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Hometown hero
American Legion commander shares his story
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Bill Helms, commander of American Legion post 27 in Richmond Hill, has worked with astronauts, manned nuclear missile sites and served in the Vietnam War during his 22-year military career.

Bill Helms' life story reads like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel.

He has worked with astronauts, operated nuclear missile sites during the Cold War, served in the Vietnam War and lived just a stone's throw from the Athenian Acropolis in Greece.

His illustrious career began in 1954 when one of his friends talked him into joining the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.

"I went in, took a look around and decided I'd sign up," said Helms, now 74. "I was only 17 years old, so I had to beg my mama to sign the paperwork."

He spent two years in the Marines before he realized it wasn't the right branch for him.

"I always wanted to work on airplanes," he said. "I just loved them. When we started using jets after World War II, they really intrigued me. I always wondered, "How could a plane fly without propellers?'"

So in 1956, Helms decided to find out. He left the Marines and signed up for the U.S. Air Force.

As an airman, he was assigned to Langley, Va., where he worked on NASA's Project Mercury, the first U.S. human spaceflight program.

Then a 22-year-old crew chief, Helms maintained the training airplane used by three of the famed "Mercury Seven" astronauts: Alan Shepard; Leroy Gordon Cooper; and Malcolm Scott Carpenter.

"The astronauts flew with NASA photographers in the plane and tracked missiles fired from Wallops Island, Va., taking pictures and gathering information," explained Helms. "They would then input the pictures and data into a system and apply it to their mission."

On May 5, 1961, Project Mercury made history, and Alan Shepard became the first American in space. He would later become the fifth man to walk on the moon and the first man to hit a golf ball on the lunar surface.

Helms said he's proud to have been a part of the project.

"Working with Shepard, Cooper and Carpenter was the best duty I ever had. They were always playing jokes on me and getting me in trouble, but they made it fun. I had a blast, and I contributed a little bit to history at the same time - though I never did think they'd make it to the moon."

Helms left Project Mercury in 1961, but the trajectory of his career continued in an upward trend.

During the Cold War, he was stationed in Germany where he built and maintained silo-type nuclear missile sites.

He also spent a year in Thailand during the Vietnam War, serving as a B-52 engine mechanic and Strategic Air Command manager for U.S. bombing raids on Vietnam.

Helms retired from the Air Force in 1976 at the rank of Technical Sergeant. He continued to work with airplanes in the private sector, spending two years in Athens, Greece as an instructor for Lockheed Martin and 17 years as an inspector for Gulf Stream.

Now Helms is fully retired but keeping busy. He is commander of the American Legion Post 27 in Richmond Hill and is active in many military veterans motorcycling clubs.

He has two children, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. His wife Betty, whom he married at the age of 16, passed away two years ago.


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