In honor of the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I proudly share with you a very condensed version of my great-uncle Bill’s story. He was in the Navy at Pearl Harbor and later rose to the rank of Commander. This is not, however, a story of Pearl Harbor, as much as it's a story of a great man who devoted 30 years of his life to the U.S. Navy.
CDR Howard William Childress
U.S.S. Enterprise at Pearl Harbor
U.S. Navy Commander
U.S. Navy Commander
Born in “The Hollow” (Ararat, VA) April 2, 1919, to William Osborne Childress and Mary Etta Maude Gill Childress (who died 2 weeks after his 10th birthday), Bill Childress attended school in White Plains, NC and graduated in 1936 with honors. One year later he enlisted in the Navy and May 12, 1938 was commissioned as part of the USS Enterprise crew (aka The Big E). Unforeseeable at the time, this aircraft carrier was to become the most decorated ship of the 2nd World War, and Bill would be a part of that.
After some time in Brazil, VA, CA, and WA, the Enterprise made several trips between Hawaii and the west coast, carrying aircraft and supplies. In May 1940 Bill was promoted from boat crewman to Quartermaster 3rd class, and the following May to Quartermaster 2nd class. No one realized as they arrived in Hawaii in March 1941 that they would not see the mainland again for 2 years and 4 months. In Nov. 1941, after delivering a load of planes to Wake Island, they were scheduled to return to Pearl Harbor Dec. 6. Due, however, to a fueling entanglement of another ship, orders were issued for the Enterprise to slow down to 8 knots (to allow the Northampton to clear her propeller), meaning arrival at Pearl Harbor would be delayed until the next morning (Dec. 7). Without this delay, the Enterprise would surely have been sunk that historic Sunday when the Japanese made their surprise attack.
Bill had passed up a partial scholarship to UNC after high school, because during the depression he didn’t have money for clothes, and he had been saving his money to go to college. His enlistment expired four days after the Pearl Harbor attack, and thinking the Japanese could be defeated in two more years, he decided to reenlist for two. (He couldn’t have left anyway at that point.) The Japanese were claiming they sunk the Enterprise, and there was no way to communicate with family for a long time, so his family believed the news stories and believed Bill to be dead. Bill’s younger brother Everett, 16, left school, faked his age, and enlisted in the navy to avenge the loss of his brother. Their older brother James had been drafted, and Roy would be drafted later.
During the next months Bill would participate in combat and witness the first Kamikaze as a plane attempted to crash into their deck, rupturing a gas line and starting a small fire, but failing to destroy. May 1, 1942 Bill was promoted to Quartermaster 1st class. In August the ship was badly damaged by bomb hits, but still was not defeated. On Oct. 26, 1942 the Wasp was sunk, leaving the USS Enterprise as the only operating allied aircraft carrier in the Pacific. From 1942 to 1944 the ship participated in numerous battles and raids. Over the span of the war, the Big E shot down 911 planes, sunk 71 ships, and badly damaged or sunk 192 others.
Bill returned to the mainland on leave in Oct. 1944 and got married to Jane Weddle on Nov. 29. He was ordered Assistant Navigator of the cruiser Little Rock, commissioned July 1945, and was engaged in shakedown training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war.
April 1, 1946 Bill was promoted to Lieutenant J.G. and spent some time in Europe. In 1947 he acquired a permanent position as officer in the Navy. He became a full-time student at UNC and graduated in 1950. His daughter Jan was born in 1948. On July 1, 1951 Bill was promoted to Lieutenant, after which he would sail to Greenland, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean.
In March 1955 he became Assistant Professor of Naval Science at UNC-Chapel Hill and also resumed his own studies, to graduate in 1956 with a degree in physics and a minor in math. That same year he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander and inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honor Society, then July 1, 1960 was promoted to Commander and continued sailing the world until his retirement in 1968, after over 30 years of service. He received a Master's Degree in Education in 1970.
Note: I had the pleasure of personally getting to know Uncle Bill, even visiting his home a couple of times in Virginia Beach, and he was a delight. His complete memoir, from which I compiled this much shortened version, is available in the Library of Congress.