On a quiet Maumelle residential street one of the most decorated heroes of the Vietnam War lives in quiet retirement with the high school sweetheart he married in 1956.
It was what Col. Billy Lyons did on Dec. 18, 1972 that made him a national hero.
He led a flight of 207 B-52 Stratofortress bombers out of Taiwan and another 54 B-52s out of Thailand to make the first ever B-52 bombing raid on Hanoi, North Vietnam with each plane dropping a total of 16 large 800-pound bombs in areas the big swept wing planes had never been before. It was the start of the largest bombing raid since World War II.
Historians label the raid as the reason the North Vietnamese returned to the Paris Peace talks and agreed to release thousands of U.S prisoners of war.
Forty years later even the communist government of a unified Vietnam agree it was the war’s turning point but they have rewritten history to claim a victory for them because they shot down ten B-52s and 12 tactical jets that were flying cover for them during a campaign that lasted until Dec. 29.
All told the U.S B-52s flew more than a 1537 sorties and lost about one percent of the planes, Lyons said. Ten B-52s were hit with 33 airmen becoming POWs and another 33 was killed in action. Meanwhile support aircraft, including jets and helicopters flew another 1,314 sorties with 12 smaller aircraft lost in battle.
The retired U.S. Air Force Colonel said the true story came from the POW’s he later visited on their way home.
“The POW s said they heard the B-52s and knew exactly what they were. While they were cheering the first time B-52s had been used in that fashion on North Vietnam, their captors were scared to death,” he said.
“They were running around looking for holes to crawl into and scared out of their minds,” Lyon said.
POWS thanked him profusely claiming that the bombings had ended the war and won the release of the POWs, Lyons said. And they wouldn’t stop showing him the emotion they felt, he said.
Historians agree it was the biggest battle of the Vietnamese conflict and the largest bombing attack since World War II.
He said it was just like in the World War II movies with hundreds of pilots in a large auditorium and a briefing officer giving them their target and the specifics.
The surface to air missiles (SAMs) were also the most fired during the war and it was a tough night, Lyons said. While most of the B-52s survived and escaped the attacks, it was a difficult time because of all the defensive tactics his six-man flight crew employed to defeat the missiles.
Flying in formations of three B-52s in wave after wave the sky behind the planes was lit up with hundreds of flares and chafe fired to distract the missiles, Lyons said.
That campaign lasted until Dec. 29, 1972 and is credited as the major reason the North Vietnamese accepted the Paris Peace Talks accords which ended America’s major role in that war and won the release of thousands of Prisoners of War.
Lyons was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for that bombing run.
In 1986 he retired at Little Rock Air Force Base after 30 years of service and numerous command assignments from base commander to commander of an entire air force wing.
Talking with Lyons you’d never guess he’s such a hero.. Like most real American hero’s, he’s quiet and unassuming and he’ll tell you he was just doing his job.
A visit to his study and office gives you a glimpse of the man’s heroics as photos and plaques line the wall listing his heroics.
On shelves sit models of 33 different aircraft each one representing a different model of the airplanes Lyons flew, from the propeller trainers he started with to the most sophisticated airplane of all - the B-58.
Lyons said the B-58 was his favorite plane to fly. A supersonic plane flying at 50,000 feet and at a clip of Mach 2, twice the speed of sound. Because you fly so high that plane requires wearing a space suit and even undergoing space flight training, he said.
He also flew the famous U-2 spy plane, C-130s, F-100s and the B-52s..
After participating in the University of Arkansas Air Force Reserve Officer Training program Lyons was commissioned in the Air Force as a lieutenant in 1956, the year he graduated.He learned to fly propeller pilot trainers T-34 and later the T-28.
The first jet he flew was a T-33 trainer popular during the Korean War. He moved up to F-86 fighters and then to F-100 fighters, then the F-102 Delta wing interceptor aircraft, also one of his favorites. But it was the B-58 he loved to fly the most, he said.
He served two tours in Vietnam, the first in 1970 flying C-130s and the B-52s in 1972.
Lyons played tight end and led the Razorbacks to a Southwest Conference title in 1954. In fact he caught the winning touchdown that sealed that victory.
He grew up in North Little Rock’s Rose City and his wife was his high school sweetheart, also living in North Little Rock. They have three sons - Scott, Mitch and Austin and one of them, Mitch followed in his Air Force pilot footsteps. He just recently retired as a Lt. Colonel, Lyons said. Most of them were born in Texas he said when he served at one of the many air force bases there. San Antonio, which at one time had four air force bases plus the Army’s Fort Sam Houston, was where he started at Hondo Air Force Base in Texas.
Lyons was awarded two Distinguished flying crosses, which one veteran pilot Army helicopter pilot Col. Jack Shields noted they seldom award and each citation is for an important heroic act. Lyons was also awarded the Air Medal, the meritorious service medal and the Legion of Merit.
His logged in hours totalled somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 hours Lyons said. Many times he said they’d fly 12 hours in the cramped B-52 space just to arrive on target.
Like most veterans, Lyons downplayed his role in history but during his 30 years of flying he had to have been involved in many more military missions. He’ll go down in history because he was chosen to lead that historic raid flying the swept wing B-52s that were formerly stationed at Little Rock and Blytheville Air Force Bases.