. One of his proudest moments was being made an Honorary Chief Master Sergeant during his tour of duty as Deputy Commander of Maintenance at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. While at Holloman AFB, he created the solution repairing the faulty F-15 radar systems which, up until then, had never worked correctly.
Bill's final military assignment took him to Royal Air Force Base Bentwaters-Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom. While there, he was part of a team which put in an F-16 Squadron in a very short amount of time, influencing the decision to dissolve the former Soviet Union. During the first Gulf War, the A-10 attack aircraft sent to protect those on the ground came from his maintenance squadrons as did the personnel to repair them. He would not leave the military without one more assignment: he was sent to Turkey to oversee the cleaning-up and refurbishing of millions of dollars of used Gulf War equipment from tents to makeshift hospitals. More importantly, he also took charge of Operation Provide Comfort for the Kurds. He arranged for hundreds of pounds of year old seed to be sent from North Carolina and established a seed exchange program with NCSU which still exists today. Thousands of metric tons of tea, lentils, rice, wheat, etc. were purchased and hauled up the mountainous areas to reach starving Kurd populations. He found used granaries and relocated them to the area where they began milling their own flour and baking their own bread. He showed them how to better use their mountainous terrain through terracing. Fruit trees were purchased and planted on the terraced land. In the years to follow, water began to trickle down the terraces eventually flowing all the way to the Euphrates River. The area now has rich, arable land.
Bill's military decorations include the Silver Star with Oak Leaf Cluster; Legion of Merit; the Airman's Medal; the Meritorious Service Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters; the Defense Meritorious Service Medal; the Air Medal with One Silver and Three Bronze Oak Leaf Clusters; the Air Force Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster; the Vietnam Service Medal with Four Bronze Service Stars; and the Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm Device.
After his retirement in service to the United States Air Force, he returned to his childhood home in Bunnlevel. Always a private man, he did enjoy his family including myriads of cousins and special friends whom he considered family. He attended the Bunnlevel Presbyterian Church during his youth and was currently a member of St. Johns Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, NC. Left to cherish the memory of this remarkable man is his wife, Laurie Byrd of the home; his daughter, Beth Ann Byrd Buyse, son-in-law, Russell Buyse, and grand-daughter, Morgan Buyse of Austin, Texas; and son, William Bryan Byrd, III, and daughter-in-law, Michelle Byrd of Helotes, Texas as well as grand-daughter, Amanda Byrd, of San Antonio, Texas, sister, Celeste Byrd Dorsey and husband David of Anchorage AK, niece, Stephanie Dorsey Scheevel and husband Stacy of Anchorage AK, nephew, David Timothy Dorsey and wife Amy of Wasilla, AK. These were his true loves.
Donations may be made to Harnett Food Pantry: PO Box 2084, Lillington, NC 27546, St. John's Episcopal Church, PO Box 722, Fayetteville, NC 28302 or Bunnlevel Presbyterian Church, PO Box 111, Bunnlevel, NC 28323.