By Senior Airman Lauren-Taylor Levin, 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published September 17, 2016
MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Difficult times can bring out the very best in people — war, a loss of a friend and even more. The U.S. Air Force has a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor stretching back long before it was even called the Air Force.
For retired Chief Master Sgt. Bill Gornik, this meant answering his nation’s call as an airman of the Army Air Corps in World War II.
During the 1940s 18-year-olds were allowed to enlist if their parent’s signed consent forms papers. Gornik wanted to join but couldn’t at first.
“My father wouldn’t sign the papers until the Germans went through his home town in Europe in what is now Slovenia, at that time it was Yugoslavia,” said Gornik. “In his anger said ‘okay I’ll sign the papers’ and allowed me to join — at that time — the Army Air Corps.”
He went to basic training in Florida for the first six weeks. After graduating basic training, he went to airplane engine mechanic school in Gulfport, Mississippi.
With good grades he decided to apply for cadet training but to qualify, he needed a certain amount of college time which Gornik didn’t have.
“Well obviously I couldn’t go to college during the depression, but the fact that my IQ was high enough when I joined, it had allowed me to join the Army Cadets,” said Gornik.
During his time in the cadets he breezed through the pre-flight and astronomy code. Gornik soloed an airplane before he ever drove a car, but being an Air Corps pilot wasn’t in his future.
A lieutenant gave him a check ride during his training and told him he wasn’t progressing fast enough. Gornik washed-out shortly afterwards.
“This was probably the first bad thing that ever happened to me in my life… I was really devastated,” said Gornik. “The fact that our country was at war, I knew I just had to suck it up and drive on.”
Gornik continued in the Army Air Corps and finished aerial gunnery school, which he completed with flying colors.
With the combination of the airplane engine mechanic school and the aerial gunnery school he qualified to be an engineer gunner. He continued training in Columbia, South Carolina, and joined a five-man training crew for a B-25 bomber.
With laughter, Gornik stated that he was set up with the most interesting and diverse five people.
“My pilot was a rancher from Gillette, Wyoming; I think he was a Mormon. The navigator was a Jewish boy and kind of a playboy because he was a rich kid from Cleveland, Ohio. I was born and raised a Catholic and steel worker from Pennsylvania. The radio man was a staff sergeant from Detroit, Michigan, a Presbyterian, and the fifth guy, the tail gunner who was from Lawrenceburg, South Carolina, and a farm boy,” said Gornik.
With all five men from all over the U.S. no two were alike. After four months of close living and flying together, they became so close that anyone of the five men would gladly die for the others.
They all received orders to Savannah, Georgia, where they crewed a brand new B-25J model with orders to fly that airplane from Savannah halfway around the world to Kunming, China, where they were supposed to turn the airplane over to the Flying Tigers.
Following 45 days of travel they arrived in early April. Instead of continuing with his crew, he was reassigned after delivering the B-25J. He completed 46 missions with a couple of close calls before returning to the States.
After a total of three years, one month and 18 days in WWII he moved to Ohio and got married. Having only worked for two and a half years at the steel mill, he didn’t have seniority and no matter how hard he worked he couldn’t get ahead in his new job.
“My coworkers would make fun of me and say ‘hey sarge why you working so hard you can’t get ahead of us anyhow, somebody has to die first before you can get ahead,’” said Gornik.
It irritated him so much that Gornik decided later that night with his wife he wanted to join the service again.
“I said, ‘honey I know if I went back into the service that at least if you work hard, keep your nose clean you can get ahead,’” said Gornik. “So, I opted back in and I had to accept staff sergeant although I was discharged as a technical sergeant and I said ‘no problem I’ll take it.’”
Gornik continued to serve through the Korean War, and eventually volunteered for the Vietnam War, but once again had to convince his wife.
“I went home and I told her, ‘I know I don’t have to go and you know I don’t have to go but I think I should go.’ Just one more year before I retire,” said Gornik. “Her answer, ‘whatever you want to do.’”
Through a long career, eventually attaining the newly minted ranks of senior and chief master sergeant, Gornik learned a lot about what makes a good airman, a good leader and a good person.
Gornik stated he attended a seminar one time where there was a priest that talked about work ethic. His philosophy was if someone’s not working the same when the boss is watching as they are when he’s gone, then they are actually stealing from him when they get paid.
“When you are assigned to a duty, pretend that’s the most important thing you are going to do that day and do the best you can. No matter how menial the task is its important or your supervisor wouldn’t tell you to do it. Every job’s important,” said Gornik. “And don’t quit.”
He lived by that philosophy for the rest of his life. He stated that he thinks that’s why he was able to progress and get promoted.
Gornik also has a philosophy on problem solving. When he was stationed at Mountain Home AFB, he was working in quality control as an inspector. He demanded that, when he and others were making inspections, they couldn’t write-up a problem unless they also provided a solution.
“Before you criticize anyone you are inspecting you must first show them how to improve or you are not doing your job,” said Gornik. “As a result, with no bit of shame, I could say that I had the best quality control division in the Air Force at that time.”
These days, Gornik talks to students at the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, Idaho. Over the past 12 years he has talked to well over 12,000 students of all ages. One of the things he tells them is that if they have a dream, no matter what it is, as long as it is legal and honest, go for it.
Gornik gives this advice above all else: “DON’T QUIT.” That’s been his philosophy on life from the day he joined the Army Air Corps to when he went skydiving in his 80s. It’s not hard to see how this no-nonsense chief left his mark on today’s Air Force.