Bill Smith was born on November 19, 1920 in Shawmut, Montana. Enlisting in the Navy in 1939, he served in various roles before being assigned to the USS California at Pearl Harbor.
On December 7, 1941, Bill was in the pay office on the starboard side of the ship when Japanese bombs began to fall. When the first explosion occurred, a shipmate called out that it was a Japanese plane that had struck. Moving to the porthole, he looked out and saw a passing enemy fighter. The attack had begun.
Bill immediately ran to his battle station on the third deck, just below the waterline near turret number one. Handling ammunition from the lower magazines, he worked to move the ordnance from his dispersing point to the anti-aircraft guns aboard. He recalls that he and the men at his side had little fear, the result of excellent training and the need to get the job done.
A short time later, a torpedo hit the California, sending his station into darkness. Battle lanterns were lit and the men continued to work. A second torpedo hit and sent the ship into darkness once again. With the power out, Bill recalls moving ammunition by hand in ankle deep water, with the smell of oil overpowering his senses.
It was then that a bomb struck the California. Shrapnel from the blast hit Bill in the head and he lost consciousness. Thinking him dead, the crew left him floating. Luckily, he came to and was taken above, where he learned that only three men had survived with him. The order to abandon ship was given and Bill leapt into the water, swimming through layers of fuel that was now on fire.
Later, he was brought to the emergency wing of the Naval Hospital and learned that he had suffered a concussion. Able to walk, he was released and joined what would be the nucleus of the new California crew, serving aboard while it was repaired and refitted. He would go on to fight in the Pacific, in places like Guam and Saipan. One of his best memories is discovering that his brother, a soldier, was serving on an island that his ship was anchored off of. His brother was allowed to come aboard and they were able to spend the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day together.
Bill would go on to serve 30 years in the Navy, both active and reserve. He now calls the state of California home, the namesake of the ship he had so proudly served aboard.