George Park of Guemes Island was a quartermaster and helmsman aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill when, on June 19, 1944, a plane from the Imperial Japanese Navy tried to deal a death blow to the carrier and its squadron of Hellcat fighter planes.
The ship had entered the war in 1943 and was helping to turn the tide in the Pacific, sending Hellcats on air raids and amphibious landing support missions in the Marshall Islands, the Truk Atoll, Guam, Saipan, Tinian, and the Palau Islands.
Then, June 19, 1944, the Philippine Sea. Park, now 95, has vivid memories of what happened next — and the terrible price his shipmates paid for peace.
“All water-tight doors were closed, and all hatches were down,” recalled Park, who was 19 at the time. “I was at battle stations, the whole ship was shut off … The 5-inch guns were all manned, the 40mm (guns) were all manned. She was a closed ship and would stay that way as long as aircraft was going off and on and off (the flight deck).”
Suddenly, an explosion rocked the carrier — it was an Imperial Japanese Navy aerial bomb, designed to explode and send fiery fragments outward from the point of detonation.
“That started the fires going,” Park said. “Some of the planes, they caught fire. The whole ship was a bloody mess.” Two sailors were killed, and about 80 more were wounded.
The Hellcats responded with fury. From June 19-20, Hellcats from the Bunker Hill and other U.S. 5th Fleet ships shot down an estimated 645 enemy aircraft in what became known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
“It was the only night I ever saw the flight deck lights lit up, so they could land them airplanes in the dark,” Park recalled. All told, the U.S. 5th Fleet sank three Japanese carriers and two oilers, damaged six other ships and, according to historians, “eliminated the Imperial Japanese Navy’s ability to conduct large-scale carrier actions.”
But the battle wasn’t over.
After a two-month overhaul and weapons upgrade at Bremerton Naval Shipyard, Bunker Hill was back in the fray: the Battle of Iwo Jima, the Battle of Okinawa, and the sinking of the Japanese battleship Yamato, the largest battleship in the world.
U.S. naval forces were pushing Japan ever closer to surrender. Then, the morning of May 11, 1945, the Bunker Hill sustained its most significant damage of the war.
According to the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, an office of the U.S. Navy, two Japanese kamikaze planes each dropped 550-pound bombs onto the carrier and then crashed onto the carrier’s flight deck and the superstructure, respectively.
A bomb from a kamikaze plane penetrated to the pilots’ ready room, killing 22.
Other compartments below-deck sustained heavy damage. Two of Park’s fellow quartermasters were blown into the water and used their dungarees as makeshift life preservers until they could be rescued. Park said his berthing area was heavily damaged, though he escaped injury.
All told, 390 sailors and airmen were killed and 264 were wounded that morning.
Park recalled that one of three elevators that raised and lowered planes to the flight deck “got blown.” Two pistons that pushed the elevator up were each shaped like an “S” because of the heat.
As for what thoughts Park had at the moment of the attacks, he said, “I didn’t have time to think.”
Bunker Hill steamed at 20 knots to the Micronesian island of Ulithi, where pilots that had been diverted to other carriers rejoined the ship, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
The carrier then continued to Pearl Harbor and then Bremerton Naval Shipyard for repairs.
Bunker Hill was in the shipyard when Japan’s Emperor Hirohito announced on Aug. 15 the surrender of Japan to the Allies.
The war in Europe had ended on May 7. Now, the war in the Pacific was over. But the memories endured.
Nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since the end of the war. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 16.1 million people served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. There were 291,557 battle deaths, 113,842 other deaths in service (non-theater), and 670,846 non-mortal woundings. An estimated 496,777 American veterans from the war were estimated to still be alive in September 2018.
Park was born in 1925 and grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He joined the Navy in 1943, a self-described “skinny little kid” of 18 with experience as a cable splicer — the only cable splicer his employer had, which he said could have enabled him to stay out of the war.
“I donated my time because it was forced on me, more or less,” he said. “I was drafted. I didn’t volunteer, but I could have stayed out.”
But he didn’t. He trained as a quartermaster, or enlisted assistant to the ship’s navigator, was assigned to the Bunker Hill — which had been built at Fore River Shipyard in his home state of Massachusetts — and found himself in the middle of the most deadly war in human history. He served two years, eight months and two days and attained the rank of quartermaster third class.
His decorations include the American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. He’s also a shellback — the term for a Navy sailor who crosses the Equator. But there was no time for celebration after that crossing.
After the war, Park returned home to New Bedford and went to work for a local boatyard, building wooden sailboats. He also worked as a lobsterman and as a pin setter in a bowling alley.
“It wasn’t easy money, but it wasn’t bad,” he said of setting pins. “We could set the pins on the spots that we wanted to. If a guy was giving us a hard time, he didn’t get too many pins knocked down.”
A sister introduced him to a friend from nursing school, Muriel, in 1947. They married in 1948 and followed some friends to Bremerton, where Park landed a job as a pipefitter at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. They bought a waterfront home and started a family.
Park worked at the shipyard for 28 years, retiring as a planner and estimator for cooling systems on aircraft carriers. His son, Russell, also retired from the shipyard and lives in the old family home on the Bremerton waterfront.
Muriel and George moved to Guemes Island in 1987 to be close to a daughter, Susie, who was expecting a child, and decided to make Guemes their home. Another daughter, Carol, also lives on the island. The family now includes six grandchildren.
While in Bremerton, George sang with a noted quartet, The Bremertones; the quartet’s banner is displayed on a wall in his living room, not far from photos of him and Muriel (she passed away in 2008), and of the young sailor in uniform.
Park is succinct in response to questions about the experience of war. How did the war shape him? “I wouldn’t say it did much,” he said, with a sort of gruffness becoming of a war-hardened veteran.
Was there a time during the war when he didn’t think he’d make it out alive? “No, not really,” he said.
“He still is a tough guy,” his daughter Carol said, adding of her father’s generation, “Kids were different back then. Nobody wants to go (to war).” One of his neighbors on Guemes Island was a pilot on the Bunker Hill during the kamikaze attack and lived with survivor’s guilt, Carol said.
Park remembers his shipmates and those who made the ultimate sacrifice. But he also holds onto memories of the life he was fortunate to live.
“I’ve got a lot of fond memories,” he said. “And as I said, I’ve done lots of things in my life.”