Phony Navy SEAL of the Week, The Amarillo Texas BUST of Billy Don Wheeler, the Piano Man.
Phony Navy SEAL of the Week, The Amarillo Texas BUST of Billy Don Wheeler, the Piano Man. MANY thanks for the support... Amarillo’s Navy SEAL- first among the elite few. William was just more than 21 years old, had left his hometown of Canadian three years before, and had been a Navy Seabee all of 31 days when a letter changed his life.
The chief called him into the office, and he was told to see the skipper. In 1961, William said, that likely meant he messed up.
“I asked the commander what I did wrong, and he said nothing. He told me there was one good thing and one bad thing,” William said. “The bad thing is you’re no longer in the ‘Bees.’ I said, ‘I like it here. Why am I no longer in the Bees?’”
Read this congressional letter, he was told. It was from President John F. Kennedy. It was terse and to the point. “Greetings from the President of the United States: You are directed to report to Coronado, Calif., and covert action in Navy SEAL training.”
The two looked at each other — what in the world is a SEAL?
“My commanding officer said, ‘Well, I don’t know. It’s something your president dreamed up,’” William said. “Come to find out, President Kennedy, who was ex-Navy, wanted a fighting force the world had never known before.”
Today, William and wife Shirley have lived in the same modest Amarillo home not far from Plains Avenue for the last 16 years. He has two dachshunds, Hobo and Tinker. He weighs 222 pounds and had a pacemaker implanted about 10 years ago. He works out five times a week.
None of that speaks to a life of more than 50 years ago. William is not his real name. He said the Veterans Administration asked him not to use his name prior to this interview.
“The first two teams (of SEALS) were so secretive that my folks called their congressmen and said they had not heard from me in a long time,” William said.
“About a week later, our congressmen told my folks the Pentagon said he’s a Navy SEAL, in covert action and there’s nothing more that we can tell you.”
The public’s fascination continues to grow for these special ops teams, especially after SEAL Team 6 killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
William was one of the first, and is likely the oldest.
William was in the first class of 16 in 1962. “Baby SEALS,” he said they were called. Only three came back from Vietnam. The leader of Team 1 was killed shortly after arriving in Vietnam. William was the team commander.
“I wrote 13 letters to parents telling them their son died,” he said.
William doesn’t know why he was selected for the initial training off San Diego, which was brutal. There were 59 in his first group in the first 10 days. There was a bell on the quarterdeck, and if a man rang it, he could quit.
Only three remained. William never rang the bell.
“Even at the noon hour, when it was supposed to be your ‘break,’ we had a round telephone pole, three men to a pole, and we had to run around and utter these words, ‘In your nose, out your mouth ...in your nose, out your mouth ...”
Eventually, through other training groups, the Navy got the desired team of 16. They went to diving school at Pearl Harbor, where they dove 150 feet down, stayed for five minutes and came up.
They faced below-zero temperatures in Alaska, endured the 120-degree temperatures in Death Valley, went to jump school at Fort Bragg, N.C., where William hated heights. Back to Coronado to learn language skills, especially Vietnamese.
“The last part, they sent us to Quantico, (Va.), and that’s where they taught us the ‘bad stuff,’” William said. “That’s all I will say about that.”
William and SEAL Team 1 were north of Da Nang for 381 days, 372 of which they were fired upon. An elderly village woman, who took it upon herself to be an informant, befriended them.
“‘VC (Viet Cong) come tonight,’ she would say,” William said. “She saved our bacon many times.”
William later told her he would buy her anything he could afford in gratitude. She wanted one thing — “Shears,” she told him. As in the Sears catalog. She wanted to see how American women dressed.
William battled PTSD and severe flashbacks for years. A return to Canadian had him imagining he was back in Vietnam, believing he could kill everyone in town. Treatment long ago helped him manage his past.
He does not talk in specifics about Vietnam, only that they were “rat chasers” who got the Viet Cong out of tunnels. They were night patrollers, and preferred not to fire weapons at night; the muzzle flash would give away their location.
“We used knives and No. 9 piano wire,” William said.
William, with nine Purple Hearts in Vietnam, would return to the U.S. to train the first Delta Force team in 1964. Of 2,282 trainees, 29 made the cut.
William retired from the Navy in 1982, and has lived in Amarillo for 18 years. How did he do it? How did he become one of the truly elite?
“When I told my dad I was going into the service, he said that you better not mess up and do the family proud,” Wiliam said. “With those words, there was no way they were going to push me out.”