This article originally appeared in the Garland/Mesquite section of The Dallas Morning News on August 30, 1995.

By Michael R. Hayslip

Hoping that “third time’s the charm,” members of the Garland High School class of 1945 have petitioned trustees of the Garland Independent School District to name a school in honor of one of their schoolmates, Lt. Col. John William “Bill” Armstrong, lost when his plane went down over Laos in November of 1967.

The petition, signed this June at the 50th reunion of the class, joins similar documents signed during two previous years by GHS classes from 1943 and 1944, and so far as anyone knows, is an unprecedented action in town. Chuck Cabiness, vice president of the ‘45 class and Chairman of the Garland Sports Hall of Fame, forwarded the petition to school trustees, and indicated that the Armstrong memorial “. . .would honor all of the members of the classes who attended Garland High School during World War II”.

Military matters were front-burner items for wartime classes of the early ‘40s, when Garland’s total population was less than 5,000. Daily “necessities” were rationed, and in front of the gymnasium students amassed a huge metal scrap pile for defense manufactures. Records indicate that by their senior years in the city’s only high school, at least a half-dozen of each 90 to 100-member classes was already in uniform. The rest were waiting -- on their own or for somebody else.

But for his peers, Bill Armstrong symbolized more than the military; he was a hometown boy that made good. . . real good. Born in Garland on December 5, 1926, to Walter T. and Mary L. Armstrong, he was a grandson of Dr. J. C. Armstrong, a local pharmacist and physician in Garland for over 38 years. An uncle, Zelotes Starr Armstrong, had published The Garland News for several years and served on the Garland school board before moving to Dallas.

Beginning in Mrs. Florrie Allen’s first-grade class, which for decades introduced so many locals to the wonders of formal education, Bill Armstrong stuck through all twelve years with his classmates. Although he held after-school and weekend jobs through high school, he graduated valedictorian of the GHS class of ‘44. Meanwhile, he had also been co-captain of the Owl football team, editor of the class year book and class president for his final three years of high school.

W. H. Bradfield Jr., a ‘43 Garland graduate who later became editor of The Garland News, recalls that his friend Armstrong validated lofty goals and noble ideals of the day for leadership, accomplishment and service. “There was a fictitious high-school hero named Jack Armstrong on a popular radio show aired during the time,” said Bradfield. “Jack was a decent, capable fellow with a sense of responsibility who set a class standard of excellence by example.  Most of us believed that we had our own Jack Armstrong, except we called him Bill. I understand that later on some of Bill’s college classmates even used ‘Jack’ as his nickname.”

After a freshman year on scholarship at SMU, where he played freshman football, made  the Phi Eta Sigma scholarship fraternity and joined Phi Delta Theta social fraternity, Armstrong was appointed by Congressman Hatton Sumners, another Garland native, as the first from the city to attend West Point. In 1949 he graduated in the top 3 per cent of his class there and chose to enter the Air Force for pilot training.

During domestic assignments he returned to the academy to teach four years in the Military Psychology and Leadership Department and earned an MBA at the University of Southern California. His overseas duty included Pakistan; Turkey; England; Germany, where he met and married his wife Margaret; Korea, where he received the Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross after flying 127 combat missions, and Vietnam, where he commanded the 480th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing. For a time Armstrong also led the Skyblazers, the former European equivalent of the crack Thunderbird aerobatic exhibition team that performed stateside..

“There is virtually no limit to what Bill could have accomplished, in the military and beyond,” says Don H. Payne of Garland, himself a retired Air Force Major General who was Armstrong’s ‘44 high school classmate and later followed him as the city’s second appointment to the U. S. Military Academy.

Bradfield’s files still contain his last letter from Armstrong, dated October 22, 1967, and detailing a project the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing had mounted for Christmas time distribution of clothes, toys and other basic necessities among four orphanages and two hamlets near DaNang in South Vietnam. The Garland Kiwanis Club, in cooperation with Goodwill Industries, channeled its Christmas relief funds toward the effort, soon forwarding some 675 items of clothing and bedding. But by then Armstrong was unable to receive them.

On the night of November 9th Col. Armstrong, 40, and his GIB (guy in back), 25-year-old 1st Lt. Lance Sijan (pronounced sigh-john), had rolled their F-4 Phantom jet into a bomb run directed at the Ban Loboy ford on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Slung under each wing were three 750-pound bombs, equipped with a newly designed fuse system set to detonate exactly six seconds after release at an altitude of 8,000 feet, allowing the bombs to pass through dense foliage and bury themselves into the surface before exploding.

Eyewitness accounts of the mission, coupled with Lt. Sijan’s statements to fellow captives made before he died in a North Vietnamese prison camp in January of 1968, appeared in Malcolm McConnell’s book Into the Mouth of the Cat, which was published in 1985.  According to McConnell, an old friend of Sijan’s, the bomb’s faulty fuse caused all six bombs to detonate almost immediately after they were “pickled” (released), exploding within a few feet of the plane. Although Sijan managed to eject himself as the flaming craft disentigrated and survived for more than two months with extensive injuries, the fireball’s glare had prevented either him or crewmembers of nearby craft from seeing whether Armstrong had made it out.

Inconclusive sightings and photos analyzed later raised the possibility that Armstrong might have survived the crash, but by 1974, without definite evidence to the contrary, he was declared legally dead. Meanwhile, life went on for the survivors. In 1976 the Sijan Hall Dormitory was dedicated at (now Capt.) Sijan’s alma mater, the Air Force Academy, and President Gerald Ford presented his Medal of Honor, recommended by returning POWs, to Sijan’s parents. A 3.72 acre park on Birchwood Drive in Garland was named to honor Col. Armstrong in 1988.

“I can think of no more deserving person,” said Marion D. Williams, a former school board president and Armstrong’s classmate of ‘44. “This would be an appropriate time for this type of recognition”.

Dr. Randy Clark, the board’s current president, said that matters of this nature are routed initially through the board’s Facilities Committee, now headed by Trustee Mike Boyd, for study and recommendations when name decisions are made. “I look forward, he added, “ to seeing all the information about Col. Armstrong.”