WARREN, Minn. — World War II veteran Walter Hillman has lived his entire 95 years in the farming town of Warren, except for two. Three-quarters of a century later, as Veterans Day approaches, it's easy to see those two years left a big impression.
Hillman can recall with clarity the events that occurred during his two years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. It was a journey fraught with danger for the young farm worker, who had never been far from home but eventually found himself on an aircraft carrier, helping fend off a Japanese kamikaze attack in the South Pacific.
“It was hard for a kid 19 years old to adjust. ... It took some time to realize the situation you’re in," Hillman said. "It was kill or be killed.”
Monday is Veteran's Day, a day set aside to honor those who have served in the United States armed forces. It originally was called Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I. In 1954, it was changed to honor veterans of all wars. Throughout the nation, events will be held to mark the day; meanwhile, veterans will reminisce about the efforts they have made on the country's behalf.
Hillman was drafted to serve in World War II in November 1943. The war had escalated by that time, so he wasn’t surprised to get a letter of conscription into the service.
“I was working on a farm, so they waited until farming was over before I got my letter of welcome,” Hillman said.
He boarded a bus from Warren to Fort Snelling, Minn., after he was drafted.
“It was a great adventure for a country boy who had never been further from Fargo, N.D. -- in a cattle truck,” he said. “I enjoyed that part. I didn’t know what was coming.”
Hillman had his choice, so he chose the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I thought it would be fun to go to California. I took my boot camp training in San Diego,” Hillman said.
After several more months of training, he was assigned to Pearl Harbor, where he did guard duty. In November 1944, Hillman was one of five Marines assigned to serve under Rear Adm. Gerald Bogan on the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier.
“We were not a ship company, but we were on the admiral’s staff,” Hillman said. “He had a Marine by his side, night and day.”
The Intrepid, launched in 1943, survived five kamikaze attacks during World War II, including one that occurred during Hillman’s time on the carrier. He was on the port side when Japanese planes began swarming in the sky above the aircraft carrier. He was the ammo man for a machine gunner from Chicago, replenishing his 20-millimeter ammunition during the attack from above.
“He was a sailor. I was loading it, and he was firing it. I looked at him and he was white as sheet. I thought ‘Gee, it must be dangerous if he’s scared because he was always so brave,’” Hillman said.
As the planes and bombs fell from the sky, flames began licking the ship and the waters below it.
“We were burning pretty bad. I have no idea how many Japanese planes hit us,” Hillman said. “We would try to hit them, even just a little bit, to divert them from the ship.”
Then a warning came: “Prepare to abandon ship."
“I looked over the edge, and I was 90 feet from the water. All I could see was fire, and I was supposed to jump in the water?” Hillman recalled thinking to himself.
But just then, the bombs stopped dropping. He didn't have to jump.
“We headed for Pearl Harbor,” he said.
After the kamikaze attack on the USS Intrepid, Hillman went on 30-day leave and then returned to duty and served for a year aboard the USS Randolph, another aircraft carrier. He was honorably discharged Nov. 1, 1945, in Chicago and returned to Warren.
“Walt was home from the war,” Hillman said.
And that’s where he stayed. He married, raised three kids and ran a construction business.
Now, at 95, Hillman is the oldest member of the Warren American Legion and VFW.
“I’ve been a member of both since 1945,” he said.