Nobody ever asked Walter Jay Bird about his World War II experiences until now.
"You (The Deseret News) are the only people that have ever asked or wanted to discuss my experiences in the service," the Salt Lake resident said. Not many U.S. military personnel were killed in the Persian Gulf War, yet officials and the public made a big deal when they came home, Bird said."What was there, 150 or 200 people killed in the whole thing? I've seen that many killed in the Pacific in seven minutes. When we came home after World War II, there was nothing," he said. When Bird arrived in Salt Lake City after being discharged from the service, even his dad and stepmother were not there to meet him.
But Bird said he's not a bit sorry for the time he spent fighting for the United States and the experiences he gained. However, after the war, he disposed of his military medals and awards because he wanted the experience out of his mind, his wife, Jean, said.
Recently, in response to a phone call, the Navy sent Bird the awards and medals he earned, which included a Presidential Unit Citation award, an ID bracelet, his dog tags and a Domain of Neptunus Rex certificate. The Neptunus certificate was given to his ship's crew members for passing the equator and international date line at the same time, a rare event that sparked a celebration.
In May 1943, at age 18, Bird voluntarily joined the Navy, spent a short time at an Idaho boot camp, then immediately went to war aboard the Natoma Bay aircraft carrier. Since he was a little boy, Bird wanted to follow in his tattooed uncle's footsteps - join the Navy and get tattooed also. He did, and has tattoos that say "U.S. Navy,"
"mother" and "sailor's grave" with a picture of a sinking ship. Bird didn't think he'd survive the war.
Bird was a throttleman in the engine room during the Natoma Bay's four trips from the West Coast to Pearl Harbor, then out to the Pacific. In the engine room, Bird could hear gunfire, but he only knew what was happening when someone announced over the loudspeaker, "Relax, we got 'em."
While he was aboard, the Natoma Bay took part in battles at the Marshall Islands, Admiralty Islands and Caroline Islands.
But his most memorable experience was during the Battle of the Marianas in 1944. At this time, Bird was a boat engineer and while he was attempting to lower a boat hanging above the flight deck, one of the hooks came loose, tossing him into the shark-infested waters.
The ship was in formation and, therefore, couldn't stop to retrieve him, so Bird was thrown a life preserver and left there. "I thought my days were over," he said. But the carrier had radioed to a smaller ship, and three hours later, Bird was fished from the water.
After he was transferred off the Natoma Bay, Bird was sent to a new aircraft carrier called the U.S.S. Randolph.
With tears in his eyes, Bird told of how the Randolph was the only ship to shoot down a kamikaze plane where the Japanese pilot bailed out. A destroyer picked up the Harvard-educated kamikaze pilot and brought him to the Randolph, where he was kept prisoner.
While Bird was on board during an Okinawa/Iwo Jima campaign, the Randolph was in the first carrier group to bomb a Japanese homeland. The carrier was also in Tokyo Bay when the peace treaty was signed on the battleship Missouri in September 1945.
Suicide planes were always a threat to U.S. carriers. From the time they took off, Japanese pilots knew what their job was - to sacrifice their lives by diving into American ships.
At one time, the Randolph was hit in the Philippine Islands by a U.S. P-38 making playful runs at the ship.
"A P-38 was showing off. He went up and as he came down, he just kept coming and hit the front part of the ship." Fourteen died, two were Bird's friends.
In November 1945, the Randolph was converted to a troop ship. "The big push was to get as many soldiers out of the European theater and back home for Christmas. We transported 3,200 Army personnel from Naples, Italy, in two fast trips from Nov. 15 to Dec. 23," Bird said.
After helping others get home for Christmas, Bird attempted to catch a flight to Salt Lake City. He was told he could be there in 30 days. But a wounded Marine who had been discharged and was working for the airlines said to him, "I'll get you there." He did, and Bird was able to spend the holiday with his family.
Although more than 46 years have passed since Bird served aboard the two carriers, he said, "The things you just absolutely can't forget are friends being killed. They are with you one minute and five minutes later they're gone."
Bird met his wife as she was playing the accordion for Salt Lake servicemen during a "boot leave." They married three years later.
When discharged in April 1946 from active duty, Bird was a machinist's mate, third class. He remained in the active reserves and was with the first Naval Reserve Unit to leave Utah during the Korean War, where he served as a deep sea diver. Bird retired 10 years ago from the U.S. Postal Service, where he was a mechanic.