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Valor in turbulent times

Island veterans recall their actions abroad, at home in World War II.

They drove trucks, captained ships, took photographs and cracked codes.

They were Army, Navy, Marines, Air Corps and Coast Guard. Their experiences in World War II varied, but for Bainbridge veterans, the conflict was a personal watershed to be recalled each year. For Dick McCool, Memorial Day brings recollections of 12 of his fellow crew members killed and 23 wounded in a kamikaze attack.

“They’re very important to me,” McCool said. “They’re a special Memorial Day.”

Their paths to the service were varied.Neal Nunamaker joined the Marine Air Corps.; he started in “telephone school,” but after seeing the effects on several soldiers who lost their grip and slid down the poles, he decided to be a truck driver instead. Stationed in Hawaii and then the New Hebrides, he was only shot at once.

“I hid under my truck,” he said.

He came home to marry in spring of 1945, then was called back for what he believed would be the invasion of Japan.

“I came back to the base, and the war was over,” he said, “so I lucked out, there.”

Although his whole family, along with other West Coast residents of Japanese descent, had been removed from Bainbridge after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Art Koura volunteered for the Army in 1943. He joined the 442nd Infantry unit, composed of other soldiers of Japanese heritage, which became the Army’s most-decorated unit.

Koura’s brothers Noboru, Tony and Kenso also served in the armed forces. But his family, interned at Idaho’s Minadoka relocation center, were not in favor of his enlisting, he recalls.

“We had a big family meeting,” he said. “Dad didn’t want me to do that because I was the oldest (child). Finally he relented.”

On Oct. 28 1944, Koura was wounded in France while helping rescue the Lost Battalion, Texan troops surrounded by the Germans. By war’s end, he had earned a Purple Heart; European, African and Middle Eastern ribbons with three Bronze Stars; a Good Conduct medal; a Victory Ribbon; a Distinguished Unit badge; and an American Theater ribbon.

Jack Klamm was already a licensed ham radio operator when he enlisted in the Naval Reserve in March 1941.

“They wanted people with prior experience,” he said. “ I did well in radio school – and I certainly should have.”

Sent to radio school at Fort Ward – a Navy installation at the island’s south end used to intercept Japanese radio transmissions and train radio operators and code specialists – Seaman 1st Class Klamm rose to become Chief Radioman in charge of electronic maintenance for the 13th Naval District.

As a photographer, Bill Coleman also had a skill to offer the armed forces – but no branch of the service could guarantee that he would get to use his photography for the war effort.

“They wouldn’t promise me photography, so I waited,” he said, “and a year later, I was drafted.”

The Navy sent Coleman to photography school in Pensacola, Fla. His high school sweetheart, Elizabeth Barnett, a Yeoman 2nd Class in the Coast Guard, was in boot camp in Florida at the same time.

They managed a rendezvous to marry before Coleman, by this time a Photomate 2nd Class, was shipped out to be the official photographer for the battleship USS Indiana. Elizabeth was stationed in St. Louis, and travelled around the states to help recruit.

On the Indiana, Coleman’s job was to “take pictures of everything.”

“As far as I knew there was nothing I couldn’t photograph,” he said. “I was allowed to shoot anything and everything. It was a fun job.”

Coleman fulfilled the assignment, but is most proud of the photographs he took in 1945 of shells being shot from the USS Missouri’s 16-inch guns.

The war ended for Coleman with his own ship’s guns pounding Japan, an event that he believed was the start of invasion.

“As we approached, we thought everything was going to break loose,” he said, “and nothing happened. We didn’t have any kamikazes that day – nothing.

“Evidently they’d dropped the bomb the day before.”

Dick McCool was a Navy Lieutenant in the Pacific Theater in command of Landing Craft Support Large No. 122, an amphibious ship armed with 40- and 20-millimeter guns and mounted machine guns.

Their mission, to go in ahead of the first wave of landing troops, was a dangerous one. But it was McCool’s bravery during two days of kamikaze attacks in open waters that won him a Congressional Medal of Honor.

On June 10, 1945, McCool saw the destroyer William D. Porter hit by a kamikaze, the Japanese pilots whose suicide mission was to turn their planes into guided bombs. The plane glanced off the ship, spun around and tumbled into the water off the starboard side.

The explosion tore a gaping hole in the hull; McCool’s ship came alongside and rescued most of the crew.

The next day, his vessel was patrolling waters about 65 miles north of Okinawa when a group of kamikaze was spotted.

“The first one passed over the bow, just 15 feet above the gun crew there,”McCool recalled. “The second one was right behind it. It came directly on and hit at the base of the conning tower, about 10 feet below where I was standing.”

McCool couldn’t climb down the ladder, which was engulfed in flames, so he dropped down to the deck on the other side. His wounds included shrapnel in the chest and a collapsed lung.

What happened next is still hazy, but crew members say he rescued several shipmates from a compartment, and directed damage control parties to hose down the flames. Had the fires spread and ignited the 120 rockets loaded in the bow, the crew “would have been somewhere on the moon.”

After the war, Klamm enrolled in college on the GI Bill. Although he didn’t graduate, Boeing hired the young man, who worked there for 23 years as a research and development electrical engineer.

After more photo training, Coleman opened a studio in Long Beach, Calif., and taught college-level photography at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. Elizabeth raised the couple’s two daughters, helped out in her husband’s studio and worked in retail for years.

Coleman remembers the war years with some nostalgia.

“I’ve got good memories of it,” he said. “We were very fortunate.”

Nunamaker, who also regards himself as lucky in his wartime experiences, went to school on the GI Bill and became a teacher. He capped his career as superintendent of Bainbridge Island schools from 1961-1981.

When the Koura family returned to Bainbridge, they found their Manzanita property had been safeguarded by islander Arnold Raber.

“I consider him to be my second father,” Koura said.

McCool stayed in the Navy through 1974, but those two days in 1945 shaped his life long after WWII ended.

McCool spent a year recovering from the immediate effects of his physical injuries. He still carries a shrapnel fragment embedded in his liver, and still has the friendships forged among his crew, bonds that have proved to be enduring.

This weekend, on the National Mall in Washington D.C., a memorial will be dedicated to the veterans of World War II and the millions who supported them on the home front. The Bain­bridge Island vets say they are glad to see the monument to their fighting spirit this Memorial Day; as the ranks of the Great Generation thin, the honor comes none too soon.

“It’s nice to know it’s there,” Klamm said. “I’m glad to see it, I really am.”

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