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Owner recalls war days

December 07, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

julieg@herald-mail.com

When visitors walk into the Skivvy Waver House, a World War II museum in Hagerstown, they come face to face with one of the sailors pictured on the walls.

Museum founder Bill Kearns tells visitors stories that go along with the many pictures on the South Potomac Street row house's walls.

He may volunteer some accounts from his war days, but he needs prompting for others.

Bill Kearns volunteered to join the Navy in June 1944 after all of his buddies had gone into the service.

He had been drafted earlier, but received deferments because he was helping to build war planes such as the Flying Boxcar at Fairchild north of Hagerstown.

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It was the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked that Kearns said he realized he and his buddies eventually would be drafted.

Sixty-two years ago on Dec. 7, 1941, Kearns and his buddies were riding around the Martinsburg, W.Va., area where he grew up. They were between Martinsburg and Charles Town, W.Va., when they heard on the car radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

"I remember we came back to Martinsburg and went to the house of one of my buddies. We listened to the radio a little bit. I don't think we realized what had happened," said Kearns, who was 17 at the time.

Kearns said the attack "didn't strike us as any big deal at the time."

The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and the meaning of the attack on the Hawaiian military port sunk in, Kearns said.

"We knew that sooner or later, we were going in the service because we were of draft age," he said.

After Kearns volunteered to join the military, he went to boot camp in Bainbridge, Md., for about two months, went home for a 10-day leave before returning to Bainbridge and was sent to Newport, R.I., that October.

Finding out he was assigned to the USS Bon Homme Richard, Kearns went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where the aircraft carrier was being built. Several weeks later, the carrier went on a shakedown cruise to Port of Spain in Trinidad and in April 1945, it stopped in San Diego to pick up military pilots and planes on its way to Pearl Harbor.

Kearns, a Seaman 1st Class, was a signalman who used semaphore flags or signal lights to send messages to other ships or pilots.

If a pilot's radio went out before landing on the carrier, a signalman would send him a "Charlie" - c in Morse code - to let him know it was OK to land, Kearns said.

After practicing maneuvers at Pearl Harbor, the Bon Homme Richard and her crew entered the war zone in May 1945, Kearns said.

The ship was involved in the latter stages of the Battle of Okinawa as planes launched from the carrier to strike the Pacific island.

Then, in an unusual move for an aircraft carrier, the ship got close enough to Japan for its 5-inch guns to strike the mainland, Kearns said. The big guns had enough range that the ship was far enough away Kearns couldn't see the mainland.

During that time the sailors were at general quarters, meaning they were on duty for four hours, then off for four and so on. The signalmen would take a blanket and try to sleep on the hanger deck below the flight deck.

At the time, Kearns said he and his shipmates didn't actually know they were bombing the mainland. They found out by the time the war ended, which was a few days later.

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