Merritt Island sailor keeps feet planted on dry land


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William Hillberg Jr.’s family was happy to attend his retirement ceremony.

SENIOR LIFE Courtesy of William Hillberg

 

During his 24 years in the Navy, William Hillberg Jr. spent less than two years aboard a ship and the rest on dry land.

The reason for Hillberg’s preference for terra firma was simple — he served as a Seabee, as the sailors of the United States Naval Construction Battalions are known. This is the nickname and heterographic spelling of the first initials of Construction Battalion.

Seabees are sailors — make no mistake about it. Like the rest of the military, they are trained and ready to defend their country at a moment’s notice. They also are skilled in the art of construction, whether it be roads or buildings.

“We build and we fight,” Hillberg said.

“In combat, we’re right behind
the Marines.”

As a Seabee, Hillberg saw the world primarily from dry land with construction projects in South Korea, Guam, Haiti, India, Spain and Puerto Rico as well as other locales. The State Department selected him to do construction work at embassies around the world, and he also was part of a disaster relief team after Hurricane Katrina. That team helped to clean up fallen trees and buildings destroyed by the storm.

“Each place presents its own challenges, but Seabees enjoy challenges,” Hillberg said.

One of his hardest assignments was in Haiti where Hillberg witnessed the aftermath of Haitian-on-Haitian violence, which resulted in several deaths. Hillberg and his fellow Seabees were not allowed to touch the dead bodies because the corpses fell under the jurisdiction of the Haitian government. The bodies lingered for days near the project Hillberg was working on as the stench of death grew.

A native of Virginia, Hillberg is a Navy brat whose dad, William Hillberg Sr., was a musician and conductor for the Navy. After retirement, the elder Hillberg launched a second career as a mail carrier on Merritt Island, where both he and his son now live.

After the divorce of his parents, the younger Hillberg grew up in Winter Park and attended Johnson University, then known as Florida Christian College, in Kissimmee. After college, he lived with his father on Merritt Island until he joined the Navy in 1993.

His first assignment was as an undesignated seaman on the amphibious ship Whidby Island out of Little Creek, Va.

“I quickly realized I didn’t want to be aboard a ship,” he said. “I wanted to be out doing construction, so I applied to become a Seabee.”

Hillberg, whose last active duty day was Aug. 31, 2017, still is exploring what his post-Navy workdays will entail.

“I’m working with the VA to transition, but I’m not sure what I want to do yet,” he said. “My desire is to continue serving people.”

As he ponders the future, this retired chief petty officer and builder has tapped into the musical talent he must have inherited from his father. Hillberg’s forte is singing, and there is one particular song he prefers: the National Anthem.

“I’ve sang the National Anthem throughout my career at formal military balls and I sang for the Ambassador to India at a big Fourth of July ceremony there,” he said.

Anyone who attended the Boomer Bash Senior Life Expo in November at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville heard Hillberg, who sang the National Anthem at that event.