Lifetime area farmer remembers break he took on Hawaii helping U.S. rebuild after Pearl Harbor

Harold Billington served more than three years in Hawaii during World War II and, after a lifetime of farming, now resides at Markle Health & Rehabilitation.
Harold Billington served more than three years in Hawaii during World War II and, after a lifetime of farming, now resides at Markle Health & Rehabilitation. Photo by Cindy Klepper.

Harold Billington grew up a farm boy, and he retired a farmer.

“Wheat, oats, bean, corn, rye,” he says. “Fixed tractors. I fixed about anything; electrical, welding, stuff like that.”
Most of his work was in the Bluffton, Geneva, Berne and Portland areas.

But for more than three years — “three years, four months and 10 days,” he says — Billington was on Oahu, building bridges, roads and landing strips on the Hawaiian island that was home to the naval base at Pearl Harbor in the midst of World War II.

He’d been drafted and trained as an engineer in the United States Air Force, then shipped out to Oahu.

“We were on the ocean, on an LST (landing ship tank),” he says. “We were coming in in a rainstorm, a lightning storm. We arrived about a day before and stopped to wait out the storm.”

They had arrived on Dec. 6, 1941, a day before the Japanese launched an attack on Pearl Harbor. When the attack began, Billington’s ship was about two miles away, “just about ready to pull into the bay,” he says.

“I never figured I’d come back alive when they started the bombing,” he says. “I never even figured I’d see daylight again.”

He could hear the bombs.

“Just like a big boom,” he says. “Just like shooting off a cannon.”

Billington, now 96 and a resident of Markle Health & Rehabilitation, eventually made it to land and spent the next several years operating heavy construction equipment.

When his unit arrived, the island had only one air strip, and it wasn’t big enough to handle the large planes, the B-29s. He helped build three air fields, including Hickam Field and Wheeler Field. He helped maintain the planes, changing tires, checking windows, making sure everything was working like it should.

“I had real rough work,” he says. “It was dangerous work … Planes come in and drop a bomb and you’re out there”— he shakes his head — “you won’t know what happened.”

Three different times, Billington was called on to use the claw end of his equipment to retrieve the lifeless body of a fellow soldier from the top of a light pole. Each time, the man had touched one of the many wires on the poles which provided light for the working areas, and was electrocuted.

“I picked him right off that pole,” Billington remembers. I just squeezed him enough that I could hold him. I picked him up, swung him around and put him on the ground.

“Running that kind of equipment, you got no time to gawk around,” he says. “You don’t daydream.”