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Widow of fallen Vietnam War pilot shares memories

CALLANDS, Va. — William Reynolds Martin, the first Pittsylvania County, Va., soldier to die in the Vietnam War, knew he wanted to be a pilot since he was a child.

Martin was killed in 1964 when his jet was shot down. The Capt. Martin Building in Chatham, which houses Pittsylvania County’s administrative offices, was named after him and dedicated in 1979.

“There’s lots of military history in the family,” said his widow, Henrietta Holley Martin, 75, during an interview Tuesday at her Callands home.

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William’s father, Otis Martin, served in the U.S. Navy and his grandfather fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

A compiled memorial book at Henrietta’s home contains an early-1940s photograph of a 7-year-old William standing in his front yard wearing aviator’s goggles.

William graduated from Callands High School in 1951 at 16; he started school a year early and skipped the third grade, Henrietta said. He was president of the student body at Callands his senior year.

“He was so much smarter than the other students,” Henrietta recalled. She was two years younger than William and would graduate from Callands in 1955.

A friend, James Lewis Adkins, brought the couple together while Henrietta was still in high school in 1952.

“The first date we had was a blind date,” Henrietta said. The couple went to the movies at the Capitol Theater in Danville. She cannot recall the name of the film.

“It was some kind of war movie,” Henrietta said.

In August 1954, William surprised Henrietta with a question.

“We were driving down the road going to Danville and all of a sudden he said, ‘Will you marry me?’” Henrietta said. “I sat there for a few minutes stunned, and I said ‘yes.’”

In William, Henrietta saw intelligence and warmth.

“He was kind ... [a] gentleman, caring person,” she said. “He never met a stranger and he was a brilliant man. He could foresee the future in a lot of ways.”

William, who was commissioned as a graduate of Virginia Military Institute into the U.S. Air Force in 1955, made a prediction when he returned from a military mission in Turkey in 1963.

He said the country’s next war would be in the Middle East, Henrietta said, agreeing with his prognostication. Less than 30 years later, the U.S. would go to war against Iraq.

The Vietnam War was “just a skirmish,” a “[President John F.] Kennedy/[Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara war that killed [58,000] troops for nothing,” Henrietta said.

The 6-foot, 130-pound William — who did not weigh enough for pilot training — had to improvise to meet the weight requirement, Henrietta recalled.

“He put rocks in the cuffs of his pants,” she said.

The couple wed on July 16, 1955, at Liberty Baptist Church in Callands on Va. 41. Henrietta’s great-grandfather had given land for Liberty, which had been an old wood church when she began attending.

The brick church where the Martins’ married still stands.

William’s military service took him — and later Henrietta — to numerous locations.

He took classes and commanded enlisted men in San Antonio and later underwent jet-pilot training at several bases including T-33 training at Laredo, Texas.

William trained on a variety of military aircraft. He went through F-86 training at Williams Air Force Base in Mesa, Ariz. He also trained at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and received his first assignment at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Henrietta said.

He was also in base operations in the Philippines for six months starting in September 1958, and later at England Air Force Base in Louisiana in 1960.

On his fateful day on Nov. 18, 1964, William was leading a flight of two F-100 aircraft escorting an unarmed RF-101 aircraft on a reconnaissance mission over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

They came under heavy ground fire as they approached the mission area, according to the Pittsylvania County Virginia Heritage book at Henrietta’s home. She, along with 21 other members of a committee of county citizens, gathered information and compiled the book.

William flew his F-100 low over the gun placements to divert hostile fire away from the RF-101 aircraft, which withdrew safely. William was shot down 53 miles east of Thakhek, Laos.

According to estimates from Scott Funeral Home in Chatham, 3,000-3,500 people attended his funeral, Henrietta said.

William was posthumously awarded an Air Force Cross and a Purple Heart in 1965. He is buried at Highland Burial Park.

“He didn’t want to be buried in a military cemetery,” Henrietta said.

Henrietta lived in Louisiana from 1960-84, when she moved to Radford. She remarried in 1984 and returned to Callands in 1990. Her second husband, Ray Martin, died in 2010.

Henrietta and William had three daughters together — Donna Springer, Anne Hammett and Lynne Eddlemon. Henrietta has seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. She has kept a low profile after returning to Callands.

“People ask questions,” she said. “They want to know stuff. There’s some stuff I don’t think Bill would like for people to know about him. He wasn’t one to want a lot of glory or hubbub over what he did.”

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