LINCOLN â€” John Wilson was just a teenager when he encountered what was the greatest challenge of his life. With World War II in full swing, Wilson left his Woodland Street home in Saylesville in 1944 to join the U.S. Navy and soon found himself serving aboard the Fletcher-class Destroyer Isherwood as it entered battle in the Philippines.
He would see action in the battles of Leyte Gulf and Lingayen Gulf and hone his skill as an anti-aircraft gunner before his ship joined the fleet supporting the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945.
The harsh acts of war that Wilson and his fellow crew members endured would gain him only slight recognition at the time, but will be recalled again tomorrow when U.S. Senator Jack Reed visits Wilson, now 85, at the Atria Lincoln Place assisted living residence on George Washington Highway.
Reed will be bringing along the clutch of military medals and citations Wilson earned during his two years of war service fighting the Japanese. Wilson only received his awards as a small, cloth-covered metal bar pinned on his chest before he left the service in 1946.
Wilson's awards include the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, the Pacific Campaign Medal with four bronze stars, the Combat Action Medal from the Navy, and also the Philippine Liberation Medal with two bronze stars, and the Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation badge from the government of the Philippines.
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Back in 1945, Wilson was among the fortunate members of his crew to survive a kamikaze plane attack on their ship in the waters off the Japanese island of Okinawa. The ensuing fire and explosions killed 40 members of the 250-man crew and left 80 others wounded.
"It was a hell of a day," Wilson said Thursday while remembering the events of April 22 with his son, Brian Wilson, of North Smithfield.
The crew had been working a "four on, four off," duty routine while serving as a support gunnery ship to help defend U.S. forces on the island.
The crew's battle experience was tested again that day when a bell sounded to announce general quarters as a large explosives-laden kamikaze plane approached the fleet.
Wilson's general quarters assignment was on a twin 40-millimeter anti-aircraft gun located just under the wing of the ship's bridge and he was soon at his gun firing away at the incoming enemy plane.
"I saw this son of a (expletive) diving at us," Wilson recalled. "We zigged and he zagged and we went back and forth like that as he closed in us."
Wilson' s ship was cruising at top speed while conducting its defensive maneuvers but the Japanese pilot made a turn as the Isherwood turned and struck his target at a 5-inch gun mount just behind the destroyer's second stack.
"It just happened," Wilson remembered. He had watched the attack right up to ducking from the explosion and remembers that he could see the pilot's face as he came in.
â€śThe ship turned one way and (the pilot) turned and hit the 5-inch mount, knocking it right onto the deck," he said.
A fire crew went to the wreckage of the gun with their lines and attempted to send the burning mass overboard but one of three depth charges stored on the deck nearby exploded, killing them all, Wilson said. The blast blew downward into the bowels of the ship, taking out the engine room and putting a hole in the ship's hull. Flooding in the engine room and three nearby compartments settled the ship four feet in the water, "but we didn't sink," Wilson said.
The Isherwood (DD520) transferred some of the injured men to a transport ship for medical care, which in turn suffered a kamikaze attack that killed three more of the Isherwood's crew, Wilson said.
The crew contained Isherwood's damage by welding plates over the hull breaches from the inside and the destroyer was taken to a floating dock where repairs were made to get the ship back to the United States.
Wilson stayed with the ship while it conducted its shakedown cruise after the repairs and got a 45-day survivor's leave to return home to visit his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Wilson, back in Saylesville.
The trip earned him a write-up in the Pawtucket Times that mentioned his 18 months of battle duty in the Philippines and Okinawa but not any of the details "because of security reasons."
Wilsonâ€™s father, a native of Scotland who had moved to the United States with his wife and young son in the 1920s, was a British veteran of World War I, the article noted.
The younger Wilson was quoted as being in the Okinawa area when famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed there, and related how his crew had been given the news while aboard their ship.
The story also related Wilson's initiation by fellow crew members for crossing the equator for the first time and gaining his certificate from the "Domain of Neptunus Rex."
Wilson recalled Thursday how he had actually become good friends with many of his fellow crew members after joining the Isherwood as a young Navy man. He had gone from six weeks of training at Sampson Naval Base in New York to a brief leave back home before returning to Sampson and leaving for California and Pearl Harbor to join his ship. He never even got the chance for a shore leave before entering the battle zone, he remembered.
As a result of all that time on the ship, Wilson said he knew many of the men that were killed on April 22 â€” "yes, the biggest part of them" â€” and still feels that loss when he and the surviving crew members meet at their annual ship reunions.
Wilson also remembers clearly how it felt to learn the war had ended and he would not be going back to battle after the Isherwood was repaired.
"You know what you are going to get into when you go back the second time," he said.
It was only in 1946 when he was serving on another ship in Boston before his discharge, that Wilson got a better understanding of what he and his fellow surviving crew members had been through in the Philippines and Okinawa.
Like most young servicemen, he put in for a couple of extra days leave on a three-day pass to allow him more time back home and the request earned him an invitation to stand before the ship's Executive Officer.
In a somewhat gruff manner, the officer asked Wilson why he wanted the extra time off, indicating he was in hot water for making the request.
But then the man started reading Wilson's war record and "he changed his tune," Wilson said. What he read prompted the officer to ask Wilson when he wanted to leave and when he wanted to return. He then added five days to the leave request, Wilson said.
Wilson and his late wife, Teresa, had four children: sons Jackie, Craig and Brian, and a daughter, Jane. While living on Boulevard Avenue in Lonsdale during those years, he worked as a Teamsters Local 251 truck driver.
To this day, Wilson credits President Harry S. Truman with ending the war and saving the lives of a "million guys," like himself, who may well have died in an invasion of Japan.
"I was very happy for Uncle Harry Truman; he was the one who did it," he said.