As his SS-45 L-class submarine filled with dense smoke and toxic gasses from a fire, William Van Kirk snapped into action.
He helped carry one injured shipmate to safety, and then, despite exhaustion, went back for another, and saved his life, too.
Looking back on what he did during World War II, Van Kirk remains a humble man. No big deal. "It was just the right thing to do," he said. Today, the 97-year-old Van Kirk is a resident of Creekside Inn Memory Care Community in Coeur d'Alene.
While he is modest and quiet, it is undeniable that his actions displayed the highest degrees of bravery and heroism. "His award tells the tale of a selfless man with an overwhelming dedication to his shipmates," according to a press release. Others noticed.
Van Kirk was recently presented with a Navy and Marine Corps medal for bravery.
"With complete disregard of the great danger to himself, he entered a confined, debris filled compartment and assisted in the removal of an injured man," his award letter reads. "In spite of his exhaustion from smoke and gas, he re-entered the compartment and succeeded in removing another man who was seriously injured and unconscious."
With 24 years of military service, Van Kirk looks fondly back on those days. He traveled the world and enjoyed being stationed in Japan, Australia and Hawaii. What he liked best, though, were the friendships he made along the way.
"He loved the comradeship," said Doryne Rogstad, Van Kirk's stepdaughter. "It was a small submarine and the shipmates were all very close." Van Kirk's submarine, fully staffed, held 65 men. Most subs during his time held at least 200 men. With a small crew in tight quarters, Van Kirk said he felt connected to each person on the submarine. Often times, it was if they were family, he said.
Although Van Kirk continues to blush at his recognition, those who know him say there's no denying he made a difference while serving in the Navy.
As his award states: "His outstanding bravery and devotion to his shipmates were in keeping with the highest traditions of the naval service."