Duke L. Williams was not about to let others in his family best him when it came to patriotism and wartime service.
His devotion to America took him to enemy islands in the Pacific during World War II, then to postwar atomic bomb tests performed at a Pacific atoll and finally back to the Pacific aboard a battleship in the Korean War.
He has suffered from radiation poisoning throughout his life and, ironically, lives not too far from the Manhattan Project’s disposal site off Model City Road in Lewiston. It is there that waste from the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan and nuclear tests at Bikini atoll has been stored for decades.
But Williams’ war stories begin when his stepfather, Luther Ogden, was drafted into the Army in spring 1943. Williams’ 15-year-old brother, Ford, was also in the Army, having pulled a fast one by claiming he was 18.
“I thought I better join the crowd. Everybody was leaving, and so two days after I turned 17, I had my mother sign papers allowing me to enlist in the Navy,” Williams says.
After completing amphibious and gunnery training in San Diego, Williams was on his way to the war in the Pacific, first with a stop at Pearl Harbor, where he saw firsthand the carnage caused by the Japanese sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
“Our next stop was Guam. We had a night landing maneuver there,” he recalls, “then we went on to the Palau group of islands and hit the island Peleliu to take control of an airstrip.
“It was a dirty fight. The enemy had so many natural caves, and we had so many casualties. The brass had planned to secure the island in 72 hours, and it took 70-something days.
“They hadn’t been aware of one single cave on the island before we went in, and there were over 100 of them. The enemy troops were waiting on us. They were all in the caves during the shelling from the battleships. We delivered tanks, ammunition and troops to the beach.
“The first couple waves had it pretty tough. We lost seven out of 17 amphibious landing craft tanks.”
At one point during the battle – which was controversial because an airstrip had already been secured during the battle for the island of Saipan – U.S. soldiers and Marines had been forced from their field positions, Williams said.
“They were driven back out onto the beach, and the Marines had to be brought in a second time to reclaim the lost ground. I would have fired Gen. (Douglas) MacArthur then instead of later,” Williams says of his distaste for the famed commander.
To this day, he says, it upsets him that thousands of Americans were killed and wounded for a tiny spit of land “that wasn’t needed.”
After World War II, Williams returned home for 65 days of leave and then was back out to sea to serve as something of a guinea pig with other members of the military aboard ships in the vicinity of Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands. Two atom bombs, known as “Able” and “Baker,” were set off in summer 1946 to gauge the impact on naval vessels anchored with animals aboard in the lagoon at the atoll.
“For the first bomb, we were about 7½ miles away from ground zero at Bikini. The second bomb was twice as strong, and we were 17 miles away,” he says. “With the first bomb, we had to turn our backs to the blast and were only allowed to look after it had detonated. We saw the big mushroom cloud. It made the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
“The second bomb was detonated underwater about 100 feet at the bottom of the lagoon. We were able to watch that one, and I saw a mechanized landing craft blow right in two, with one half going 2,000 feet in the air. There was nothing but water – just a big, big plume of water.
“The USS Arkansas, a battleship that weighed 33,000 tons, was anchored in the lagoon, and the bow of it went straight up in the air, and then it sunk straight down into the water. I thought, ‘Let me get the hell out of here.’?”
That did not happen. He shuttled scientists to the other target ships that had survived in the lagoon so that instruments measuring radiation levels could be recorded.
“They were interested in how fast the radiation would decrease,” he says.
However, the radiation did not dissipate quickly enough, Williams says. As a result of that radiation, he has struggled with thyroid problems and cancer throughout his life.
“When 89 percent of us who were out there came down with thyroid disorders or cancer, it makes you wonder,” he says. “When they removed my thyroid in 1980, the VA in Buffalo listed the reason as hereditary. It’s kind of hard to accept that.”
His service to the country continued when he was called up from the Reserve to serve in the Korean War. “I was on the battleship Wisconsin and we went up and down the coast of the Korean Peninsula supporting the Marines and Army. We’d break up the hordes of Chinese troops and tank attacks by firing our 5-inch and 16-inch guns.”
At one point, the Wisconsin blew up a railway, halting the movement of an enemy troop and ammunition train.
“When the train engineer tried to back up, we blew up the tracks behind him, and then it was just target practice, blowing each rail car, until we got hit by an 8-inch shore battery gun.
“We didn’t want to be hit twice, so we took off, and once we were out of the 8-inch gun’s range, we turned around, and that was end of the shore battery. We took him out with one 16-inch shot.”
After the Korean War, Williams continued to serve at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station.
“Our job was operations and working in the air control tower,” he says.
In 1958, he said goodbye to the military and took up another challenging line of work as an ironworker, helping build radar towers in the Arctic and the oil pipeline in Alaska.
Residing on Lewiston’s Langdon Road, not far from the Manhattan Project storage facility, he wryly says of what’s there: “Oh, it won’t hurt you. Don’t be afraid.”
This hard-as-nails 87-year-old veteran of two wars then adds an ironic chuckle.