Stephenville resident Harold Walker, 86, was just three days shy of his 19th birthday when the Bunker Hill aircraft carrier he was aboard was struck by two Japanese kamikaze (suicide) planes in May 1945 off the coast of Okinawa in the western Pacific.
It was Walker's first tour of duty after joining the U.S. Navy a year before. Three planes were headed for the carrier but only two made contact as the ship's guns shot down the third. Walker said all the U.S. planes were lined along the deck and full of fuel and ready to go when the two planes crashed into the ship.
"It was like a string of firecrackers going off," he recalled. "All that jet fuel just burned and burned. And water was coming in from the damage."
Walker said he was taking a shower when the planes hit, and ran to the hamper to get his uniform.
"After digging around in there for a minute, I just grabbed the first one I could find," he said. "It belonged to a fellow who was probably the biggest guy in the Navy band and I had to tie it onto me."
Walker and a large number of sailors were trapped when the ship's water-tight seals closed to keep the Bunker Hill afloat. They put wet clothes over their faces to breathe as the smoke from the fires filled the rooms.
"I told the guys around me to get wet cloths and put them over their mouths to breathe," Walker said. "We laid on the metal floor until we got a hatch open and escaped onto a gunner deck."
From there, Walker tied a line to another carrier on scene. He sent sailors across the water to the other ship in mail bags.
Three hundred and seventy-three sailors aboard the Bunker Hill were killed, most burned or suffocated in the smoke. Walker said the men were buried at sea before the Bunker Hill, which did not sink, brought the remaining 3,000 sailors aboard back to the states.
"She never did float quite right after that, shimmied through the water, but brought lots of sailors home from over there," he said of the ship.
After returning from the war, Walker got a degree in education. He retired from Hico ISD after many years as superintendent.
A Veterans' Day ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, at the Erath County Courthouse.