Oklahoma veteran fought in some of largest naval battles of WW II
YUKON — William MacKelvie saw plenty from the bridge of the USS Birmingham during World War II. The spectacle of a crew working seamlessly together, triumphs like the raising of the American flag over Mount Suribachi, along with horrors he never forgot.
Growing up in Pittsfield in the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts, MacKelvie was 18 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The call to arms was too hard to resist. He enlisted in the Navy, not really knowing where the experience would take him, or whether he'd come home in one piece.
“I always kid people when they say how long were you in the Navy,” he said. “I tell them I was a kid of 18 when I joined and I got out an old man of 22.”
In many respects, MacKelvie was lucky to get out at all. Life aboard a Navy ship in the Pacific faced no shortage of dangers, from Japanese planes and ships to the ever-present misery of tropical heat.
Still, the Birmingham served as his home, and the Yukon resident remains fiercely proud of the vessel's legacy, even decades later.
“Most seagoing sailors love or hate their ship,” MacKelvie said. “I think that's why they refer to the ship as a she. The crew of the Birmingham loved it. We had the best officers in the world."
Launched in March 1942, the Birmingham was part of a flood of ships built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company during the war. The cruiser stretched two football fields in length, carried a crew of more than 1,200 sailors and was armed with an array of artillery and anti-aircraft guns.
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Ask MacKelvie about his war experience and the first thing he'll tell you about is the fighting spirit of the men of the Birmingham. A ship might be made of iron and steel and powerful weapons, but none of it works without the crew.
For MacKelvie, the Birmingham felt like a place he belonged.
“You get so the ship feels like home,” he said. “You trust the guy working next to you. Every guy on that ship has a battle station. Even the cooks. Everyone has a job to do, and everyone depends on the other guy. That's why you get so close. What happens to one, happens to all.”
Battle tested that mantra. He recalls a mission the Birmingham undertook to shell Wake Island, a small atoll in the Pacific that the Japanese had taken early in the war.
“When we left, there wasn't a palm tree left standing,” he said. “We neutralized it. But we got return fire from shore batteries.”
Such artillery exchanges weren't uncommon. Having an officer briefly pause the battle was.
“We had an all-hands cease-fire order from the bridge,” MacKelvie said. “We thought, jeez, the old man has flipped his switch. We're under fire, here.”
Then came an announcement.
“And he says, 'At the end of the third inning of the World Series, Cleveland is ahead of the Yankees 2-1,'” MacKelvie said. “Then he gets back on the PA and says, 'commence firing.' Those were the kinds of officers we had on the ship.”
Levity, even in the heat of battle, provided relief. But there would be fewer moments like that as the Birmingham sailed deeper into the war and its carnage.
MacKelvie loved his job as a signalman. It was better than life inside the cauldron of an engine room, and he was always in the know about what was happening.
“During the war, radio men received Morse code constantly from Pearl Harbor but we didn't use a lot of radio to communicate between ships,” he said. “They could use it to spot your location. Among the fleet, your communication was flashing lights or flag hoists. We had a good system that worked.”
His post was the bridge, and its wraparound deck.
“You could see everything from there,” he said. “It was a heckuva view.”
Being high above the decks offered little protection from danger. And MacKelvie found that out when the Navy tasked the Birmingham with escorting merchant ships to the Solomon Islands. The Birmingham joined a group of three cruisers and an aircraft carrier.
“The Japanese knew we were coming,” he said. “They sent a carrier task force to meet us head-on. When it started, I guess they made the decision getting some cruisers would be more impressive than some supply ships.”
It didn't take long before the Birmingham absorbed blows.
“We had no air cover and Japanese planes coming in at all angles,” he said. “We were outnumbered but we got a bunch of them. But they put a torpedo midway in the bow, and not too long after that we got a direct bomb hit, and then we took another torpedo, which actually turned out to be a skip bomb.”
Skip bombs are designed to skip along the surface and detonate above the waterline. The bomb destroyed two float planes and a hangar on the Birmingham's aft deck. And still, the enemy planes came, with one nearly delivering what might have been a fatal blow.
“He was burning but still coming, low and right at us,” MacKelvie said of the twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M “Betty.”
“We were all hanging on for dear life. When he exploded, I wound up flat on my back and I never hurt so bad in my life.”
He found himself covered in blood.
“It wasn't my own,” he said. “I was shoulder to shoulder with a guy who had put his hand up as the plane came in and exploded, which is a normal thing if you think you're about to be hit."
Shrapnel badly injured the man.
MacKelvie barely had a scratch, though he was in agony.
“I laid there on the deck thinking it was my turn,” he said. “I thought I had finally had it. But what I thought about wasn't me dying, it was how bad my folks would feel when they found out I wasn't coming home."
MacKelvie, and the Birmingham, managed to patch themselves up in dry dock and get back into the war. As terrifying as that moment was, more awaited.
The Birmingham participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima, softening defenses before troops went ashore. It joined a task group made up of several aircraft carriers and light cruisers.
“We'd act as artillery for the Marines who didn't have any of their own,” he said. “There would be a spotter ashore, who would relay targets back to us. We got to be so accurate, we could put a shell into the mouth of a cave.”
Iwo Jima fell. From the deck of the Birmingham, MacKelvie could see the American flag raised atop Mount Suribachi.
The Birmingham eventually rejoined the fleet, alongside the Princeton, a small aircraft carrier.
Air attacks on U.S. Navy ships were common — three or four a day — at this stage of the Pacific war, one of its most frenetic.
In some ways, sailors welcomed the action, MacKelvie said.
“If you had a couple of days where you didn't get one, you'd get bored,” he said. “You wanted them to come and get it over with.”
On October 24, 1944, the Princeton bore the brunt of the blows in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. A Japanese bomb dropped in the middle of the flight deck set the ship ablaze.
As the fire grew out of control, the order was given to abandon ship. About the same time, the Birmingham got orders to sail toward it to mount a last-ditch effort to save the carrier.
“We were sent in to fight the fire, not to pick up any guys in the water,” he said. “We had to sneak our way through, and you had guys begging for you to throw them a line. But we couldn't pick them up.”
The Birmingham pulled up alongside the Princeton and tied up. For five hours its crew fought the fire.
“Every crew member not directly running the ship was there handling hoses,” MacKelvie said.
The fire was nearly out when two more "Bettys" came calling.
“We cut loose and sailed away,” MacKelvie said. “You don't want to be tied to a burning ship when there's two planes coming right at you.”
The Japanese planes were eventually shot down, and the Birmingham ordered to go back to the Princeton and try and save it again.
“We were gone three or four hours, so that fire had gotten going pretty good again,” he said.
And then came yet another brush with death.
“We were just pulling up beside her, you could almost touch her, when her main magazines went up and she blew sky high,” MacKelvie said.
In an instant, the deck of the Birmingham was awash with blood.
“We had more than half our crew on that side of the ship ready to fight the fire,” he said.
The blast killed 233 members of the Birmingham crew and left more than 400 more wounded.
“Half our crew were casualties, either killed or wounded,” MacKelvie said.
MacKelvie was on the bridge. The concussion knocked him at least 10 feet onto his back. His tin hat and lifejacket likely kept him from being seriously injured. Again, he escaped without a scratch.
“Those of us who could move tried to help the guys,” he said. “Some of them were blown to bits. Some had literally exploded. In the official report to the Navy, our skipper wrote the blood ran so freely on the deck, sand had to be scattered for safe walking.”
What followed were mass funerals aboard ship. Sailors were put into mattress covers with a weight inside to ensure they would sink.
“We had these long folding tables in the chow hall and so we folded them up and brought them on deck,” MacKelvie said. “There would be six or eight of them on the tables. A chaplain would say a few words, and then some big husky guys would lift the table up and tip them over the side, eight at a time.”
It was as dignified as it could be under the circumstances.
“Boy that was hard,” MacKelvie said. “There's nothing you can do for these guys who are blown to bits. And then you think there's not even going to be a body coming home. It's very solemn.”
There was one bit of good news. The Princeton survivors, through which the Birmingham had sailed without stopping, were later plucked from the water.
“We were relieved to know that because it was so hard not picking them up,” he said.
After the war
After the war, MacKelvie briefly considered a Navy career. He was offered a chance to go to officers school but chose not to. All he wanted was to get back to New England and skiing.
"I went skiing one time and nearly froze to death," he said. "After that, we packed up and moved to Florida."
By that time MacKelvie had already married Janet, his wife of 62 years. He has no regrets about not staying in the Navy.
"I knew she didn't want to be a Navy wife, and if I stayed, I would have wanted to be on a ship, and that's pretty hard to do if you're married."
He spent 42 years in advertising, working in Florida, and later a 24-year stint at The Oklahoman. He and Janet had two kids, a boy and a girl. Janet passed away in 2009.
"It was a wonderful marriage," he said. "We had a great family. I've had a beautiful life."