GOLIAD – John Caldwell still has quite a bit of fight left in him.
The 88-year-old veteran of World War II and the Korean War is one of the Goliad County’s most vocal residents when it comes to local government issues.
Caldwell is not afraid to voice his opinion during public comment at Goliad County Commissioners Court meetings or in the Advance-Guard’s “Letters To The Editor.”
“I’m 88 years old and I like to feel that I have the moral courage to stand up for what I believe in,” Caldwell said. “I may be the second John The Baptist - another ‘Voice In The Wilderness.’ ”
Caldwell, who was born in Helena, Ark., enlisted in the army in 1943 when he was 17 years old.
“I went to a movie and there was a trailer short advertising that ‘You Too Can Be An Aviation Cadet.’ James Stewart was in the trailer and he was talking real slow and I figured if that slow-talking fellow could fly airplanes, so could I.”
The U.S. was in the middle of World War II and in desperate need of pilots.
“The losses in Germany were so great, that they caused the army to change their requirements for entry from two years of college to two years college equivalence,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell was sent to Concord College in Athens, W.Va., where he waited to receive pilot training.”
“They sent us to colleges all over the country because the dormitories were available,” Caldwell said. “I stayed there five months and got two years of college. We went to school from 8 o’clock in the morning to six o’clock at night.”
Caldwell graduated from pilot training in Selma, Ala., in September 1944 at the age of 19. He was not ever stationed oversees during WWII, but he learned to fly P-63s and P-40s during training and P-47s and P-51s after the war.
Caldwell elected to remain in the army after WWII.
“When you take a 19-year-old young man and tell him he’s going to be the best fighter pilot in the world, it’s pretty easy to believe them,” said Caldwell, who had become a first lieutenant.
Caldwell served six months in the Philippines training to fly P-47 Thunderbolts.
“They were taken out of storage and were in horrible condition,” Caldwell said. “They were so bad, we had 52 major accidents in the first year.”
Caldwell was involved in one of the mishaps and sustained a fractured vertebrae and other injuries. He was sent to recover at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio where he met his wife-to-be, Goliad native Pearl “Judy” Jank, who was a nurse at the facility.
“She was not my nurse,” Caldwell said. “My nurse was six feet fall and I was 5-feet-6. My nurse told Judy she found a short guy for her. Judy’s about 5-2.”
Judy received orders go to Germany and Caldwell returned to the Philippines. Twenty months later, the two reunited in Washington, D.C., and were soon married.
Caldwell flew 38 rescue missions as a helicopter pilot in Korea, many of them while being under fire from enemy combatants.
“I volunteered for choppers because it looked it was the only way I’d get in the war,” Caldwell said.
After the Korean War, Caldwell served as a test pilot at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., for 3 1/2 years. He later became secretary of the staff of the air research and development command before returning for another short stint at Eglin.
In 1962, Caldwell was stationed on Johnston Island in the Northern Pacific as a helicopter detachment commander during the height of the Cold War.
“The Russians had broken the test treaty and there was a good chance they had built a hydrogen bomb that we had not tested,” Caldwell said. “We had never tested missiles with nuclear warheads.”
Caldwell was stationed to Johnston Island to assist with satellite retrieval during nuclear testing.
“Our satellites were circling in the atmosphere and we did not need to have them exposed to the explosion,” Caldwell said. “We had to be sure there was no line of sight between the explosion and the satellites. My job was to coordinate to make sure the nuclear weapon didn’t go off while the satellite was in the line of sight.”
Twelve thermonuclear warheads were exploded in all during testing on Johnston Island. One of the warheads was deliberately disrupted when the missile carrying it failed to launch, scattering plutonium debris over the island.
“It moved plutonium all over the island,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been told there are just two of us still surviving from that.”
Caldwell left Johnston Island in December 1962. He was honorably discharged in 1970 and owned and managed a lighting firm in New Braunfels for 20 years before he and Judy came to retire in Goliad.
Caldwell, who was named to the Goliad County Redevelopment Council in 1992 to study ways to develop Chase Field Naval Air Station and its auxiliary field near Berclair, has no plans of slowing down.
“There are others who would like to speak up but they can’t because they’re in business or subject to other pressures,” Caldwell said. “I’m not financially obligated to anyone in the community.”