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A Proud Seabees Legend and Legacy: The Remarkable Story of the Painter Family

A Proud Seabees Legend and Legacy: The Remarkable Story of the Painter Family

The Seabees 75th anniversary is shining a light on many extraordinary people and their contributions, none more memorable than two Painters, a father and son who share a name and a history of service.  We recently had the privilege of learning about the amazing career and indelible character of the elder Bill Painter from his son, Wil.  While his father has been gone for decades, the vivid stories are more timely than ever as we mark this Diamond Anniversary.

Bill Painter

Wil Painter

From Lebanon, Indiana, far from the sea and surrounded by corn fields, Wil Painter detailed the life of his father, whose adventures and exploits have become the stuff of Seabees lore over the years.  He was Captain Wilfred L. Painter (CEC, USNR), but his nickname, “Wild Bill,” was well earned!

The younger Wil Painter says, “I think a common thread when you look through the stories is that he was forceful.  My father came in with a ‘let’s get it done’ attitude.”

In World War II, Bill Painter, with a degree in Civil Engineering, became a Navy advance scout in the Pacific after Guadalcanal.  In his book From Omaha to Okinawa:  The Story of the Seabeesauthor William Bradford Huie wrote, “On every island in the Solomons on which we landed, Painter was there before the landing — surveying, taking soundings, determining whether and how fast an airfield could be built there.”

But it wasn’t just what he did.  It was how he did it.  Huie wrote about Painter hiding in caves, dodging and ambushing the enemy, and breaking barriers for engineers, who’d often been viewed as second-class citizens by some in the Navy who were slow to recognize what the CEC could do.  That quickly changed, with Painter leading the way.

Painter began active duty on February 4, 1941, when he was 33.  Author Kimon Skordiles, in his book The Seabees in War and Peace, wrote “Within three days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Painter was assigned the task of raising the battleships California and West Virginia.  Seventy-five days later, due in great part to Painter’s efforts, both ships were underway to the United States, sailing under their own power.  Both ships later rejoined the fleet and participated in the battles for Tinian, Iwo Jima and the Philippine Sea.”  And William Bradford Huie wrote of Painter, “On Pearl Harbor Day he was building a dry dock at Long Beach.  He was rushed to Pearl Harbor and placed in charge of raising the battleships California and West Virginia.  He worked like a fiend.  He dived with the divers, and was so covered with scum each night that he had to bathe in Kerosene.  A doctor was assigned to follow him throughout the dark, muddy bowels of the big ships to revive him when he collapsed from sulphur dioxide gas.  He had both ships raised and in dry dock before anybody believed it was possible.”

Painter on the deck of the California with part of the salvage crew

California  as the dry dock emptied, 1942

The younger Wil Painter says his father blazed trails in other ways.  In 1944, at the age of 35, he was promoted to Captain — the youngest in the Navy.  It hadn’t taken long for Admiral William Halsey to realize how valuable Painter was.  His son tells us BUPERS (Bureau of Personnel) in Washington sent a message quoting the regulations that prohibited the accelerated promotion.  The Bureau soon got a message back.  Scrawled across the original memo was a note reading, “I’ve done it, you  figure out how.”  It was signed…Nimitz!  Admiral Chester Nimitz was yet another top Navy man in Captain Painter’s corner.

Admiral Nimitz and Bill Painter

That “you figure out how” attitude is a familiar theme in Painter’s story.  His son says he learned an important lesson from his father, one he’s always worked to pass along in training junior engineers.  He tells us, “There’s always a rule that says you can’t do something in a bureaucracy, and if you’re going to get governed by what you can’t do, you’ll never get anything done, so I want you to look for ways to do things, not look for reasons why you can’t.”  He adds that his father simply didn’t “play well” with middle managers, and was never afraid of rank.  

That is the ‘Can Do’ motto of the Seabees brought to life!

Before, during and after World War II, Bill Painter lived a life of adventure, personifying the best of the CEC, the Seabees, the Navy, and the United States of America.  Those adventures could fill a book…or two, or three.  Or, as William Bradford Huie put it, “A movie could be made of his exploits,”  adding, “If Painter had lived in the 16th Century, he would have been Captain Blood, if in the 19th he would have been a mixture of Jeb Stuart, Buffalo Bill, and Jesse James.”  And, wrote Huie, “He dressed like Davey Crockett.”

Nowhere is the enormous impact of Captain Painter better  summed up than in a letter written in February of 2001 by J. Edward Martin, FASCE, Partner Emeritus of AC Martin Partners, Inc. in Los Angeles.  He wrote “Lt. Painter’s personal capability was so outstanding; he was fully accepted as the OinC of the West Virginia Salvage Operation.  The manner in which he executed his duties was inspirational to ‘all hands’.  When the ‘WeeVee’ was towed into  DDI on June 8, 1942 and Lt. Painter was in command and stood on the main fore deck issuing the orders of the process of bringing her into the blocks, it was an awesome moment.  The ship was being kept afloat by the use of Pomona Deep Well Pumps mounted on the main deck and powered by Electric M.G. sets adjacent to the pump.  The streams of water discharge looked like a fireboat in N.Y. harbor welcoming a Luxury Liner.  It was a great moment and a great day, which symbolized the return of the U.S. Fleet to duty against the enemy.”

USS West Virginia approaching dry dock on June 8, 1942

The original photograph signed by Admiral Halsey

At the end of the war, Painter was on the deck of the Missouri for the signing of the surrender.

No tribute is more powerful than a signed photograph from Admiral Halsey, reading, “To Bill Painter — He turns jungles into metropolitan airports.  A delightful companion & great friend.  Well done,  Bill Halsey.”

Painter’s legacy continues with the many contributions of his son.  The younger Wil, CDR W. L. Painter, Jr., CEC, USNR, (Ret.) proudly served in Vietnam and Desert Storm as the Commanding Officer of the first reserve Seabees to be mobilized since Vietnam.  To this day, his engineering degree and experience are put to use around the world.  He is part of Engineers Without Borders, carrying out training and humanitarian work in underdeveloped countries.  And, as an enthusiastic lifetime member of the CEC/Seabee Historical Foundation, he’s encouraging others to get involved and give, especially in honor of this Diamond Anniversary.  

Wil says, “I’m just proud that in my life I got to be able to do some of these things.  Although my career is one of very proud service, his was real heroism.”  

Wil working on various construction projects with Engineers Without Borders in the Dominican Republic

His father died as he lived, a hero on the water.  Highly decorated, he was awarded honors including the Legion of Merit, with two Gold Stars and one Oak Cluster, a Navy Commendation Ribbon, the Presidential Unit Citation, and a Bronze Star (V).  He went on inactive duty in March of 1946.  In 1949, he was aboard a pleasure boat on the Potomac.  The boat caught fire, and Painter died of burns received saving some of the others.  

Bill Painter proudly holding his Tommy gun

Sometimes people throw around the description “larger than life.” Bill Painter truly was.  He’s been described as a brawny, bearded figure wearing coveralls and carrying a Tommy gun.  CAPT (later RADM) H.N. Wallin, the Salvage Officer at Pearl Harbor, wrote, “In the Salvage Division, by far the hardest worker and the one who set the pace for all others was Lieutenant Wilfred L. Painter.”

RADM Wallin, when retired, was the one who administered the commission oath for Wil Painter, Jr.

Today, the son has the father’s sword, and used it to cut the cake at a ball celebrating the Seabees Diamond Anniversary. 

The son’s wedding ring bears the CEC insignia.

And father and son are immortalized, side by side, in bricks inscribed with their names and service, proudly on display at The CEC/Seabee Museum at  Port Hueneme, California.

Wil with his father’s sword at the Seabee Ball in 2017
Wil’s ring with the CEC insignia
CAPT Painter and CDR Painter’s bricks at the U.S. Navy Seabee Museum

12 Comments
  1. It is a shame that all we ever hear about in the news is trivial to what Men Like this accomplished. Thanks for sharing

  2. As Wil’s sister in law I stand very proud of the accomplishment from both Wil and his father! They are the true guts and glory that made the USA what it is today. Wil is a true gentleman and hold him near and dear to my heart. With Love always, Suzanne Steiner

  3. This is a wonderful story.

    • I served with USAF 2nd Lt Wil Painter in Vietnam with the 555 REDHORSE. Lt was/is a gutsy officer and it was tough to raise him as his NCO.

  4. Wow – I was a Seabee with MCB#1 and I never heard this story. Always glad to hear of guys who paved the way for the rest of us. Aren’t we lucky to have had them on our side. God Bless their efforts and their families for the sacrifices they made for all of us. Guess all I can say is Thankyou. I will be a Seabee until I die

  5. I served with USAF 2nd Lt Wil Painter in Vietnam with the 555 REDHORSE. Lt was/is a gutsy officer and it was tough to raise him as his NCO.After I left him he got stupid and joined the Navy.

    • Ahh, but you persevered and did a great job bringing me up!
      LT

  6. What an inspiring story! The painters truly exemplify the CanDo! spirit of the Seabees. But more than that, their stories reflect the values of hard work, courage, and selflessness, plus the kindness and generosity of spirit I’ve come to recognize consistently in every Seabee I’ve ever met.

  7. I am very proud to be Wil’s cousin, and I am fascinated to learn more about his handsome, daring, accomplished father! Thanks for adding the photographs.

  8. I worked on several projects with Wil and students from my school through Engineers Without Borders in the Dominican Republic. He was absolutely the best example of leadership they could have and accomplished amazing things in a short period of time with limited resources, all the while keeping a positive outlook despite whatever unforeseen problems cropped up. We need more people like Wil in this country and I’m proud to have worked alongside him.

  9. An amazing Story of how our Seabees serve and love of country. I wish this story would help thoses who continue to have their freedsom appreciate those who have dedicated life and family for them. I am a proud Seabee retired and proud of all those who serve. Thank you for sharing your story.

  10. An amazing Story. I wish this story would help thoses who continue to have their freedsom appreciate those who have dedicated life and family for them. I am a proud Seabee retired and proud of all those who serve. Thank you for sharing your story.

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