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Remembering the Cabot: Handmade model brings back WWII shipboard experiences for North Bend’s Bill Walker
The handmade replica means a lot to North Bend resident Bill Walker.
Walker, 90, was 21 years old when he walked the decks and worked the boiler rooms of the USS Cabot during World War II.
Seventy years later, he wanted to remember his experience with a 12-inch model kit of the Independence-class ship. But his failing eyesight made it a challenge. So, at a dinner party, friend and neighbor Bob Malone volunteered to build it.
Some time later, Malone agreed to build a second, bigger kit for his friend Walker. He spent more than two months building a 21-inch model of the ship, which he presented at the May 8 American Legion Post 79 meeting.
“Bob—thanks,” says Walker. “It brought back some memories. It’s pretty darn nice of him.”
Walker worked the decks of the Cabot during the bloody finale of the United States’ Pacific war with Japan, as the ship took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.
The Cabot had arrived in the Pacific theater earlier, in late 1943, joining the fleet’s fast carrier force and taking part in all major carrier actions, campaigning in the Marshall Islands, taking part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, raids on the Philippines and other Pacific islands.
Joining the Pacific campaign wasn’t frightening. In 1945, Walker was more than ready to serve.
At the time, he was attending officer candidate classes at Columbia University in New York City.
“I was sick and tired of going to school,” he said. “My parents and friends and relatives, their kids were over in Europe. Geez, here I am in uniform, walking the streets of New York, having a ball Saturday night, and these poor guys are getting shot at. My attitude was, I gotta get out in the fleet! I did everything possible to get there.”
The ship he joined was a light carrier. The Cabot could get up to steam fast, had a short turning radius, and could cruise alongside the big Essex-class carriers.
The hull was originally designed for a new Cleveland-class cruiser, the Wilmington. But the navy needed carriers to deliver air power. So, the plan changed, and the Cabot with it.
She was given a good flight deck and hangar deck, and carried about 20 planes.
“They gave maximum consideration to combat efficiency,” Walker said, “and kept the personnel requirements in the background. It was tight quarters.”
“I was lucky I got assigned to that ship,” Walker said. “It’s the guys that make that ship. You can have the most modern equipment. If the guys are goof-offs, it ain’t gonna work.”
The Cabot’s crew had been in the Pacific since 1943.
“When I got on board, these guys were pretty well-seasoned. They’re disciplined sailors, good ones. They know their jobs. They’re the kind of guys you want on your side.”
The captain, Walton Smith, was a skillful ship handler with a good head on his shoulders, remembered Walker.
Doing the job
As an ensign aboard the Cabot, Walker led groups of sailors running the boilers, engines and steering systems of the carrier.
In combat situations, sailors sealed hatches to ensure the ship didn’t sink in the event of a hit. The Cabot wasn’t hit during his tenure—the worst attack had happened on November 25, 1944, when dozens of crewmen were killed by a kamikaze strike. Walker did survive several near misses, which were perceived belowdecks as lurches and moments of darkness as power failed.
One near miss, he said, felt as if the ship had jumped a foot into the air.
When that happened, “you say nothing,” Walker said. “You just keep doing your job. You look around and see how the other guys are doing. They’re counting on me, I’m counting on them.”
Survival “depended an awful lot on the skills and the courage of the guys you’re serving with.”
Walker praised the flyers and the soldiers who did more dangerous work.
“To me, somebody’s shooting at you, and you’re in a mudhole—that takes a lot of guts.
“We did our job,” Walker added. “They wouldn’t be where they are unless we got them there.”
Working belowdecks required sailors to perform, coolly and competently.
“Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s sheer boredom. Four percent of the time, you get a little anxious. One percent, you’re just plain scared.”
Once, he saw a crew member panic. In an attack, the lights went out. When they came back on, “I look, and one of the sailors is running up the ladder, trying to open the watertight hatch.”
“I’m 21. He’s 17. I could see the kid’s scared. I’m kind of scared, too.” Walker gently talked the boy into resealing the hatch and coming down. “After we secured, I called over his first class petty officer. I said, ‘Hey guys, as far as I’m concerned, this stays right here.’
The philosophy was that if a sailor lost control, they’d be off the ship.
“Our commander was very fair, but he was also very strict,” Walker said. “He demanded performance.”
In the Okinawa campaign, “it was very fierce, bloody fighting.”
His ship provided close ground support and bombing missions for the Marines assaulting heavily dug-in Japanese defenders.
“They fought to the bitter end,” Walker said. “They just didn’t come down.”
At this time, Cabot’s crew was always in the go. There were constant alarms for general quarters.
“You’d get maybe two hours rest. You didn’t take off your clothes.” He’d jump from his bunk, grab his flashlight and head to work.
“One time, I happened to be caught topside” during a kamikaze attack. The Japanese suicide pilots would target the American fleet, and carriers were among the choicest prey.
“You’re standing there, looking, and every ship in the task force’s anti-aircraft guns pounding away! Forty millimeter, three-inch, five-inch, tracers, hunting the plane. You’re going, ‘Get that SOB!’”
A single enemy had broken through—“A lot of our combat air patrol and our fighter groups, they’d get those guys before they got close. I used to see, off on the horizon, smoke—something got hit. Talking to officers after the war, when we were cruising home, they were talking about destroyers taking a beating.”
His late wife, Elly, also served in the navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service).
“She worked in the office where I went to training—that’s how I met her.”
Walker remembers the chance he got to see her, when the Cabot made port for a refit in San Francisco. He called up Elly’s Columbia University dorm at 2 a.m., got one of her roomates to put her on the phone, convinced her he was fine, and got her to come spend a week with him in the city by the bay.
After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the Cabot aided the occupation, and was sent to the Yellow Sea.
The Nationalist-Communist struggle in China was going on, and the Russians, Walker remembers, were watching that carefully. Airmen told of meeting Russian flyers in midair. Pilots would wave to each other. U.S. flyers were warned not to start trouble. The ship returned home that November.
Walker’s wartime experience defined adulthood for him, and much of his generation.
As a college-student civilian, life was “happy, happy, happy,” Walker said, Friday nights were 10 cent beers and pizzas. “But you did your homework.”
But war—“this sobered you up. It taught you, put a little backbone in you. You realized, hey, you gotta watch out for the other guy. He’s got to watch out for you.”
As for the Cabot, she was decommissioned, then became a reserve training ship. After a dozen years in mothballs, she was loaned to Spain in 1967, renamed the Dedalo. In 1989, she became a museum ship in New Orleans. In 2001, she was scrapped. Her island is the last relic of more than 100 light carriers used in World War II, and remains as an exhibit at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla.