It was dark, but flares lit up the night sky and Douglass Woessner could hear the enemy planes.
“They were coming in low and boy we let ’em have it,” he said. “We got one that was closest to us.”
World War II was raging and Woessner was a teenage gunner on the USS Bennington during what history would call the “typhoon of steel” — the invasion of Okinawa.
Woessner still remembers how the fired-on Japanese fighter plane disintegrated and shrapnel flew. Shrapnel hit near his spine.
“It felt like needles going all through your back,” he said.
Woessner fell and a corpsman took him below the deck. He was in a great deal of pain.
“They gave me a lot of morphine,” he said. “I couldn’t move my legs.”
Decades later, Woessner sat — not on a ship — but in community room at Nye Square in Fremont. Friends and family gathered to watch as Wilma Von Seggern of Minden presented Woessner with a red, white and blue Quilt of Valor.
Woessner, now 90, wiped tears from his eyes during the event in which his daughter Nancy Harrold of Broken Bow read information about his World War II service and he was wrapped in the quilt.
“I think this is one of the finest things I’ve ever had, because I’m always cold,” he said later.
Von Seggern represented the Quilts of Valor Foundation, a national organization that provides quilts to military service members and veterans touched by war.
The quilts are designed to serve as tangible reminders of gratitude and what founder Catherine Roberts describes as the civilian equivalent of a Purple Heart.
“We know that freedom is not free,” Von Seggern said. “This quilt is meant to comfort you. It is a quilt from your family, friends and a grateful nation.”
Woessner was just 17 when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1944.
“I loved the water and I loved the Navy and I love good fights,” he said.
He’d actually wanted to join after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was too young in 1941.
Yet the teen from Athol, Mass., joined as soon as he could. After boot camp and gunnery school, he was assigned to the USS Bennington, an aircraft carrier.
Woessner remembers going to Norfolk, Virginia, where an aerial group flew aboard with the planes.
“After Norfolk, we went to another gunnery school,” he said.
Then they headed to the Marianna Islands and the Solomon Islands and on to Iwo Jima and then Okinawa, the sites of fierce battles.
“We would go in and soften them (the enemy) up by air strikes and bombings from the planes,” he said.
He remembers the night bombing from the Japanese planes. Like other men, Woessner went to his fighting station.
His station was a 20mm gun on the port side of the ship. Wearing his “Mae West” life jacket, he manned the gun and started firing at the enemy planes.
He remembers seeing the enemy plane with bomb bay door open – ready to drop a bomb or rocket.
“It (the plane) exploded in midair,” he said. “We shot him down and the shrapnel flew all over the back end of the flight deck and I got hit.”
Woessner said he and other wounded men were taken to a hospital on the Philippine Island of Leyte.
“That’s where they patched us up,” he said.
Woessner added that doctors tried to remove the shrapnel, but decided to leave it in his back.
“If they removed it, then I would have been paralyzed,” he said.
After he recovered, Woessner returned to his ship.
“All I wanted to do was get back with my buddies,” he said.
Woessner was aboard the USS Bennington when a typhoon hit in June.
“There was over 100-foot waves and we lost about 80 feet of the flight deck,” he said. “I couldn’t stand up.”
Woessner thought he would die.
“You’d go up so high and come down and splash, boom, and bang against the waves,” he said.
Although he was scared, Woessner considered the situation to be the thrill of a lifetime.
“It was a great experience to see what the ocean would do. That ocean was something else,” he said.
History recorded that after repairs, the aircraft carrier took part in aerial raids on the Japanese islands.
On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It dropped another on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945. Japan surrendered and the war in the Pacific ended.
A surrender ceremony took place on Sept. 2, 1945 aboard the battleship USS Missouri. Planes from the USS Bennington participated in a mass flight over the USS Missouri during the ceremony.
Woessner remembers when the ship docked at Japan.
“The people were very nice,” he said. “They came out in the water and greeted us in boats. They were just so happy to see us. They didn’t want to fight anymore. The emperor was the one that wanted to fight.”
Woessner and other military personnel went into Japan, where he saw Tokyo station. Only two walls were left standing. While in Japan, he bought a beautiful doll in a kimono for his future wife.
Woessner joined the naval reserves for 10 years.
“I liked the Navy,” he said. “It was a clean place and you had a hot meal every day when you weren’t in battle and you had a clean place to sleep every night.”
After the war, he came home to Massachusetts and became a truck driver – a job he had for 47 years. He and his wife, Ruth, married in 1953 and had six children. He has grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Woessner said his wife died five years ago.
If he had to do it over, would Woessner still go into the Navy and fight in the war?
“I would definitely do it over again,” he said. “It was either we fight them over there or they come over here and we saw what they did to Pearl Harbor.”