Bill Criswell, now 90, remembers the exact moment on Dec. 7, 1941, when he learned the Japanese military launched an assault on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor. The teenager and some buddies were playing a pickup basketball game at the neighborhood park when a young man ran up to them, yelling, “They attacked Pearl Harbor, they attacked Pearl Harbor!”
Two years later, Criswell said, “Almost every one of the boys in my graduating class was in the military.”
William C. Criswell Jr. graduated from high school in Euclid, Ohio, in 1943, and by fall, he was among those enlisting classmates who found themselves participating in World War II. He joined the U.S. Navy Seabees.
“At that time, if you had blood running through your veins, you entered some sort of service,” he said.
Criswell's father, William Sr., spent four years in the U.S. Navy and served aboard the USS Massachusetts in the Spanish-American War in 1898, and he wanted his only child to enlist in the Navy, too.
“He always was in love with the Navy,” Criswell said of his father. “Any time there was a parade, my dad would be there with a Navy jack (a U.S. maritime flag). I had no inclination to be a sea-going sailor. I always liked building things. The Seabees served his purpose of me joining the Navy, so there was peace in the household.”
A Seabee was a member of the U.S. Naval Construction Forces; the word comes from the initials “CB,” which stood for Construction Battalions.
Criswell was sent to Camp Peary, Virginia, for boot camp and then on to Davisville Naval Construction Battalion Center, in Rhode Island, to board a troop ship headed south to a naval operating base in Trinidad and the British West Indies. It took seven days for this construction battalion maintenance group to reach its destination.
“I questioned one time, what the hell are we doing down here?” Criswell said.
Because Trinidad is due west from Africa, he was told, the idea was to transport troops injured in the war straight across the Atlantic Ocean for treatment at a large hospital that was being built on the base.
Criswell got involved with the utilities at the base, maintaining the series of pumps, wells and purification systems that handled the water supply. He regularly checked the pumping stations and water and chlorine levels in the storage tanks.
“All the water supply was gravity fed, and that meant there were very large hills and tanks were up above those, big large storage tanks,” he said. “And knowing whether you had adequate water; you did the old dipstick method. If there’s not enough, you go to the pump station and ask for more water to be pumped in. … We did that 24 hours a day, so sometimes you had a night shift, and the only way to get up the large hill was by jeep, and the only roads were cut out of the side of it. And you went there rain or shine. One evening I was going up, and I got too close to the edge of it, and the rain had washed out part of it, and I went right over. I felt my head on the roof.”
Criswell sustained no injuries other than a bruised ego.
As a maintenance battalion, his group was also tasked with checking and making repairs on all commissioned ships — such as heavy cruisers and battle ships — “working out the kinks” before any of them were sent into combat. He said a couple of German submarines, rusty and battered, were captured and rerouted to the base, as well.
After spending two and one half years in the maintenance battalion, Criswell returned to the U.S. in March 1946 and was honorably discharged with the rank of Water Tender 2nd Class. He received a participation medal and European Theatre medal.
After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration at Kent State University, Ohio, Criswell moved to Central Florida, where he met his future wife, Helen Ann. The two were married 46 years until her death in 1997. They have one daughter, Holly Hansen, of Orlando, and two grandchildren. He has lived in Windermere for 52 years.
He put his business degree to good use, spending 29 years with H.C. Buchanan Concrete Inc. before retiring as vice president. He is also a past president of the Central Florida Builders Exchange.
After retirement, Criswell devoted his time to community service, taking on the president’s role of West Orange Habitat for Humanity and the Rotary Club of Windermere.
While he was with Habitat, Criswell found a way to combine his passions of building and giving back to veterans and their families. In 2007, he founded Home At Last, which builds homes for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who return home with permanent disabilities related to combat.
“The idea was to give them a starting point,” he said. “And because Habitat built for families, we decided to build for families.”
It’s an important way to say thank you to these veterans who were willing to sacrifice their lives, said Criswell, who serves as project chairman. He has met veterans of the recent wars who have lost legs or arms or have serious spinal cord damage — injuries that killed many troops 70 years ago but aren’t life-threatening today, Criswell said, “because of the care they get and the better medical attention they get out in the field.”
Home At Last has provided six disability-friendly homes and is about to start on its seventh. These are funded solely through public donations.
“When you get to be my age, there are things that can give you jaded opinions of what's happening in our society, but working with this and getting the support of the people, it renews your faith in people. … I have met more nice, caring people.”
Criswell sets up a tent at many of the local community festivals, eager to meet folks and share the good work that Home At Last does; he said his booth always attracts the attention of other war veterans.
“There is a certain bond with people who have served their country — I don't care if they're Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force — there's just that bond of respect for the other individual for giving time to their country,” he said.
A year ago, he had the chance to experience a free trip to Washington, D.C., with a group of local World War II and Korean War veterans through the Central Florida Honor Flight program. He got his first look at the monument for the Second World War, and he was able to pay his respects in Arlington Cemetery. It was a bonding experience for everyone on the flight.
Last week, he was invited to a Veterans Day program at The First Academy, where the school’s Wounded Warrior club honored him and other veterans for their service.
As a war veteran, Criswell has strong opinions about America’s young adults going into the service.
“In World War II, it was a total combined effort, the civilians and the military, and … I don’t think they should have ever done away with the draft,” he said. “I think the military teaches a certain amount of discipline, which I think a lot of our young people could stand, and it teaches respect. I don't think they should serve four years, but I think males and females should serve two years in the military. I think it would make them appreciate their country more.”