William “Bill” Houlihan was born December 11, 1918, in Boston, Massachusetts. After working as a merchant marine in 1938, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, and worked for Ford Motor Company.
After the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, Bill tried to enlist in the United States (US) Navy and the US Marine Corps. Due to an ear issue, he was not selected. Bill decided to go back to Detroit and wait for what he knew was inevitable. On February 14, 1942, Valentine’s Day, he received his military draft notice.
After being trained as a US Army Air Force medic, Bill was sent to Wendover, Utah, and became a member of the newly formed B-17 Flying Fortress 306th Bombardment Group (BG) training there. Arriving at Wendover on June 6, 1942, Private First Class (Pfc) William Houlihan was assigned to the medical component of the 367th Bomb Squadron (BS) of the 306th BG.
Personnel of the 306th BG began troop movement to the US east coast from Wendover in late August of 1942. Travelling by train, ship, and air the 306th BG would travel 4,000 miles to their assigned base at Thurleigh which was five miles (8.0 kilometers) north of Bedford, Bedfordshire, England.
Staff Sergeant (SSgt)* Bill Houlihan (who was nicknamed “Houlie”) crossed the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth (a troop ship during WWII) and was in one of the first 306th BG units to reach their destination of Thurleigh in September 1942. [*Before troop movement to a theater of war some lower ranking military personnel were promoted to SSgt, Technical Sergeant (TSgt), or Master Sergeant (MSgt). One reason for the rapid promotions is that it offered some protection for the men if they became a German prisoner of war (POW). Senior enlisted men generally received better treatment in POW camps than lower enlisted grades.]
The 306th BG flew its first combat mission on October 9, 1942, to Lille, France, to bomb the steel and locomotive works located there. Twenty-four B-17s took off from Thurleigh that day. Twenty-three B-17s returned. B-17 tail number 41-24510 flown by 367th BS pilot Captain (Capt) John W. Olson was downed when a German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter plane flew into the nose of the aircraft. Three of the nine crew members survived.
It was then that the reality of war and losing friends and colleagues became part of everyday life at Thurleigh for both flying and ground personnel.
SSgt Houlihan and the 306th BG medical units manned the dispensary and hospital on Thurleigh. But focus was on the flight line as B-17s returned from a mission. Ambulances and medical personnel were at the airfield as the planes came into view and landed. Personnel on the ground counted the aircraft as they were sighted. Ground maintenance crews were there waiting to see if the B-17s they repaired and maintained came back. Friends of crew members flying that day watched to see if their buddies were returning. And the British living in the area surrounding the airfield would look to the sky and wonder if they would again see an American they had befriended as they observed the aircraft returning in formation or straggling back to Thurleigh.
If there were injured or wounded on board the B-17 crew would shoot off a red flare upon approach to the airfield. Those planes were given priority landing.
When possible, men were given some free time in the form of a day off, a pass, or leave. Time off was a great morale booster among the troops. SSgt Houlihan’s day off was Monday. He tells the story of one day riding along to Belfast, Ireland, on a B-17 doing a “whiskey run” for an upcoming party on Thurleigh. 367th BS pilot Capt George R. Buckey was flying that day, and Bill’s friend TSgt Harry Brown was the radio operator. Once in Belfast, Bill and Harry decided to take a tour of Old Bushmills Distillery while the B-17 was being loaded. Capt Buckey told them to be back at the airfield by 5 pm because he wanted to take off in daylight. Bill says that at the end of every whiskey production line at Old Bushmills Distillery he and Harry were offered a sample of that whiskey. According to Bill they were “well sampled” when they noticed it was already 5 pm. Hurrying back to the Belfast airfield they found Capt Buckey standing on the wing of the B-17 yelling expletives at them. Bill says Capt Buckey never said anything further to him, but Harry told Bill that the pilot continued to “comment” to him on the B-17 radio frequency as they flew back to Thurleigh.
There were some happy moments during the war. Bill was the best man at four weddings when American servicemen married English girls.
WWII ended officially in Europe on May 8, 1945. The US War Shipping Administration in a plan called Operation Magic Carpet (October 1945 – September 1946) returned eight million Americans back to the US from the European, Pacific, and Asian Theaters. Bill returned to the US on the ship Queen Mary.
During WWII SSgt Houlihan “Houlie” saw and experienced many things. He had saved lives as a medic, lost friends in the war, and made many of what would become lifelong friendships. And Bill was one of the men who got to go home. Discharged from the US military in 1945 Bill went back to work with Ford Motor Company. Bill would continue his education using the GI Bill, serve in various defense industry positions, and eventually retire from the US defense industry.
On Saint Patrick’s Day in 1946 he met his future wife Ruth Jones. They were married for 67 years.