A sailor's legacy

Bill Kearns, the creator of the Skivvy Waver House, died July 25; his family plans to keep the museum open

Bill Kearns, the creator of the Skivvy Waver House, died July 25; his family plans to keep the museum open

August 03, 2005|by HEATHER KEELS


A red signal flag, a ship's bell, a wooden plank and black-and-white photos.

In these things, locked away in a red-brick row house on South Potomac Street just as their owner left them two Saturdays ago, friends and family feel Bill Kearns lives on.

Kearns, 82, a World War II Navy veteran who created a Hagerstown museum called the Skivvy Waver House, died July 25 in his Towson, Md., apartment, where he was recuperating from heart surgery.

Since Kearns' death, his son, Michael W. Kearns of Glen Arm, Md., said many of his father's former shipmates have called to encourage the family to keep the museum open, which they plan to do - by appointment only at first, and eventually restoring the limited Saturday hours.


"It's almost as if ... if it goes, then the things my dad did would be gone, too," Michael Kearns said.

During World War II, Bill Kearns served under Adm. William "Bull" Halsey on the USS Bon Homme Richard, an Essex-class aircraft carrier that participated in the Battle of Okinawa, the final and largest amphibious assault on the Pacific front. As a signalman, he was part of a team of about 40 men responsible for sending messages by flag or signal lamp to ships and planes.

Kearns used to tell stories of the simultaneous excitement and horror of those days, his son said.

"For instance, how because he was just a kid he'd get scared and the only way he would get around being scared was to take a nap," Michael Kearns recalled. "He'd be in a bunk asleep while bombs were going off."

Kamikaze attacks

Jerry Miller, another signalman on the Bon Homme Richard, remembers those attacks vividly.

"The kamikaze came after us - they'd dive out of the sun so you couldn't see, and another squadron of the (kamikazes), they would fly right above the waterline," Miller said. "Most of us had an adrenaline rush ... It was exciting. It was a little piece of history."

Miller remembers the day when a plane hit the flight deck and was spinning out of control, causing the crew to dive into the hatchway. A controlling officer's leg, sticking from the hatch, was sheared off. As Michael remembers the story, his father helped carry the officer to the sick bay, and when the two were reunited 40 years later, the officer remembered Kearns as the man who had carried him.

Miller remembers Kearns as a solid, sincere, and well-respected member of their crew.

"He was such a nice guy to get along with, you know," Miller said. "I wouldn't say he was a father figure, because we were all the same age, but he had the maturity and the calmness to keep us guys from probably getting a little crazy at times."

In the years since the war, Miller said Kearns became the glue that held their signal gang together. After a Bon Homme Richard reunion in 1993, Kearns began sending out a free quarterly newsletter called Skivvy Waver (a nickname for signalman) full of memories, pictures, jokes and updates on the crew that soon spread beyond the signal gang to reach subscribers in the hundreds.

"The vast amount of information that he got - I don't know where he acquired it all - it really made the guys happy, if we could relive some of the glory days of '44 to '46," Miller said. "He touched the lives of everybody in a humorous, sincere manner. He was the class act."

Miller said that Kearns stood out among the sailors as someone very sincere and clean, never one to swear or even tell "shady" jokes.

"He told a lot of jokes, but not any shady ones," Miller said.

Museum growth

Kearns opened the Skivvy Waver House about four years ago in the Hagerstown row house he inherited from his mother after she died in 1984. He started with a few boxes of his own memorabilia, and people have been sending him other artifacts ever since, Michael said.

"He wanted the museum so that that era wasn't forgotten," said his wife, Marjorie Kearns, who estimates about 200 people have visited the museum since it opened.

"That was his life, the last few years, there was nothing else," Michael Kearns added. "It's all about that house."

Tom Riford, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he was thrilled to hear that Kearns' sons plan to carry on their father's legacy by keeping the museum open.

"Mr. Bill Kearns was more than just a collector of memorabilia, he was a collector of the finest traditions of the U.S. Navy and our country's military service," Riford said. "The kinds of things that he had in his Skivvy Waver museum celebrated the victory of the greatest generation and what Navy signalmen did to help in that war effort."

The Herald-Mail Articles