JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Billy Hight joined the military back in 1955 because he didn’t have money for college and didn’t want to work in the coal mines. But that career led him to become a damage control man in the Navy and a member of the 101st Airborne Division in the Army. He was even involved in six nuclear weapons tests.
“My dad was a coal miner, we didn’t have the money and it was an honor to go into the military in the 50s,” Hight said. “I was eight years old when World War II ended and you grew up honoring the United States of America. You said your pledge of allegiance every day, you honored the flag, you honored all the veterans.”
When Hight joined the Navy, the biggest body of water he’d ever seen was the New River in West Virginia.
“I did something like about 50 deep sea dives, hard hat, picking up airplanes in the deep sea of Japan, been in and out Pearl Harbor five times,” he said.
His career as a damage control man took him across the globe to places like Japan, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. He even survived a typhoon and tsunami.
“My main job in the Navy was firefighting and also ABC: Atomic Biological and Chemical warfare,” Hight said. “I was supposedly an expert on that type of thing to save your ship.”
Hight went from diving in the ocean with the Navy to jumping from airplanes with the Army.
“You could see the flashes, you could see the mushrooms,” Hight recalled. “You could feel the shockwaves, the gamma rays, and the alpha and beta particles from atomic bombs.”
He was in the 101st Airborne Division.
“It seemed like every time we turned around we were going somewhere. Like putting James Meredith in school in Mississippi,” he said. “They sent a contingent of the 101st down there to stop all the riotings. We weren’t shooting a bunch of people but we were in stressful situations.”
When he got out of the Army, he went to work on the railroad and then became a builder, building a church in his hometown of Mullins, West Virginia. He then started traveling to build churches and was then hired to build wastewater treatment plants. Then, he eventually built President Jimmy Carter’s office in Atlanta.
“He was a great man, nice man, he said. “His wife was very nice. We met her.”
That career in the military gave him the skills for what he says is one of the most important roles he’s ever held: becoming the scoutmaster for his son’s Boy Scout troop.
“I was a sergeant in the Army, I was a petty officer in the Navy, and you have leadership skills and you run your scout troop more like a military,” he said. “You have your patrol leader. It’s a boy and you give him the reigns to run your troop.”
He did that for 16 years in the Atlanta area. Some of the boys he led even went into the service themselves.
Hight says he never questioned why he was given the opportunities he’s had, he just went for them.
“It just kept on. It seems like every time I turn around it’s something like that and maybe I was just destined to do certain things,” he said. “I just had a very interesting and very fulfilling life. I’m 86 years old, just still enjoying life.”
Hight is very involved with the American Legion. He still likes to build things, including windmills and birdhouses. He stays busy with his wife and family, including his 16-year-old granddaughter.