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05-21-03: 'They were just boys' when their ship went down in World War II
The Daily Standard
    The lives of William Bettinger and Paul Buschur were eerily intertwined.
    At 17, they were classmates at Coldwater High School, farm boys and teen-agers with an eye for the gals. That's how their families care to remember them.
    But just as they mirrored each other in life, they became comrades forever in death when their Naval ship, the USS Saint Lo, was struck by a kamikaze plane off the coast of the Philippines on Oct. 25, 1944.
    "During high school, they were both concerned about the war," said Bettinger's older brother, Paul Bettinger of Coldwater. "They had an intuition telling them to protect their country's freedom, so they signed up for the Navy and volunteered their life. They were just 17, they were just boys."
    Paul Bettinger, also in the Navy at the time and stationed at a submarine base in Pearl Harbor, recalled waiting and hoping for his brother's return shortly after the attack.
    "I went down to the receiving area where the survivors were coming in, and I waited," said Bettinger. "His name wasn't on the list of those missing."
    It was two days later when Bettinger found out his younger brother was never coming home. Their parents, Arthur and Regina, were given the words by telegram, "We regret to inform you ... ."
    Bill Bettinger left behind nine siblings.
    "I knew my brother was doing a good thing for his country, but it left a huge sadness for my parents," he said as his voice softened with emotion.
    Carl Buschur was only 11 when his older brother, Paul, left for the service. His parents, Stephen and Anna, had moved their three sons to Coldwater from Fort Recovery just a few years earlier.
    "I don't remember a lot, but I do remember my parents getting a telegram notifying them Paul was missing," Buschur said, adding the Navy later confirmed his brother as KIA (killed in action).
    Paul Buschur was a shy boy, his brother said.
    "He was an average 17-year-old farm boy, and he liked model planes," said Carl Buschur, a Coldwater resident and U.S. Army veteran.
    William Bettinger and Paul Buschur were born two days apart and were only juniors in high school when they enlisted. They were in the service for just five months when they lost their lives aboard the Saint Lo. Survivors later told family members Buschur was last seen ready to jump ship, then instead headed toward the engine room to retrieve Bettinger.
    The USS Saint Lo was formerly the USS Midway but the name was changed just two weeks before the vessel sunk. Saint Lo was the first U.S. ship to be struck by a Japanese kamikaze plane in World War II.
    Two hours before the Saint Lo was attacked, another Mercer Countian was struggling to survive just miles away. Charlie Heinl of Maria Stein found himself searching for a lifeboat after his aircraft carrier, the USS Gambier Bay, was struck by enemy naval fire - "and was sinking fast," he said.
    "The ship was listing right away after it was hit," Heinl, 77, said. "I had
to walk the ship uphill to find a lifeboat."
    Heinl, a natural swimmer who spent hours at the New Bremen village pool as a youth, was forced to hang on to the side of a lifeboat or tread water - without the luxury of a life jacket - for two days and two nights until rescued, he said.
    The crew of the Gambier Bay and the Saint Lo (named for a U.S. victory in France) were all members of Taffy 3, a fleet of six ships assigned to an area near Samar during the Battle for Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.
    Fighting was fierce that October and many times the Navy ships were overpowered as the Japanese stepped outside the bounds of the arms treaty, Heinl said. The heroism of the Taffy crews helped stop the Japanese Center Force and inflicted great losses on the enemy.
    But they paid a steep price. More than 125 men lost their lives on the Saint Lo that October day; 138 perished on the Gambier Bay.
    Heinl has kept in contact with several hundred survivors of the ships and helps coordinate annual reunions all over the United States. It was Heinl's close contact with U.S. Navy officials that helped secure lithograph copies of both ships which were recently donated to The Pop-A-Top Inn in Coldwater.
    The pictures will hang side by side, a fitting tribute to the boys' memory.
    "I feel blessed that I'm here, but so sad that the Coldwater boys weren't so lucky," Heinl said as his eyes filled with tears. "I never knew them but I know they gave their heart for a cause they believed in. They fought for liberty for us all."


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