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'Atomic Vet' finds solace in bees after fighting enemy and cancer

Duke L. Williams can tell you all about honey bees and the bitter reality of war.

He maintained 200 hives in the 1980s and 1990s and that translates to, well, millions of bees working to produce honey.

He is so comfortable with the hives he still maintains, about 30 in Lewiston and Youngstown, that he doesn't even wear protective gear. He loves his bees.

But the 91 years of life for Williams were not always so sweet.

When he was 5 years old, his father abandoned his pregnant mother and his three siblings.

"I was sent out to foster care. I was with one old lady and I hoed her garden. The hoe's handle stuck out about three feet above me. I was just a little guy," Williams recalled while sitting in the workshop area of his Town of Lewiston barn.

On a desk were jars of honey and a few slabs of honeycomb. Somewhere out of sight, a wood burner kept the air toasty and fragrant as he shared details of his military service.

A few days before turning 17, he returned home to Bigler, Pa., from another foster home in Akron, Ohio. He told his mother he wanted to serve in World War II.

"I asked her to sign the early enlistment papers for the Navy. She said she wouldn't and I told her I would get some woman walking down the street to sign the papers. I hung that over her head and she signed them."

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Duke L. Williams, 91

Hometown: Bigler, Pa.

Residence: Town of Lewiston

Branch: Navy

Rank: Gunners mate 3rd class

War Zones: Pacific Theater, Korean War,

Years of service: January 1944 – August 1958

Most prominent honors: Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, Good Conduct Medal

Specialty: gunnery, 16-inch gun; 5-inch gun, gun captain on Quad 40 mm anti-aircraft guns

*******

The determined teenager was soon on his way to the Pacific Theater as a replacement sailor in the Battle of Peleliu. He was a crew member aboard a landing craft tank.

"You won't hear much about it, but an admiral and Gen. Douglas MacArthur said they'd secure the island in 72 hours. Well, 72 days later, it happened and it was the biggest mistake in the Pacific at that time. Marine and Navy pilots were shot down and there were something like over 2,000 troops killed and 8,000 wounded," he said.

What went wrong?

"There were 100 natural coral caves on what the Marines called Bloody Nose Ridge, and they hadn't spotted any during the reconnaissance. The enemy had fortified those caves over 16 years," Williams explained. "All of that work was done by Koreans and any prisoners they had captured. It was slave labor."

In the end, losses for the enemy were even greater, nearly 11,000 had been killed.

Williams says he still remembers how unceremoniously enemy soldiers were buried in mass graves dug by bulldozers.

Peleliu was the only battle he participated in during WWII, and for that he says he remains grateful.

Williams tells his story in a rhythmic beat, kept by the tap of a fly swatter that periodically zaps a fly that attempts to seek refuge in his workshop on a cold, late afternoon. He loves bees but not flies.

When the war ended in August 1945 after the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Williams said he decided to re-enlist, never imagining he and other sailors would be intentionally exposed to two atomic bomb tests in July 1946.

"We were 7½ miles from the airburst of the first bomb that exploded above the target ships in a lagoon at Bikini Island. We had our backs turned to the burst, then we were told to turn around and every ship in the lagoon was on fire.

"We were ordered into the lagoon after the burst to put out the fires. When we got there, all the paint that was going to burn on ships had burned. The radiation wasn't that bad," he said.

The second atomic explosion he witnessed ignited underwater and was twice as powerful.

"We were 14 miles out for this one. The USS Arkansas weighed 26,000 tons and was in the lagoon. It stood straight up and then went straight down under the water. The last time she was seen was standing straight up," Williams said, lifting up his right forearm and dropping it to illustrate.

Navy veteran Duke L. Williams is thankful the Battle of Peleliu is the only one had to participate in. More than 1,800 U.S. fighters and 11,000 enemy fighters were killed in that battle.

Witnessing the ferocity of those two atomic blasts and the subsequent suffering from the radiation exposure earned Williams and other sailors a title for their military service: They are known as America's "Atomic Veterans."

"At the time, I lost all the hair under my arms and on my chest and some on my head and none of it ever grew back," he said.

Throughout the years, he has undergone three surgeries for different cancers he blames on the radiation.

"The worst operation for me was my throat in the 1970s. I lost about 60 percent of the inside of my throat. Scar tissue's left from what they cut out, and I have a hell of a time eating anything hot. I put milk in my coffee and ice cubes in my soup."

The fly swatter stopped, as he let sink in the price he has paid. Hanging on the wall behind him is a T-shirt showing a mushroom cloud framed by the words: "Official U.S. Government Registered Nuclear Guinea Pig."

After leaving active duty, he moved to Niagara County and served as a Navy reservist at Fort Niagara. But war came around again: Korea.

He was assigned to the USS Wisconsin, a WWII battleship, and he led a 16-member crew that operated a Quad 40 mm antiaircraft unit.

"We were 15 miles out in  international waters and patrolled from Russia down along the whole North Korean coast to Pusan in South Korea, but we never were attacked by aircraft," he said.

The Wisconsin frequently fired its "big guns" at enemy targets in North Korea.

And while it might sound like the Wisconsin was a safe haven for the sailors, March 15, 1952, proved otherwise. A North Korean shore battery scored a direct hit on the ship.

"The shell landed on gun mount 17, wounding three sailors," he said.

The Wisconsin exacted revenge.

"We fired three high-explosive 16-inch shells into their battery. There wasn't nothing left of it."

After the Korean War, he continued to serve in the Naval Reserve until 1958. He also pursued a career as an ironworker while he and his wife, the former Lavnasha Smith, raised three children on their 42-acre farm.

For 36 years, Williams' ironworking job took him near and far, including to the Niagara Hydroelectric Power Project and the Trans-Alaskan oil pipeline.

And that brings us back to his cozy workshop.

He shows off a trophy, a welding helmet he wore when working on the Alaskan pipeline. On one side written in black magic marker are the words "Trans-Alaska Pipeline, November 1974 – March 1977."

On the other side: "This Welding Helmet Paid For This Farm in 21 months, $30,000.00."

Stepping outside the workshop onto his land, Williams points to the ground filled with unhusked black walnuts and says he'll be harvesting them soon enough. He also speaks about the chickens and rabbits he raises for food to complement the vegetables from his garden.

He seems to revel in his independence, and there is no doubt that for this war veteran, the farming and beekeeping life is sweet.

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