Man's museum houses memories of sailors, soldiers

December 07, 2003|by JULIE E. GREENE

On the outside, it appears to be an ordinary red-brick row house on South Potomac Street.

The only sign that it may not be home to a family is the gold stickers with black lettering on the coal blue front door that spell SKIVVY WAVER.

The row house is a home, home to the memories and mementos of Bill Kearns, his shipmates on the USS Bon Homme Richard during the end of World War II and those of other soldiers and sailors during the war.

"It's a marvel of one man's ingenuity," said Frank Hafele, 76, of Ellicott City, Md. Hafele, Kearns' shipmate, has visited the museum at 2321/2 S. Potomac St. twice, and in doing so revisited his past.


"You see some faces that you haven't seen in 50 or 60 years. It just brings back memories that a lot of us did something that probably was the most important thing we did in our lifetime," Hafele said.

The walls of Kearns' museum are covered from floor to ceiling with black-and-white pictures of sailors during the war. They are manning their stations on the Bon Homme Richard, enjoying a drink on liberty or reuniting after the war.

It was on a drive back from a 1993 reunion in Biloxi, Miss., that Kearns decided to create a newsletter for his shipmates.

Kearns, who lives in Towson, Md., inherited the Hagerstown row house after his mother died in 1984. He was trying to figure out what to do with it when he decided to remodel the house and use it to display the memorabilia that had been kept in his attic, closets and drawers where no one could see it. Ivan Eby helped restore the house.

Since he opened the museum three years ago, his children, grandchildren and several shipmates and strangers have visited to get a glimpse of what life on the Bon Homme Richard and during the war were like.

Kearns' shipmates and fellow servicemen have contributed mementos to the museum.

Bringing back memories

Stanley Grubbs, who worked at Fairchild with Kearns before the war and was a Seaman 1st Class during the war, has visited the museum at least three times.

"It takes us back ... lot of good memories and bad memories, too," said Grubbs, 82, of Hagerstown.

In the front room is a picture of the carrier sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge as it returned home after the war. The sailors are standing in rows on the carrier's flight deck.

"One of those little white caps belonged to me," said Kearns, pointing to a cap in a group of sailors on the port side of the bow.

Kearns, a Seaman 1st Class, was a signalman or skivvy waver. The joke was signalmen waved their skivvies instead of flags, Kearns said.

Kearns had watch on the signal bridge when President Harry S. Truman made his speech, announcing Japan's surrender and the end of the war.

"So then all heck broke loose on the ship in celebration. We raised the victory flag," Kearns said. "They didn't give high fives in those days. We were just happy."

One of the photos on the museum walls is of a sailor lying on top of 48 cases of cold Pilsner in a food locker that had been saved for celebrating the war's end.

Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. sent the message: "The war is over. Break out the spirits," said Kearns, who got the story and the picture from the ship's chief cook.

Kearns said he doesn't remember getting one of the beers. After all, there were 3,000 men onboard.

Kearns has a copy of another message sent by Halsey at that time: "If Jap snooper comes close shoot down but in friendly sort of way." Word traveled slower those days and there was concern a Japanese pilot may not have heard of the surrender.

Other mementos

Other items in the museum are a picture of a torpedo bouncing on the flight deck after it came off a plane coming in for a rough landing, copies of the ship's newsletters and a binder of cartoons featuring sailor Bob Hall's creation, Bon Homme Willie.

If you look closely at one picture, you can see Army and Navy personnel playing tug of war on the flight deck after the war ended. Assigned "magic carpet duty," the Bon Homme Richard had picked up military personnel from the Pacific Islands.

There is a deck of cards signalmen used to learn Morse code and a red flag featuring a white anchor that signaled the secretary of navy was onboard.

Kearns has three 16-inch vinyl records that were played continuously over the ship's PA system. The records contain songs of the era, but Kearns hasn't heard them since he was serving onboard because he doesn't have a turntable that size.

Near the records is a plank from the ship's flight deck that Kearns received after the ship was dismantled in 1993. On another table sits part of a boiler room control panel Kearns took off the ship before it was dismantled, a napkin holder from an officer's ward room that he received at a reunion and a button from a Navy peacoat.

He also has memorabilia about his daughter-in-law's father, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, and his father-in-law, who served in the Merchant Marines, because otherwise he'd "be in trouble," Kearns said.

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