Life and death often collide in war, drastically altering futures and re-shaping lives. Some of our veterans have survived and now serve as living testimonies of the bravery and honor that so many men exhibited, avoiding the natural inclination to put their own welfare above those of their men. Willard Huff, a naval veteran of World War II, was one of those men; he repeatedly volunteered to serve and barely came out alive. A World War II veteran stories. Come. Listen in to a veteran’s story, a veteran’s legacy.
World War II veteran stories are shared over coffee and solving the world’s problems.
Huff solves the problems of the world on a daily basis during morning coffee breaks with friends. His clear blue eyes twinkle as he finishes off an escapade about a grandchild; when someone laughs, a hundred-watt grin splits his wizened face. And then it happens. Something triggers a memory and the years roll back just like the waves splashing the shores of the South Pacific islands. Suddenly he is telling a story, drawing onlookers in.
He volunteered to go.
“Before the war broke out, I volunteered. Even when they turned me down, I went back two more times, just hoping they would forget about my burned hand. I wrestled with God every time, knowing I was supposed to go. Finally the doctor in charge waved me on through, vowing after a trip to the West Coast that I’d be sent back to the farm. But no one ever stopped me,” Huff speaks softly. “Nope. They never did.”
Huff remembers that in 1943 the U.S.S. McCawley departed from San Diego, a thirty-day trip ahead to the Solomon Islands, almost halfway around the world. While in the Pacific theater, he was helmsman of the flagship before the Solomon Islands’ invasion. It was pitch black in those early hours before the battle, and they were in uncharted waters only God could navigate.
Right before daylight, as the bridge swarmed with officers and before General Quarters was sounded, the captain turned to him, “Son, are you sure you can do this? You’ve got thirteen ships following you.”
Huff now says, “I wish he hadn’t told me that. But I continued at the helm until the quartermaster took over for landing.”
After depositing the marine and army forces, they turned and headed out. Just when Huff assumed his battle station on a twenty-millimeter anti-aircraft gun, the enemy planes appeared from out of nowhere, unloading torpedoes to the stern, midship, and bow. Explosions from the boiler room directly below them rocked their gun, covering them with blinding steam. Somehow Huff survived that day; however, the U.S.S. McCawley and sixteen of the five hundred crew members did not. God still had more work for Willard Huff.
His next duty was aboard the President Hayes. Because of her record for landing troops, they received a navy commendation, but he almost wasn’t around to get it.
At Bogunsville, he was running one of the landing crafts. On one occasion they unloaded troops for hours under heavy enemy fire. On their final return they were getting underway when a rainsquall swept in. As sheets of rain engulfed them, he pointed the landing craft toward the ship. They came through the squall, appearing alongside the Hayes. Ready to hook on, Huff couldn’t believe the captain motioned them away. Determined to get the Hayes in formation with the other ships, he forged ahead at ten to twelve knots.
Huff, intent on not being left behind in the middle of the South Pacific, kept pace, repeatedly attempting to come alongside. Finally they hooked on. Although he feared disciplinary action, it never came. Once again, he survived. Once more God intervened.
Awakened at midnight.
In another incident he was awakened at midnight with orders to secure a cargo boom. Huff didn’t want to send any of his men up there in rough seas, so he went himself, taking along one other sailor. The boat pitched and rolled as they cautiously made their way thirty feet up the swaying mast. The blackness covered their eyes like a mask so that everything had to be done by instinct. Huff remembers how his heart pounded as the wind whipped their bodies around like rag dolls, even though they were tied on. His heart whispered prayers for safety.
Finally they secured the cargo boom. Huff’s buddy crawled down first, but as Huff himself made his way down, his foot slipped, leaving him suspended in mid-air. “Time stood still as I swung above the waters, hoping the next pitch would bring back my foothold,” Huff said. “It seemed like an eternity passed before my foot could anchor on. But it did. When my foot hit the deck, I promised myself I wouldn’t go up high again, and I never did. Once again the prayers of this country boy were answered.”
Generation of a different caliber
Slowly the scene returned to the table, to the here and now of the coffee break. But every hand has gripped the helm. Everyone has been under gunfire. And everyone has felt the fear of the midnight on the mast. Everyone.
You observe that Willard Huff at ninety-three represents a generation of a different caliber. A generation that some would say will soon be a distant memory. But I propose that lives will always be different because of the legacy this man and others leave: a simple faith in God translated into a lifetime of perseverance, honesty, and self-sacrifice. These traits are forever carved in the hearts and minds of their children and grandchildren. I know. Because I am his daughter.
*adaptation from original in the Selma Times Journal and also American Moments (God Allows U-Turns, Bottke)