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Bill May


Bill May, who worked for decades in the kitchen at Sonoma Developmental Center and was current president of the association of Sonoma and Lake county survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor, died Friday.

May, a former Navy cook who planned to roast turkeys aboard the repair ship USS Medusa as the first bombs and torpedoes exploded at Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II, was 91.

One of the Santa Rosa resident's two daughters, Victoria May, also of Santa Rosa, said he spoke little about Pearl Harbor or World War II until America suffered another devastating surprise attack in September 2011.

As the terrorist calamity brought back old memories, Bill May started to talk more about the horrors of war he witnessed during the three-day battle over the island of Tarawa. Quickly, more than 6,000 Japanese, Koreans and Americans perished there.

"It wasn't until 9/11 that he opened up about that," Victoria May said of her father.

"He said that (the battle of Tarawa) was the worst thing he'd ever seen. He said that would always haunt him."

Bill May was born in September 1922 in Newport, Ark. A child of the Great Depression, he joined the Navy as soon as he was able.

He was assigned as a cook aboard the battleship USS Arizona but sometime prior to Dec. 7, 1941, was reassigned to the Medusa, the first U.S. Navy ship built specifically as a repair vessel.

May assumed he would have died had he not been transferred off the Arizona. More than 1,100 sailors — nearly half of the attack's American casualties — died in the bomb explosions that ravaged the Arizona.

May told his family that aboard the Medusa that infamous Hawaiian Sunday morning he planned to roast thawed turkeys, but the birds went bad as the ship's crew returned fire to the attacking Japanese planes.

The Medusa fired also at a mini-submarine spotted inside the harbor, holding fire as the destroyer Monaghan closed in to sink the sub.

The war was still on when May met Helen Fitzsimmons, a 1942 graduate of Santa Rosa High School, in San Francisco. She worked at the time at the Federal Reserve Bank.

They married and had two daughters. They settled in Santa Rosa in the early 1960s when Bill May retired from the Navy at the rank of Chief Petty Officer and went to work at Sonoma State Hospital in Eldridge, now known as Sonoma Developmental Center.

In his free time, May enjoyed gardening and helping out on the cattle ranch that his wife's family worked on the hillsides along Sonoma Valley's Pythian Road.

Victoria May said her father deeply valued the world travel that was a benefit of Navy service. As a civilian, he toured much of the country with his wife.

Helen May died in 1981. It was a short while later that her husband became active in Luther Burbank Chapter No. 23 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

For decades, members of the group visited local schools to talk with students about the causes and world-changing ramifications of Imperial Japan's attack on U.S. forces on and near Oahu. The Pearl vets also appeared in parades and took part in annual Dec. 7 commemorations in Santa Rosa and Lakeport.

The great majority of the Pearl vets had passed on or become homebound when leaders of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association agreed they could no longer continue to run the organization, and late in 2011 dissolved it. The former chapter based in Santa Rosa renamed itself Pearl Harbor Survivors, North Bay.

All this year, May lead the monthly luncheon meetings typically attended by several widows of Pearl Harbor survivor and just one other vet, 96-year-old Herb Louden of Petaluma. Louden said he intends to do his part to keep the organization going for as long as he can.

In Lake County, only one Pearl veteran — ex-sailor Bill Slater, 89, of Lakeport — appears at that county's gatherings of people interested in honoring the sacrifices and lessons of the attack 72 years ago.

A sudden onset of poor health caused Bill May to miss the meeting in Santa Rosa on March 16. He died Friday at Kaiser Hospital.

In addition to daughter Victoria May, he is survived by daughter Christine Sory, also of Santa Rosa; two grandsons and several great-grandchildren.

At his request, there will be no services.

May asked that memorial donations be sent to the U.S. Navy Memorial, 701 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20004, or to Pacific Historic Parks at Pearl Harbor, 1 Arizona Memorial Road, Honolulu, HI 96818.