WWII veteran celebrates 95th birthday

By Allison Marlow
Posted 11/9/17

During World War II Bill Schaefer worked in the communications room of the USS Pennsylvania, receiving and sending messages on enemy movements.

While in the Aleutian Islands, a pilot above …

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WWII veteran celebrates 95th birthday

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During World War II Bill Schaefer worked in the communications room of the USS Pennsylvania, receiving and sending messages on enemy movements.

While in the Aleutian Islands, a pilot above radioed in: a torpedo was heading for a Pennsylvania-class battleship.

As the sailor read the message aloud, Schaefer said he saw the man’s “hair stand on end.”

“We were the only Pennsylvania-class battleship there,” he said.

The ship turned, the torpedo missed. The memory is just one of many Schaefer retells the next generation of his family each year as they gather for his birthday. This year, just a week before Veterans Day, Schaefer celebrated his 95th year with a flood of cards and well-wishes from local school children, scouts and neighbors.

Born in Chattanooga, Tenn., Schaefer was recruited by a sailor who used to eat his meals in the same boarding house he did. He said he choose the Navy because he figured the food aboard the ships must be better than the food the troops were eating in the field.

He was right, and wrong.

In his stack of official paperwork, photos and uniforms, Schaefer still has the holiday menus printed by the USS Pennsylvania crew. Their tables were filled with holiday staples like turkey, sweet potato and pies. The menu also noted cigarettes as a side item.

“They were the cheap cigarettes that no one would buy and when they left them on the table no one would take them either,” he said.

The sailors, however, also became accustomed to holding their bread to the light to help pick out the lumps before they ate it. The lumps were weevils, small bugs often found in flour.

“Every Saturday morning we had beans and cinnamon rolls. They had weevils in them too. We ate them anyway,” he said.

The ship was initially launched in 1915 and decommissioned in 1946. During her years in service the USS Pennsylvania and her crew would earn eight battle stars and one Navy Unit Commendation. During World War II the ship sailed as one of seven battleships tasked with intercepting Japanese forces should they try to attack the United States’ west coast.

During those five years of World War II service, the USS Pennsylvania traveled 146,052 miles and fired 6,854 14-inch rounds, 31,678 shells from the 5-inch guns and 97,327 rounds from the anti-aircraft battery.

The ship took part in the Aleutian Campaign of 1943, the Battle of Kwajalein and bombarded the islands of Eniwetok, Saipan and Guam in 1944.

Though he was usually below deck working during the battles Schaefer said the rattle of the guns above shook the entire ship.

“It jars you to your very bones,” he said.

Schaefer was aboard when the USS Pennsylvania was torpedoed in Okinawa while at anchor in Buckner Bay, just two days before Japan surrendered. He said he was sitting in his office when the ship was hit.

“Without moving a muscle I was standing up after it hit,” he said. “It jarred the ship.”

The toll on board was staggering: 15 men killed, 14 missing, and 38 wounded. The ship took on water and was towed to Guam for repairs. The USS Pennsylvania was decommissioned in 1946 and used as a target ship for the Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests in the Pacific. It was sunk in 1948 as part of the testing.

Schaefer left the Navy after three and a half years in service. He went on to earn a degree in accounting from the University of Chattanooga. The oil company he worked for after graduation transferred him to Alabama. He retired in 1995 at age 73.

This year, 75 years after stepping aboard the USS Pennsylvania, he walked in a Veterans Day parade for the first time, escorted by his great-great niece and her Girl Scout troop.

As he waved to well-wishers along the parade route, he smiled.

“I’m doing good,” he said.