As a 94-year-old World War II veteran, Discovery Bay resident Jim Hillyer is one of the last of his kind.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, California’s population of vets who served in that war is predicted to fall to about 30,000 by next year, down from 100,000 in 2015.
Hillyer’s service story began in 1942, when he enlisted in the Navy at age 17 — although it was a year later than he’d initially hoped.
“I tried to enlist when I was 16, but somebody who knew my mother down there at the recruiting office squealed,” recalled Hillyer. “She almost killed me.”
With a father who’d fought in World War I, and a neighborhood full of friends who were going into the service, Hillyer was determined. Once he hit 17, he went back to the recruiting office and, later that evening, met his father at the bus station when he was coming home from work at the Oakland shipyards. Hillyer had the paperwork, and his father signed.
“My dad was easy going, but my mother was a hot-headed Irishwoman, and she was fast with her hands, too, if you didn’t behave,” Hillyer said with a chuckle. “I went back with Dad to the house and said, ‘Will you hang around me?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’ll handle the Irishwoman.’ He never ever questioned her, but he’d get in front of her and keep me behind him.”
Before long, he was off to bootcamp training in preparation for war. Many of the ships weren’t ready, since they’d been destroyed in Pearl Harbor, and work was underway to repair them. In more ways than one, the war offered job opportunities.
“Women were starting to work on things on the ships, which we’d never seen before,” Hillyer said.
Once she was ready to sail again, the USS Maryland became Hillyer’s battleship, where he was assigned to handle ammunition below deck. Hillyer recalled the poor air quality in the ship filled with hundreds of men.
“Sometimes, they let the engineers go topside to get air, because you don’t get air below,” he said. “They even let us take our shirts off, which is a no-no in the service. Everyone had rashes, because everything was closed up ... The ship had hammocks, with everything you own in that hammock with you.”
There was only one place Hillyer was able to find for his hammock, and it was directly under an oil line, so he could feel the heat radiating off the metal.
“It was a sweat box,” he said.
Once in active battle, Hillyer recalled the shooting, and seeing islands full of palm trees decimated.
“Us kids had listened to the radios about the wars going on, but you don’t realize what’s it’s like until you’re there,” Hillyer said. “When they let us go topside to get air, that was the worst thing I’d seen was all the marines floating in the water with their packs on their backs.”
Hillyer had no reprieve from fighting for years, as the USS Maryland became entrenched in multiple battles throughout the Pacific. He shared memories of the bodies from lost men who were stationed topside and later piled below deck.
“There were so many guys who were killed,” he said. “They told us to move the bodies ... I seen something moving in the pile and pulled the guy out, but it was just a leg. The nerves were still going, you know, so I went back and says, ‘I’m not going to do no more of this crap. I’m going to stay in the engine room.’”
When the war was nearly over, tensions ran high.
“Towards the end, you get a little edgy,” he said, recalling a fight he’d had with another sailor. “One smartass kid said something about me, and it was the one time I lost my cool. We were fighting like hell, and they pulled us apart and they took us to the shower and turned the water on us.”
Others struggled in different ways. One night, he recalled walking through the ship and bumping into something. He figured someone had hung their seabag on a hook and he just pushed it away.
“The next day,” he said, “I found out it was a guy who’d hung himself.”
But the memory of returning home at last to his mother brought a smile to Hillyer’s face. While he was away, she’d gone to work at a department store in San Francisco. Hillyer found out where she was working and went to surprise her.
“She was all excited to see me in uniform,” he said. “She hadn’t seen me since bootcamp.”
Despite the hardships of war, Hillyer looked back at his experience with positivity.
“I really loved the service, and I learned a lot. You get to know so many people from every state,” he said. “They all got different accents, and I had many friends that I met there ... You grew up fast and you get to know respect.”