MILTON — Always a touching presention, the awarding of a Quilt of Valor to a veteran or active-duty member of the military is just that — an award for their dedication, sacrifice and duty.
Bill Barnett, of Milton, was awarded a Quilt of Valor this week by members of the Columbia County Quilts of Valor.
A national organization, Quilts of Valor has awarded more than 233,000 quilts, and locally, the Columbia County unit has presented over 530 quilts in only 3 1/2 years.
Quilts are meant to provide comfort and provide a reminder that their service is appreciated by those around them. Presenting the award to Barnett was Jim and Bonnie Fiedler, and Deb Park, who pieced the quilt. Margie Eisenbeis also took part.
Barnett, 96, was drafted in 1943. He was working at the Ordnance Works in Allenwood at the time.
Newly married, Barnett went to boot camp and soon found himself aboard Patrol Craft (PC) 138 in the Atlantic, where he and his fellow sailors were charged with fending off and destroying German U-boats. Known as submarine chasers, the work was dangerous, but necessary for shipping lanes and troop transports.
Part of a convoy, the PC1238 aided vessels traveling from New York to Cuba and points further south.
“I was in charge of the depth charges,” he said. “You had to know how to set them, even when it was dark. You had to go by feel.”
The need to know was crucial as the Atlantic was teeming with U-boats, or German submarines intent on sinking commercial and military vessels. “We had two big guns that shot the depth charges out each side of the ship.”
After more than a year, he ended up on a gunboat, the PGM 17, which arrived in the Pacific in 1945 and made its way through the Marshall Islands to Okinawa.
He was there for the Battle of Okinawa, one of World War II’s bloodiest. He and his shipmates survived numerous kamikaze attacks.
Early one morning, Barnett ran to his 40mm gun and cranked up electric motors as he noticed a smokescreen hovering over the water.
“It was 4 a.m. and we heard the airplane coming,” he said. “It was coming right over top of us. We saw it and cut loose on it. I think we fired four shots and down he went.”
Recalling the incident, his voice quivered. “We were on patrol, out at the end of the bay.”
Work at Okinawa kept the men busy.
“We were there for the invasion of Okinawa,” Barnett remembered. “We got there Palm Sunday. The invasion was Easter Sunday. “We went in with the mine sweepers. If they found them, we’d blow them. We spent a week in Buckner Bay sweeping the channels ahead of the invasion.”
He and his shipmates witnessed numerous dogfights in the air above them. It wasn’t uncommon to have shrapnel fall aboard the ship, he remembered.
Stationed aboard the USS Hamul, a destroyer tender in the Pacific charged with repairing damaged vessels in the Battle of Okinawa, Barnett remembered sitting on deck aboard a wench with six to eight other sailors.
“There were all kinds of ships around us,” he remembered. “There was big (Naval) brass (officers) on those ships, right in back of us.”
Suddenly an airplane appeared, alone in the sky. The men soon realized it was a Japanese plane intent on taking out the ship with officers as it swooped down, headed right toward the Hamul.
“The sky lit up with tracer bullets,” Barnett recalled. “If he was going to get hit, it would have taken him right into us. He pulled up and someone hit him. His plane went to pieces.”
When the PGM 17 swept a coral reef and sustained disabling damage, Barnett found himself aboard the USS Hamul, a sea-going tug that was charged with bringing 200 new boats up from Guam.
Aboard a living ship, which had no defense and served only to house sailors for sleep, Barnett wold survive Typhoon Louise, which came over Okinawa on Oct. 9, 1945.
“We were anchored with six 12-ton anchors,” said Barnett. “When the typhoon hit, looking out the port hole you couldn’t see the top of the waves. It was tearing the steel off the deck.”
All he had was a flashlight and a life jacket. He admitted that at the time, he didn’t think he’d make it. Everyone on the ship was terrified.
“When the storm was over, you could step off the APL and you were on sand,” said Barnett. “I looked out and there were 38 ships on land.”
Louise was one of two typhoons Barnett lived through during his service in the Pacific.
Louise claimed the lives of 36 American personnel, while 47 went missing and over 100 were injured. It claimed 22 ships or vessels, grounded another 200-plus and damaged another two-dozen-plus ships and vessels.
Barnett was on Okinawa when word came in August that the Japanese had surrendered.
“We didn’t know whether or not to believe it,” he remembered.