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'I cried all the time ... but I did my job'

Blythewood native Solomon Bright served on the USS Bowers during World War II.
Blythewood native Solomon Bright served on the USS Bowers during World War II.

Solomon Bright felt the impact, but didn’t see the kamikaze slam into the bridge of destroyer escort USS Bowers as it cruised off Okinawa on April 16, 1945.

Bright was busy manning a 20-mm gun behind the bridge’s superstructure, pumping shells at other Japanese Zero fighter planes as their suicidal pilots attempted to sink the ship by crashing into it.

Bright said he helped shoot down two of the deadly planes, but a third slammed into the pilot house, spraying the deck with burning gasoline. Its bomb penetrated 20 feet into the ship and exploded, killing 65 sailors.

“I lost a lot of friends,” said Bright, 84, of North Columbia. “And all I could do was cry. I cried all the time ... but I did my job.”

Bright is one of 100 veterans who will be on the inaugural Honor Flight to the nation’s capital on Nov. 15 to visit the National World War II Memorial.

Local organizers hope to raise $300,000 to charter six flights to take 600 veterans to Washington for free over the next year or so. Priority will be given to veterans in ill health or those who have not seen the memorial.

Bright was born in Blythewood, the oldest of 13 children. Only recently did most of his family learn of his service on the USS Bowers, which miraculously survived the kamikaze attack and became known as “the ship that wouldn’t die.”

“He was a walking hero, and we didn’t even know it,” brother Robert Bright said.

Bright was only 16 and too young for the service in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Isolated in rural Blythewood and a crack shot with a single-barreled shotgun and rifle, he was more interested in hunting squirrels than the Japanese.

But when he turned 19 on Sept. 22, 1943, he registered for the draft as the law required. Less than a month later, he found himself in the U.S. Navy.

“I said, ‘I got a letter from the government, mama,’” he said. “I couldn’t swim. But if you threw me in, I figured I’d float.”

Bright was inducted at Fort Jackson, shipped to Maryland for rudimentary basic training, then found himself on the brand new USS Bowers in San Francisco Bay, heading for open ocean.

“He had three weeks of training and then off to the war,” brother Sylvester Bright said.

Previously, Solomon Bright’s only experience with the ocean had been a single pleasure boat ride in Charleston Harbor.

As the USS Bowers moved under the Golden Gate Bridge, “I said, ‘I don’t think I need to go out on all that water,’” Bright said. “Lord, I didn’t want to be on that boat no more. But I stuck with it.”

Bright was trained as a steward’s mate — one of only a handful of African-Americans on the ship — assisting in the galley and serving the officers.

But he was also trained to fire the 20-mm gun. Officers found his years of hunting in the woods around Blythewood made him an excellent marksman. They nicknamed him “Little Bright.”

“They said, ‘Little Bright can fire that gun!’” he said.

The mission of the USS Bowers and other destroyer escorts was to protect other ships from submarines and air attacks using depth charges and hedgehogs — underwater bombs launched from ships.

The submarine commanders “knew we could get them,” Bright said.

From March 1944 to April 1945, the Bowers escorted convoys and fought in battles all over the Pacific — New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Bougainville, Leyte Gulf and Okinawa.

Bright said in addition to the attack at Okinawa that crippled the ship, the Bowers also helped fight off kamikazes at Leyte.

“The captain would say, ‘Little Bright, fire that gun,’” Bright said. “‘I want you to take care of God’s work,’ he would say, just like a preacher.”

Bright was discharged from the service Dec. 15, 1945, and returned to Blythewood.

“My daddy wouldn’t let me re-enlist,” he said.

Bright, who never married, spent his working life as a mechanic. Each day since his discharge, he has worn a suit and tie, even working on cars.

“I’m Navy,” he said. “We dress.”

Reach Wilkinson at (803) 771-8495.