Memories for a lifetime

Bill ’52 and Betty Kenealy explain how the military helped shape their lives

By Molly Bealin ’14

When Capt. William Kenealy USN ’52 and his wife, Betty, reflect on their lives, it’s safe to say there are a few unforgettable moments. The way they met is one of them. It was at the Pacific Submarine Force in Pearl Harbor where William was serving and Betty was living after surviving the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

William was stationed on the island of Oahu at the Naval Submarine Base in January of 1954. His neighbor in the bachelor office quarters arranged to marry his fiancée, who in was flying to Oahu from Boston. The Navy chaplin was scheduled to perform the marriage ceremony.

“My friend asked me to meet the organist who was to play at his forthcoming wedding on the beach at Waikiki at the Army fort,” he says. “I was 22, had a convertible and just finished JCU and officer training and didn’t want to spend a Sunday with a church organist, but I went out of consideration for my friend. Most church organist I knew were old and not very appealing. This church organist was 20 years old and working her way through the University of Hawaii by playing for Navy weddings. She was the runner-up for Miss Territory of Hawaii a year before, so I was smitten.”

Betty and William ’52 Kenealy

William Kenealy, who’s the most senior living alum in the U.S. Navy, served 33 years. He worked on the nuclear submarine, Polaris; the Cuban/Castro operation; and served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. His responsibilities included planning and providing the resources for the American, Korean, and Vietnam navies as the comptroller for the Navy Command. After fulfilling these responsibilities, Kenealy was assigned by name to the U.S. Military Assistance Command, under Gen. Creighton Abrams. His biggest responsibility came 1980, when he was in charge of the nation’s most covert unit.

“By a lot of coincidences, I became the head of the biggest covert operation,” he says. “A secret organization was being set up in the Navy to serve the Department of Defense and other nations. The person who was originally in charge of this operation was exposed on the front page of the Washington Post for having an affair with the wife of the head of a business that laundered money for secret operations. The Navy fired him and wanted someone they could trust, so they hired me.”

Kenealy’s group installed overhead spy capabilities and satellites mechanisms in the ocean to keep track of submarines. The actions Kenealy’s group took are represented in the movie “The Private War of Charlie Wilson,” which dramatizes covert action taken by Congressman Wilson to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.

After finishing his duties for the Navy in 1985, Kenealy worked for a defense company called Innovative Technologies, which invented a way to put six million items used by the Department of Defense on a computer and sold it to the Department of Defense. In 1996, Kenealy became part owner of Calibre Systems, a professional and technology service company that performs subcontracting work. The company started with 30 employees, and by 2004, it had 600. Calibre was sold to the Department of Defense and other government users. The automated systems the company created are used all throughout the world in countries such as Iraq and Serbia. In 2004, the company bought Kenealy out when he retired.

Like her husband, Betty Kenealy’s life also has had strong military influence. She was 9 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“My father was a sheet metal worker for the Navy, but we were treated as if he was in the Navy,” she says. “We lived in Navy housing close to Pearl Harbor. On Sundays, my father would take my brother and me to John Rogers Airport (now the Honolulu International Airport) while my mother prepared herself and the baby for church. Little did we know everyone on the field was machine-gunned shortly after we left.”

When Betty and her family came home, they heard loud noises and bombing, but at first, thought it was just a practice session. Her father noticed the red suns on the planes and yelled they were being bombed by the Japanese.

“He put us all into the car quickly and even took a hysterical neighbor along with us to friends in Kaimuki about 30 minutes away,” she says. “We just missed the strafing on the highways, and as we drove through Fort Shafter, soldiers were leisurely walking their horses. Dad called to them to tell them what was happening. They could hardly believe it. We woke up our friends in Kaimuki, and when they turned on their radio, they knew we were being bombed.”

The Kenealys with their son, William Jr., a retired Navy commander

All the workers in Pearl Harbor were called to help rescue men from the ships. The attack came in two waves, so for a long time, all people could do was dodge bullets. Betty didn’t hear or see her father for three days. There were rumors of paratroopers landing and poisoning water. Betty and her family were given gas masks to carry at all times, given shots, and issued to areas of the mountains to go to if they were invaded. Betty didn’t return to school until after Christmas, and then it was for half days only. Betty’s mother had the option of returning her children to the mainland to live with their grandmother, but she decided not to break up the family. They lived out the war in Hawaii.

The Kenealys, who live in Virginia, have five children and 12 grandchildren. Betty travels to schools to tell her story. They’re retired but volunteer at Alexandria Hospital in Washington where Betty is a member of the board and runs the gift shop and visitor center. William is involved with a naval association, which discusses the history and importance of the sea services to our country. The two, who enjoy telling their story, spend time traveling to see family in England, California, and Hawaii. JCU


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