WOODBURY, Minn. - Bill Killian saw it coming.
During the Battle of Okinawa, fighter planes whipped up a whirlwind of bullets high above Killian's ship. Suddenly, one of the Japanese Zeros broke away, plunged toward the water and leveled off - skimming the tops of the waves.
Killian watched in terror as it turned toward him.
Three U.S. Corsairs chased the kamikaze plane, trying to shoot it down as it closed in on the destroyer. "I saw those 40 mm bullets making trails on the water," recalled Killian.
What happened next changed his life. Killian, then a 26-year-old U.S. Navy sailor, is now 98 and lives with his wife Vera in Woodbury. Sitting in his assisted living apartment last week, he recalled the fateful day for the Pioneer Press.
Soon, stories like his will cease to be heard. Only 558,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive today, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Many can't tell their stories anymore, unable to hear, talk or remember clearly.
But Killian can.
Enlisted after Pearl Harbor
Killian grew up in Chicago. "My first job was for 40 cents an hour" working in a factory making heating appliances, he said.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he tried to enlist but was rejected because of high blood pressure.
Determined, he tried again. "That time, they said, 'If you're breathing, you're in!'"
The Navy trained him as a signalman, transmitting messages via Morse code and semaphore.
His ship, the USS Roper, was already famous as the first U.S. ship to sink a Nazi submarine. The Roper sunk the German U-85 in shallow water off the coast of North Carolina.
With Killian aboard, the ship made five trips to Europe, escorting convoys.
In a lucky move that would later save the ship, the Roper was modified to allow it to deploy smaller landing-craft vessels. The conversion required shutting down one of the two engine rooms.
As the war in Europe wound down, the ship returned to its base in Norfolk, Va. "I remember we didn't have a single meal across the Atlantic, because the water was so rough," said Killian.
On to the Pacific
The ship was dispatched to the Pacific, assigned to aid convoys during the pivotal Battle of Okinawa.
"The Marines were taking a beating," recalled Killian.
The Americans feared kamikaze attacks, in which Japanese pilots would fly suicide missions into battleships. The day the Roper was attacked, Killian said, the Navy had used smoke pots to cloak the ships and hide.
The smoke cleared enough for him to watch the dog fight high overhead. "It was like a movie," he recalled.
It seemed almost entertaining - until one Japanese plane turned directly toward his ship.
As the Zero roared towards Killian, none of the ship's guns were firing at it. Why? They didn't want to shoot down the three pursuing American planes, right on the tail of the attacker.
Stray gunfire from the U.S. fighters peppered the Roper - until the kamikaze smashed into the ship at full speed. It hit near the ship's bridge tower.
But Killian was lucky.
The Zero hit the ship in the engine room that had been shut down. The explosion would have been far worse if the engine room had been functioning and the ship's fuel had been ignited. Also, while some kamikaze planes carried bombs, this one did not.
The crew quickly put out the fire before it reached the ammunition room, said Killian, "or else I wouldn't be here."
Shrapnel from the impact injured many of the crew. One officer was killed by friendly fire. But Killian survived, along with his ship.
Four months later, Japan was defeated. "It was a great feeling," Killian said.
History's worst war was over. And last week a man who helped America win that war sat in his Woodbury living room surrounded by souvenirs - photos, medals and a cap with "Four-Stack APD Veterans" on it.
In his lap, he cradled his favorite memento, a 2-foot-wide wall hanging.
On that day, when the fire was finally out, the crew collapsed in exhaustion. The smoking remains of the airplane were splattered against the bridge tower.
Killian found a pair of tinsnips. He cut off a piece of the airplane's wing, like a triumphant hunter cutting antlers from a slain deer. He found pieces of shrapnel and cut them into the shapes of small Zeros, and then removed the Japanese rising-sun flag stamped on the wing.
He riveted it all together, and today - 72 years later - it decorates his apartment.
Killian, tired out by the long interview, said he usually doesn't like talking about the episode. But this year he decided to make an exception.
"I am doing this for the crew," he said, his voice catching. "I loved those guys."
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