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From watching painting paint dry to avoiding swarms of kamikazes, Amherst veteran recalls World War II service

Lynn W. Bridenbaker, 94

Hometown: Franklinville

Residence: Amherst

Branch: Navy

Rank: Storekeeper first class

War zone: Pacific

Years of service: 1941-45

Most prominent honors: Silver Star, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with five battle stars, World War II Victory Medal

Specialty: 40 mm gunner on landing ship dock

By Lou Michel

News Staff Reporter

Talk about tedious work, Lynn W. Bridenbaker says his time at Bell Aircraft in Buffalo was as boring as watching paint dry.

And that’s what he did.

His job at the war plant was to wait until freshly painted small mechanical parts for Bell’s Airacobra fighter plane had dried so that he could put them into boxes and store them.

But when the United States entered World War II after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Bridenbaker boxed up his boredom, enlisted and headed to San Diego in preparation for the war in the Pacific. The fierce island-hopping battles placed him on the razor’s edge of life. Gunfire from enemy planes rained down on his ship. Many of those planes morphed into kamikazes crashing, disabling and sinking ships.

Yet in telling his story all these years later, it becomes obvious that the aging sailor’s sense of humor remains afloat.

“I always tell people I joined the Navy because I decided that I wanted to ride instead of walk,” Bridenbaker says of why he passed up on the Army or Marines.

He also is proud of what he and his shipmates accomplished aboard their landing ship dock, aka “well deck,” which carried in its in its belly 16 smaller landing crafts, each loaded with a tank and complement of troops.

“We’d pump water into the well deck, open up our tailgate and float the boats so they could be launched and head to the islands we were invading,” the 94-year-old Bridenbaker recalls.

Among the landings and battles in which he participated were Saipan, the retaking of the Philippines and Okinawa.

“Our first landing was at Saipan, and when we arrived, we did not have any problems,” he says. “There were just a few Japanese airplanes, and there was a little ground fire, but it did not last long. Our planes went in and took their long range guns out.”

After that, it was on to the Ulithi atoll in the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific to set up a base for supplies in preparation for future landings.

“When we landed at Ulithi, there was no one there, so we went swimming,” Bridenbaker says. “It was a treat swimming in that saltwater.”

As the Navy moved closer to Japan, Bridenbaker recalls, there were the battles to reclaim the Philippines.

At the Battle of Leyte, he says, he and his shipmates noticed a smaller craft, which had been launched from a nearby cruiser, pass by them.

“We were offshore about eight or 10 miles, and we see this small craft,” he says. “We got the word from the cruiser that Gen. MacArthur was on that boat. I guess they wanted to make sure we didn’t shoot at it. He was headed to Leyte, where he made his famous speech that he had returned to the Philippines.

“The funny thing,” Bridenbaker adds with a laugh, “is that about 45 minutes later, he returned to the cruiser. ‘Get me out of here; somebody’s shooting’ – that’s what MacArthur must have thought.”

Okinawa, Bridenbaker says, was the most intense battle he fought. “That was the last chance for the Japanese. The kamikaze planes were like swarms of bees. They came every day at us,” he says. “We had an advantage being on a landing ship dock. We didn’t pump the water back out of our well deck. From the sky, it looked like we were half sunk.”

The ruse kept the ship safe, but other nearby crafts were not so fortunate. “There was this aircraft carrier, the USS Bunker Hill, that got hit by kamikazes. Three hundred were killed, and another 300 were injured,” Bridenbaker says, recalling how he could seeing heavy smoke from burning airplane fuel.

And though his ship played dead in the water, it participated in the pivotal battle.

“Even though we were a small craft, we were very heavy on anti-aircraft guns. We had 40 and 20 millimeter guns that we shot at the enemy planes,” Bridenbaker says, adding that he and his gun crew were credited with shooting down a kamikaze at Okinawa.

When the war was won in the Pacific in August 1945, Bridenbaker returned home to Franklinville to his wife, the former Marguerite Burton – his high school sweetheart whom he had married during a leave after basic training. The couple raised a big family that has continued to grow. With five children of their own, they became grandparents a dozen times over and great-grandparents 19 times.

“My marriage lasted 66 years,” he says proudly, adding that his beloved passed away seven years ago.

A Bryant & Stratton graduate, he says he made a good living working at General Mills for 32 years, where he rose to the position of operations control manager.

Now living at Brookdale Bassett Manor, an Amherst assisted-living facility, Bridenbaker says he rarely thinks about the war, though he views those years as among the best of his life. As newlyweds, Marguerite lived with him in San Diego and worked at a bank while he received ship storekeeper training.

And just to prove he still finds amusement in life, Bridenbaker says he is looking toward the future. Why?

Well, come July, all five of his children, he says, will either be collecting Social Security or be eligible for it.