Before Louie Wilson of Port Charlotte, Fla. joined the Navy in May 1943 he and his late wife, Bea, had a roller skating act on stage in Vaudeville call The Wilson Duo. After boot camp and preliminary naval gunnery training he went aboard a destroyer escort, the USS Barr (DE-576), headed for battle in the Pacific.
“The Barr was originally part of a hunter-killer group operating in the Atlantic around the Cape Verde Islands with the carrier Block Island when she was torpedoed by a German sub,” the 94-year-old former sailor explained. “A number of her sailors were killed and wounded during the U-boat attack.
“The badly damaged Barr was towed into French Morocco, North Africa and put in dry dock for repairs in Casablanca. A steel plate was welded over a gaping torpedo-damaged hole in the stern of the ship for the trip back to the states,” he said.
“I got aboard the Barr in Boston as an auxiliary machinist-mate. I was in charge of the water system aboard ship,” Wilson said. “Our DE was fitted with two Higgins Boats (landing crafts) during the repair.
“We picked up Underwater Demolition Team-13 in Maui, Hawaii and headed for Iwo Jima. Those boys had nothing but a bathing suit, sheath knife and a pair of swim-fins when they went over the side,” he said.
“Five days before the start of the Iwo Jima invasion we were off the invasion beaches with UDT-13. There was a rock just off shore the boys put a navigation light on.
“The Japanese had the rock zeroed in with their land based artillery and fired at the light on the rock. Our captain turned the bow of the ship toward shore and opened up on the enemy cannon with our ship’s five-inch main gun and knocked out the enemy emplacement.
“When the fleet arrived later all hell broke lose. We backed out of the way and went out to deeper water and patrolled,” Wilson recalled. “Sometimes at night the UDT boys would go ashore. Sometimes in the evenings we’d sit on the fantail of our ship and talk to them. They were pretty good boys,” he recalled more than 65 years.
Shortly before the Battle of Iwo Jima was over, Wilson and the Barr headed for Okinawa. It was a repeat performance. The UDT team checked out the invasion beaches before the Marines went ashore.
“By this time the UDT boys had painted their insignia, a black cat on a round field of white, on the engine cover of the two Higgins Boats we carried. For some reason our fighter pilots mistook their insignia as Japanese and opened up on the plywood landing crafts. Fortunately no one was hurt,” he said.
“One day my buddy and I were dropping a Higgins Boat over the side for the UDT team and had just secured the craft to the side of our DE. We were leaning on the railing watching the UDT boys when we saw these little splashes in front of our ship.
“‘Did you see that?’ my buddy asked me. ‘Yea, it was a 40 mm firing at us,’ I replied. We were right close to the beach, so we decided to go below in a hurry,” he said.
One of the few times the Barr was attacked by a Kamikaze happened off Okinawa.
“One night a Kamikaze came right at us and then flew off. We had been moving slow along the beach when the captain stopped the ship while we were under attack,” Wilson recalled. “The next morning I asked our skipper why we stopped moving when we were attacked by the Kamikaze.
“‘If you stop dead in the water at night the enemy can’t see you as easily as when you’re moving and kicking up the phosphorous in the water,” the skipper explained as the Kamikaze flew off. “The skipper was a pretty smart guy.
“The Barr was a lucky ship. We only lost one man during the whole time we were in the Pacific and that was an accident. He was welding a cleat on the side of the DE so the Higgins Boats could tie up along side more easily and he was electrocuted.”
What impressed Wilson the most during his months at sea was a typhoon the 7th Fleet encountered after Okinawa and before it arrived in Tokyo Bay for the surrender.
“We rode out the typhoon at sea. I thought we were going to sink,” he said. “By then I was in charge of the machine shop aboard ship and during the storm I started to climb up through the hatch in the shop,” Wilson said. “As I climbed up the ladder the ship started on a roll as I grabbed onto two cleats on either side of the hatch.
“On the bulkhead in front of me we had a roll meter. We rolled so badly I thought we were gone. The roll meter registered 54 degrees on that wave. Apparently the coxswain in charge of the ship’s wheel, didn’t turn fast enough when the wave hit.”
After several days of terrible weather the Barr and most of the fleet arrived in Tokyo Bay.
“A couple of days later our DE and another one received orders to go into the pier in Tokyo and pick up a small group of American missionaries who had spent the whole war as captives of the Japanese,” he said. “They weren’t in too bad shape. They were in a lot better condition than some of our soldiers we rescued later.
“After we got the religious people we came back in and got some of our boys who had been used as slave labor by the Japanese. We made two runs with these soldiers, who were in terrible condition, and took them to our hospital ships off shore.”
Approximately two weeks after the Japanese signed the unconditional surrender aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, Wilson had enough points to hop a troop transport on Sept. 15 and headed for San Francisco. He took a slow train from California to Long Island and was discharged from the Navy on Oct. 28, 1945.
Wilson’s wife, Bea, was waiting for him with his son, Bob, in Norfolk, Va. He spent the next seven years running an auto glass shop in Norfolk before opening a radiator shop of his own. After 12 years as his own boss, Wilson got the idea he wanted to moved to Florida. He and his family arrived in Port Charlotte in 1966.
He began as a milkman for Heart’s Dairy, a position he held for a dozen years until he went to work as a roofing foreman for General Development Corp. that developed North Port and Port Charlotte during the 1960s and 70s.
Eventually Wilson bought his own cabinet shop in Port Charlotte and ran it together with his oldest son until he retired for good in 1975. Richard, his youngest boy, worked in electronics until he went into security some years ago.
Wilson’s wife, Bea, died nine years ago.
Name: Louie Burns Wilson
D.O.B: 20 July 1918
Hometown: Atlanta, Ga.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 18 May 1943
Discharged: 28 Oct. 1945
Rank: Machinist Mate 3rd Class
Unit: USS Barr
Battles/Campaigns: Iwo Jima, Okinawa
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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