Bill Goehner earned multiple medals for his service
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Goehner’s story of World War II valor was shown to be a fabrication during a news report broadcast June 1, 2015 on ABC News Channel 7.
Published in the March 18-31, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Robert Airoldi
William “Bill” Goehner shouldn’t be here. The 89-year-old Morgan Hill man will tell you that fact himself. As a member of the United States Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team during World War II, the then teenager was declared dead twice. In his four years in the service, he became one of the most decorated officers with a Navy Cross, three Silver Star, three Bronze Star and four Purple Heart medals. He set the record for the quickest promoted officer in the Navy, achieving the rank of Lt. Commander in three years at the age of 19. His missions took him to Casablanca, Anzio, Normandy and the Baltic Sea.
Goehner joined the Navy in 1942, four days before his 16th birthday. He went to boot camp in Idaho, then was assigned to Norfolk, Va. He was sent to Cherry Point, NC, to go through combat training.
“I’d finished high school and didn’t want to sit around and wait for two years,” he said. “I was good at swimming so I joined the Underwater Demolition Team. I was patriotic and wanted to do my part.”
And he did his part as a member of the UDT, an elite special-purpose force, the precursor to the present-day elite Navy SEALs. The team’s primary function was to conduct reconnaissance and destroy enemy defensive obstacles on beaches and underwater prior to amphibious landings. Commonly called “frogmen,” the men were also employed to breach the cables and nets protecting enemy harbors, plant mines on ships and located mines for clearing by minesweepers. His Navy experiences served as the inspiration for the 1951 film “The Frogmen” starring Richard Widmark.
Two weeks before the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France, Goehner and his team started clearing the beaches of the Normandy coast in preparation for Operation Overlord. Crawling through sand and tall grass, he looked up and saw a German soldier pointing a gun at him. Goehner asked him if he spoke English.
“I told him if I shot him his buddies would shoot me,” he said.
Neither man shot. Goehner and the German soldier both returned to their respective units. Years later, he learned the man’s name was Karl Hoehne and Goehner sponsored him to come to the United States.
“We became good friends and he became an American citizen,” he said of the man, who eventually married, had children and lived the American dream.
Born and raised in Los Gatos, Goehner loved swimming. He used to go to Santa Cruz every weekend and swim from Santa Cruz to Capitola and back. When he was 14, he swam from Santa Cruz to Monterey. He was training for the Olympics and like a mountain climber who climbs mountains because they’re there, “I just wanted to do it,” he said. It took a little more than 12 hours and he said he never stopped to rest. “It was too cold,” he said.
Now some 75 years later, Goehner visits the Morgan Hill Senior Center almost every day. He just got his wheelchair a few weeks ago. A resident of the city since 1979, he’s been coming to the center daily for about six years and says he enjoys the interaction with other seniors during the lunch hour.
“I like the people, the staff,” he said. “They’re all good people. And the food is good.”
Twice married with four sons, one daughter, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, Goehner has held numerous jobs. He was a photo engraver, cartographer, tool and dye maker, machinist, police officer, lawyer and inventor. But he is most proud of his military service and his ability — or luck — to survive his wartime adventures.
One of his most dangerous experiences where he defied the odds took place off the coast of China when his American ship was sunk. He woke up four hours later on a hospital ship with charred bones for hands and numerous burns. The doctors had declared him dead.
“I’m lucky to be here,” he said. “I take it as a source of pride. I’m a patriot and I believe in my country, just not my politicians.”