Man keeping history of Navy ship afloat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAGERSTOWN - From the time he left the Navy in 1946, Bill Kearns held on to his collection of memorabilia from the USS Bon Homme Richard, on which he sailed from the day it was commissioned in 1944.

He never knew what to do with the pictures, the photographs, the uniforms - pieces that told his little slice of World War II history. He knew his buddies had mementos, too - tucked away in attics, packed in boxes, stuff many of their wives might be more than happy to have them discard.

It all clicked when he inherited an old rowhouse in this landlocked Western Maryland city and decided to turn it into a museum of the ship's history, a place to honor those who served alongside him nearly 60 years ago.

He now calls the house the Skivvy Waver House, after the nickname shared by Kearns and his fellow signalmen on the ship. It is a museum open to the public Saturdays.

"If I get a lot more material in, I don't know where I will display it," he says. "I'm almost floor to ceiling now."

The place is about much more than remembering the war. It is about one man's passion for his ship and his shipmates and also about his passion for life. "It really keeps him motivated," said Gretchen Ruch, one of his daughters-in-law. "It's like his job. He's done it all on his own."

Kearns grew up in Martinsburg, W.Va., moving to Hagerstown shortly after high school graduation to assemble planes. He watched his friends head off to war and, in 1944, he enlisted in the Navy.

His museum starts a few years before that. On the first wall are front pages of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin from Dec. 7, 1941. The first "extra" edition proclaims just six dead from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with "up to 400" as the day progressed.

Kearns is a "plank owner," or member of the ship's original crew. That Bon Homme Richard, of course, was not the first military ship of that name. The first was a vessel from the French during the American Revolutionary War, and was famously commanded by American John Paul Jones. It was on that ship that Jones was asked to surrender by the British after a crippling battle, and he replied, "I have not yet begun to fight."

The carrier on which Kearns served spent the waning months of World War II in the South Pacific, conducting airstrikes against the Japanese mainland. The ship guarded the entrance to Tokyo Bay in September 1945 as a peace treaty was signed aboard the neighboring USS Missouri.

Kearns and his shipmates traveled between the U.S. West Coast and the war zone to bring soldiers home from the islands after fighting ceased, an assignment called "magic carpet duty." Kearns disembarked in February 1946. The ship went on to serve in Korea and Vietnam.

The Skivvy Waver collection is heavy on photographs - including one of a very young, very dapper Kearns in his dress blues. There are flags, of course, since Kearns and his closest buddies used them to send out signals. Someone swiped them as souvenirs.

There is a copy of every issue of the war's "Morning Alert," a bulletin given to sailors each day. And there are uniforms in many shapes and sizes - though mostly smaller sizes. "No way could I get into them now," Kearns said with a laugh. "I won't even try."

One of his most interesting possessions are three oversized vinyl records. Records like these were played over the public address system, playing the hit songs of the day to entertain the sailors as they worked. What his records sound like, Kearns doesn't know. "I don't know where I could ever find a turntable [large enough] to play them on," he said.

"I still can't imagine how he was able to get all that stuff together, a man of his age," said Millie Rife, whose late husband grew up with Kearns.

The ship was decommissioned in 1971. Kearns and his shipmates, who reunite yearly now, had a reunion aboard the vessel in 1989 when it was docked in Bremerton, Wash. The veterans tried to save the ship, but it was dismantled in 1993. "We wanted to take it to Corpus Christi, Texas, to have a sea and air museum, but the Navy wanted $600,000 to do it," he said.

During the weekend, those who are left were to meet in Philadelphia, and Kearns was certain he would return with a trunkload of stuff.

Kearns acknowledges that he doesn't get as many visitors as he would like. He wants to share the story of life on a carrier. He works to improve the place all the time, as if the weekly crowd was in the dozens instead of single digits. He makes the 152-mile round trip twice a week from his Towson apartment - one day for maintenance, the other day to welcome, he hopes, waiting visitors.

His wife, Marjorie, whom he married in 1949, won't go with him anymore. "She knows if she does, I'll put her to work," he said.

Still, the visitors come, often those who served on the carrier or other carriers, or sometimes the children of veterans.

"It was a monumental effort - there's no question in my mind about it," Frank Hafele, 76, of Ocean City, who handled the planes on the Bon Homme Richard, said of the Skivvy Waver House. "For one man to accomplish what he did is next to a miracle. ...

"The pity is there are so few people that know of it."

The museum is at 232 1/2 S. Potomac St. It is open from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

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