I met him the day I checked into the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing, stationed at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base near Nakorn Ratchisima, Thailand.
We were as different as two young airmen could be. He was black, I am white. He was from the South, I am from the North. I was 19; he, a more mature 26. I was on my first enlistment, he was on his second.
I asked him where he was from. "Winston-Salem," he said.
He asked me where I was from. "Cicero, Illinois," I said.
"Near Chicago. It's Al Capone's hometown."
I would never have guessed that one day I would live less than 20 miles from Winston-Salem.
At first, he didn't want much to do with me; he seemed to distrust white people. But one day he heard me discussing backgrounds with another airman, and I mentioned I was Swedish. For some reason, he decided that made me OK; and our friendship began.
We did all the usual stuff off-duty servicemen do together. Going to the Airmen's Club, drinking, listening to music, and chasing the girls in the local town. We worked in different career specialities, so working together was a seldom seen event.
One night we heard there was a USO show on the parade ground. We took off at a run and were just about there, when we heard the "Star-Spangled Banner" start to play. Even though he outranked me, I called a halt and ordered, "Hand Salute."
We stood motionless, facing the back of the stage, saluting and thinking our own private thoughts. The anthem ended; and I called, "Ready front."
I looked at him and discovered we both had tears running down our cheeks. I never knew what that song meant to me before; but now, 12,500 miles from home, we both found out its true meaning.
A few weeks later, my father died; and after a couple of months, I was released from active duty so I could go home and take care of my semi-invalid mother.
I wrote Willie a few letters but received only one reply. After receiving that reply, all my other letters came back marked "Return to Sender, Addressee deceased."
"How could this be?" I kept asking.
We were safe in a rear area. We didn't have much exposure to danger there. The only enlisted men who died were those who got careless around airplanes, ordnance, and the like.
I didn't know it, but it would take me almost 25 years to get an idea of what happened.
I wrote congressmen, the Department of the Air Force, the VA, and anybody I could get to read or listen. The newspapers weren't interested in printing anything about him. "It's just another Vietnam story," they said. "We've printed all of that we want to."
Eventually, through a chance occurrence, I met someone who had a contact in Washington. That person got me the true story. There was a permanent hold on Willie's records. He had been somewhere that he wasn't supposed to be.
The "official" cause of death was listed as a jeep accident. There were only two jeeps on that base, and they were used as "Follow Me's" for visiting aircraft. The Air Force used pickup trucks and staff cars.
What I gathered is that he went for an airplane ride, and the plane crashed over Laos. I don't know if I got the whole truth or not...and will never know.
For years, I had searched. Since I traveled a lot on business, I looked in every phone book of each new city I visited and called every Earcel Williams I saw listed. None were the right one, but I refused to believe my friend was dead.
The names of over 58,000 American heroes are listed on the panels of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Willie's name is not listed among them.
I don't care if a serviceman died of a heart attack while on duty in Southeast Asia or fell off an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea and drowned. To me that is still a death related to being in a combat zone and deserves recognition on The Wall.
I empathize with those whose loved ones were sent home after being wounded in combat and then died while stateside. They are no less heroes because of where they died and should be included on the Memorial as well.
I think of Willie every day and still grieve over his loss. To me, he is a hero, too. But more than that, he was my friend. God, how I loved him.