Walter Shull became interested in aviation after his parents purchased for him and his twin brother flight training hours at the airport in Jefferson City while they were still in high school. A few years later, when attending college at Central Methodist University in Fayette, he went on to finish the requirements to earn his civilian pilot's license, which was a decision that soon influenced the direction of his military career.
Graduating from college in January 1967, Shull soon received notice to report for the military draft. In an effort to have some choice in his service branch, he tested for the U.S. Air Force and was soon accepted into their pilot training program.
"My initial officer's training was at Medina Air Force Base in San Antonio followed by pilot's training at Williams Air Force Base south of Phoenix," he said. "While in Arizona, they brought in all different types of aircraft and that's when I became interested in the HC-130 because of the various types of missions it could perform."
The HC-130 is an airframe based upon the Lockheed C-130 and was designed to refuel helicopters, conduct search and rescue operations and was even employed to assist in the retrieval of the Apollo astronauts once they returned from space.
"Since I finished second in my class, I had the choice of the type of aircraft I wanted to fly, so I chose the HC-130 and I am sure glad that I did," he affirmed.
Following several months of training on the C-130 at Seward Air Force Base near Nashville, he completed rescue school at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The young pilot then volunteered for service at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. While there, he flew missions to rescue downed pilots off the coast of South Vietnam.
"My first 18 months of flying was primarily over water instead of the land," he said.
During these rescue missions, the HC-130 would serve as the airborne mission commander while jets flew in formation offering protection. A helicopter accompanied the group, which could be refueled by the HC-130 and could enter the area where the downed pilot was located.
While in the Philippines, Shull met an Air Force nurse named Libby. After he was transferred to Hamilton Air Force Base in California in November 1970, he continued to maintain contact with Libby, who had been transferred to an Air Force base in Arkansas.
"We were engaged to be married but had to delay the marriage because I got orders for Vietnam in December 1971," he explained. "I spent about a year in Vietnam doing rescue missions over the land. When I came back, Libby and I were married in December of 1972, and decided it would be best if she left the Air Force since we would probably not be stationed together while we were both on active duty."
Shull went on to complete a number of Air Force assignments throughout the U.S. during the next few years that included the rescue of fishermen stranded at sea, searching for lost hikers and retrieving weather balloons in descent so the information collected could be analyzed before being contaminated by certain elements present at lower altitudes.
"After we were married, I was transferred to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and flew rescue aircraft while also serving as an instructor pilot," he said. "In 1977, I was transferred to Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska, where I worked in the rescue coordination center."
In Alaska, the center coordinated more than 400 missions a year, including the rescue of the passengers and crew of the MS Prinsendam — a Dutch cruise ship that suffered an out-of-control engine fire in October 1980 off the coast of Alaska. Although the Coast Guard took the lead in the rescue of the more than 500 people aboard, the Air Force helped coordinate and provide resources for the effort.
During their moves, Libby often worked part time at local hospitals while raising their two sons. The family moved to Scott Air Force Base in 1981, remaining there for the next six years, where Shull worked as director of operations command and control for Headquarters Air Rescue and Recovery Service and later the 23rd Air Force.
"From 1987-88, we were at Hill Air Force Base but I requested a humanitarian transfer to Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina since Libby's parents were in declining health," he said. "Unfortunately, both of her parents soon passed."
He remained at the base to run the command post for the 363rd Tactical Fighter Wing until retiring at the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1991. Since his parents were still living, the family chose to move to Mid-Missouri and settled in the Tebbetts area.
Shull went on to work 19 years for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources before "retiring for good in 2011." Since that time, he has been actively involved in the Optimist Club and continues to support such organizations as Operation Bugle Boy and Central Missouri Honor Flight.
Proudly sharing details of the service of his two sons, both of whom are Air Force veterans, Shull maintains that his own time in uniform was full of many unique experiences that have left him with unforgettable lessons and memories.
"It was probably the best job in the world — I got to fly airplanes and help save lives," he excitedly remarked. "Very few rescues we conducted were ever identical and plans frequently changed, so every day was interesting since we had to learn to improvise especially during the combat missions."
Jeremy P. Amick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.