Bill Winters began flying early. As a high school student growing up in Point Pleasant, in Mason County, he learned how to fly small Piper Cubs, landing them on land and water.
He moved up to far bigger planes after joining the Air Force in the years leading up to World War II.
On a table in the living room of his Cross Lanes home rests a model of the twin-engine B-25 combat bomber in which he often flew as a crewman, amassing more than 80 missions during World War II.
But, on the auspicious day of Dec. 7, 1941, he never got a chance to get into the air where he was stationed at Hickam Air Force base, at Pearl Harbor, before waves of Japanese planes attacked.
“We came to the mess hall through the kitchen and got our food and went out in the mess hall and had our meal,” recalled Winters, who is 98. “We heard the siren go off, and we didn’t think too much of it.”
That would quickly change. The Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service struck just before 8 a.m., inflicting one of the deadliest surprise attacks in American history.
“They just caught us with our pants down. No warning whatsoever,” Winters said.
The assault lasted less than two hours. But it killed more than 2,400 soldiers and civilians, wounded 1,000 more, and destroyed or damaged more than 300 American airplanes and 20 ships.
At Hickam, 189 personnel were killed, and more than 300 wounded, according to official accounts.
“They just snuck in there so quick. It was a mess,” Winters said. ”We had our planes in the air as soon as we could. But we lost a lot planes, we lost a lot of good flyers.”
Many of the planes at the base were lined up for an inspection from the day before by Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, Winters said.
“All our planes were lined up — our fighters and bombers. So, when the Japanese came in, nobody actually intercepted the Japanese.”
The attack — forever dubbed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as, “A day which will live in infamy” — shocked the United States into entering World War II as America declared war on Japan the next day. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States.
Winters went on to serve and take part in combat missions in New Guinea and the Philippines. Mustered out of the service in 1945, he returned to West Virginia.
He went to work for DuPont as a lab technician, working for 38 years and — as his son Bill Winters Jr., who lives with his father, noted — “missed two days of work” in all that time.
Winters’ three sons all served in the military, as well. Winters Jr. served in the Air Force during Vietnam, while another son served in the Navy at the time. A third son served during Operation Desert Storm.
Winters said he is not like some veterans who don’t like to talk about their service. He said he thinks people should know the details of that awful day and how important military preparation is for the country.
“We were in the midst of it, and we were trying to fight for our lives,” he said. “Everybody ran to what aircraft was still standing that hadn’t been bombed by the Japanese.
“It’s hard to relate what really happened. But it was bad. It was bad,” he said. “Because your buddy’s been killed right beside you there, your plane’s shot even before you get it into the air.”
Winters got an aerial view of the devastation, as he was part of the crew tasked to take aerial photography after it was all over.
“It was just hard to believe.”