Bill Adkins, a World War II combat veteran from Rock Hill, died Saturday at age 86.
Tables in the little mill hill house he lived in for more than 60 years groaned afterward with donated food. But this was not just any Navy veteran who died, with friends and family coming by with cornbread and chicken and cakes.
Bill Adkins, known as “Reb” in the Navy, a machinist afterward, had muscles of steel.
His guts were even stronger.
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Yet, his courage in 1945 was finally recognized just months before Bill Adkins died. Last year, the military issued Adkins many of the combat medals he earned, but had never been awarded.
In February 1945, Adkins helped the men of his PT boat that had been sunk to an island in the Philippines. Using a knife, he fashioned shoes from life jackets so the men could walk over coral to dry land, and not attract sharks or leave a blood trail for the Japanese enemy. Then Adkins, with leaders dead from the explosion on the ship, dealt with natives and avoided the enemy for days until finally signaling rescuers using a shaving mirror.
Adkins’ eardrums were destroyed in the ship blast.
When Bill Adkins acted so bravely, he was just 18 years old.
But until last year, Adkins was never awarded all the ribbons he deserved. So many were dead including the officers who would have documented the heroics, and Adkins had been evacuated afterward. The boat crew was dispersed, then the war ended. His valor went unnoticed.
The office of 5th District U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney last year helped get Adkins some medals, taking up the effort to seek commendations that former U.S. Rep. John Spratt had started years earlier.
Included are combat badges and more, seven medals in all.
“He earned them, too, and more,” said Bill Adkins Jr., himself a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran. “What my father did was heroic. Plain and simple.”
In requesting the medals from the Navy years ago, Spratt called Adkins’ actions, “repeated acts of bravery.”
In a letter to Adkins before he died, Mulvaney wrote that there are no awards or medals which can acknowledge the service Adkins gave his country.
“Our state, and this nation, remain permanently indebted to you,” Mulvaney wrote to Bill Adkins.
The politicians of both parties got this one right: Bill Adkins was as brave and tough as they come. In 1945, 18 men on that boat were helped to safety because of Bill Adkins with his knife and his courage. Three others died in the blast.
On Adkins’ arm since the end of World War II was a tattoo. Not 2013 tattoos that the young think are cool or tough. But a wartime tattoo inked in some parlor with the only anesthesia a bullet to bite.
The tattoo said: “Sailor’s Grave.”
Bill Adkins, in 2007, said this about that tattoo: “That’s for those three men on my boat got killed that day. Couldn’t save ’em, can’t bring ’em back, so I did what I could to honor ’em.”
That’s why that old man had that tattoo.
“My husband was a good and honorable man,” said Audrey Jackson, Adkins’ wife of 64 years.
Adkins had to quit school around age 10 to help his family, then worked in a shipyard in Florida until he was old enough to join the Navy during the war. After the war ended and his enlistment finished in 1948, he could not re-enlist because of his damaged ears.
Adkins worked the rest of his life, until he retired, in tough mill and factory jobs. Only late in life did the family try to get the medals. They still hope that more will be awarded.
Bill Adkins will get at least one more medal Tuesday before he is buried.
In his father’s casket, Bill Adkins Jr., special forces, combat, Vietnam, will place his Silver Star.
“Daddy earned it,” said the son.