World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor — 92-year-old Bill Klein talks to the guests at the El Dorado Hills senior center Thursday. Village Life photo by Pat Dollins

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Vets share stories of luck, horror

By November 11, 2011

The El Dorado Hills Senior Center hosted a number of veterans and their families Thursday morning to honor Veterans Day.

Vets from World War II, Korea and Vietnam shared their wartime and service memories.

Bill Klein, 92, of El Dorado Hills wore his “Pearl Harbor Survivor” cap and described being stationed far below decks on the USS Pennsylvania that December morning. More than once, Klein noted that if not for amazing luck, “I wouldn’t be here now.”

When the attack came, he said he heard some noise and then saw people running around, going to general quarters.

“I was sent topside there and saw the wounded sailors and many were killed. I remember vividly seeing the USS Oklahoma on its side and only being able to see its hull,” Klein recalled. “There were rumors that the Japanese were landing that night which of course didn’t happen. Next day I went on deck and saw the mess that Pearl Harbor had become.”

His ship had been in dry dock for two weeks which prevented it from being torpedoed (more good luck), but the deck took a 500 pound bomb from one of the attacking planes. The machinery was not damaged and the Pennsylvania later steamed to San Francisco to be modernized and refitted. Klein transferred to Destroyer duty shortly thereafter and spent the rest of the war on the tin cans. He described duty in frigid weather and rough seas in the Aleutian Islands as “eight months of hell where we often had to strap ourselves into our bunks to keep from being pitched out.”

During a torpedo attack against a “big Japanese cruiser, we got hit below the waterline in the forward engine room. We were dead in the water for 15 minutes, and I thought we were through, but the Japanese broke off the attack; maybe they were afraid of our planes.”

Klein’s later duty included supporting the Marines in the cruel retaking of the Pacific Islands that has become legendary in the annals of the American military including Tarawa and Kwajalein. Except for the circumstances, Klein described the South Pacific as “really nice especially after the Aleutians. I’m extremely lucky,” he concluded. Klein’s “six-month enlistment” in 1940 ended more than five years later.

After receiving advanced electronics training, Klein went to work for AT&T right after he got out of the Navy and stayed with the phone company until he retired.

Sebastian Basilico, 80, was a 10-month veteran of the “forgotten war.” Basilico described conditions in Korea as basically chaotic. “Supplies were always late. There was no coordination. It got me disgruntled.”

Inadequate supply and force-strength in his own experience makes Basilico “angry that they want to cut the defense budget. We won’t have the right people when we need them,” he said.

Basilico said he received two Bronze Stars for service in two major campaigns where his job was to keep communications open between “three lines of defense.” His unit also supported the Marine landing at Inchon.

“I hate to see these wars and the young men coming home with body parts missing,” he said at the end of his talk. After the program, Basilico told this reporter, “Don’t make this sound like I was special. I wasn’t.”

Robert Leon, now chair of the Executive Committee of the El Dorado Hills Veterans Memorial project, admitted that he joined the Marines after he’d been fired by the postal service in the Fremont area for “damaging a couple of vehicles.” He had two brothers who eventually served in the Corps as well. He spent “12 months and 20 days” in Vietnam through 1968. He was in Hue after the devastating attack by the North Vietnamese.

“Death was all over the streets, and that was two weeks after,” he recalled.

Leon’s grisly duties included identifying and processing fatalities and severely wounded troops. He said he is a victim of Agent Orange poisoning and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and urged everyone to make sure vets know there is help available and said “PTSD is very real for all war vets.”

Leon described the “100 Year Journey,” the official name of the memorial project, which will cover about 1.2 acres at Promontory Park, as a memorial to American veterans of the past 100 years — from World War I through WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the “war on terror” (Iraq and Afghanistan). In addition, there will be a section highlighting the trench warfare of WWI and a landing craft re-enactment. Special sections include an area for POW-MIAs and an Iwo Jima monument.

The memorial, with its memory garden, walk-through exhibits and stage area as well as the “100 Year Journey” walkway, is projected to cost approximately $2.3 million. More than $275,000 has already been collected in the form of in-kind services from architects, construction companies, marketing experts and design teams, fiscal gurus and legislative specialists. Many of them are veterans themselves and/or the children of veterans, Leon said. The Community Services District donated the land and the Rotary Club of El Dorado Hills has also pledged to help out financially.

Oak Ridge High School Sophomore Teagan McLarnan won the logo design contest with her depiction of an American Eagle preparing to land, talons extended, wings outstretched and bearing a red sash that reads “Veterans.” Leon, exuding a big dose of community pride, said the patriotic young woman donated the $100 prize back to the memorial committee.

Tobin, an El Dorado Hills resident, Rotary Club past-president and member of the memorial committee, is not a veteran but is the son of a WWII Navy man who served in the Pacific. His own son is with the Air Force in Afghanistan, he said with considerable pride.

“Everyone knows or is related to a vet,” Tobin said. “I’m in awe; the Rotary and the community are in awe of your service. The park will be gorgeous, and we want to make sure the history is accurately told and chronicled for our younger generation.”

Leon concluded his remarks with, “This project is for the men and women of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Chris Daley


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