John Maxwell [Max] Walker was born on December 21, 1913, in Goshen, Alabama, and was the seventh of ten children. His parents were William R. and Leona Carter Walker. The family moved to Andalusia, Alabama around 1923, where he attended school for 10 years. He married Nell Rebecca Walters in 1938. At some point they moved to Montgomery, Alabama where Max worked as a carpenter. A son, Ariel, was born there. Max was drafted in 1944 and elected to enter the Navy.
After basic training, Max was assigned to the aircraft carrier, USS Randolph [CV-15], which was under construction in Newport News, Virginia. He would become a “owner of the board, the name given to all crew members of a new ship at launch. Randolph completed her Caribbean shakedown cruise in 1944 and sailed through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, California, where she would be outfitted with weaponry.
After equipment and supply, Randolph sailed for Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands. They were part of Task Force 58 under the command of Admiral Marc Mitscher. Max Walker was a Firefightera rate allocated to boiler room personnel in Division B in the Engineering Department. [As a side note, two other men from Andalusia were serving on the Randolph at Ulithi – the late Jurrell Davis and the late Charles Cope of Andalusia].
From February to March 1945, Randolph participated in airstrikes over Tokyo, Japan at Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima. In addition to his work in the boiler rooms, Max worked daily four-hour shifts in these spaces. These boiler rooms were very hot at all times, but especially where the Randolph was located in the South Pacific.
On the night of March 11, 1945, the Randolph was quietly anchored at Ulithi, rocking gently in the cool Pacific breeze. The quiet night gave a false sense of security to the crew of a ship that had been in combat so recently. The breeze blowing over the ship’s fantail gave Max the chance to take a short nap before taking the midwatch [midnight – 4 a.m.] in the boiler room. En route to the fantail, Max met several friends who were part of a musical group he often played with on the ship. That night they had a « jam session” in one of the docking areas.
The men knew that Max was playing a “bad violin” so they asked him to join them. After retrieving his violin, Max joined the men and played several songs. After that, Max told the men he needed to take a nap before standing guard. As he started to leave, the men begged him to play just one more song. Max later recalled, “We had just started playing ‘Turkey in the Straw’ when the suicide bomber hit the fantail.” For the rest of his life, Max Walker believed that God had intervened that night and saved his life. The Kamikaze hit the fantail where Max intended to take a nap.
The attack happened around 8:7 p.m. The aircraft was a Yokosuka P1Y1 twin-engine bomber. [U.S. Code named “Frances”], carrying a single 1,700-pound bomb. He crashed into the at Randolph fantail, unleashing a tremendous explosion. The fire was fueled by gasoline, ammunition and oxygen cylinders on board Randolph. Over 4,000 square feet of flight deck was destroyed and only the heroic actions of at Randolph damage control teams rescued the 27,000 ton ship. The explosion and fire killed 27 sailors and injured 105.
A Navy repair ship, USS Jason [AR-8], was brought alongside Randolph to help his sailors repair. The massive repair job took 19 days and required over 30 tons of steel plate, 29 tons of steel “I” beams and 7,500 feet of wood for the flight deck. While the ship was being repaired, Max visited the machine shop on the Jason. They allowed Max to use the shop to make a copper box he would use to store his Bible. As soon as the repairs were completed, Max and the Randolph sailed for Okinawa to participate in the invasion. Its planes took part in the air support of the invading troops.
the Randolph led an enchanted life throughout the Okinawa countryside. Max recalled that they were often attacked by suicide bombers but managed to avoid any blow. At least 149 American ships were hit, of which 30 were sunk with the loss of approximately 5,000 lives. Randolph dodged many attacks but remained unscathed. Ironically, on June 7, 1945, Randolph was again hit by an aircraft, but this time it was a US Army Air Corps P-38 fighter/bomber. Two P-38s were carrying out tests on Randolph during a mock attack when one of them lost control and crashed into the ship. Over 10 aircraft were destroyed and 13 sailors killed. The Admiral aboard the Randolph jokingly threatened to shoot down any Air Force planes that flew over his ship after that.
In another irony of war, one of the Randolph‘s Pilots was among several American prisoners of war who were killed by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Ensign John Hantschel had crashed at sea on July 25, 1945 and was picked up by a Japanese fishing boat. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp on the mainland and eventually transferred to a prison camp in Hiroshima.
the Randolph finished her role in the war and returned to Norfolk, Virginia in October 1945. Max Walker was released at this time and returned to Andalusia. He started the Construction company J. Max Walker. Max was a self-taught architect and builder. One of the most notable and expensive houses built by Max’s company was the Henderson house on East Three Notch Street. [it still stands directly across from the First Baptist Church]
Ms JD [Kate] Henderson had asked several renowned architects to draw plans for her house, but none satisfied her. She asked Max Walker to try his hand, and the resulting shots pleased her. the Henderson home was one of many beautiful homes built by Max and his company. This company was also among the first in the Southeast to build manufactured homes.
The Walkers’ second son, David, was born in 1946, and a daughter, Geneva, was born in 1950. In 1953, Max became disabled due to severe headaches when exposed to the sun. He quit the construction business that year. Max bought his wife’s family farm near Brooklyn, Alabama and moved there in January 1954. After the move, Max’s condition improved somewhat, but he never totally went away. Most of the time, he wore dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to protect his eyes from the sun. Max was hired as the City of Andalucia Building and Electrical Inspector in 1957. He also performed FHA and VA inspections and assessments on a part-time basis. Many people knew Max Walker as an ordained Primitive Baptist minister. He served several churches in Covington County, including the Primitive Union Baptist Church in Andalusia.
Max Walker was a man of many talents – self-taught skilled artist, architect and builder, mathematician and gifted player of several musical instruments. His friends said that Max loved his neighbor above all else. He often attended carols in county churches. Max wrote the music and lyrics for several songs and held a patent for a wire peeling blade that Klein & Sons incorporated into one of their existing electric knives.
Max’s son, David, said this about his father, “Dad was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known – he was a gifted mathematician, he figured out how to make a cube root and had an almost photographic memory.”
Max’s wife, Nell, died on August 12, 1972. Max retired from the city of Andalucia in 1979 and died of a brain tumor on November 5, 1980. His funeral was held at the Early Baptist Church of Elam in Goshen, Alabama, and he was buried. in the church cemetery.
After his death, the Andalusia Star-News had this to say in an editorial: “Max Walker passed away last week. The Andalusian city building inspector was many things to many people, but above all he was a friend to everyone… Although he sought no recognition and shunned publicity, Walker left his mark on Andalusia from more than one way…many structures in the area were built or designed by him…Andalusia Fire Station plans were designed by Max Walker and submitted to an architect for the plans. It was then normal that the flag of the fire station be lowered on the day of his death.
The author lived near the Walker family in the early 1950s and was friends and classmates with the late Ariel Walker. We spent many summer days looking for arrowheads around Green Acres and cooling off in Hooper Pond. On one occasion we found two oil drums near the pond and decided to build a makeshift raft using baling wire and two-by-fours. Ariel wanted to go first, so we pushed him into the pond and he climbed aboard, only for the wooden platform to collapse, throwing him into four feet of water. We made it safely to shore when I noticed a large bleeding gash on Ariel’s forehead. We managed to call the Walkers and they picked up Ariel and took her away for stitches. That night Mr. Walker came to visit my parents [who still knew nothing about the accident] and “explained” [not the exact description] that it would be best for John and Ariel to stay away from Hooper Pond and forgo any further construction plans.
The author thanks Max Walker’s son, David, for his help in writing this article. As an interesting note: the author was a newly commissioned Ensign when he spent two months aboard the Randolph in late 1962. One of the kamikaze aircraft’s propellers was still mounted on a forward bulkhead in the bay of hanger with a plaque indicating those crew members killed in the attack.
Sources: Wikipedia; Naval Systems and Heritage Command; ussrandolphpcv15.com