Man brings war memories to museum

June 11, 2000|By KERRI SACCHET

The day was August 13, 1945. A Japanese kamikaze plane was heading directly for the deck of the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard, an American aircraft carrier stationed in the South Pacific.

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Gunfire erupted and the kamikaze was shot down before it could crash into the ship.

This is only one of many stories that former seaman 1st class Bill Kearns, 77, describes in his museum on 232 1/2 S. Potomac St. in Hagerstown.

The museum's five rooms are decorated with framed photographs of the Bon Homme Richard and other World War II memorabilia, including newspaper clippings from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Kearns said he had saved much of the material he put in the museum, but many of his shipmates also contributed pictures, plaques, and other keepsakes.


Kearns, who is originally from Martinsburg, W.Va., but who now commutes from Towson, Md., said he started putting together the Skivvy Waver House museum two years ago. "Skivvy waver" was a nickname given to the signalmen on the ship.

"It was created for the men on the ship," Kearns said, "I wanted to have a place for the guys to come and see everything."

Ivan Eby, of Hagerstown, remodeled the house into the museum. Kearns said he was grateful for the help.

"If not for him, I don't know how I would have gotten it done," Kearns said.

During the remodeling process, Kearns said he wrote to many celebrities and public officials informing them of the Skivvy Waver House museum and asking for support.

On the second floor of the museum, Kearns lined an entire wall with signed photos of well-known people who wished him luck with the museum. They ranged from NBC morning show host Katie Couric, the four living former presidents, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, to Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening.

Kearns said several of the signalmen he served with have visited the museum, including one who drove from Florida to see it.

Kearns said he and 35 other shipmates served from 1945 to 1946 as the signalmen of the ship. Their duties included communicating with planes by flags and signal lights. The Bon Homme Richard was the only ship on which signalmen helped planes land at night in complete darkness, Kearns said.

"We had special ultraviolet lights that would help us to direct the planes at night, but, yes, it was scary," Kearns said.

The ship was in the war zone in March 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, and patrolled Tokyo Bay during the signing of the Japanese surrender later that year, Kearns said.

It is this sense of respect for the time the crew served and also for the close friendships he made that Kearns wants to preserve in the museum, he said.

The Skivvy Waver House will be open to the public beginning Aug. 27, Kearns said. In addition to the museum, Kearns said he also publishes the Skivvy Waver newsletter three times a year and sends it to several of his shipmates.

"It was the best time of my life and we all got along so well," Kearns said. "It was good that we could contribute to the war effort."

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