BERLIN, Pa. — Donald Williams remembers when he saw an atomic bomb go off. He was on a ship near Bikini Atoll in the Pacific when the Americans tested it.
“It was awesome,” Williams said. “If you look at the ships displayed on the water, when the bomb went off, smoke came off them because of the paint. The first bomb went off in the air, and the second went off in the water. Guns melted.”
Williams, 93, grew up in Listie, and graduated from Friedens High School in 1942. He was the son of a coal miner and a housekeeper. He was drafted into the Navy in October 1945, after the war had ended.
Williams wanted to go into the Navy earlier, but he was rejected in 1942 because he had rheumatic fever.
He was as upset as everyone else in Somerset County about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I wanted to get rid of the Japanese. I wanted to defeat them,” he said. “People were mad because they bombed our Pearl Harbor.”
Because the war had ended by the time of his induction, Williams didn’t see action and wasn’t involved in any battles. Nonetheless, his story is just as unique as any who served during the conflict because he witnessed something that only a few people in the world have: the dropping of an atomic bomb.
Seven ships were lost during the blast. Some were sunk by the 2 million tons of water and sediment that was hurled more than a mile upward from one of the bombs, according to a National Geographic article that ran in June 1992. Men tried to decontaminate the ships. They scrubbed, foamed and painted hot steel with little effect. After initial decontamination efforts failed, most ships were towed 200 miles to Kwajalein Atoll for more efforts. Later, the ships were sunk in target practice at Hawaii and off the West Coast.
Almost everyone who was near the atomic testing died of some form of cancer, Williams said. One guy lost all of his fingernails. Everyone who jumped in the water after the testing lost their hair.
“A guy ate a sandwich that was on the ship,” Williams said. “He died in 1995. He lost all of his hair because of atomic radiation.”
Williams married Jean Rose in 1950. Despite being told he would never have children because of the radiation, he managed to have four children by her. Williams went to work in Johnstown as a welder. He went to school in Detroit for electronics training and worked for the Ford Motor Co. He eventually moved back to Pennsylvania, working a few jobs before getting one with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. His daughter Elizabeth Williams said her father’s time in the service made him very patriotic.
“I think it made him proud to be an American simply because our Army, Navy and armed forces were the best,” she said. “The men who served at the time were the greatest generation. My dad isn’t one to blow his own horn. He has such a wealth of knowledge that you can’t just help wanting to sit and talk to him.”
One of Williams’ more interesting stories following his service was when he met Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese pilot who led the raid against Pearl Harbor and ordered his radio operator to say the famous words, “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” meaning complete surprise had been attained.
Fuchida visited the United States and traveled the country for six months following the war. Williams forgave Fuchida for his role in the Pearl Harbor attack.
“He wanted to become an American citizen, but he died before he could do it,” Williams said. “It’s a Christian way. You’re supposed to forgive your enemies. He was a very nice man. I met him up in Michigan when I lived up there. I went to a Baptist church one day and he was there. He talked about Pearl Harbor. He said he was sorry he did it. He asked for forgiveness.”
Information from: Daily American, http://www.dailyamerican.com