Seaman John Wilson knew his ship was in harm’s way when the kamikaze plane at which he was firing continued to grow in the sights of his twin 40-millimeter anti-aircraft guns.
The 18-year-old sailor was the pointer controlling the two .40-millimeter guns on the port side amidships aboard the destroyer USS Isherwood, DD-520, on picket duty 90 miles off the beach at Okinawa.
Besides being the largest island battle in the Pacific during World War II, it was the high-water mark for Japanese suicide plane attacks on American warships. In a single day off Okinawa, the fleet could fend off 120 to 150 enemy attacks, Wilson said.
“The kamikaze that hit us was spotted on the ship’s radar. Every gun on the Isherwood was firing at it — 20s, 40s and 5-inchers — with little or no effect. It was late afternoon on April 22, 1945.
“The captain had the ship zigzagging as it made 30-plus knots trying to escape the oncoming kamikaze,” the 78-year old resident of Harbor Isles Mobile Home Park in North Port, Fla. said. “At 5,000 yards, I was watching the plane and firing at it with our 40-millimeters as it grew larger and larger in the sight. It hit the No. 3 gun on the ship’s stern and exploded in flames.”
The impact of the kamikaze killed most of the sailors in the 5-inch main gun housing on the destroyer’s stern and caused numerous fires on the deck that were quickly extinguished.
The impact from the plane also damaged a nearby depth charge rack. Some 25 minutes after the plane hit, a depth charge on deck exploded. The force of the explosion demolished the aft engine room killing most of the engine room crew.
A newspaper story printed in The Valley Chronicle, dated Aug. 28, 1945, about the attack on the Isherwood, picks up the story: “It was the heroic and immediate action on the part of the fire fighting crew directed by the ship’s damage control officer, Lt. Roland G. Mayer, Jr. of Fort Worth, Tex., which drew a large share of the credit from Commander Schmidt for the ultimate saving of the ship.
“Despite the fact they knew the depth charge was likely to explode at any moment, the Isherwood’s crew never faltered in its task. Not a man in the fire fighting crew lived.”
“When the charge went off, I was on the under-bridge directing the fire from our 40-millimeter guns. I was separated from the blast by a steel bulkhead,” Wilson said. “There was a big boom and the charge disintegrated one of the engine rooms and blew a couple of holes in the bottom of the ship 2 or 3 feet in diameter. I wasn’t hurt and stayed at my battle station because there were still plenty of kamikazes attacking the fleet.”
By the time the Isherwood limped back into port at Kerama Retto Island, off Okinawa, with one main gun knocked out and one engine gone, the butcher’s bill aboard ship totaled 80 sailors killed and wounded.
“Some of the injured survivors of the kamikaze attack on the Isherwood were put aboard another ship for transport to a hospital. The second ship these injured sailors were on was later struck by a kamikaze and many of them were killed in the second attack,” he said.
When the ship reached the relative safety of Kerama Retto Island, a couple of Navy divers put temporary patches on the two gaping holes in the bottom of the Isherwood and sent it on to Ulithi Island, further behind the lines, for additional repairs.
From there the battered destroyer sailed for Pearl Harbor, which it took a month to reach. It was decided at Pearl that the damage to the ship was too severe for repairs there, so the Isherwood continued its odyssey to San Francisco.
Wilson and the rest of the crew of the Isherwood didn’t know it at the time, but World War II was over for them. The ship reached San Francisco on June 8, 1945.
“It was my mother’s birthday. I surprised her with a call home. We didn’t have a phone,” he said. “I had to call her at a neighbor’s house. She was happy to hear from me.”
The ship’s crew was given a 45-day leave. Wilson went home to Lincoln, R.I. When he returned to San Francisco and the ship, he expected to be sent back to the Pacific war, but it was early August and World War II was winding down.
Instead of being discharged and moving on with his life, Wilson stayed with the Isherwood on its journey back to the East Coast to take Navy Day Presidential Review.
“We anchored in the Hudson River beside the Battleship Missouri,” he recalled. “President Truman sailed by on the bow of another ship.”
After the ship parade for the president, the young sailor and the destroyer sailed to Charleston, S.C., where the Isherwood was placed in mothballs. In 1950 it was recommissioned and sailed to sea with a new crew during the Korean War. In 1963 it was decommissioned again and sold to the Peruvian Navy.
Seaman John Wilson ended World War II aboard the cruiser Montpelier taking Naval cadets on training cruises. In May 1946 he was finally discharged from the service in Boston. He had served aboard the USS Isherwood, DD-520, for more than a year, earned five battle stars, been involved in 14 island invasions and helped shoot down three Japanese fighter planes. He was 19.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2005 and is republished with permission.
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