OKEECHOBEE — Veteran Bill Bush, who is 97 years old, was born in Pennsylvania and worked in a defense plant after he graduated. In August 1943, one of his friends told him he thought they would all be drafted before long. “Why don’t we go up to Erie and join the ship repair unit,” he suggested. They decided to go together, but when they arrived, they were told the ship repair unit had not been started yet. They could join and wait until it was put together, so that’s what they did.
In April 1944, they had not been called up yet, and Bush told his girlfriend, Dora, he thought they should get married. “I figured the war would be over before they ever called me,” he explained. We got married on my 20th birthday, April 13, 1944.” Seven days later, he was called to duty. “I was gone for about a year and a half,” he said. “I tell people my wife and I never fought the first two years of our marriage.”
“We didn’t have much basic training. Mechanics and stuff like that, they figured we didn’t need that.”
He went up to Erie and was put up in a hotel. “Me and a couple other guys went up on the roof and looked down in the harbor at all the ships. Whooey! There were a lot of them, and boy were they big!”
He was assigned to a converted Liberty. He saw people going by with musical instruments and figured there would be bands on the ship. Having played slide trombone since the age of 13, he approached them and told them he played. He did not have his instrument with him, but one of the officers had one he was not planning to play. “I tell people I was in the Navy Band, and I was, just not the one everybody knows about.”
They were assigned beds down on the bottom of the ship. They were stacked four high. “We were assigned a bed and a locker, and things went well.”
His ship was the first to go through the Panama Canal in the dark. “It wasn’t difficult though, because it was lit up. I mean LIT up! I was surprised it would be that lit up during the war.”
Bush did welding on the ships. After passing through the Panama Canal, they ran into a ship that needed repairs. Someone had made Bush a platform to stand on as he welded the ships. “Three guys worked with me all the time, the same three.” He said he did not know where they got all the steel to patch the ships. “Some of them were so big you could drive a car through them.” The majority of the repairs were needed to fix battle damage. “We worked on a lot of merchant marine ships, and you’d be surprised what they haul. Everything!” The ships carried things from the United States out to the troops.
The ship Bush was on went all over the Pacific repairing damaged ships. “We ended up in Okinawa working on a merchant marine ship hauling car engines. I was working along, and things were going well. It had a hole you could drive a car in. I mean it was a big hole. They started pulling my welding cable back, and I said, ‘What’s the matter!’ They said it was a typhoon. Well, I’m from Pennsylvania. I didn’t know what a typhoon was. Boy, it didn’t take me long to find out! The wind started blowing. The ship started rocking. The ship we were tied up to took off. There were 200 ships in the harbor, and they all left. They had to or they would all bump into each other. They left us on this damaged ship that finally rolled over and sunk while we were in it. I got knocked unconscious and didn’t know anything for 12 days. The three guys who worked with me all drowned. When I woke up, I was on our ship.”
There were a couple things he never figured out while aboard ship. Where did they get all that steel? “It’s not like they could go buy it from Japan.” The other thing was, “Where did they get all those eggs? Twice a month we got bacon and eggs. Now, with 1,000 men, where in the world did they keep all those eggs?”
He never once got off a ship during his tour. They spent the whole nine months out at sea. Despite never having been on a ship before, he was not sea sick at all.
After his discharge, he went back to Pennsylvania and worked in the same factory. In addition, Bush drove stock cars for 15 years. “It was a lot of fun. I built my own car.”
After his wife’s brother and his wife decided to move to Okeechobee in 1990, Bush and his wife decided to come along. At first, they stayed out on Nubbins Slough but later sold their motor home and purchased a trailer in Town and Country Mobile Home Park. Mrs. Bush passed away about 11 years ago, and Bush has been alone with his two little dogs ever since.
Bush enjoys being active, and until he was hospitalized in March, he mowed and weedwacked 30 yards every week. While he was out of commission, someone poached his clients, and now he only takes care of five yards each week. “I welded all my life, but when I moved down here, I switched over to mowing lawns. I only mow five yards now, but that’s enough. After all, I am 97.”
Some of his neighbors do not drive, and Bush takes them to the store a couple times a month. “I always wear my service hat,” he said. “People stop me and thank me for my service. I laugh and say, ‘You’re welcome, but I was probably in the service before you were even born!’”
Bush has three children, two daughters, Nancy and Penny, and one son, Tom.