After 4 years of war, Navy veteran answered different call — high school
Posted: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:25 am
By: John Brannon, Staff Reporter
By JOHN BRANNON
Messenger Staff Reporter
Bill Casey of Hickman, Ky., has a Memorial Day story of another kind. It’s about high school. He was a dropout with a cause.
It was about this time of year in 1947 when he graduated from Cairo (Ill.) High School. Everything considered, that in itself was quite an accomplishment.
“I was supposed to graduate in 1942, but I joined the Navy right after Pearl Harbor and was gone four years,” said Casey, 86.
About Pearl Harbor, this brief glimpse of history. On Dec. 7, 1941, about 360 Japanese bombers and torpedo planes brought in under cover of darkness by aircraft carriers attacked the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
After two hours, the U.S. suffered 18 ships sunk or severely damaged, about 170 aircraft destroyed, in addition to 3,700 casualties.
The attack galvanized the nation to go to war against Imperial Japan.
Casey was just one of many young men who enlisted in the armed forces after the attack.
“I went into the Navy,” he said. As a young sailor, he served aboard the USS Chester, a heavy cruiser that saw action “just about everywhere.”
He recalled that his playing the trumpet three years in the Cairo High School band prepared him for extra duty on board the Chester. “The navigator (on our ship) found I could play the trumpet. He was trying to get a band together, anyway,” he said. “He came to me and said, ‘We need a bugler on the bridge, and Casey, you’re it. If you can blow a trumpet, you can play a bugle.’ So I became the ship bugler.”
He was gone from Cairo four years, most of it in the South Pacific. When he was honorably discharged, he had attained the rank of seaman first class.
“I came back, went back to school,” he said. “I wasn’t the only one, though. There were 14 of us veterans at that school. Thirteen other guys who had left school when the war started and came back to earn their high school diplomas.”
Wasn’t it tough to return to the classroom after four years’ combat experience in the South Pacific?
“Well, yeah. It took some adjusting. I remember the old professor stopped me and said, ‘Casey, you ready to go back to school? We already got 13 or 14 signed up.’
“Heck no, I wasn’t ready, but I went back. Didn’t do bad, either. Made A’s when I came back. When I went in, I wasn’t doing too good. So it was good for me to go back to school. Probably helped me get a job with IC Railroad later on.”
In school — the second round, that is — he took World History, English, math and mechanical drawing, or “shop,” as it was informally known. It was in “shop” that he built a map of the South Pacific. The “professor” saw it and made him give a speech about the war and his experiences.
He said it is proper and fitting the nation should pause on Memorial Day and pay tribute to its men and women in uniform, then and now. He said the nation is losing more and more of its older veterans. “We’ve had cruiser reunions each year since 1993. We had a couple of hundred guys at one time,” he said. “Every time we have another one, there’s somebody gone. I have a good friend from World War II days who stays in touch with me. His name is Earl Brannock. He came on the Chester a year after I did.”
Casey is also a veteran of 36 years’ service with Illinois Central Railroad, now Canadian National Railroad. “I was an engineer,” he said. “I ran those trains fast as the wheels would turn.”
He retired in 1984.
Published in The Messenger 5.31.10