By Ron Richardson
Special to West Seattle Blog
Maxwell Taylor Kennedy came to West Seattle to pay tribute to Al Skaret and other heroes of the 1945 USS Bunker Hill attack.
(From left, John McNeil, Al Skaret, Lou Tice, Maxwell Kennedy, Art Shipe, Wilton ‘Hoot’ Hutt, Lou Biotano. Al, Art, ‘Hoot’ and Lou were all Bunker Hill crew members)
Over the past four years our neighbor Al Skaret has been interviewed and ultimately featured in Maxwell Taylor Kennedy’s 2008 book ‘Danger’s Hour: The Story of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her’ (you can see video clips on this page of the book’s promotional website).
This past Wednesday, Mr. Kennedy, son of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, came to the Pacific Institute in West Seattle to honor Al and crew members of the USS Bunker Hill. He gave an inspiring talk, like a good college lecturer, about the war in the Pacific, its origins, the struggle, the sacrifice and the final victory. Mr. Kennedy showed a collection of photos from the National Archives that illustrated episodes he discovered as he researched his book.
Maxwell Kennedy showed a photo of a handwritten note prepared by pilot Al Turnbull which said “Keep chute on in case wing comes off.”
This related to an episode when the entire fleet was directed by the admiral to change course to take advantage of a headwind so Turnbull’s damaged plane and crew could land safely on the deck of the Bunker Hill.
He talked of the coordinated attack by 45 carrier-based planes that launched an attack against an impregnable gun position on Iwo Jima. The deadly fire from the gunner was destroying US landing craft as they hit the beach. The carrier pilots got the gun emplacement and the gunner they had named ‘Pistol Pete.’ Kennedy noted that Al’s ship, the Bunker Hill, launched the first attacks against the homeland of Japan. Eventually the Bunker Hill (archives.gov image at left) was itself under attack from Kamikazes each day for 60 days. Then, May 11th, 1945, two kamikaze planes hit the Bunker Hill. 346 men were killed, along with 43 missing and 264 wounded. The numbers would have been higher had it not been for the efforts of their shipmates.
Mr. Kennedy found the identity of the two Kamikaze pilots that struck the Bunker Hill, told their background (they too have video interviews on the book website), and spoke of how Kamikaze pilots came to be on such a mission.
Mr. Kennedy recalled the bravery of West Seattleite Al Skaret. Al was part of a damage-control unit and moved about the burning carrier to help and rescue survivors. He did not hesitate to go into a smoke-darkened chamber with a limited oxygen supply to rescue survivors. As the oxygen ran out he was able to find light and a way out of a death trap. We all felt honored to have Al in our midst.
Mr. Kennedy then spoke of the reasons he wrote the book, the main reason being, to save and relate the stories of bravery, acts of kindness and sacrifice of those who served in defense of the USA; also, so that their children, our children, and generations down the line can recall, appreciate and pass along the lessons such events can teach us.
(From left, Stan Skaret, Kelsey Jensen, Jean Skaret, Al Skaret, Steve Skaret)
As if to emphasize this point, Al’s wife Jean, daughter Kelsey, and sons Steve and Stan were among the honored guests. They have much to share with Skaret generations in the future.
Mr. Kennedy chatted with members of the audience, answered questions and signed copies of his book. Many of the WW II veterans in the audience were able to add their own recollections to the group of sixty or more who were in attendance.
It all added up to a great success. Thanks to Wayne McNeil, John McNeil and Lou Tice of the Pacific Institute who arranged and hosted the event.
We all can find relatives, neighbors and friends who have served. Thank them when you get a chance.
Ron Richardson is a historian and writer who lives in Fauntleroy.