Veterans’ Reflections: A Life of Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 8, 2010 — If all you knew about Bill Sum­n­er was that he joined the mil­i­tary dur­ing World War II a day after grad­u­at­ing from high school, that would say plen­ty about his char­ac­ter and ded­i­ca­tion to his coun­try. But it marked only the begin­ning of a life of ser­vice.

World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Dur­ing an Oct. 13, 2010, inter­view at the World War II Memo­r­i­al in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Sum­n­er — a vet­er­an of World War II, the Kore­an War and the Viet­nam War — dis­cuss­es his mil­i­tary expe­ri­ences.
DoD pho­to by Navy Pet­ty Offi­cer 2nd Class William Sel­by
Click to enlarge

When he left for boot camp in 1942, the Unit­ed States was involved in World War II, Sum­n­er said, and he had to do his part. 

“A few months lat­er I was trans­ferred to Pearl Har­bor and was sta­tioned aboard the USS Mahan,” he said. 

On Dec. 7, 1944, the USS Mahan was patrolling between Leyte and Pon­son Island when a squadron of Japan­ese air­craft found it. 

“They were head­ing home after bomb­ing an inva­sion force, and I guess the Amer­i­can P‑38 start­ed to hit them,” Sum­n­er said. “So they decid­ed [that] rather than go home, they would just destroy us.” 

Dur­ing the ensu­ing bat­tle, Sum­n­er said, the nine twin-engine Bet­tys were div­ing into the ship one at a time, but only three of the air­craft actu­al­ly hit the Mahan. 

“The first one hit mid­ship, and the sec­ond one hit us between two stacks,” he added. “The third one missed us and then came back around and hit us.” 

The ship was explod­ing from all the muni­tions and weapons onboard, and there was noth­ing to extin­guish the fires, because one of the planes knocked out the pow­er to the ship, Sum­n­er recalled. With no pow­er and no water to fight the fires, the Mahan’s skip­per decid­ed it would be best for the crew to jump over­board. But, Sum­n­er said, there was one thing he could­n’t leave the ship without. 

“I had a dog onboard,” he said. “His name was Butch. He was a cock­er spaniel, and he was our ship’s mas­cot. I went down below to get him, and then we all jumped off the ship into the water.” 

The Mahan’s crew float­ed in the water for rough­ly two hours while wait­ing to be picked up, and even­tu­al­ly was sight­ed and picked up by the crew mem­bers USS Walke, a flat-bot­tomed land­ing ship. 

Sum­n­er said when Walke was ready to start tak­ing sailors on board, none of the crew would go until Butch was safe­ly aboard a fair­ly fun­ny addi­tion to an oth­er­wise less-than-com­i­cal sto­ry. After the sailors from the Mahan had board­ed the Walke, the deci­sion was made to sink the list­ing ship. 

The sur­viv­ing sailors did not get to come home imme­di­ate­ly, and Sum­n­er stayed aboard the Walke. While leav­ing the Philip­pines, Sumner’s ship was chal­lenged, he said, only this time it was­n’t the Japanese. 

“We were on the way back from the Philip­pines, and we hit the edge of Halsey’s Typhoon,” he said. “And believe me, that was [scari­er] by far than being sunk.” 

Sum­n­er returned to the Unit­ed States after trav­el­ing aboard five dif­fer­ent ves­sels over three months, and he was assigned to the USS Steinack­er on the East Coast. Soon after that, Sum­n­er received an hon­or­able dis­charge from the Navy. 

Years passed, and after he earned a degree from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Neva­da, Sum­n­er decid­ed to seek a com­mis­sion as an Air Force offi­cer. He served in the Air Force for 22 years, includ­ing time spent as a bom­bardier nav­i­ga­tor fly­ing com­bat mis­sions in the Kore­an and Viet­nam wars. All told, Sum­n­er spent 27 years serv­ing in the armed forces. He fought in three major wars and retired as a lieu­tenant colonel. 

He said serv­ing his coun­try was the most impor­tant thing he ever did. 

“I am deeply, deeply heart­felt about my expe­ri­ences in the ser­vice,” he said. “To me, I think it’s one of the great­est expe­ri­ences a per­son could ever have.” 

(“Vet­er­ans’ Reflec­tions” is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries of men and women who served their coun­try in World War II, the Kore­an War, the Viet­nam War, oper­a­tions Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and the present-day con­flicts. They will be post­ed through­out Novem­ber in hon­or of Vet­er­ans Day.) 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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