A. William Kearns, 82, veteran and founder of naval museum

July 30, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

A. William Kearns, a World War II Navy veteran and founder of a rowhouse museum in Hagerstown that preserves the memories of his wartime aircraft carrier and shipmates, died Monday at his Hampton House apartment, where he was recuperating from recent heart surgery. The Towson resident was 82.

Mr. Kearns was born and raised in Martinsburg, W.Va., and after graduating from high school moved to Hagerstown, where he took a job helping to build C-119 Flying Boxcars at the Fairchild Aviation plant.

Enlisting in the Navy in 1944, Mr. Kearns was assigned as a signalman to the newly commissioned USS Bon Homme Richard, an Essex-class carrier, at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn.

As a signalman, Mr. Kearns was responsible for sending messages by flag or signal lamp to nearby ships or carrier pilots.

Sent to the Pacific in early 1945, the ship participated in the Battle of Okinawa, the final air assault on Japan, and guarded the entrance to Tokyo Bay during the Japanese surrender proceedings in September, which took place aboard the battleship USS Missouri.

"We are what's called plank owners because we were members of the ship's original crew. The ship was so new that when we got on board, the welders were still working, and they worked 24 hours a day," said Jerry C. Miller, a former signalman and longtime friend, who lives in Rockford, Ill. "I cannot say enough about Bill. He was a very sincere, likable and just a top-notch, clean-cut fellow."

Mr. Kearns remained aboard the carrier after the end of the war and participated in Operation Magic Carpet Duty, which ferried military personnel to the West Coast.

Discharged in 1946, Mr. Kearns went to work in the bridge department of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and then from the early 1950s through the late 1970s, was a Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. meter reader.

He moved to Boston in the 1980s, where he worked for about a decade at the mother church of the First Church of Christ Scientist as a mailroom worker and nurse until returning to Towson in the early 1990s.

Even though years had passed since the end of World War II, Mr. Kearns never forgot his shipmates or the Bon Homme Richard, which was decommissioned in 1971.

In 1989, he and his fellow shipmates held a reunion aboard the old carrier, which was laid up at Bremerton, Wash. They tried raising funds for the ship's preservation, but despite their best efforts, it was scrapped in 1993.

Mr. Kearns had several boxes of World War II memorabilia from his days on the ship, and after he inherited his mother's 1850s-era brick rowhouse in Hagerstown in the mid-1990s, decided to open a museum.

He named the Potomac Street museum the Skivvy Waver House, a nickname for a signalman, and proceeded to fill its four floors with uniforms, pictures, signal flags and other historic materials.

Once the word got out, his shipmates responded in kind, and people he didn't know from across the country sent him their souvenirs.

"My dad -- I get choked up when I talk about him -- loved his war record and loved his country. And he always remained devoted to his Navy buddies," said a son, Michael Wayne Kearns of Glen Arm. "He has the ship's bell and has included artifacts from the Korean and Vietnam wars, but it's basically 90 percent Bon Homme Richard."

"I donated a big red signal flag that I took before leaving the ship. The war was over and I figured Uncle Sam didn't need it anymore and could have cared less if I took it," said Frank E. Agvent, a former Bon Homme Richard signalman who lives in Stratford, Conn. "I had it for years hanging in the cellar, and it wasn't doing me any good, so I gave it to Bill."

"It's amazing the amount of information that he's gathered over the years. I sent him pictures and a ship's telephone directory. He had pride in that museum and it kept him going, and he was the glue that kept our outfit together," Mr. Miller said.

"We are planning to keep it open," the son said.

Mr. Kearns, who had formerly lived on West Joppa Road in Riderwood, enjoyed writing children's stories and composing folk songs.

Services were Thursday.

Surviving are his wife of 56 years, the former Marjorie Simmons; two other sons, William Thomas Kearns of Perry Hall and Dale Robin Kearns of Reisterstown; a sister, Patti Kearns of Hagerstown; and four grandchildren.

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