Wearing his life jacket and a steel helmet, Bill Killian stood on the deck of the USS Roper and watched as a suicide Japanese aircraft flew directly toward his ship.
Shells splashed in the sea as three American planes flew in frenzied pursuit trying to shoot down the kamikaze, but to no avail.
The aircraft struck the ship near an ammunition stowage.
“The fire could have blown up the entire ship and crew,” Killian wrote years later. “However, luck was on our side — the rescue crew … was able to put out the fire.”
Killian, who lived in Woodbury, died Aug. 3. He was 100.
After serving with the U.S. Navy in World War II and the Korean War, Killian went on to lead a quieter life in the forest that included running parks for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Killian helped establish one of the country’s first rails-to-trails bike paths before leading efforts to create Willow River State Park near Hudson.
“Working for him, you always knew that he appreciated what you did,” said Mark Kubler, who worked as a seasonal ranger at Willow River. “And you always wanted to do more. You never wanted to let Bill down.”
Bill Killian was born on the West Side of Chicago in 1919 and grew up in the nearby suburb of Oak Park.
After he graduated high school, Killian’s sister connected him with a professor at the University of Chicago who needed help developing property along a small lake in northern Wisconsin. It was during the Depression, and jobs were scarce. Killian traveled north for work, clearing brush and building cabins, maintaining a road and cutting blocks of ice from the lake.
“He just fell in love with Northern Wisconsin,” said his son Doug Killian. “That was a catalyst for him.”
During the war, Killian reported for duty as a third class signalman on the USS Roper, a ship that was famed for being the first U.S. ship to sink a German submarine. The Roper served convoy duty, transporting oil in support of invasions in Europe.
Then the ship moved to the Pacific fleet. The kamikaze attack came as the ship took part in the invasion of Okinawa.
After serving in the Korean War, Killian earned a degree in forestry from Purdue University, where he also played for a year on the school’s tennis team. From Indiana, he moved to Georgia where he worked marking timber to be harvested into paper.
Killian and his wife, Vera, moved back in 1965 to Wisconsin, where the couple raised two children. Killian was assistant manager at Pattison State Park near Superior, Wis., and then became superintendent at Wildcat Mountain State Park in Ontario, Wis.
While at Wildcat Mountain, Killian was responsible for developing an abandoned 33-mile train track with three tunnels. It’s now known as the Elroy-Sparta Trail.
Killian was the first superintendent at Willow River State Park, where he worked with ranger Bernie McGaver. In the beginning, “there was no infrastructure of any kind,” McGaver said, so they created roads, a campground, a contact station and maintenance shop.
The park was popular because of its proximity to the Twin Cities and unique for including three dams that park workers tended. It was challenging work, said Kubler, the seasonal ranger, since failure to properly control the flow of water through the dams could result in damage to structures above and below the park.
“Foresters are the champions of sustainability, and that’s the background he brought,” Kubler said.
In addition to his wife and son, Killian is survived by a daughter, Nancy Killian, a daughter-in-law, Kris Killian, and two grandsons. Services have been held.
Christopher Snowbeck • 612-673-4744