MILTON — Ocean storms and enemy fighter planes didn’t stop Bill Barnett, and neither, as much as possible, is advanced age.
“When I get bored, I get in the car and go for a drive,” said Barnett, who just turned 96 and laughed when he added, “My license expires one day after my 100th birthday.”
Born and raised in Weikert, in Union County, Barnett was inducted into the United States Navy in February, 1943. He served in the Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the Caribbean and near Okinawa in the Pacific as a radar man, helmsman and a pointer on a 40 mm gun.
“There were times when the Caribbean was calm, but there were times when you had to strap yourself in your bunk to keep from going out of your bed onto the deck,” he said.
Describing how the PC (patrol craft) 1238 hit the stormy waves, he said, “That ship of ours, you’d swear it was a submarine.” He held his hand out flat and angled it downward. “It (seemed like it) wasn’t coming up. But it’d come up.”
During one sailing expedition, both their boat’s generators died, leaving them with no air ventilation in the hot lower decks. Worse, it left them with no way to communicate with the U.S.-held port at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were supposed to dock.
“They thought we were Germans. They were going to fire on us,” Barnett said. All his ship could do was flash a code with a small signal light and hope their fellow U.S. sailors saw it. “We blinked the light at them so they would know it was us.”
After a tense time, their ship was admitted to the dock. Asked if he was scared, Barnett said, “I guess everyone was.”
Part of his stint in the Pacific Theater was in Buckner Bay, Okinawa in Command Services Division, which Barnett described as a boat pool consisting primarily of landing craft boats.
“They would come in for repairs and food and supplies,” said his neighbor, Deb Hoffman.
Barnett survived two typhoons in the Pacific. The wind pushed their landing ship onto a beach, anchor and all.
“When the storm was over, I counted 38 ships that was up on the beach from this typhoon that hit us,” Barnett said.
At one point he was ordered to run a landing craft onto the beach and lower its ramp so it couldn’t get pulled back into the ocean. After securing the boat, he tried to hoof it back to his unit.
“When you walked, you had to lean almost down on your knees in order to walk toward the wind,” he said.
He came upon an area where army tents had been blown away, leaving only their flat platforms dug into a hillside. “I crawled under a tent platform, and I took that rain hood and hooked it under my chin, wondering if something was going to come in on top of the platform.” He laughed. “I guess I fell asleep.”
Beyond weather, there was also a war to fight. Once, a Japanese plane showed up out of nowhere headed for Barnett’s ship.
“The sky literally lit up with tracer bullets,” he said. “Boy, we was on our feet there, you better believe. I don’t believe he was 30 feet from the side of the ship when somebody hit him and blowed him apart.”
Another time the crow’s nest lookout spotted a Japanese plane, which was soon attacked by U.S. pilots.
“There was shrapnel all over the deck. I still have some in a box,” Barnett said. “Our fighter planes were dog fighting him up in the sky. We didn’t even fire at him. It was pretty high. We sat there and watched, but we were all ready to fire.”
When it was over, the sailor in the crow’s nest climbed down, “just scared to death,” Barnett said, choking up a bit as he added, “Probably scared like the rest of us.”
The terror of war was relieved by camaraderie and a few pranks, courtesy of a friend who stole jelly roll cakes, canned pineapple and other treats from the kitchen and shared them with Barnett. When he finally returned home after the war, he worked, raised a family and maintained friendships.
He still eats every Friday night at the Watsontown American Legion and enjoys a monthly bus ride to the casinos at Mohegan Sun and country music at the Mifflinburg VFW.
“I got to know a lot of people there,” he said.
“He can strike up a conversation with anybody,” said his daughter, Cathy Hoover, of Milton.
“He’s very interesting and he’s very intelligent,” Hoffman said, noting she was glad his military service was being honored.
Barnett brought out two mandolins he’s restored, talked about a recent trip he took for banana splits, and smiled when chided for using a step stool when he replaced some window blinds. Clearly, the former sailor is not acting his age.
“I thank the Lord each morning when I get out of bed and can, most of the time, do what I want to do,” he said, “and go where I want to go.”