Doing his duty

Gunner's mate Bill Adkins, center kneeling in the white hat and inset, served abroad PT-79 during World War II. Today he lives with his wife, Audrey, his bride of 59 years, and proudly sports the tattoos of a different era.
Gunner's mate Bill Adkins, center kneeling in the white hat and inset, served abroad PT-79 during World War II. Today he lives with his wife, Audrey, his bride of 59 years, and proudly sports the tattoos of a different era.

The short, stout guy with the Popeye forearms who left school in seventh grade to work to help his family eat, threw himself overboard, just seconds before the boat blew up.

But first, he asked permission to abandon ship.

Bill Adkins knows duty.

All Navy gunner's mate Adkins knew late on the night of Jan. 31, 1945, or early on Feb. 1, was three of the 22 men on board PT-79 already were dead, including the skipper.

In the gloom, dark and chaos off Luzon in the Philippines, an American shell from the USS Cunningham or the USS Lough that were firing on the Japanese, hit PT-79.

Adkins knew he was the last survivor on board because he wouldn't jump until the skipper told him to jump. The skipper, Bill Hartman, legless from the bomb that had just torn the boat about in half, said in his last words, "Jump," Adkins remembers. Then, Hartman fell over backward into a ball of fire and died.

The boat blew up, but Adkins, the hard guy from Rock Hill, did not die. His eardrums were shattered, but even with his ringing head he knew that the coast, out there in the darkness, was where he must go if he wanted to live.

For almost 12 hours, Adkins swam through the waters with the tiger sharks. Then, he scrambled over the coral reef to shore.

"First thing I saw was two pygmies, with gray hair, and I thought I had died and was in heaven," said Adkins. "Fairy-tale land."

But the other 18 men hadn't made it to shore. Those men didn't have shoes on when they leaped from the boat, like Adkins did, so those men couldn't walk across the coral to land. The coral would have shredded their feet. The sharks were in that water, and the Japanese who were on land could follow a blood trail if the men made it that far.

So with the sun up now, Adkins went back into the sea to his mates. He cut the life preservers into makeshift shoes, then tied those new shoes on with the ropes that held the preservers together. All those men reached shore, all 18 of them, because Bill Adkins remembered to grab a knife when he jumped overboard with his shoes on.

On that day, Bill Adkins had recently turned 18 years old.

Adkins and the other men followed the indigenous Filipino pygmies and a few other Filipino guerillas up to a village, then to the top of a mountain. The bottom of the mountain was ringed with Japanese labor camps.

But then, the guerillas told them that the crew from another boat -- PT-77, which also had been hit -- had made it to shore. The men of PT-79 needed somebody to go back down the mountain and make contact. Adkins made the decision.

"I figured I was the only one had any shoes -- I should go," Adkins said.

So, Adkins headed down in the darkest, silent jungle night with the Filipino guides. Navy men knew that in that jungle, if the other soldiers from the other boat didn't hear a familiar voice, or heard a Japanese voice, the throat giving out that voice would get shot. Adkins didn't know then, but later found out, that the Japanese had caught that skipper of PT-77, a man named Stillman. To show what they would do to the rest if caught, the Japanese cut off his head.

"Hey, Slude!" called out Adkins to a man he recognized, named Sluder.

"Rebel, is that you?" came the voice of Sluder.

Who else but hard, tough Bill Adkins from Gettys Street had that voice and the nickname in a unit of so many Midwesterners, West Coasters and Yankees?

The men of PT-77 followed Adkins back up the mountain, four hours in the dark, to the village. The Japanese on the island were not just near them, but had them almost surrounded.

For three days and four nights, eating eggs and corn wrapped in palm leaves given to them by natives, and even a pig bought with a 20-peso note, the men waited for help.

An American observation plane came into view. A radio man grabbed a shaving mirror and flashed in Morse Code to the plane that the men were surrounded and would be dead without help.

Soon, two more PT boats picked up the men, and all the survivors were back to the fleet. Not too long later, Adkins was in the United States for survivor leave.

Bill Adkins came home to Rock Hill to his World War I veteran father, Purple Heart recipient Herman Adkins, and his mother named Eva. He told no one what he had done.

He was in San Francisco ready to go back to the Pacific to fight some more when the war ended.

Bill Adkins -- who had figured a way to get those 18 men over that reef with their preserver shoes, who volunteered to go down that mountain to the other unit -- was never rewarded for his valor. Not a Purple Heart for the ears, not the Medal of Honor or Navy Cross or Silver Star or Bronze Star.

"Nothin'," said Adkins, now 80, who can't hear but sure can talk a blue streak. He remembers how at age 16 he went to Florida to work in a shipyard for the war effort, then joined the Navy as soon as he turned 17.

His namesake son, Billy Jr., said he thinks the lack of recognition was an oversight because the war ended and there wasn't the attention placed on his father's actions.

But Bill Adkins Sr. was not a complainer, then or now. He stayed in the Navy until 1948, when his hearing meant he couldn't qualify to re-enlist. So, he came home and went to work in "The Industrial," the old Industrial Mill in Rock Hill.

At a square dance in Chester, he met a lively young beauty named Audrey. They were married within months.

Bill worked days and put himself through night school to get his high school equivalency diploma, and he worked as a motor winder and for an electrical company.

He started a family, and the couple had two sons, Billy Jr. and Fred. Adkins bought a little house on that mill hill for $3,000.

"Some months, we didn't have the $30 for the mortgage, so we'd double up the next month," said Audrey, his bride of 59 years. "But we always paid. Always."

It took until four years ago, with action by Billy Jr. fighting for his father with the Veterans Administration, to get disability for his ears that never worked after that night when he asked permission to save his own life and then saved the lives of others. Bill Adkins already was long retired.

Not long ago, Audrey read about the awards given to soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in the military so long after wars. Some were already dead when they were recognized.

"I thought my Bill should have gotten something for what he did," she said.

Audrey Adkins stands by her man.

Staffers from Congressman John Spratt's office listened to the family, saw the documentation from PT boat log books and agreed to help. Spratt met with Adkins and his family for several hours. Spratt is a veteran whose late uncle was a PT boat skipper during World War II. He knows more than most about what those men in the Pacific did. Spratt said he was so struck by what he called Adkins' "repeated acts of bravery, courage above and beyond the call of duty, and saving the lives of others" that he wrote a synopsis of what Bill Adkins did 62-plus years ago for submission to the Navy's board that handles requests such as the one for Bill Adkins.

First, Adkins at age 18 helped save his fellow sailors on PT-79, Spratt said, then made two crucial decisions. Adkins decided that the Filipinos could be trusted, then made the "gutsy and selfless" decision to find the crew of PT-77, Spratt said.

Some area veterans groups and leaders, including American Legion S.C. State Commander John Dellinger from Rock Hill, also have agreed to help by sending in support letters.

Billy Jr. is poised to send, as early as this week, a folder of documentation and support to the Navy.

The most likely reason Bill Adkins never received recognition for his acts is that his boat skipper -- the man who in most situations would recount in writing for top military brass who did what during battle and recommend those men for decoration -- was killed, Spratt said. Then, because the boat was sunk, Adkins and the others were dispersed either stateside or to other boats.

I do not know if the Navy will acknowledge what Bill Adkins did on that boat, in that water and on that island 62 years ago.

What I do know is on Bill Adkins' 80-year-old right arm, an arm still hard like iron, is a tattoo that says "Sailor's Grave."

"That's for those three men on my boat got killed that day," Adkins said. "Couldn't save 'em, can't bring 'em back, so I did what I could to honor 'em," said probably the toughest old Navy veteran I've ever met.

Still, Bill Adkins isn't making a big deal of getting a commendation from the Navy.

"He's so modest. For all these years, Bill Adkins was content to know in his heart what heroic deeds he did for his fellow sailors and for his country," Spratt said. "He is some fine fella. I am proud to now know Bill Adkins."

-The road to medals will not be easy, Spratt said. Decisions take at least months, if not longer, and there is no guarantee of success.If Bill Adkins of Rock Hill, who still lives in that house he bought for $3,000, who saved all those people, doesn't deserve something to pin on his chest while he is still alive, this country is not as great as any of us ever thought it was.