Wild Bill Begley, named by his father to distinguish him from others with the same name, was born in Hyden, Kentucky, in September 1921. Upon graduating high school in 1940, he briefly worked in a coal mine and a gas station. Listening to the advice of the owner of the gas station, Begley enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941.
In November 1941, Begley transferred to the 34th Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines, just 18 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. He trained as a radio operator on P-40 Warhawks. When he arrived at the airfield, his unit found decrepit P-35s abandoned by the Philippine Air Force. By the resourcefulness of the mechanics, they fixed the planes. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, General Douglas MacArthur grounded all planes; however, Begley’s commanding officer decided to risk court-martial and fight. While the officer did not command his pilots to fly, they too wanted to fight. The squadron destroyed a total of five enemy planes in a battle that never officially occurred.
After this battle, Begley’s squadron fought in the Battle of Bataan as infantrymen, a role in which they never received appropriate training. They had inadequate equipment and lacked a sufficient food supply. The Americans and Filipinos lost the Battle of Bataan in April 1942. The Japanese then marched thousands of American and Filipino servicemen to POW camps in what became known as the Bataan Death March.
The Japanese executed prisoners if they left the marching line or if they collapsed and could not be carried by a fellow prisoner. In a 2015 interview with the Clovis Veterans Memorial District, Begley recalled, “Once we finally reached our destination, things grew even worse. I was bayoneted multiple times and was even scheduled to face a firing squad. But the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I recall thinking that the bomb saved my life.”
After three and a half years as a POW, Begley lost 112 pounds, weighing just 68 pounds.
Begley served in the Air Force until his retirement in 1961, achieving the rank of master sergeant. During his service, he received a Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Hearts.
Seeing many die in war without a proper burial, Begley made it his mission to facilitate proper military funerals throughout his home state of California.
Begley passed away in April 2016 at the age of 94.
We honor his service.
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Veterans History Project
This #VeteranOfTheDay profile was created with interviews submitted to the Veterans History Project. The project collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war Veterans so that future generations may hear directly from Veterans and better understand the realities of war. Find out more at http://www.loc.gov/vets/.
Fact checker: Monique Quihuis