Remembering Major Woods: A daughter recalls memories of an Air Force hero

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
On June 26, 1968, Maj. Robert F. Woods disappeared in the Quang Binh Province in Vietnam after the 02-A Skymaster he was flying crashed in a remote mountainous region. 

On that same day, then 24-year-old Lana Taylor was living in Manassas, Va., with her husband of a few years -- Tom. Her mother Mary, sisters Rene and Charlene and brother Chuck were living in Waco, Texas. For Lana's siblings and mother, Waco was supposed to be the last assignment and then it was to be life in military retirement. 

Prior to that day, they were all waiting anxiously for the father and husband to return home from Vietnam with his 20-plus years in the military complete. However, when the news came that he disappeared, their whole world changed. 

"Tom and I were living in our first home in Manassas," said Mrs. Taylor, a retired teacher who now lives in Mesa, Ariz. "And you know, I can't remember who called me. I can't remember if it was an official. It certainly was not my mother. But I can say this -- my mother did not handle it well -- ever, ever, ever. For nearly 30 years she refused to believe my father was dead." 

Mrs. Taylor said when the phone call came, she immediately got on a plane with her husband at Dulles Airport in Virginia and flew straight to Waco. 

"When we got there, we rented a car, and since we've never been there before, we were trying to find the house," Mrs. Taylor. "We passed my brother and sisters -- they were just walking down the sidewalk. They weren't yelling or playing, they were just walking down the sidewalk. 

"I told Tom, 'Don't stop the car, just go straight to the house,'" Mrs. Taylor said. "And my mother of course was surrounded by, thank God, other military wives. They were helping her until family arrived. And then pretty soon my Dad's mother flew in from Utah. We all stayed there as long as we could just trying to get all the paperwork and and just trying to get things organized for mom. That's how we heard. It was difficult ... extremely difficult." 

Nearly 40 years later, Major Woods returned home to the United States. On April 9, Major Woods was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. In attendance were Lana and her siblings, grandchildren and many others from the Woods family. Missing was Mary Woods, who died in 1995, but as Mrs. Taylor said, "was on everyone's mind." 

"My family and I were finally able to close Dad's book that has been opened for 40 years," Mrs. Taylor said after the funeral. "The book is now is in God's library." 

That could be the end this story right here, but according to Mrs. Taylor, there is so much more to know about her father. She said not many people know that by the time he went to Vietnam, Major Woods had a near-full military career with stints in support of the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War and many other operations. 

According to his military records, Major Woods enlisted in the Army National Guard in June 1948 and by January 1949 got out of the Guard and enlisted on active duty in the U.S. Air Force -- which at that time was less than two years in existence. It was during his enlisted days that he supported the Berlin Airlift as a crewmember on a C-74 Globemaster. 

"The Berlin Airlift was his first big thing -- he did that in 1948," Mrs. Taylor said.
By March of 1951, Major Woods completed Officer Candidate School and was commissioned. Soon he went through pilot training and began flying KC-97 Stratotankers and was assigned to support the Korean conflict. There, between April and July 1952, he earned his first Air Medal for his work as a tanker pilot. 

"These flights were exceptionally hazardous because of long distances over water and the number of hours spent over enemy territory during which time enemy contact was probable and expected," the Air Medal citation reads. "Great damage was inflicted on enemy installations and equipment as a result of bombing attacks made during this period which undoubtedly restricted enemy operations. By his courage, fortitude and his desire to aid the United Nations cause to the best of his ability, Lieutenant Woods brought great credit upon himself, the Far East Air Forces, and the United States Air Force." 

Continuing through the 1950s and 1960s, Major Woods flew KC-97s at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., Weisbaden Air Base, Germany, O'Hare International Airport, Ill., and with Tactical Air Command Headquarters in Waco, Texas. In 1964 he earned senior pilot and the rank of major. Mrs. Taylor recalls her father's decision to hold a long tour in Montana. 

"I was very lucky to know him and have him around -- especially during my high school years," Mrs. Taylor said. "One remarkable thing he did -- and it still amazes me -- was when he had just been transferred to Montana and it was my first year of high school. The second year we were there, Dad had an opportunity to transfer to California. Of course Mom was all in favor of it because she really did not like Montana weather.
"I was just getting into my second year at Great Falls (High School)," Mrs. Taylor said. "I was also getting into the clubs and getting into the feel of high school and sort of making my way. He asked me what I thought about moving (to a new school), and I said it would be difficult. That's all I said. He then turned the California transfer down." 

Mrs. Taylor said she enjoys the fact that she got to know her father as an adult before he disappeared. It's a bond that has lasted well beyond the 40 years since he's been gone.
"You see, I'm adopted," Mrs. Taylor said. "So if you were trying to do some math he would be very, very young. But he adopted me and it was the second marriage for my mother. He didn't even pause, think or whatever. He just said I will adopt her. That's the kind of special man he was." 

Mrs. Taylor said she will always treasures those years of learning to be an adult and growing up through her father's direction. She added there were moments when others knew "full and clear" who her dad was. 

"Dad was six feet, four-inches," Mrs. Taylor said. "He loved making sure he was in the living room sitting down when my dates showed up when I was in high school. My dates, of course, were different heights. Some were close to his height, but none were ever taller." 

"He'd sit there and wait for the doorbell, and of course, I'm still upstairs getting ready," Mrs. Taylor said. "When the bell would ring, my brother or sister would open the door, my date would come in and go over and meet my father. He would then rise from his chair and say, 'Hello, I'm Lana's father.' He would say it in his really deep voice -- the base voice -- and he would entertain my date while I was getting ready." 

From interviewing boyfriends in high school to wishing her well in her marriage, Mrs. Taylor said her father made a difference. 

"When we were in Menassas, Dad was able to come by and visit us while our house was being built," Mrs. Taylor said. "He was on his way for some survival training in Florida and stopped and visited us for a few days. At the time, I didn't realize the significance of all this. Dad was so excited for us and our new house. That's one thing about Dad -- he was always, always positive." 

She believes that positive spirit carried itself all the way to Arlington on April 9. There, for the first time in years, members of the Woods family gathered together and Mrs. Taylor said her father had something to do with it. 

"Well I think that was Dad's gift to us," Mrs. Taylor said. "He brought us all back together."

The funeral was special too, Mrs. Taylor said. She was proud to see how the Air Force took the time to honor her father. But she didn't let the funeral be the last memory of her father and the events at Arlington or of his life. When she thinks of her father, she thinks of his calm and pleasant demeanor he always showed and the visit to his gravesite two days after the funeral provided that final reminder. 

"The funeral was just one overwhelming memory -- one overwhelming minute after another," Mrs. Taylor said. "The lasting memory, I tell you, is when we returned two days after the ceremony. It was just so peaceful. And that's what my lasting memory and emotion is going to be -- peaceful."