Summit County veteran Bill Hirsch: From college to the South Pacific
November 10, 2011
Bill Hirsch is a lucky guy.
The Breckenridge resident not only made it through World War II unscathed, but had the freedom of having a say in where he was assigned. His good karma began with his entrance into the Navy as an officer.
Upon his graduation from Georgia Tech in 1942, Hirsch was handed a diploma and a Navy commission. He and four other graduates made officer right away; the Navy was desperate for them, he said, and they figured men with college degrees could do the job. Hirsch trained in photographic intelligence – he would identify Japanese and German planes and ships, with just the quickest peek at a picture – before being ushered out of country “in a hurry.” He and his college buddy were given a choice: Australia, New Zealand or Alaska.
“I said, ‘Alaska’s too cold, and the Japanese are getting close to Australia, it might be dangerous,” Hirsch said. Having seen a travel log of New Zealand, he thought it looked nice.
So began Hirsch’s journey in the South Pacific. He was thrown into running a ship – “a big supply ship, three football fields long” – and didn’t know anything about the job. But he learned.
“We were bombed every day by the Japanese,” he said; it always happened around noon, interrupting his lunch.
Hirsch was sent back to the United States after awhile, where he and a college buddy were lucky enough to meet two girls at a dance – there was no dating involved, he says – who were able to influence orders.
“I feel I was very, very lucky,” Hirsch said. “Not many people had that freedom.”
Hirsch spent time in Norfolk, Va., Hawaii, New Guinea and the Philippines. He worked with the Army’s Fifth Bomber Command in the Philippines, where he was shot at by a sniper twice, and missed twice, while walking to a supply tent one day.
“That night I slept with a carbine, a .45 and a knife,” Hirsch said.
“We were bombed quite a bit in the Philippines and the Solomon Islands … we were lucky we had foxholes around.”
Hirsch and his buddies nicknamed the bombers “washing machine Charlie” for the whirring sounds the engines made. “You’re worried, naturally, but you tell jokes and try to keep your spirits up. You just have to pray you don’t get hit.”
Hirsch was fortunate. He didn’t get hit, and “didn’t really have to slug it out like the poor guys in the Army.” He had his freedom – at one point he talked a general into letting him leave his post for a couple days to visit a friend – and was able to spend a year in France on the G.I. Bill; “one of the best years of my life.”
“The war did not change me,” Hirsch said. “I had unique experiences … I was really lucky.”