What Gilbert Butson of Oak Forest Condominiums Port Charlotte, Fla. remembers most about the three years he served aboard the destroyer USS Cowell (DD-547) in the Pacific during World War II was the time his ‘tin can” rescued sailors from the ill-fated heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis in the Philippine Sea during the “Great Mariana Turkey Shoot.”
It was called “The Turkey Shoot” by American pilots because of the disproportionate number of enemy aircraft they splashed. U.S. Naval aviators shot down 433 Japanese carrier planes and additional 200 land-based enemy aircraft went down in the two day battle on June 19-20, 1944. American losses totaled 123 planes. Two of the Japanese front line carriers–Taiho and Shokaku– were sunk by American submarines.
Much later in the war the Indianapolis delivered to Titian Island parts for the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, helping end the Second World War. The heavy cruiser–sailing under a veil of secrecy–was sunk by a Japanese sub on the return trip. Almost 1,200 sailors were aboard, but only 900 made it into the sea 12 minutes later as the cruiser sank beneath their feet. Of that number, just 312 survived their four day ordeal–many were eaten by sharks as they clung to life waiting rescued.
But that’s another story.
“During the ‘Marianna Turkey Shoot’ we went to the aide of the cruiser Indianapolis after she was hit by a Japanese aircraft,” Butson recalled almost 70 years later. “The crew was told to abandon ship and many of the sailors went over the side.
“We came along side and threw them mooring lines. After we were moored to her starboard side we started pulling many of their sailors aboard over our fantail. It was close to the water and our boys could reach down and pull them in. I don’t recall how many we took aboard, but it was quite a few.”
The next morning the crew of the Cowell learned that the Indianapolis was still seaworthy.
“After the Battle of the Philippine Sea we were one of the ships who accompanied the cruiser back to Pearl for repairs,” he said. “We sailed back into port with the cruiser sailing at four knots, very slowly. Because we were moving so slowing she attracted more kamikazes and more Jap subs, but we made it back to Honolulu.
“After dropping the Indianapolis off we sailed on to Bremerton, Wash. for repairs of our own. While stateside the Cowell put on improved radar during the two months we were there.
“I got my first two weeks leave while in Washington. I went home to Detroit and Phyllis and I got married. We were married 70 years until last month when she died,” the old sailor said.
They sailed from Bremerton to San Diego, Calif. and back to the war. Butson was still the gun captain on a 40-mm anti-aircraft gun mounted on the fantail of the Cowell. Their job was to shoot down enemy airplanes.
Although he was awarded 11 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation for the 36 months he served aboard the Cowell, Butson is a bit fuzzy on where he was and what he was up to after coming back from the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
“I know we were at Iwo Jima and we provided fire support for the Marines who went ashore there,” he said. “I don’t recall if I saw the flag raising there or not.”
This is the award-winning action where six Marines put an American flag atop Mount Suribachi captured by AP Photographer Joe Rosenthal. It is said to be the most famous still photo of World War II.
Okinawa was the biggest and worst of the battles the sailors aboard the Cowell fought in. They served off shore as part of the destroyer screen protecting the American aircraft carriers during the entire 82-day engagement.
“At Okinawa we’d go out for three days, then we’d have to return to restock our ammo and food supply,” the 93-year-old sailor said. “At Okinawa we came pretty darn close to being hit by kamikazes.”
But Butson and the crew of the Cowell lucked out. Many of the Japanese pilots weren’t so lucky.
“At Okinawa our ship shot down eight or 10 kamikazes. Their planes didn’t sink when we shot them down, they floated and we took prisoners,” he said. “Sometimes we’d capture the Jap pilots and turn them over to Marine guards.”
When Atomic Bombs were dropped on the Japanese home islands, Butson and the Cowell crew were at Okinawa. They didn’t learn much, at the time about the bombing, that the war was over.
Butson had enough points to take a Victory ship back to San Francisco early on and a slow train across country to Chicago and eventually to Great Lakes Receiving Center where he was discharged from the Navy on Oct. 30, 1945.
He took the G.I. Bill and went to barber school, a vocation he practiced for the next three decades. At the same time he and his wife had a small strip mall outside Detroit where they leased part of their complex to 7-11 Stores.
Gilbert and Phyllis retired to southwest, Fla. in 1972. They lived in Oak Forest until her recent death on April 18. They were married 70 years. The couple had five children: Gilbert, Gary, Gail, Gregory and Gerryl.
Name: William Gilbert Butson
D.O.B: 7 Feb. 1922
Hometown: Detroit, Mich.
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 12 November 1942
Discharged: 30 October 1945
Rank: Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class
Unit: USS Cowell (DD-547)
Commendations: Pacific-Asiatic Theater Ribbon with 8 Battle Stars, American Theater Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Medal with 2 Battle Stars, Okinawa Bar with 1 Battle Star, Presidential Unit Citation.
Battles/Campaigns: Pacific Theater
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 31, 2015 and is republished with permission.
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