The helicopter engine-fault light came on, and Crew Chief Bill Gaylor directed the pilot to land. A vast field opened up below. But when the craft hit the ground, a frantic U.S. Park Ranger drove up, insisting that they couldn’t land there.
“The hell I won’t,” said Bill. And that was how he came to make an emergency landing at Gettysburg National Military Park, on the hallowed ground of Pickett’s charge.
Homeland resident Bill Gaylor has lived a colorful life, driven by a talent for mechanics and a love of country and his fellow veterans. It follows a line from the 38th parallel during the Korean War, to crewing helicopter flights, to ensuring that every Dauphin County veteran gets a funeral with military honors.
Bill and his wife, Susan, will celebrate 59 years of marriage and a loving family that includes three children, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Susan, who does not live at Homeland, said she appreciates the care her husband receives.
“Homeland is well-kept,” says Susan. “Everything’s always clean. I feel he’s well taken care of.”
“I like the people,” adds Bill.
Born in Hazelton, Bill joined the Army after graduating from high school in 1954 and served in Korea, where he initially drove a truck and then chauffeured officials engaged in the peace talks at Panmunjom. One admiral treated him like a son.
“He wanted to go in style, so they gave him a new car,” Bill recalls. “I’m driving a new car, and I’m thinking, ‘I’m in heaven, driving a brand-new Chevy.’ I mean, I’m still a kid.”
One night, the MPs detained Bill for speeding when the admiral wasn’t in the back seat. When the admiral learned the next morning, he issued an ultimatum.
“If he isn’t out here within two minutes,” the admiral barked, “all of you are going to be in there, and he’s going to be out here laughing at you.”
After three years of Army service, Bill worked at a shop in Lebanon. He soon noticed a pretty young woman who often sat on the front porch of a nearby home. Susan was only 16 and he was 21 when they first met, but Bill won over her skeptical parents and they married after she graduated from high school.
After they married, the couple moved around as Bill worked for business machine companies. Then, at age 40, he took advantage of the military’s call for experienced personnel. He served two years in the Navy Reserve before transferring to the Army National Guard, which led to his going to Fort Indiantown Gap and learning to repair helicopters.
Progressing to in-flight crew chief, he was responsible for ensuring the helicopter was in working order and that loads were evenly distributed.
Bill’s helicopter missions included lowering air conditioning units onto the roof of the Pentagon and lifting lighthouses off eroding Great Lakes beaches.
The mission that ended with the Gettysburg emergency landing started as a test of air defenses for the president’s retreat at Camp David. Luckily, the helicopter was quickly repaired.
Bill had to retire from duty at 60, but that was not the end of his service. He recruited other veterans to form a volunteer honor guard that provides military ceremonies at about 100 funerals a year.
Members buy their own uniforms and give their time traveling throughout Dauphin County. Any donations go toward supplies such as matching overcoats. Though others took on Bill’s organizing duties recently, he is still considered commander.
“Families would come up to us after funerals and thank us so much,” says Bill. “We’d be hugged and kissed. They were so happy to see that somebody cared that their loved one served.”
Update: Bill and Susan continue to visit using FaceTime during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are part of an expanding group of loved ones able to visit through FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype. These visits are coordinated by our Activities and Social Work teams and are making a difference!