You may have seen the images of Air Force scientists in white lab coats during wars. They were developing technology that would help the U.S. succeed in conflicts across the globe. But they also made giant leaps for mankind as the U.S. and Soviet Union went toe to toe in the space race. Willis Finley is one of those men and an East Texas hero.
"I wore this uniform all through my career in the military," Finley told us.
Ask Willis Finley about the days he wore his dress blues and the answer will pull you back in time. In 1946 Finley was 17. That when he started in the Army Air Corps at the tail end of World War II. He made the jump to the Air Force in 1949.
"We had search radars which they used for mapping and dropping bombs and things like that," he said.
Finley was stationed at Keesler Air Force base in Biloxi, Mississippi and learned radar systems for every kind of plane in the Air Force. When the Korean War began the Air Force kept Finley in Biloxi as an instructor. He prepared radar specialists for service in Korea.
"I was down there at Keesler for three years. There were hundreds of them, hundreds of them," he told us.
The radar was also vital for navigation, detecting altitude, and jamming technology to disorient the enemy.
Finley said, "not only did they jam other aircraft radars but they also jammed ground communication systems."
Finley decided to become a career military man. And soon after the Korean War America found itself in the space race. The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957 and the Air Force was in need of experts to test equipment that would be used to get us into space. So Finley became a metrologist, someone who's sole responsibility is to test, maintain, and calibrate equipment to make sure it's working in tip top shape.
"There are very few instruments in the Air Force, Army and Navy I don't know a little bit about," Finley said, "we wore white coats and we had special shoes. It was in a clean room area."
And his calibration skills came in handy during the Vietnam War. Finley was deployed twice. The weight of responsibility on him was huge as the superintendent of a lab in Okinawa, Japan from 1964 to 1966. His team provided equipment support for countless flight crews flying bombing missions from Okinawa to Vietnam.
"Sometimes we had some special airplanes that you don't talk too much about because they're classified," he said.
His wife Rachel went with him on his tour in Okinawa. You can still see touches of Eastern culture around their home. And he picked up a hidden souvenir, a special skill.
"I went to one of those Japanese schools that did Karate so I got to be a brown belt guy," Finley told us.
He went back overseas for a second time during the war and served on a base in Thailand from 1970 to 1971 before retiring in 1975.
"I gave it everything that I had and I gave the military my youth and I was very proud of that and still am," he said.
Willis Finley's career of service spanned nearly 3 decades for a country he wouldn't trade for anything.
He said, "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."