Visitors to Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum are encouraged to Walk in the Steps of Heroes. But what’s even more meaningful for visitors is the chance to walk alongside real live heroes – the veteran volunteers who share their personal stories of wartime heroics.
Veteran Bill Watkinson is one of just four World War II veterans who volunteer aboard the USS Yorktown. He sits on his own personal bench – Bill’s Bench, near the Hellcat –and delights visitors with his first-person account of flying the Hellcat and many other warplanes as a Navy pilot in the 1940s.
The 95-year-old Watkinson takes his role as historian for USS Yorktown visitors seriously. “I enjoy having been part of history,” he says. “If people don’t learn history, they repeat it.”
Watkinson was recruited out of college to become a Navy pilot in 1942. Much of the training was on the job, so the more hours you flew, the more skilled you became, Watkinson says. Over the course of his entire career – both military and civilian – Watkinson logged 43,000 flying hours. Considering that many military pilots log between 300 and 500 hours a year, that’s quite a lot.
Initially, the Navy had more pilots than planes so one of Watkinson’s first jobs was picking up planes from the factory and flying them to a Navy facility where they would be outfitted with the “secret stuff” and readied for military use, he recalls.
It didn’t take long for Watkinson to log hundreds of flight hours and become a fighter pilot before he was eventually tapped to become one of the first night fighter pilots. Watkinson flew Hellcat fighter planes off the USS Yorktown near the end of the war in 1945 when they were operating near and over Japan. He would take off at night, guard the fleet and land while it was still dark – a real skill considering there were no lights on the ship. All ships were blacked out at night to avoid detection by enemy submarines.
On one daylight bombing mission over Japan, antiaircraft fire blew a hole in his wing so large his mechanic could stand up in it (Watkinson has the black and white photo to prove it). His controls were damaged, but found his way back to the ship. The crew instructed him not to land on the ship but rather to ditch the plane in the ocean. But Watkinson’s wheels were down and he could not raise them up. Ditching with the wheels down would cause the plane to flip over, and Watkinson would almost have certainly drowned. Watkinson instead made a successful landing on the ship.
Watkinson has flown all but two of the planes that sit on the hangar deck of the USS Yorktown today, and he’s flown 27 different types of aircraft over the years.
Watkinson returned home from the war in early October 1945 and settled in Maplewood, New Jersey. He joined Eastern Airlines as a pilot before being recalled from the reserves in 1952. He spent more than two years as a flight instructor in Pensacola, Florida, during the Korean War. The family then returned to Chatham, New Jersey, and Watkinson resumed his job as a pilot with Eastern Airlines. Today, Watkinson divides his time between his farm in New Jersey and his home in Charleston.
To hear more of Watkinson’s fascinating account of his service aboard the USS Yorktown come visit Patriots Point. To get more out of your group visit, schedule a VIP Group Tour complete with a guided tour and a chance to hear from the heroes themselves. To learn more about the Museum, visit PatriotsPoint.org.