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Veteran recalls memories of World War II

By Sam Shawver

November 12, 2012
The Marietta Times - , The Marietta Times

World War II was raging overseas when Walter Hill graduated from Harrisville (W.Va.) High School in 1943. Like many fellow grads across the country, Hill soon found himself at the recruiting office.

"I entered the Navy in July as a gunners mate," he said. "I originally applied to be a pilot, but when they did a background check my birth certificate hadn't been recorded at the county courthouse for some reason, and there wasn't enough time to get it recorded before training began."

After basic training at the U.S. Navy training center in Great Lakes, Ill., and attending gunnery school in nearby Chicago, Hill-just 18 at the time-headed to Norfolk, Va., where he was assigned to the USS Mansfield DD728, a brand new destroyer class vessel built in Bath, Maine.

"We sailed the ship from Bath to Boston to have some gear installed, then moved on to training for a couple of months in Bermuda," Hill said. "After that we shipped through the Panama Canal and on to San Diego, and from there we went to Pearl Harbor."

He said by that time Pearl had been restored to a fully-functional Naval facility after the historic bombing of the harbor by the Japanese in December 1941 that had officially pulled the U.S. into WWII.

"We were there for one day, then sailed off into the South Pacific," Hill recalled. "For a year after that we almost never got off the ship."

The Mansfield was assigned to the 3rd Fleet, escorting aircraft carriers.

"Our job was basically to keep submarines and kamikaze planes away from the carriers," Hill said.

The Japanese kamikaze pilots sought to destroy Allied ships by crashing their planes into the vessels, and posed a major threat to the U.S. fleet which had more than 300 ships sunk or damaged by kamikaze attacks.

Hill said the kamikaze planes flew in squadrons and the destroyer escorts would always be ahead of the fleet on the lookout for the planes.

"When they were spotted the carriers would either send up planes to take them out or we would shoot them down with anti-aircraft guns," he said. "Often at night Japanese planes would fly over, mostly just to aggravate us. We would go into general quarters (alert status) and might sit at our stations for hours, but nothing would happen."

He said the ship's crew also went into general quarters alerts daily at sunup and sundown-the times of the day when visibility was more difficult and the Japanese were more likely to attack.

Hill recalled one narrow escape during an enemy plane attack.

"The plane was coming in low from the stern of the ship, and I was manning the 20-mm gun on the starboard side of the ship where the pilot was headed," he said. "We wore headphones for communication, and I had been having some problems with mine. The pilot was coming in fast, and we scrambled to get below the top deck, away from his gunfire."

Heading down the stairway, he discovered the headphone cord was not long enough and caught him up short, near the ship's huge 5-inch cannon that was about to be fired.

"The 5-inch guns fired and blew my headphones and helmet off," Hill said. "The blast singed my eyebrows and ruptured my eardrum."

He said the eardrum injury affects his hearing to this day.

In addition to keeping watch for kamikaze attacks, the destroyer's duties also included looking out for mines in the water and watching sonar equipment for signs of enemy submarines. They also rescued pilots from the carriers if their planes splashed down into the seas.

"We blew up a lot of mines," Hill said. "We used the 40-mm guns to blow them up before they could damage a ship. One mine could even sink a ship."

He noted that a few years later, during the Korean War, a huge hole was blown in a portion of the USS Mansfield's hull after it struck a land mine.

Most of the time the fleet was in open seas in 1944, and Hill said it was difficult to know exactly where they were.

"We just followed the carriers," he said.

At one point word came that the Japanese fleet was in Saigon Bay, so the 3rd Fleet responded.

"On the way there we were passing a small island and enemy guns began firing at us," Hill said. "Our fleet fired back without slowing down. But the whole island seemed to blow up-we must have hit an ammunition dump with our gunfire. And when we got to Saigon Bay nothing was there."

One of the Mansfield's most dangerous missions came in Tokyo Bay toward the end of the war.

"That was a hairy night-nobody slept," Hill said. "The idea was to see how much resistance we might encounter if we had to invade the mainland."

He said no one knew what to expect when they entered the bay, and the situation was considered so dire that a priest was called to hold mass aboard ship before the mission began.

"We didn't know it at the time, but 2,200 lbs. of explosives had been placed in the front and rear of the ship," Hill said. "In case it became disabled we would have to blow the ship up."

As it turned out, the Japanese were taken completely by surprise.

"They didn't even know we were coming in," Hill said, adding that when the fleet began shelling the enemy positions the Japanese apparently thought it was an aerial attack and started firing their anti-aircraft guns.

The Mansfield sailed safely back out of Tokyo Bay.

"Three weeks later the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrendered," Hill said.

After the peace treaty was signed, the USS Mansfield returned to Honolulu for a couple of days.

"Everyone got some liberty time there, then we sailed on to San Francisco," Hill said.

He was discharged on March 16, 1946, and returned home to Ritchie County, W.Va.

"All the veterans were returning home and it was hard to find a job," Hill said. "The first jobs available went to men who had families."

Still single at the time, he worked at a host of jobs, including one summer on a Great Lakes freighter.

"I really liked life at sea," Hill said. "And I spent a lot of time sailing on every one of the lakes that summer."

Eventually he began a career in the construction trade, and built many homes throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley area.

David Metz, who now lives in Parkersburg, also graduated with Hill from Harrisville High School in 1943, and ended up serving in the Navy as well.

"We had been in school together since we were freshmen in high school," Metz said. "I think a lot of our class went into the service after graduation."

Metz spent six years on active duty, serving during both WWII and the Korean War.

His sister-in-law, Maxine Hickman, was also in the 1943 graduating class, and noted that women also served during the war.

"During our senior year they gave us a clerical test at the school, and if we passed the principal said we could go to work for the government," Hickman recalled. "We needed jobs, too, so I went to Washington, D.C. and worked for the Department of the Navy during the war."

After his return to civilian life, Hill eventually married his wife, Donis, and the couple settled in Williamstown where they raised their two sons, Van and Barry. The Hills now have four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.



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