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Wednesday, June 7, 2006 | I once interviewed my neighbor, William “Wild Bill” Sumpter, about the Navy Cross he was awarded for sinking a Japanese cruiser in October 1944. His story was so fantastic I called the Navy Bureau of Personnel to verify it.
My neighbor had been the pilot of a Catalina, the name given to an amphibian patrol bomber, officially designated PBY. It was the most ungainly airplane to grace the sky, and so slow it would have blocked traffic in the fast lane.
Bill’s Navy Cross came on his last combat patrol in the Pacific, the so-called “milk run.” He hoped to avoid trouble so he could head home to “Petie” (Theresa), his wife of six years. He poked his nose into Toli Toli bay in the North Celebes Islands hoping he would find nothing.
But he found something, and he didn’t like it a bit! Up near the shore were a Japanese cruiser and some destroyers, nested together. All would be armed to the teeth. Even if their anti-aircraft batteries didn’t get them, their line of attack would carry them into a mountain. Bill made a U-turn and headed out to sea.
This wasn’t the time for blind heroics. After all, their reputation was intact. They already had credit for 13 ships sunk. But those ships had mostly been lightly armed merchant ships. These were fully armed warships, manned by real men; all who would have loved to take a shot at something barely faster than the plane of Orville and Wilbur.
Still, his crew wanted to take them on. Bill polled them one by one. Did they really want to go against such odds? He told them that if they had two no votes they would simply report the presence of the ships and go home. He added, “And we already have one no vote. Mine!”
Perhaps nobody wanted to be the only other dissenter, or maybe he truly had a heroic crew. His remained the only negative vote. Bill accepted the challenge and the responsibility. He figured he’d let the enemy settle down. They cruised for an hour or so then headed back to Toli Toli.
He approached the harbor from the mountain side of the atoll and told his crew, “We are going to make one run. That’s it. We are going to drop a salvo. Arm all bombs. Close all hatches, and pray.”
When he came over the top of the small mountain he learned the Japanese hadn’t settled down at all. Going downhill he figured he hit 110 mph and was greeted by ack ack from every ship down there. Bill was sure the Japanese couldn’t believe an airplane could go so slow, they led him too much.
He leveled off at about 200 feet right over the biggest of the bunch, the cruiser, and dropped all his bombs. Then he got out of there with whatever speed he could muster. One crewmember had the duty of checking out the damage.
Back over the intercom came the terse message “Jesus, Bill, it’s gone.” The guy was so excited he called both his lord and his pilot by their first names.
Bill flew out to sea then sent his own terse and slightly more circumspect, uncoded message to his commander: SIGHTED CRUISER. CRUISER JOINED SUB FLEET. HAULING A. He and most of the crew finished their last combat patrol and were rotated back to the states. They had sunk their 14th ship of the war.
Wild Bill’s derring-do wasn’t atypical. Like so many he didn’t start out to be a hero. After he graduated from Sweetwater High in the mid 1930s he enlisted in the Navy because it was a job, and jobs were rare in those days. He was assigned to the deck division of the battleship USS Pennsylvania where he was usually found on the working end of a paint scraper. His highest accolade may have been a grudging “not too bad, shitbird” from a chief boatswain’s mate.
He finagled his way out of the deck department into the air division (they had one seaplane) on the ship. Later, and after he married his high school sweetheart, Petie, he finagled some more. This time, into flight school at Pensacola. Petie had to approve the request and she did. Although he’d still be an enlisted man he’d get a bonus for flying.
Never, until he started sinking ships, was he considered anything much more than ordinary. He showed me excerpts from his service record, and his marks were considered average. He even showed me his marks as a student pilot. He was dangerously close to washing out according to one report dated November 1941.
Then, on December 7, 1941 everything changed. Within a year he was promoted to first class petty officer, chief petty officer, ensign and was given his wings.
His wife “Petie” died last week and my neighbor is hanging on to life by a thread, but don’t bet against him. Those ordinary guys from Sweetwater High can surprise everybody. In fact this one did, big time!