Bill Heber entered a movie theater on December 7, 1941, a carefree teenager. When he left, the world had changed. On that Sunday afternoon, he and his friends stepped from the Ellicott City theater onto Main Street to find groups outside talking about someplace called Pearl Harbor that had just been bombed.
The next day, the United States declared war on Japan.
As some boys in his school rushed to sign up for military duty, Heber too yearned to enlist, but his mother kept him out of the war…for a while.
Growing up across the world
"My mom insisted that I finish high school before she would sign my enlistment papers," said Heber. He graduated at 17, she signed, and he joined the Navy Seabees in July 1944. The Seabees had the mammoth job of building airfields, roads, warehouses, fuel storage dumps and base camps for the Navy.
Heber, who grew up in Ellicott City and later moved to Elkridge, had learned about the outside world from books and movies. After training in New Jersey and California, Seaman First Class Heber and his battalion, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40, left Oakland, Calif., for the South Pacific. "I had never been farther away than D.C. and Virginia in my life, and I was never away from home more than two or three days. And here I was going across the world!" he said.
The Seabees traveled on the Annabelle Lykes, an Australian cattle ship that had been converted into a troop vessel. The cattle theme continued to resonate, as the bunks for the men on board were stacked five tiers high.
It took six days to arrive at the ship's first stop, Pearl Harbor. But on the long trip south, Heber, who had never seen an ocean before joining up, was in awe of the immensity of the sea around them.
"It was quite beautiful, especially at night when the moon was shining across the water," he said. Soon, though, Heber would see the other side of warfare; the Seabees' two major destinations of Saipan and Okinawa had been ravaged by both allied and enemy forces and were no longer looking like postcard-perfect south sea isles.
On March 18, 1945, the Seabees made their first stop, at Saipan. Heber's duty was guarding the perimeter of the airfield that construction workers were building. Thirty men took guard duty shifts, because the construction crews worked not only during the day but also at night under lighted fields. Their primary objective was to form airfields from rice paddies and farms as quickly as possible.
Next, the Seabees moved on to Okinawa, landing on May 14. There was a frantic rush to get the airfield built, because it was the closest airfield to mainland Japan, extremely useful real estate if the allies had to invade.
"When we guarded at night and the Japanese planes came in, we'd set off flare guns to warn the workers," said Heber. The crews would then turn off the lights on their machines and run for cover. Heber also worked near the bay area, guarding the off-loading of ships carrying supplies.
Though he drew his share of night guard duty, he didn't come close to nodding off, as he discovered how effectively war zone duty could focus the mind. "You were too scared to get sleepy!" he said.
His fear was well-founded. On July 15, Heber and three other airfield guards were wounded by shells lobbed from enemy knee-mortars. Fifty-gallon drums of fuel at the fuel dump were also blown up in that attack.
At the aid station, the shrapnel was removed from Heber's back. He and the other wounded men were awarded Purple Hearts in the field. Heber went back on duty; the air raids and the fear continued.
"Unless you've been there, you just don't know the feeling that you get. You hear the air raid and the planes and you think: 'Is this it?' It's an unsettling feeling," Heber reflected.
When the Americans began building the Chimu airstrip, roads, and other base buildings, the people in the villages in that area were moved inland. Meanwhile, the construction continued at a fast pace, until the rains came.
"It rained for a couple weeks straight, and the mud was [so] deep it would suck your boots down," said Heber. Then came the typhoons. "After one typhoon, we went down to the beach and saw that the ships...had been dumped by the high winds into some woods, completely destroyed."
By August 1945 when the war was over, "all of us were happy, especially the older guys—the tradesmen who could finally get home and get on with their lives," said Heber. "We younger guys had more time to get our lives started again."
Heber was still a teenager when he became a veteran of World War II.
Home via China
At war's end and with time left to serve, Heber was transferred to the regular Navy. He boarded the USS Haas, which patrolled the South China Sea. When not at sea, Heber spent off-duty time in Hong Kong.
"There was a lot of destruction, and the Chinese in the city were all trying to sell you something," he said. Though Heber grew up fast during the war, the sights of post-war China also helped him mature. "I got to see how other people lived. You don't know how good you have it until you see that, like what was going on in China. People were just trying to survive."
After Heber was discharged from the service in January 1948, he returned to home to civilian life in Maryland. He spent the bulk of his career as a heavy press dye repairman at Kaiser Aluminum in Halethorpe.
Heber raised a family and has lived in Elkridge for 42 years. But his relatives, along with many other Americans, didn't really know much about the Seabees and their role in the war. Among the military, however, they were a much-heralded group that exemplified the organization's "Can Do" motto.
"They really needed us during the war," said Heber. "I was talking to a group of marines at the VFW and they said that next to the Navy Corpsmen, who were medics for the Marines, the Seabees were the greatest thing," said Heber.
Heber is not only proud of what the Seabees accomplished, but of all of those in the military and of the veterans. He's a lifelong member of the Veterans of Foreign War (VFW) Post 8097 in Jessup, and he was post commander for five years. He still attends many functions there, especially the services held on Veterans Day.
"We at the VFW just sent out gift boxes to those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. We like to see them come home in one piece, without the shrapnel too," he said.
Through Seabee reunions, Heber became reacquainted with some of his World War II comrades.
And just as his stint with Seabees took him to new places, now the 83-year-old is visiting places he's never been, attending annual reunions across the U.S. He's looking forward to the next one, in the Great Lakes area, in April 2011.
Back at his Landing Road home in Elkridge, Heber keeps many reminders of the war, including a battalion yearbook. When he looks at his keepsakes, he feels fortunate to have survived. "I was lucky that shrapnel didn't go deeper, or into my spine," he said. And though he has his medals framed and his reunions to attend, it's that piece of shrapnel he's kept which is his most poignant reminder of the part he played in world-changing events in the South Pacific, 65 years ago.
On Veterans Day, members of the VFW 8097 will be holding a memorial service at the Meadowridge Cemetery war memorial at 11 a.m., followed by a ceremony and cook-out at the post. The VFW is located at 7209 Montevideo Rd., Jessup, MD 20794.