In another war during an earlier time, the USS Gilligan would have been a frigate, one of the smallest fighting ships in the fleet. DE-508 was 306 feet in length with a couple of 5.8 inch main guns fore and aft and several 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns to protect her from attack by enemy aircraft.
She was a pretty puny excuse for a fighting ship. Despite her lack of armorment, she was home to 14 officers and a couple of hundred enlisted men.
Among the crew was 2nd Class Petty Officer Otto Wagner, an 18-year-old sailor from Yorkville, a German-American section of Manhattan, N.Y.
“I graduated from high school in June 1943 when I was 17-years-old. By July my mother had signed me into the Navy. I couldn’t wait to get my sailor suit. Friends would come home on leave in their sailor suits and the girls would go nuts.”
After a shakedown cruise to the Bahamas and a trip through the Panama Canal aboard the Gilligan, the DE sailed for Honolulu and the war zone. It joined the fleet in the Lingayen Gulf just in time for the invasion of the Philippines.
“We served on picket duty with the fleet. There were three destroyer escorts. One was stationed on picket duty about 50 miles out, a second one was 25 miles out and we were the third one 10 miles out,” Wagner explained. “Our job was to look out for enemy aircraft attacking the invasion fleet. The first day the DE that was farthest out was wiped out by a kamikaze. The second day, the second destroyer escort 25 miles out was hit by a kamikaze and sunk, and on the third day, I said to somebody, ‘It looks like it’s our turn.’
“At 8 a.m. that morning a twin-engine Betty bomber crashed into our aft 40 mm gun. It killed the whole gun crew. Ten men were completely obliterated,” he said. “I saw the burned bodies and helped take the wounded to the wardroom. The blood was flowing like someone dumped two buckets of water on the floor.
“My best buddy, Bruce Munday from California, was killed in that attack. He was a gunner’s mate. Just before all this happened, he had been sitting on my footlocker. I told him, ‘I’ll see you later.’ I never saw him again. I still get goose bumps after all these years thinking about it,” Wagner said.
Fortunately for the survivors aboard the USS Gilligan, the enemy suicide bomber struck the destroyer escort above the water line. The tiny ship limped back to Leyte on Jan. 17 for temporary repairs and went on to Pearl Harbor for a major overhaul.
On Easter Sunday morning, April 1, 1945 the USS Gilligan was back with the fleet in time for the invasion of Okinawa. It was her job to screen the transport anchorage from submarines and enemy airplanes.
“In spite of heavy air attacks, she engaged in screening and escort duties for transports. She splashed at least five attacking planes and possibly damaged a submarine,” according to the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships .
“As the radio operator aboard ship, I got the reports on the attacking kamikazes. We had three signals: Green, everything was OK. Flashing yellow, the kamikazes were coming. Red, the ‘bogies’ were here.
“You could tell because the guns were going off like hell. When the 20mms started firing, you knew they were close. It was difficult to knock an enemy plane down. You literally had to shoot them to pieces,” Wagner said.
“There were hundreds of ships in the anchorage and every morning at dawn and every night at dusk, the kamikazes would attack the fleet. You never knew when they were coming. They would come in low and a couple of hundred ships would fire at them. Since we were firing low, we sometimes hit other ships,” he said.
“On 27 May, the Gilligan’s luck almost ran out. A torpedo bomber hit her solidly with a torpedo which fortunately was a dud,” the Dictionary of American Fighting Ships notes.
“Not so,” according to Wagner.” The torpedo wasn’t a dud. I saw it hit the side of our ship. The reason it didn’t explode is because it didn’t run a long enough distance in the water to arm itself before it struck our ship. Volunteers went into the interior of the ship and struggled in waist-deep water to push the live torpedo out. They stuffed mattresses in the 20-inch hole, caused by the torpedo, to stop the flow of sea water in the side of the ship.”
The Gilligan hobbled into Ulithi Island for repairs on June 28, 1945. On July 6 the DE headed out again with a convoy of merchantmen on their way to Hollandia Island and eventually Manila, Philippines.
“I was the radioman aboard ship that copied the message from President Truman announcing the Japs had surrendered and the war was over,” he said. “We were somewhere in the Pacific with the fleet headed toward the Japanese main islands getting ready for the final invasion.
“I ran up to the captain with the message. He took one look and tooted the ship’s whistle. Then he announced over the intercom that the war was over. Everybody aboard ship was screaming and yelling.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Oct. 17, 2004 and is republished with permission.
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