Service to America and the Next GenerationSep 01, 2015 ● By Scott Dillingham
Col. Kehler has been a dedicated OSU fan from an early age, so the school’s football games were not to be missed. He excelled at playing football, baseball and basketball in high school, and he attended OSU with a baseball scholarship. Unfortunately, an ankle injury during his sophomore year ended his baseball career. With his sports dream now out of reach, he redirected his attention to participation in the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC). Among other recognitions, this cadet commander received both the Outstanding Cadet and Distinguished Graduate awards.
Two weeks after graduation from OSU, the newly married Lt. Kehler was sent to pilot training school and graduated in 1961. He was awarded his pilot wings on the same day as Colonel Murphy Neal Jones (a U.S. Air Force retiree and Vietnam prisoner of war for six and a half years), who would become a lifelong friend.
Political struggles in Vietnam had been building, and in 1961, the U.S. was becoming more involved in the conflict in Southeast Asia. In early 1962, Lt. Kehler was deployed to Da Nang as a C-123B Provider pilot for airlift operations. This was the first of his five combat tours in Vietnam.
Following his fourth tour, Capt. Kehler was reassigned to his alma mater, where he earned a master’s in business administration from the Air Force Institute of Technology. During his subsequent assignment to Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, he saw a video of a newly modified AC-130, a side-firing, multi-gun aircraft that included a 105 mm howitzer and highly-sensitive electronics for targeting. He thought it was “way cool,” so, with his wife’s approval, he volunteered to return to Southeast Asia to fly it in 1972.
This second generation fixed-wing, side-firing gunship replaced the less capable Douglas AC-47 gunship, nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” The modified AC-130H, nicknamed “Spectre,” was used to provide both interdiction and ground support for missions in Southeast Asia. During one night flight on a Mekong River convoy escort mission, his actions while dealing with limited visibility due to cloud cover led to the destruction of two hostile shore artillery batteries. Under the threat of anti-aircraft artillery fire, he succeeded in escorting the river convoy to Phnom Penh, bringing much needed supplies and ammunition to the beleaguered city and troops. Capt. Kehler was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his “professional competence, aerial skill and devotion to duty.”
Fellow Vietnam veteran, Col. Jones (a U.S. Air Force retiree) describes his friend as “the first person I met in the Air Force, and he has remained a close friend for more than 50 years. He is a man of honesty and integrity, and he loves this country very dearly. He is one of the few people I would trust with my life.”
After the completion of five tours in Vietnam, with more than 900 hours of combat and combat support flying, in 1974, Maj. Kehler was sent on his first Pentagon assignment as the chief planner for force structure in personnel plans. While he was there, he continued his senior officer training by attending the Senior Service Industrial College of Armed Forces and was promoted to colonel.
Col. Kehler continued to fly for a couple more years, but in 1981, he was assigned to Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, first as vice commander for two years, and ultimately as commander of the 314th Tactical Airlift Wing, which is the largest tactical airlift wing in the free world. The colonel’s responsibilities included more than 6,000 personnel, more than 100 aircraft and 17 Strategic Air Command Titan Missile sites. Col. Matt Branigan (U.S. Air Force, retired), a young lieutenant serving under Col. Kehler at the time, describes him as “a singularly distinctive officer who is a quiet, calm, yet strong leader. Bill had a significant impact on my life and served as an example of leadership that has stayed with me throughout my entire military and professional career. He instilled in all of us by example the principles of leadership, duty and integrity that would cascade for generations.”
After completing a second tour at the Pentagon in 1987 as the deputy director of personnel plans, with the 30-year mandatory retirement for colonels approaching, Col. Kehler was given his choice of assignment to conclude his active duty service. Never forgetting the role the AFROTC played in his career, he became the department chair of aerospace studies for the AFROTC program at the University of Virginia. Transitioning into retirement, he fondly recalled his time as a pilot, stating, “Early on, it was the exhilaration of leaving the ‘surly bonds of earth.’ Later, it became more about the mission, the camaraderie and bonds formed with the other crew members and squadron members.”
Given his achievements during his 30 years in active duty, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, two Legion of Merit awards, 12 Air Medal awards, three Meritorious Service Medal awards and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, among others, retirement quickly opened new doors. The Kehlers settled in Jacksonville, Ark., where Col. Kehler spent 13 years teaching Junior ROTC at a local high school. There, he was awarded the state’s Teacher of the Year award during his last year. Five of his students went on to attend military academies and dozens more received college scholarships. Col. Kehler notes, “The challenge and reward was capturing and keeping their attention on the higher cause. We spent a lot of time on morals, values and ethics, as well as unlocking their potential. Looking back, I think in some ways this time was more important than my 30 years of active duty in the Air Force.”
Life has not been without tragedy for the Kehlers. Their oldest son, Tim, a 1983 graduate of the Air Force Academy, and his weapon systems operator died in a nighttime F-4 plane crash accident on January 9, 1986, just two months before Tim’s 25th birthday. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. “If I could have been anyone else in the world, I would have been Tim,” offers Col. Kehler.
The Kehlers’ move to Frisco coincided with their youngest son, Kris, and his family’s relocation to Frisco so that Col. Kehler’s grandson, Griffin, could continue to pursue his goal of becoming a member of the 2020 U.S. Olympics Men’s Gymnastics Team. To that end, Griffin wanted to take advantage of Frisco’s state-of-the-art World Olympic Gymnastics Academy (WOGA) and the world-class men’s coach, Sergei Pakanich. Moving to Frisco has allowed the family not only to live close to one another, but also to be supportive of Griffin and his objective. Additionally, Col. Kehler continues his very active support for Air Force veteran issues and national organizations, as well as Frisco’s Veterans of Foreign Wars organization.
Lt. Col. Larry Gill (a U.S. Air Force retiree), who flew numerous missions with Col. Kehler and has known the family since 1965, summarizes it best when he says, “Everyone always wanted to be the best pilot, but Bill was clearly recognized as one of the best. He flew a good airplane. He was always serious, but still easy to work with. Back then, and even today, Bill has a great, upbeat personality, regardless of the ups and downs of ongoing life events.”