Bill Wilson was in five major battles during World War II and was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Editor's Note: This is the second in an occasional series on Hopkins County veterans and their experiences in the military.
Bill Wilson left home looking for adventure - and found it
From Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, veteran had a front row seat to witness history
By PATTI SELLS, News-Telegram Feature Writer
July 3, 2008 - Fighting for America's freedom was really not what 18-year-old William "Bill" Wilson had in mind when he joined the United States Navy in December of 1940.
The country boy who grew up south of Martin Springs couldn't wait to leave the family farm to sail the world. However, his seafaring experience turned out to be quite different from what he ever envisioned.
"I didn't think there was going to be a war," exclaimed Wilson, who after Boot Camp in San Diego Calif., was stationed in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor. "I went in the Navy to get away from milking cows from sunup to sundown. I told my Daddy, 'I'm gonna join something, even if it's the Boy Scouts. I'm tired of this.'"
Wilson was attached to a submarine division, restocking in the vessels commissary department as they came into port.
He didn't like this job, either, so he took it upon himself to take flying lessons at nearby Rogers Airport in hopes of becoming a naval fighter pilot.
On the historic morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he was due up at 9 a.m.
"Four of us were taking lessons," recalled Wilson, who lacked only 30 minutes air time before earning his solo license. "Me and my buddy were going up at 9 a.m. The other two went up at 8 a.m. They were shot down over the bay."
According to Wilson, he and his friend were sitting on the second deck of their barracks waiting for a cab to pick them up and take them to the airfield when they noticed a fire not far from where they were.
"We were looking out over the 1010 Dock when we saw this fire," Wilson remembered. "He said, 'That plane over there has a red circle on its side.' I said, 'It's probably a firefighter plane going to put that fire out.' That's how stupid we were."
The next thing they knew, torpedo planes were flying in from all directions, and explosions filled the sky and sea. Amid the chaos, according to Wilson, the reality of what was happening began to sink in as five of eight U.S. battleships sunk into the bay along with numerous other vessels.
"It seemed like a big game at first; just unreal. Then I started pulling boys out of the water, and the flesh would just peel off their arms. Oil from the ships was on fire all around," explained Wilson, who said bodies were stacked three and four deep in the hallway of the hospital. "I had some good buddies on those ships. One friend of mine had to dive down three decks below and swim through a porthole to get out."
A few months after Pearl Harbor, Wilson was assigned to the submarine Cuttlefish, but because of his flight experience and interest he asked for aircraft service. It was granted, and Wilson was stationed aboard the USS Hornet, a carrier notable for launching the Doolittle Raid on April 18, 1942, a direct American retaliation against Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, as well as the Battle of Midway that followed in June.
According to Wilson, six sailors on board, including himself, were accepted in Pensacola, Fla., to complete pilot training. Then orders came down that no more pilots were needed due to an influx of interest in that department.
"That about broke my heart," he said. "I almost jumped overboard."
Wilson's assignment was as a ship's cook working the galley and forward mess hall feeding more than 2,700 sailors.
On board the Hornet, Wilson experienced several naval encounters, including the Battle at Bouganville and Guadalcanal.
Having developed a fear of being trapped below deck, Wilson asked the skipper for his battle station to be changed to the hanger deck.
"If anything happened I wanted to be able to get off that thing," he said. "I had seen it happen too many times."
The galley and forward mess hall are on the third deck, according to Wilson, where torpedoes were prone to come through and explode through six inches of steel with armor piercing bombs.
"It wasn't easy to change battle stations," Wilson said. "but they had so many just sitting around down there they moved me up to the number 2 bomb elevator on the seventh deck."
He was alone at his post when the Hornet was "shot out from under him" and sunk on Oct. 26, 1942 at Santa Cruz.
He recalls the feeling of fear and anticipation upon hearing the countdown of Japanese fighter pilots approaching.
Five miles. Three miles. Stand by to repel attack!
"It was about 11 a.m. when it started," Wilson recalled. "We didn't know how many were coming, but we knew they were coming. A carrier is like a queen bee. All the other ships around kind of protect you -- firing, throwing up a lot of lead to keep the enemy from getting to the carrier."
Wilson was in a protected area, "more or less," as the bomb elevator is right under the island of the ship.
As the first attack began, Wilson said he did what he was trained to do, and took cover under some pipes stacked along the wall.
"When the first torpedo hit, it rocked the ship pretty good. I was thrown up against the piping and it put a big gash in my head," remembered Wilson. "I was covered with blood so I knew I was hurt, but it wasn't that bad."
Another torpedo struck the propellers, making the ship unable to maneuver.
The ship was also being bombarded with bullets, bombs and even the planes themselves.
Wilson watched in disbelief as one enemy plane dropped its bombs, then circled around, crashing in between the flight deck and hanger where he was positioned and fire rolled down the deck.
"I was ahead of the fire running just as fast as I could go, slipping and sliding," he said. "We didn't have suicide bombers or kamikazes back then -- they came later -- but it was really the same thing. That's what they were."
Another torpedo hit below and 15 or so men were pumping water out of the compartment on the aft side when another Japanese plane came in exploding right above them.
"Killed every one of them," he said.
He said he could hear boys screaming from down below.
"They couldn't get out 'cause the hatch was warped. They would have needed a blowtorch," he said. "They just went down alive."
According to Wilson, the carrier USS Enterprise was about 1,000 yards from the Hornet and had also been hit. U.S. planes returning to the carriers had nowhere to land and ultimately were "hitting the water."
Smaller ships were circling around trying to pick the pilots up, but often the planes would sink before they could get to them.
The battle lasted until sundown when orders finally came to abandon ship. According to Wilson, the wounded were wrapped in blankets and rolled down nets to other vessels such as destroyers and cruisers.
"Pilots and men were all in the water," said Wilson, who was one of them. "The sharks were so bad. They were getting us out as fast as they could, but quite a few were took down."
Wilson recalled that the water was freezing, but he was more numbed by fear than temperatures of the ocean.
"I thought I was going to die. I really did. I just didn't think I was going to make it," he recalled. "I wasn't a Christian at the time, but I was sure praying. An experience like that will make a Christian out of you real quick."
Wilson survived the battle at Santa Cruz and the sinking of the Hornet. More than 450 fellow sailors and friends did not.
Wilson received five Brass Stars and one Silver Star representing his participation in five major battles at sea. He's not sure why he never received a Purple Heart.
Wilson went on to serve in the U.S. Navy another four years stateside.
"I have some good memories, too," he said with a chuckle, referring to meeting his wife, Wilma, of 60 years while stationed in Arlington, Wash.. The couple had three children. "But the whole general aspect of war you don't ever forget; fighting, saving people, trying to stay alive. I won't ever forget those things."
Upon ending his service in 1946, Wilson took full advantage of the GI Bill, earning a bachelor's degree in industrial arts from East Texas State Teachers College and going on to get his master's degree from Southwest Texas State Teachers College, as well as certificates from Texas A&M University. He also received a professional supervisor certificate from Trinity University in San Antonio. He retired after 34 years of teaching.
"I always talked to my kids at school about my time in the service and encouraged them to go serve," said Wilson, some of whose own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren have served as well, one being a sharp shooter for the U. S. Army currently stationed in Iraq. "It's were they get the best discipline in the world, grow up and become men.
"I'm proud of these young men and women serving today. I know it's sad when we lose some of them, but we've got to protect our country."
Wilson said he still believes the U.S. Navy is the best branch of service for seeing the world, and considers himself extremely patriotic.
"I love America," emphasized the 86-year-old, born Oct. 8, 1921. "I'd fight for her again right now as old as I am. We don't ever need to let anybody run over us."