Raised in West Virginia, Paul Baumgardner was drafted into the Navy as an 18-year-old during World War II. His first assignment was on the USS Bunker Hill CV-17, an aircraft carrier, which assisted in the battles of both Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The USS Bunker Hill departed from Bremerton, Washington, in January 1945, and on May 11, 1945, with the ship off the coast of Okinawa, the crew was attacked by two Japanese kamikaze planes. Baumgardner was in the gunpowder room at the time, under the guns, port side. His job on the ship was to pass up the gunpowder when under attack, but he never got the chance. They did not see the attack coming. The first kamikaze pilot hit the ship but then slid into the ocean. Thirty seconds later, the second kamikaze dropped a bomb and the plane hit the flight deck near the No. 3 elevator.
Amazingly, Baumgardner didn’t have a scratch on him. Some started yelling that he needed to leave the gunpowder room. He was the last one out, and walked the catwalk, taking in the damage. But many men weren’t so lucky. Those near the fires had no choice but to jump ship. One of the guys Baumgardner drafted with – Hugh Harris, a gunner – jumped and survived. He was told there were about 20 men trapped inside the galley; they never made it out.
The attack resulted in more than 600 casualties, both wounded and dead. Some went missing and were never found. One of Baumgardner’s jobs was to tie weights to the feet of the dead and give them a burial at sea.
One kamikaze pilot, Kiyoshi Ogawa, either fell out of his plane or jumped but was found dead on the deck. Men were taking souvenirs from his body; Baumgardner took a piece of his head scarf, but has no idea where it is today.
Several ships, including the USS Wilkes Barre, helped extinguish the fires. An admiral was aboard the Bunker Hill, but he transferred to another ship the next day.
The ship, under its own power, made it to Ulithi, and eventually back to the Bremerton shipyard for repairs. The war ended before the ship was redeployed. There were USS Bunker Hill reunions, but Baumgardner never went.
After the war, he became a bricklayer, enjoyed fishing and hunting, and grew tomatoes. “When it comes to that, you need good soil and you have to take care of them,” he said.
Baumgardner has two sons and a daughter. A third son passed away, as did Baumgardner’s wife of 69 years, Ellen.
Today, the 93-year-old veteran lives at PearTree House Assisted Living in Pasadena.