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'A decision he never regretted': Local WWII vet joined the Navy at 17 and never looked back
The Standard Times - 5/25/2019
May 25-- May 25--DARTMOUTH -- The year was 1941, World War II was raging and Donat C. Bernier was a 17-year-old student at New Bedford Vocational High School.
One Sunday morning after church, he and some of his buddies decided they wanted to join the Navy. So they rode their bikes to the local recruitment office.
As it turned out, Bernier was too young to enlist on his own -- he needed his mother's permission. She gave it and he dropped out of school, off to see the world and serve his country.
"Although this perhaps was done on a whim, I don't think it was a decision he ever regretted," said daughter Beth Kilanowich, who shared the account of her father's foray into the Navy for this Memorial Day weekend.
Kilanowich, in an email, said her dad, a Dartmouth resident, is 94 and will mark his 95th birthday on July 14. One of six children born to Alma and Adelard Bernier, he was their only son.
After joining the Navy, Seaman 1st Class Bernier was a gunner's mate serving aboard the U.S.S. Hornet fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. "He was an original 'plank owner' for that ship and still carries that card stating that and shows it proudly to everyone," Kilanowich said. (A plank owner is a member of the first crew to serve on a newly commissioned ship, according to Merriam-Webster.)
After serving for four years, he returned home and wed Jessie (Rapoza); they shared 65 years of marriage until her passing in 2013, Kilanowich wrote. Their family includes three children, Michele Whalen, Dana Bernier and Beth Kilanowich; six grandchildren, Jennifer, Patrick, Ryan, Kyle, Graham and Logan; and four great-grandchildren, Juliane, Jameson, Andrew and Peyton.
Bernier worked as a plumber and also as a plumbing inspector for the city of New Bedford until he retired in 1999 at the age of 74, she said.
His Navy service remains important to him, Kilanowich said, noting he "is very rarely seen without his U.S.S. Hornet cap."
A lifelong member of VFW Post 3196 and a member of the local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, "he always marched in the Memorial Day and Veterans Day Parades until a few years ago when his age and health prevented this," she said.
In June of 2014, things came full circle when Bernier received his diploma from what now is Greater New Bedford Regional Vocational-Technical High School.
"The diploma was awarded to him by his youngest grandson, Logan Kilanowich, who was also graduating from there," Kilanowich said, noting her son "was following in his grandfather's footsteps."
Logan's proud mom said he "had joined the Navy at the age of 17 and was awaiting his graduation and his 18th birthday to leave for boot camp."
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