Willard Collins was born on January 21, 1929, in LaBell, Missouri. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on January 29, 1948, and was trained as an aircraft mechanic at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, before being assigned to the 513th Air Base Group at RAF Fassberg, Germany, in support of the Berlin Airlift from February to September 1949. His next assignment was with the 7167th Special Air Missions Squadron at Wiesbaden, West Germany, from September 1949 to January 1952, followed by service with the 3565th Air Base Group at James Connally AFB, Texas, from March 1952 to October 1953. SSgt Collins entered the Aviation Cadet Program of the Air Force on October 16, 1953, and was commissioned a 2d Lt and awarded his pilot wings at Goodfellow AFB, Texas, on January 18, 1955. Lt Collins next completed C-119 Flying Boxcar transition training before serving as a C-47 Skytrain pilot with the 63rd Air Rescue Squadron at Norton AFB, California, from April 1955 to March 1957, followed by service with the 4951st Support Squadron at Eniwetok Atoll from March 1957 to March 1958. His next assignment was as a recruiting officer in Ashland, Kentucky, and Charleston, West Virginia, from March 1958 to January 1962. Capt Collins then received an Operation Bootstrap assignment to the University of Omaha to complete his bachelor's degree from January to July 1962, followed by service as a T-29 pilot with the 3566th Navigator Training Squadron at James Connally AFB from July 1962 to October 1965. He then deployed to Southeast Asia where he served as an AC-47 Spooky gunship pilot with the 4th Air Commando Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Airfield, South Vietnam, from November 1965 until he was killed in action during the Battle of A Shau on March 9, 1966. His remains have never been recovered.
His Air Force Cross Citation reads:
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pride in presenting the Air Force Cross (Posthumously) to Captain Willard Marion Collins, United States Air Force (Reserve), for extraordinary heroism in connection with military operations against an opposing armed force while serving Pilot of an AC-47 aircraft of the 4th Air Commando Squadron (Fire Support), 14th Air Commando Wing, Tan Son Nhut Air Base, Vietnam, in action near A Shau, Republic of Vietnam, on 9 March 1966. On that date, Captain Collins was Aircraft Commander of an AC-47 that was scrambled in defense of a Special Forces camp which was under heavy attack by hostile forces. Arriving over the area, Captain Collins attempted to locate the camp which was surrounded by mountainous terrain in a narrow valley and obscured by heavy clouds. He made two attempts to penetrate into the valley but was forced to withdraw. On his third attempt, he entered the valley at tree top level, and managed to locate the camp. With complete disregard for his personal safety, and fully aware of his aircraft's vulnerability to ground fire, Captain Collins maneuvered into position. He made two firing passes against the hostile forces. It was on the second pass that both engines exploded from the impact of ground fire. Demonstrating superb airmanship and skill, Captain Collins successfully crash landed his battle torn aircraft. After landing, Captain Collins rallied his crew and attempted to establish defense positions away from the aircraft. He then discovered that one crew member was injured and could not be moved, and he refused to abandon the aircraft for more favorable defensive positions; instead he established a perimeter defense of the aircraft until rescue helicopters arrived. Although attacked by hostile forces in the area, Captain Collins continuously fought off his attackers enabling three of his crew members to be rescued. The valuable minutes which he gave his crew, and for which he paid the supreme sacrifice was directly responsible for their rescue. Through his extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of hostile forces, Captain Collins reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United States Air Force.