MARYSVILLE — On Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Army Private Walter Bailey was alone, tending the flower bed outside his barracks at Fort Shafter, Hawaii, when he noticed something unusual: black and white puffs of smoke in the air. He knew they were targeting and live rounds from the antiaircraft batteries at Pearl Harbor, 2½ miles away.
Bailey said that at first, “I couldn’t figure out why they were shooting like that.”
Then a call came over the loudspeaker that the base was under attack.
He grabbed his new eight-shot M-1 rifle and ran to the main barracks to await orders. Just then a single Japanese fighter plane, either taking a circuitous route to its target down at the Navy base or otherwise separated from its squadron, came in close.
Bailey had just been issued ammunition for his personal weapons. He could see the enemy pilot under the plane’s canopy.
He quickly fished the ammunition out of his belt, loaded his weapon and squeezed off seven shots at the receding plane before it was out of range. As far as Bailey could tell, none of his shots hit.
“The only time I used my rifle was Dec. 7,” he said.
For many veterans, wartime service is a pinnacle of their lifetime experience. But for Walt Bailey, now 94, his time in the Army was just one stage in a lifetime dedicated to service.
Bailey was 22 when he enlisted in the Army in 1941 — he joined voluntarily after serving for two years in the Civilian Conservation Corps fighting forest fires and building and maintaining trails in the Cascades. In the Army, he was part of a searchlight and radar unit assigned to pinpoint enemy aircraft for the antiaircraft batteries.
While Bailey spent years after the war talking to schoolchildren about his experience in the war, and still dons his Pearl Harbor Survivors’ cap when heading out, it’s his time in the CCC, and his years of giving back after the war, that he is most proud of.
Always an outdoorsman, Bailey enjoyed hiking in the back country, hunting duck, grouse and deer.
Living in Marysville after the war, he became well-known to the U.S. Forest Service and Parks Department. He was instrumental in establishing Snohomish County Fire District 22 in the Getchell neighborhood, and then later went back to the county to adjust the district’s boundaries so that his home would lie inside them, allowing him to volunteer as a firefighter with the district for the next 27 years. He did all this while working as a maintenance machinist at Weyerhaeuser Mill B.
Bailey retired in 1981 after working 34 years at the mill, but that didn’t slow him down.
One project he spearheaded was to build a 4½-mile-long trail, which now bears his name, on U.S. Forest Service lands on Bald Mountain, near Spada Lake.
He also helped establish a CCC interpretive center at Deception Pass State Park.
And there was his wartime service. He spoke to schoolchildren, attended a few veterans events at Naval Station Everett, rode in Marysville’s Memorial Day parade, and occasionally met up with the few remaining Pearl Harbor survivors in the area for lunch.
Bailey spent the first part of the war on Hawaii, operating the searchlight and new radar equipment and preparing for a follow-up Japanese attack that never came. In late 1944, his unit was sent to Leyte Island, the Philippines, as part of the liberation of the islands from Japanese forces. It was a harrowing month-long deployment that started with his troop ship landing during continuing Japanese bombing runs. His unit’s radar equipment was either sunk or damaged at sea, so it never arrived, and his unit had to forage for food for two weeks because their food supply ship was delayed.
“Thanksgiving turkey was one tablespoon,” he said.
Bailey also contracted dengue fever from the mosquitoes on the island.
After a month in the Philippines, Bailey was sent home on leave, hitching a ride on a Dutch freighter from New Guinea. He spent the rest of the war in California training guard dogs and drilling other troops at Fort Ord, and was discharged July 5, 1945, a month before Japan surrendered.
Today Bailey’s photo albums are full of pictures of him in uniform, of the radar units he worked with in the war, and of a later visit to Punchbowl Crater in Hawaii, where an Army audio location station operated during the war.
But there are just as many photos of him hiking in the back country with his wife, Verla, and three sons. A 1956 shot shows him standing next to the wreckage of a helicopter sent to rescue him from the Clear Creek area after he fell down a ridge while hiking and his pistol discharged into his abdomen. He also keeps an issue of Life magazine from 1941 that had a photograph of a ladder he built for the CCC at a power station out near Verlot. It was carved from a single log, had 65 steps, and no handrail.
Bailey now lives with his youngest son, Tim Bailey, 62, and Tim’s wife, Cathy Bailey, just down the road from the Getchell fire station. Verla died in March after a long illness, and Bailey gets around with a walker or an electric scooter, although he still drives. He’s slowed down and doesn’t give talks to schoolchildren any more, but he still has stories ready to tell, his Pearl Harbor Survivor’s cap to wear, and still goes out to occasional veterans events, including Friday’s Pearl Harbor Day remembrance at Naval Station Everett.
And Walter Bailey still feeds the ducks in his back yard from large sacks of cracked corn, once before dawn and then again in the evening.
He gets upset if he can’t feed the ducks, Cathy Bailey said as the former hunter tossed handfuls of corn into a flock of about 100 noisy birds on the lawn.
“He’s still giving back,” she said.
Chris Winters: 425-339-3102; email@example.com.