As told to Darlene Hutchins
The first thing I want to say about going into the Navy in WWII is that the Navy saved my life.
I enlisted on Dec. 20, 1944. After boot camp in Illinois, I was stationed on the island of Guam on May 2, 1945 and remained there for my entire active duty, until August 10, 1946.
I was a “dry land sailor.” I have only met one ex-sailor who knew what it meant – that I was a sailor who was never stationed aboard a ship. I spent all my time on Guam, serving first as a welder, and then as a baker and cook.
I was born in March 1927 in a town named West, Mississippi. West is the actual name of the town; everyone teased me about that.
Usually when a person thinks about war, the first thing that comes to mind is that someone is going to be killed. In my case, it was exactly the opposite. I was a typical teenager at the time and decided that I knew everything and nobody was going to tell me anything. I was going to have things my way! Therefore, I was young, dumb, and running with the wrong crowd.
We did not have drugs back then, but if we did, I think I probably would have died of an overdose or some other horrible tragedy would have happened. The only thing we had was alcohol and I consumed quite a bit of that.
I lived with my parents during this time. My father was George Robert Nabers, and he worked in the logging industry until the 1930s, when he changed careers and started working in construction. My mother’s name was Ella Reeves Nabers. She did not work outside of the home until the 1930s, when she went to work as a seamstress making a dollar a day for the WPA. The WPA was short for Works Progress Administration.
I have two older siblings: my sister Eloise, born in August 1921, and an older brother George Robert, born in May 1925.
I quit school in the 10th grade because my friends were not going anywhere; I also thought I knew it all. My friends and I were running around doing nothing, just getting into minor trouble. I am sure that, had I kept running with this crowd, it would have turned into major trouble and I could probably have done some time in prison. That is why I say, “The Navy saved my life.”
The friends I was getting into trouble with while I was in high school didn’t want to enlist. I had enough on the ball to realize I needed to get away from this crowd. The Navy was my opportunity to leave the trouble behind. I enlisted in the Navy because I wanted to see what would happen and I thought I was going to save America.
My mother never said much to me about my wild ways, but she did set me straight about her perceptions when I came home on leave from boot camp. She said that she was worried about me joining the service, but she knew it was the best thing that ever happened to me. She told me that she knew she was going to be concerned for my safety, but not half as concerned as she would be if I kept running around with the rough crowd I had been running around with.
When I entered the Navy, they made a mistake. Their records showed that I was born in 1928, which made it look like I was 16 instead of 17. The Navy’s required age for recruits with their parents’ consent was 17 years old. They found their mistake and it did not take them long to get that straightened out.
The Navy always said they wanted men so bad that they would take anyone. Their minimum weight limit was 120 pounds and I weighed 119. The recruiter I was working with was 90 miles away at the State Recruiting Headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi.
He said, “Bill, I’m going to lunch at noon. There is a grocery store a block away. Go down, buy a pound of bananas, and eat them all. Come back and see me – no one else – at 1 o’clock, and I will weigh you.”
When I stepped on the scale, I weighed 120 pounds.
That afternoon we were put on a train, and I got so sick from eating those bananas. I never thought anyone could actually eat a pound of bananas, but I wanted to go so bad I would have done anything.
I was sent to boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, located 10 to 15 miles from Chicago. Boot camp was supposed to last for eight weeks, but I had been assigned to the CB (Construction Battalion) unit. They had the nickname of “Seabees,” and were the Navy’s construction force, charged with building bases, bridges, airstrips and other projects wherever needed. The logo was a flying bee holding a machine gun. They needed Seabees so much that the Navy cut the time of boot camp down from eight to four weeks.
During boot camp, I went home on leave, had an accident and was hurt. I was riding my horse on the highway, as I often did. I had him galloping as fast as I could get him to go when the horse tripped and fell, taking me with him. I hurt my leg and was sent to the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Philadelphia, Mississippi for treatment and rest. After six weeks, I was sent back to Great Lakes.
When I got back to boot camp, my squadron had already left and the Navy didn’t know what to do with me. So they sent me to Camp Shoemaker, near Pleasanton, California. I was there from Feb. 1, 1945 to May 1, 1945.
Chip on my Shoulder
On my first day of service, I was not afraid. I have never been afraid of anything in my life, not even the thought of going into battle. The only time I have been afraid in my whole life was a few months ago when I could not swallow anything and it was difficult to breath. That is the only time I was afraid I was going to die.
Though I was willing to do anything that the military wanted or needed me to do, I got into a lot of trouble while I was in the Navy because I had a chip on my shoulder. I was small and I did not care how big a guy was, my attitude was, let’s go with it. No one was going to tell me what to do. It took the Navy six years to get me straightened out.
There were 60 of us in my unit at boot camp. About four guys were from New York and the rest of us were from Mississippi, Alabama or Louisiana, so we stuck together.
One morning three guys in our unit (not me) goofed up on a Saturday morning inspection. Sunday morning at 10 a.m. our chief petty officer, Mike McGinny, came in and said, “Everybody fall out.” Because the camp was just 10 to 15 miles from Chicago, it was cold. That SOB marched us two miles, for four hours, in snow up to our knees.
Monday, all but five of us had to go to the hospital. I was in the hospital longer than the rest because my ears froze. Lucky for me, there was no long-term damage. It convinced me that when the officers say something they mean it!
McGinny had been on a ship that sunk, so he was put at Great Lakes as a recruit trainer. He did not like it and they would not transfer him. He took his anger out on us and eventually he got a court martial. The Navy only fined him $100 and gave him a transfer, which was exactly what he wanted. He was an extremely decorated officer.
Trek to Guam
The closest I came to actual combat was when I was on a ship going to Pearl Harbor on its way to Guam. There were two ships that had available space and we had a two-destroyer escort. About 250 miles off the coast of California, we had a battle stations alert, and the destroyers began dropping depth charges. Shortly after, we saw garbage floating up, so we assumed they had sunk a submarine.
When I first arrived on Guam, I was at the Naval Operating Base. I was first assigned to the industrial section as a welder. My job was to go out and repair ships that had been damaged – we more or less put a Band-Aid on – so the ships could get to California or Pearl Harbor.
We had a guy come in on the USS Arkansas, which was built in 1910. He came ashore and we started talking to one another about our jobs. He told me about his time on the ship and I told him about my welding jobs on ships that came into port for repair. At that time if you could find a guy with the same ranking as you, and both men agreed, you could swap assignments. He was tired of being on a ship and wanted to swap. I thought to myself, no way am I going to get on that bucket. You could take a welding rod, dig around the rivets, and almost see right through the hole to daylight.
Shortly after that, I was reassigned from welding to cooking and baking. One of the funniest things I had to do in that job was to dig up some tea for a British “battlewagon.” In the Navy, battleships were named after states and we called them battlewagons. The British battleships were named after British royalty. This battleship was the King George V, I think. They were out of tea when they came in and we had to find some and deliver it out to them.
In the afternoons after I would finish my duties, I would go by myself to a great big cliff. I would sit on the edge of that cliff and look directly east, watching the ships coming and going, looking for the ship that was coming to take me home.
Although I did not see combat firsthand, one section of Guam was exclusively for submariners, and I would hear stories about the things they would see. The submariners had their own special playgrounds and special things to eat; they could get ice cream.
If you could not scrounge or swap in the Navy, you were not going to survive. We would swap steaks with the medics for medicinal alcohol. We would take a cup of it and mix it with a can of grapefruit juice. It would really rip a man up.
One day we caught the tail end of a typhoon and we had to throw strong cables over our Quonset huts and anchor them down. We made a bunch of sandwiches and we had our alcohol. While the huts were shaking we just waited out the storm.
While I was on Guam, my father passed away from a heart attack on June 16, 1946. At the time, my parents were living in Greenwood, Mississippi. My mother did not know where I was stationed and had to go through the Red Cross to reach me. The Red Cross took three weeks to notify me of my father’s death. By the time they started working on trying to get me home, there really was no reason for me to go. I sent my mother a cablegram letting her know how long it took them to notify me. I had always been close to both of my parents, because I was the “baby” of the family.
I didn’t cry when I got the news, but I did get passed-out drunk. That was the best way I could express myself without being home. My brother was stationed in San Diego at the time and was able to attend the funeral. Shortly after the funeral, he was discharged. My sister and her family were living with Mama.
It was two years before I received a promotion. I was a seaman second class when I came out of boot camp. Usually after you were assigned to a regular position, you automatically got the rank of seaman first class. I was up for promotion every month for two years, and they kept denying it. I was finally able to sneak a look at my record, which had my IQ as 45. You could not even get into the Navy with an IQ that low.
When I complained, they had me take the test again, and this time my score was 120. That was why I was being passed over all this time.
I did not really get close to anyone while I was in WWII, because I knew there was a chance that person would die. The biggest problems I had during my naval career were the Marines, who always thought they were better than Navy men. Every time I would go into a bar to have a drink, some guy from the Marines would pipe up about the Navy. That was all it took.
One night I got into a brawl with a Marine and got hit in the face with a Marine Corps belt buckle. For a couple of days everyone could still see the outline of USMC on my face. The next morning the guy who hit me came through our chow line. He had a bandaged nose and black eye. I figured I got my licks in.
We got to talking and I learned that my uncle had married his aunt. This made us related by marriage. All I could say was “Oh, no.”
Discharge from the Navy
My naval service ended after four years. I was supposed to be able to fly home on what was called an A-1 Priority, which meant out of everyone going home at that time I would have preference and could fly home instead of going on a ship because of the death of my father.
Unfortunately, I was “bumped” by a commander so instead of flying home, I ended up going home on a ship, which took two weeks.
In 1946, when I was up for honorable discharge, the Navy offered me more money to reenlist. So in August 1946 I did, and was sent to New Orleans. In August 1948, I was honorably discharged from the Navy. When I returned home, the first thing I did was go to my father’s grave to pay my respects.
I joined the Naval Reserves in 1948 where I served until August 1, 1950. The Naval Reserve branch was in Greenwood, Mississippi. I got four of the local high school boys to enlist in the reserves, and I would take them with me. At the time the requirement for being in the reserves was one night a month so, once a month, we had our “Navy night.”
In the summer of 1948, our reserve unit took a two-week training cruise on a destroyer from Jacksonville Florida to New York, New York, then to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and finally back to Jacksonville again. On the way to New York, we hit the tail end of a storm and 50 percent of our unit had never been out on rough seas. I was the cook and fed only five people breakfast that morning.
I walked up on the deck and there were my friends looking a little green around the gills, they were so sick. Someone came up and told them to go to sickbay to get a shot for seasickness. My friend Larry said, “No one is going to stick me in the butt with a needle.” Another friend named Maxie told him that if he was as sick as Maxie, he would let them stick him in the butt with a 10-penny nail.
There were only two times I got seasick: leaving San Francisco as we went under the Golden Gate Bridge, and returning to San Francisco under the Golden Gate. After all the terrible storms at sea I had been in, it was funny that the only time I got sick was in San Francisco.
Back to High School
Since I went into the Navy after having only one year of high school, I took the GED when I finished in the Navy active duty, and I passed with high scores. I petitioned the Department of Education in Jackson, Mississippi for my GED certificate, but they would not issue it to me. The reason they gave me was that I cut almost all my classes in ninth grade. Every afternoon I had algebra and I didn’t want to be in school anyway because my friends weren’t there and I was bored, so I was cutting that class as well as eventually just leaving the school altogether.
However, because of that algebra class I had skipped, the department of education told me that they would not issue me a GED Certificate. The department of education told me I had to go back to school. Therefore, I went back to high school and figured if I had to go back for one class, I might as well go all day. I would have to get up and get dressed anyway.
Being a serviceman and four or five years older than the oldest senior was, I was kind of the one who was looked up to. The principal was also the algebra and geometry teacher. Every time she had to deal with a disciplinary problem, she would come get me out of my class to take over teaching her class. I didn’t know anything at all about geometry, so if she had to go during a geometry period I would start telling stories about being in the military. All the kids had to do was keep quiet and listen. They loved it and it made me feel important, so I liked it too. Fortunately, I knew algebra and knew how to help the kids with their work.
Because of what this principal did for me by allowing me to be in charge of algebra classes, I realized I enjoyed helping others. That is when I decided I wanted to go back to school and become a teacher.
College at “Ole Miss”
After my experiences in high school after the military, I started going to college at Ole Miss. While I was there, I lived on the top floor of the dorm. This was housing just for the veterans. Ole Miss is the country club of northern Mississippi colleges. Those in charge of housing figured that we would hold down some of the partying and other behavior that was out of order.
After only one year, the Korean War broke out. Someone piped up and said, “Here we go again, I guess we have to go.” There were boos and someone yelled, “The hell we do.”
As soon as the semester was over in 1950, I joined the Air Force. I was in the Korean War from 1950 to August 1952. I was a clerk typist for the fourth Fighter Interceptor Wing, 5th Air Force at Kimpo Air Force Base (K-14). My main duties were to type up reports for our outfit and to assist the Royal Australian Air Force squadron (RAAF) assigned to our base. This time I was a little bit older and a little bit wiser. That is why my Good Conduct Medal is so important to me.