Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Looking the Enemy in the Eyes - A Story from Bill Campbell

Tuesday, June 17th 2014

Today was my first day working on the Oral History project for Washington College, and it was definitely not what I expected. The rest of the group has been here for a couple of weeks, (besides Rachel Brown who just joined also, but has been doing this since 2013 so she’s already basically a pro) and have already had experiences with interviewing. So, for today I acted as a shadow while Molli Cole and Brady Townsend had their first group interview with Bill Campbell. 

To be honest, I was very timid about interviewing a World War II veteran. I had never done an actual interview before, so I was afraid I was going to be awkward and therefore make the interviewee feel uncomfortable. Also, I had the expectation that veterans would be reluctant to share their stories and that it was going to be all up to me to prompt them to be motivated to want to talk. But Bill Campbell, aka “Soup” by his shipmates, changed my perspective completely. He was very warm and welcoming, showing us his “pad” and the back porch he uses for bird watching. He brought us into his office, which was like walking into a room of his history being involved in World War II and the extra 10 years he stayed in the military, filled with pictures of his destroyer, pictures at award banquets, medals, uniforms, awards, and files that held information pertaining to what he did while in the war.

When we first sat down with Campbell, he gave us the rundown of what happened during his time out at sea on the destroyer USS Melvin. As the interview went on, we asked him more questions that gave us more detail of his experience. 

When Campbell was assigned to the USS Melvin he was the assistant gunnery officer. So, when the gunnery officer left for his downtime or rest, it was Campbell’s job to take his place. He told us that his first experience however, was a lot more extreme than expected. It was his first week on USS Melvin, and while watching over the gunnery office they were attacked by the suicide bomber kamikaze planes. These planes must have been terrifying, because not only are they bombing and attacking you…but even with two of their wings blown off, they will keep coming at you. 

One of the kamikaze actually dived down so close towards the destroyer that it was impossible for USS Melvin to shoot it down because the bomb attached to it and the debris could destroy their ship. As the kamikaze was getting closer, all the gunners could do was waiting to see what would happen next. As Campbell watched from the gunnery office, his and the Japanese eyes met...something that would most likely be the last thing that a soldier sees, but to their astonishment the kamikaze  lifted up and flew just barely over the destroyer. After that, they shot the kamikaze down. This was particularly interesting to me, because you rarely hear stories of how two opposing sides share an intimate moment such as making eye contact and then live on to tell others about it.

As this is only one of Bill Campbell’s stories, he had many that he shared with us. He and the rest of his crew were successful with their other battles and missions, and they also helped with the occupation in Japan after the war. They did this from July all the way to December, and after hitting a typhoon, the USS Melvin finally made it back to San Francisco to return to their wives after a long period of their life out at sea. He graduated from the Navy in class 1944, and is currently involved in the committee for setting up reunions for his graduating class. 

I will always appreciate how open Campbell was with us and how fun he made me first interview for me. I’m very excited about what else I will get to hear from our veterans in their moments of bravery serving our country. 

-Nancy Louck

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