At 19, Albert M. Woolley hit Utah Beach as part of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. At 43, he was almost killed in the 1968 Tet Offensive, one of the largest battles of the Vietnam War.
In between, the native Texan and longtime Riverhead resident also served stateside during the Korean War — part of a military career that spanned more than 30 years and took him to England, France, Belgium, Germany, Libya and Vietnam, and earned him two U.S. Air Force Longevity Service Awards, four Good Conduct Medals and ribbons for the Vietnam Campaign, Vietnam Service and French Campaign.
"Whether it was storming the beaches of Normandy or beating back the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, Staff Sergeant Woolley never hesitated to put it all on the line to defend the freedoms and liberties that make this country the greatest in the world," Rep. Lee M. Zeldin [R-Shirley] said in a statement.
Woolley died Aug. 31 at age 94. He was buried Sept. 5 at the National Cemetery in Calverton, where he was honored with a three-volley salute and military flyover.
He is survived by his wife of 72 years, Victoria, and their five children: retired U.S. Air Force Col. Albert M. Woolley, Jr. and wife Susan, of Aquebogue; Lynn Dunbar and husband William, of Narvon, Pennsylvania; Mark A. Woolley and wife Nancy, of Mattituck; Matthew Woolley and wife Debra, of Port Jefferson; and Lisa Hubbard and husband Timothy, of Riverhead. He also leaves 16 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and a half-brother, Manuel Reyes of Houston.
Woolley was born Feb. 13, 1925, in Victoria, Texas. According to a 2015 U.S. Congressional Record, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces at 17 on Nov. 17, 1942. With World II raging, he was shipped to England — and soon found himself at Normandy on June 6, 1944.
"He was in the second wave," son Albert Jr. said, "and the landing craft never got in to the beach."
Just 5-foot-2 and about 130 pounds, Woolley was carrying a 60-pound pack. He walked off the back of the craft and went underwater, right to the bottom.
"The guy next to him, who was something like 6'2", this giant, this gentle giant, lifted him off the bottom and walked him to the beach," Albert Jr. said. "My dad said that man was his angel, his guardian angel."
Documented in the Congressional Record, Woolley was able to advance across Utah Beach, evading German gunfire and ordnance, and participated in the liberation of France. He received an honorable discharge on Nov. 10, 1945.
Back in Texas, Woolley married Victoria Alfaro. He later rejoined what had then become the Air Force, and in 1964 he was posted to the Suffolk Air Force Base in Westhampton, which is now Francis S. Gabreski Airport.
Albert and Victoria first lived on the Crescent Duck Farm before buying a house out near the Moose Lodge in Riverhead.
"The first thing they did," daughter Lisa Hubbard said, "was join the dance club at the base."
Albert and Victoria would often go out dancing, their children said.
"They had five kids," Hubbard said, "but my father always made sure that, as a couple, they did something for themselves, made time for themselves."
In 1967, Woolley shipped out to Danang, Vietnam. One night amid constant mortar fire, Woolley later told son Albert Jr., he was in the top bunk in his hut when he heard a terrifyingly familiar sound.
"He heard that whistle," Albert Jr. said, "and knew it was a mortar round. He said he grabbed his mattress, rolled right off the bunk and onto the floor."
The blast killed three bunkmates. Woolley alone survived.
Soon, Woolley was back in the States, just as Albert Jr., then in the U.S. Navy, headed to Vietnam aboard a destroyer. Like father, like son, Albert Jr. also survived artillery attacks — his, off Tiger Island in Vietnam. And though assigned to the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when a jetliner crashed into his office, Albert Jr. said he was fortunate to be off that morning.
"I guess we had some lucky stars," Albert Jr. said.
After retiring from the Air Force, Woolley opened an auto body shop in Riverhead, where Albert Jr. said he'd "bang out fenders the old way, put putty on them, sand them down, paint them himself . . . and they'd come out looking like new."
"If there ever was a G.I. Joe, my Dad was a G.I. Joe," Albert Jr. said. "He might've only been 5' 2". But he was the biggest man you ever saw for 5' 2"."