Veterans’ Reflections: A Life of Service
By Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 2010 If all you knew about Bill Sumner was that he joined the military during World War II a day after graduating from high school, that would say plenty about his character and dedication to his country. But it marked only the beginning of a life of service.
During an Oct. 13, 2010, interview at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Sumner -- a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War -- discusses his military experiences. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class William Selby
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
When he left for boot camp in 1942, the United States was involved in World War II, Sumner said, and he had to do his part.
“A few months later I was transferred to Pearl Harbor and was stationed aboard the USS Mahan,” he said.
On Dec. 7, 1944, the USS Mahan was patrolling between Leyte and Ponson Island when a squadron of Japanese aircraft found it.
“They were heading home after bombing an invasion force, and I guess the American P-38 started to hit them,” Sumner said. “So they decided [that] rather than go home, they would just destroy us.”
During the ensuing battle, Sumner said, the nine twin-engine Bettys were diving into the ship one at a time, but only three of the aircraft actually hit the Mahan.
“The first one hit midship, and the second one hit us between two stacks,” he added. “The third one missed us and then came back around and hit us.”
The ship was exploding from all the munitions and weapons onboard, and there was nothing to extinguish the fires, because one of the planes knocked out the power to the ship, Sumner recalled. With no power and no water to fight the fires, the Mahan’s skipper decided it would be best for the crew to jump overboard. But, Sumner said, there was one thing he couldn’t leave the ship without.
“I had a dog onboard,” he said. “His name was Butch. He was a cocker spaniel, and he was our ship’s mascot. I went down below to get him, and then we all jumped off the ship into the water.”
The Mahan’s crew floated in the water for roughly two hours while waiting to be picked up, and eventually was sighted and picked up by the crew members USS Walke, a flat-bottomed landing ship.
Sumner said when Walke was ready to start taking sailors on board, none of the crew would go until Butch was safely aboard a fairly funny addition to an otherwise less-than-comical story. After the sailors from the Mahan had boarded the Walke, the decision was made to sink the listing ship.
The surviving sailors did not get to come home immediately, and Sumner stayed aboard the Walke. While leaving the Philippines, Sumner’s ship was challenged, he said, only this time it wasn’t the Japanese.
“We were on the way back from the Philippines, and we hit the edge of Halsey’s Typhoon,” he said. “And believe me, that was [scarier] by far than being sunk.”
Sumner returned to the United States after traveling aboard five different vessels over three months, and he was assigned to the USS Steinaker on the East Coast. Soon after that, Sumner received an honorable discharge from the Navy.
Years passed, and after he earned a degree from the University of Nevada, Sumner decided to seek a commission as an Air Force officer. He served in the Air Force for 22 years, including time spent as a bombardier navigator flying combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam wars. All told, Sumner spent 27 years serving in the armed forces. He fought in three major wars and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
He said serving his country was the most important thing he ever did.
“I am deeply, deeply heartfelt about my experiences in the service,” he said. “To me, I think it’s one of the greatest experiences a person could ever have.”
(“Veterans’ Reflections” is a collection of stories of men and women who served their country in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day conflicts. They will be posted throughout November in honor of Veterans Day.)