Army veteran fought in 3 wars
SPRUCE PINE – Billy Matthews has lived his life serving others.
Matthews is a Mitchell County resident who turns 89 next month. He is a United States Army veteran who served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Matthews loves helping others, and he’s done plenty of it throughout the years. He was born in Selma, Alabama, and as a child, he always liked seeing members of the “Dixie” Infantry Division of the Alabama National Guard marching around.
It was then he began longing to wear a service uniform.
“I’d see the men from the Dixie Division come through there and they had their uniforms on with their khaki pants,” Matthews said. “I said, ‘Boy, I’d like to wear that,’”
Matthews didn’t wait long to get a uniform of his own. He enlisted with a local recruiter in August of 1946, at just 16 years old, after he and a friend saw a sign that read, “We want you for the U.S. Army.”
“I didn’t have a draft card,” Matthews recalled. “The man asked if my mom cared about me going into the Army and I said, ‘No, sir.’ So, they put me down as 18 years old, and I was in.”
Shortly after enlisting, Matthews was sent to fight in World War II. He turned 17 while overseas.
With World War II in the history books, Matthews didn’t have to wait long to see more action, as he was sent in 1955 to fight in the Korean War, during which he was promoted to First Sergeant – a role he kept for 12 years.
Matthews completed the final leg of his Army service when in 1965 he spent a year fighting in the Vietnam War. During his time in Vietnam, Matthews served as First Sergeant of a CV-2 Caribou Aircraft.
Matthews was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in July 1966 and retired the following September.
Major Armor Commanding Officer of the 61st Aviation Company James Ransbotham commended Matthews in a letter dated July 26, 1966.
“Your performance of duty has been invaluable to me,” Ransbotham wrote. “Upon your forthcoming retirement, may you continue to find success in the civilian community of your choice. I am certain you will prove to be an outstanding asset to that community just as you have been to the military service throughout your career.”
Matthews consistently made it difficult for people to say goodbye to him as he moved around in various capacities of military service. Captain and Commanding Officer Alfred Jarden expressed that difficulty in a letter written May 18, 1962.
“It would be completely impossible for me to say goodbye to you,” Jarden wrote. “Therefore, I choose to separate in a quiet manner and thank you for all you have done for me. I hope I have in some way invested something in your life that will remain with you.”
With his tour of military service complete, Matthews moved to the Crabtree area of Mitchell County and lived with his first wife until she died of cancer in the mid-1970s. Just a few months after her death, Matthews married his current wife, Lois.
Matthews took up carpentry and enjoyed making wooden clocks – inspired by ones he saw while perusing flea markets in Marion – and remodeled houses, even building the deck behind his current residence in Spruce Pine and finishing the basement.
Outside of carpentry, Matthews enjoys spending time with his wife and going to church. He has one adopted daughter who works in Florida as a certified nursing assistant.
Of all the Army experience he possesses, walking in the Lord’s Army is still his favorite, he said.
Matthews was stationed in Atlanta in the late-1950s and recalled going to church regularly at a Baptist church off of Macon Highway, close to where he was stationed.
Matthews said a pair of deacons from the church came to visit him and told him about the importance of coming to church. Not long after the encounter, he accepted Jesus as his savior.
Matthews said the deacons seemed to care for him, which made it easy for him to begin his life as a Christian.
“They were really concerned for me,” he recalled. “If you’re going to witness to somebody and they don’t feel your concern for them, you’re wasting your time.”
Matthews attends Altapass Baptist Church in Spruce Pine, and when he’s not in church strengthening his faith, he hands out pocket-sized copies of the New Testament as a member of Gideons International.
Matthews helped re-organize the Mitchell County disabled veterans group. He slipped on ice and fell on his back while serving in Korea and has had complications since.
When he has time, Matthews also makes balance sticks for older and disabled people using recycled PVC pipe or old broomsticks from local businesses. He also enjoys finding and refurbishing gently used cookware or other household products and giving them to people.
Matthews has a small shed behind his house where he tinkers with the products and gets them ready to give away.
“It sure feels good to give people these things,” he said with a smile.
Matthews has a passion for helping anyone – especially children.
During each of his stops, while serving in the Army, he made sure to make time to help children either by donating extra food and goods or raising money to help them. Matthews got his passion for helping children when he saw the need firsthand while fighting in the Korean War. There, he said, a local man and woman were taking care of about a dozen orphans and would come to look through the food scraps at the U.S. Army Mess Hall and salvage what they could for the children. Matthews saw this and wanted to help, so he had a private meeting with his captain and organized a way to get them some of the extra food.
“The woman stepped up to me and bowed to thank me,” Matthews recalled. “That’s touching.”
Matthews loves giving back to Mitchell County, spending time with his family and being at church. At almost 89 years old, he said he doesn’t feel tired yet.
“A lot of the people I worked and served with are dead,” Matthews said. “That makes me feel like I’m next. I’m ready to go, but I still feel good. I’m kind of what you might call a health nut.”