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Jim Kenyon: World War II Veteran Says He Was Just Doing His Part

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, May 26, 2018

Chances are good that you won’t find 97-year-old Warren Williams waving to the crowd from a parade float or participating in any other ceremonies this Memorial Day weekend, despite being a World War II veteran.

Williams would much prefer to be working at his family’s portable sawmill on Happy Hollow Road in Royalton over the holiday. “I cut lumber this morning, until I ran out of gas,” he told me last Monday.

He was referring to the saw.

Williams, who lives across the road from the sawmill, was among the 16 million Americans who served in World War II. By last year, their numbers had dwindled to 558,000, including fewer than 5,000 in Vermont and New Hampshire, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs statistics.

With this being Memorial Day weekend, I figured there’s no better time to tell Williams’ story. Here goes:

He grew up on Long Island, the oldest son of a truck driver and homemaker. On Dec. 7, 1941, Williams, who had graduated from high school in 1939, was working for the Long Island Rail Road.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, “all us young fellas wanted to get in,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life working on the railroad, anyway.”

The Air Force appealed to Williams the most. “When they told you an airplane could go 300 mph, that was something,” he said.

After basic training, Williams entered an Air Force engineering school to learn what was expected of him on a combat flight crew. “If an airplane had it, we had to know how to repair it,” he said.

Williams was then assigned to the Chinese-American Composite Wing, or CACW, for short, When Japan invaded China in 1937 much of the Chinese air force had been destroyed. Two years later, the U.S. and Chinese governments initiated a joint operation to keep the Japanese at bay. On New Year’s Day 1945, Williams, at age 23, arrived at Hanchung Airfield in central China.

Before sitting down with Williams last week, I went to the internet for old photos of planes used in China. When I showed Williams the first photo, he didn’t hesitate. “That’s the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk,” he said.

How could he come up with that so quickly — nearly 70 years later?

At engineering school, he’d gone through aircraft recognition training. A photo of a plane would flash on a screen, and he’d have only milliseconds to identify “friend or foe.”

Williams flew 28 bombing missions in China. Flying a B-25 bomber at 16,000 feet, the crew targeted bridges, railroad yards and ammunition dumps. Before each mission, Williams lined the floor under his seat with flak jackets to shield him from enemy bullets coming up through the bottom of the aircraft.

Back on the ground after eight hours or more in the air, each crew member was rewarded with a shot of whiskey.

Williams’ most memorable mission?

That would have been No. 5 — early March 1945. The target was a railroad bridge — crucial to Japan’s north-south supply line — on the Yellow River.

After dropping its allotment of bombs, the B-25 and six-man crew came under enemy fire. An explosion rocked the plane. A dazed Williams gathered his wits. “Why am I not dead yet?” he asked himself.

He checked on his pilot, John Henderson. “He was bleeding to beat hell,” Williams recalled.

Williams grabbed a medical kit, pouring packets of sulfur-based powder to staunch the bleeding in several deep cuts to Henderson’s head, which apparently stemmed from broken glass flying around the cockpit. He wrapped the pilot’s forehead in gauze.

“The plane wouldn’t climb,” Williams said. “I was sure we were going to crash.”

But three hours later, they were safely back on the ground.

In early August 1945, Williams was preparing to embark on his 29th mission when word arrived that the U.S. had dropped the first atomic bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. “We couldn’t believe the bomb had wiped out a whole city. The war was over.”

A few months later, Williams boarded a transport ship bound for the U.S.

In 1948, Williams married Catherine “Kitty” Kummert, who grew up near him and worked as a legal secretary. They honeymooned in southern Vermont, where Williams promised that “someday, we’re going to have a farm here.”

Years later, while visiting friends in Bethel, they happened upon the farmhouse on Happy Hollow Road. After Williams put in 22 years as a nuclear engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, the couple moved to Royalton in 1969.

Kitty Williams, 88, died in 2009. The couple, who had five children, were married for 61 years.

Other than a bit of joint stiffness and some skin cancer, Williams says he has little to complain about. There’s certainly nothing faulty with his memory. During our two-hour conversation, he rattled off names, dates and places faster than I could write them down.

Out of curiosity, I asked his son Dale, who lives across the road, about his dad’s lack of interest in taking part in Memorial Day parades and such. He was certainly worthy of the attention.

“I’d like to see him do that, but it’s just not his thing,” Dale said.

I brought it up again with Williams. “I was never seeking glory,” he said. “I just wanted to do my part for my country.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.