“I thought he was the greatest, and he thought I was the greatest.”
So said Bonnie Matthews Wilds, a 91-year-old El Reno woman who prides herself on her family, especially her older brother.
John Matthews is rightly called a war hero. During his World War II career in the U.S. Army Air Forces, he became known as John “Buck” Matthews.
The nickname even carried over to official documents, and there was a special reason for the name that clearly showed the kind of person he was — a defender, a fighter and a man of conscience.
Once during the service, so the story goes, another military man was being bullied by other soldiers. John Matthews wouldn’t have it. He stopped the altercation, and the bullied soldier was left alone from that moment on.
“I thought it was so interesting that the name stayed with him,” said Bonnie.
John, the oldest of five siblings, was 10 years older than Bonnie, the youngest. Growing up on a farm in Okarche, the family was very close, and Bonnie said the bond between her and John was especially strong.
“He spoiled me,” she said. “He spoiled me because he was the oldest and I was the youngest. We were definitely close.”
Life on the farm was important to John. Before the war, all he wanted was to be a professional cattle showman. He exhibited Jersey dairy cattle at many events, including 4-H gatherings and the county fair.
He also showed cattle for others, including the well-known Gaylord family of Oklahoma City. John also won awards and silver platters, some of which are still in Bonnie’s possession.
John continually succeeded in the world of agriculture, and it took a world war to tear him away from his passion. Bonnie vividly remembers the moment when John began to consider a military career.
“He had the radio on in the barn, and he heard the report about the attack at Pearl Harbor,” she said.
“That was on a Sunday. Shortly thereafter, he thought he might be drafted. He talked it over with our father and decided to sign up. He wanted to fly and he wanted to help.”
Bonnie also says that John had a bit of a challenge to overcome while flying B-17 bombers.
“He was at least 6 feet tall, almost too tall. So he kind of scooched down in the plane.”
John began his initial training at a base in Texas. He then trained at Cimarron Field as well as bases in Enid and Altus, finally receiving his wings in Altus on May 23, 1943.
Bonnie remembers one moment in particular when his training actually brought him closer to home. While training at the nearby Cimarron Field base, John was permitted to fly his plane over their house in Okarche.
“He flew over the house and turned on his landing light,” she said. “It was dark outside, but we were informed that it would be him flying over the house.”
After his training, John showed striking heroism during the war, particularly on Jan. 23, 1945. On a mission in Germany, an enemy shell exploded in the aircraft and killed the pilot.
John was the co-pilot, and he was forced to fly the bomber back to the base with a head wound and blood in his eyes. He was assisted by the aircraft's gunner.
“He was injured,” said Bonnie. “He had a gash above his eye and basically flew back blind from the blood.”
John received the Silver Star for getting through this harrowing ordeal. He also received two other awards for his war efforts, the Purple Heart and the Air Medal.
After the war ended, John decided to stay in the service and make a full career out of it. Nearly two years later on Dec. 13, 1946, he was working in aircraft maintenance and test-flying a plane over a forest in South Carolina. The plane’s engine quit during flight, causing the machine to crash and take John’s life.
Today, Bonnie Matthews Wilds is the only surviving member of John’s immediate family. She has a large family, and they have an extensive collection of letters and pictures detailing John’s life and military career.
They continue to keep his memory alive, making sure future generations keep aware of the heroism shown by John and other servicemen.
“I'm glad that people remember,” said Bonnie.
Bonnie's husband, Eldon Wilds, is deceased, and the couple had five children together. One of their daughters, Marcia Sellers, lives in the very house where John and Bonnie grew up. Another daughter, Carolyn Odom, lives in Arkansas.
Bonnie’s three sons, Richard Wilds, Max Wilds and Mark Wilds all live in El Reno.
In October, John’s family will attend the rededication ceremony at El Reno High School Memorial Stadium. Including John, this celebration will honor 44 soldiers from El Reno who served during WWII and died during their military careers, though not necessarily during the war itself.