By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

We have been looking at the career of William James Gregory, who was raised in Trousdale County and graduated from high school right here in Hartsville.

Greg took an early interest in airplanes while in college and then, due to World War II, went into the Army Air Corps and fought in the skies over North Africa and Italy.

As we have seen, his career took him all across our nation and even around the globe.

Last week we saw that Greg, as he was called by his co-workers, was the man in charge of the U-2 spy planes that took the photos of Russian missiles in Cuba that created the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Greg would tell his biographer, “Every day I thought for sure we would be going to war…”

Submitted photo
William James Gregory worked closely with the famous U-2 spy plane, but it would be replaced by this plane – the SR-71. It was capable of flying 2,100 miles per hour and at altitudes of 85,000 feet!

As it was, war was averted, but the U-2 spy plane was still kept busy.

Now there was growing concern over China and Vietnam!

Greg was still stationed out of Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, but at a moment’s notice he had to be able to take his support crew, numbering around 80 men, and his spy planes to any destination around the world.

They would fly into the closest military base to their targeted area and set up shop, flying the U-2 spy plane over their target and taking pictures. Those photos were top secret and immediately flown to CIA headquarters!

And all of this was “hush-hush.” Greg had to tell his family he was doing weather research!

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, one of Greg’s duties was to fly with former Russian prisoner Gary Powers on his first flight after his release, to recertify as a pilot!

His trips to Southeast Asia would keep him gone for months at a time, yet his dedication to duty and his ability to accomplish everything the nation demanded of him, led to his being promoted to colonel.

Now if you look at the order of military rank in the Air Force, it goes like this: Airman, Staff Sergeant, Master Sergeant, Second Lieutenant, First Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Lieutenant Colonel and then Colonel! The next rank up was Brigadier General!

Pretty impressive and Greg, if he went by the accepted timeline for advancement of qualified personnel, was three years ahead of time!

Flying over Vietnam and the edges of China was, as can be imagined, dangerous work.

But now the flights took on a new twist.

The Air Force wanted its U-2 spy planes to be able to both land and take off from an aircraft carrier!

Who do you think was put to work on the task?

Called Operation Whale Tale, Greg worked with the crews and Lockheed Aircraft to make the adjustments needed for the powerful jets to land and take off from the deck of a carrier. Greg himself was one of the pilots who did the test landings!

It was only a matter of time before a new, improved spy plane was developed. The SR-71 was capable of flying at 2,100 mph and reaching the altitude of 85,000 feet. New and more powerful cameras had also been achieved.

These made the flights over the targets less dangerous as they would be too high to be shot down! Today we use satellite images to spy on our potential enemies, as well as the neighbor next door thanks to Google Earth!

And Greg’s career took a different direction.

Greg asked to be sent to the National War College in Washington, D.C. This could be the next step to making the rank of general!

The War College was an elite school. Each year a new class began a 10-month course of study, and the class was limited to 135 individuals from all branches of the military and government and even people from other nations.

Now at age 45, Greg and his family moved to our nation’s capital where he studied International Relations at the National War College. What would come next?