Lynden man survived stint as tail gunner in South Pacific

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDNovember 10, 2013 

Bernie's dad, Pete Visser, was a new immigrant from Holland when he joined the Army in World War I. Because of that experience, he told Bernie to enlist in the Navy if he joined up, for then he would always have a bed and food to eat.

So on his 18th birthday, March 19, 1943, Bernie was sworn in, along with his buddy from Lynden, Elmer Wiersma. They went through boot camp in Farragut, Idaho.

The two parted later, because Elmer went to submarine school. Bernie was too tall, at 6 feet 3 inches, so he went to Norman, Okla., for aviation ordinance school.

Bernie spent his first year in the service waiting for the USS Shangri-La squadron to be formed. His duty was as a tail gunner on a Helldiver. It was just the pilot and him. Once the plane was airborne, he would swivel around and be ready to fire off.

Stationed in the South Pacific, he flew missions over Iwo Jima, Okinawa and mainland Japan. His squadron was also assigned to fly over the USS Missouri at the end of the war, while the peace treaty was signed, just in case there was a surprise attack.

Bernie saw the carrier Bunker Hill get hit, as well as the USS Franklin almost sunk. His aircraft carrier almost was a victim of a kamikaze attack. The kamikaze plane was within a few hundred feet of striking the carrier, but a gunner's mate got a lucky hit with a 5-inch shell and blew a wing off of the plane, which sent it spiraling into the water.

"You always think it is going to be the other guy who gets hit, but this was close," Bernie recalled.

His friend Elmer's submarine, the USS Bullhead, was sunk with all hands aboard two weeks before the war was over. A devastating loss.

Having come back from the war with so many other worthy veterans, people just went to work finding jobs and picking up the pieces of their lives. There was no big welcome back.

On July 13-15 this year, Bernie and his daughter were finally able to go see the new World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., along with the Washington and Lincoln monuments, the Korean, Navy and Air Force memorials and the Vietnam Wall. That was an ultra-super weekend, not only to see the awe-inspiring monuments dedicated to men and women who fought and gave their lives for this country, but also to hear ordinary folks walk up and say "Thank you for serving."

- Nancy Nyland (daughter), Lynden

FOR INFORMATION

The Honor Flight Network organizes veterans' visits to war memorials. For details, call 937-521-2400 or see honorflight.org.

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