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Herbert M. Wilkerson oral history interview

Date: Identifier: OH0172
Herbert M. Wilkerson Oral History Interview. Wilkerson, a 1940 graduate of East Carolina Teachers College, got a commission as an Ensign in 1942. Wilkerson comments on his experiences in the Pacific during WWII including the sinking of the USS Helena CL-50 at the Battle of Kula Gulf, the USS Honolulu CL-48 in the Philippines, and the USS Mobile CL-63. Interviewer: Donald R. Lennon. more...



EAST CAROLINA MAUSCRIPT COLLECTION
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW #172
Herbert M. Wilkerson
Interview #1
Interviewed by Commander H.A.I. Sugg, USN (Ret)

Donald R. Lennon:

Please tell us a little bit about your background before you went into the Navy.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I graduated from ECTC [East Carolina Teachers College] in 1940. I played some sports there. I taught math and science in Wilmington, NC, for $92.50 a month plus another $10.00 for coaching. A friend of mine made more than that in one week working in the shipyard, so the next week I was working in the shipyard, too.

After two years, though, I felt like I wanted to be a sailor. I have always liked to fish. So I got a commission as an ensign. They couldn't call me until I quit my job and the shipyard released me. I got orders late in the summer of 1942 to go to Cornell. I stayed there a month before transferring to Harvard, where I went to Communication School.

They asked all of us at that school where we wanted to go. It was kind of comical because most people in commission were like I was. A lot of them were lawyers, they were older, they weren't college kids, and most of them thought they were going to work in the adjutant general's office. They thought they were going to be doing law work. They were really mad when they found out they weren't. Anyway they asked us where we wanted to serve and I said on a cruiser in the South Pacific. I didn't have any idea that everybody



would get what they asked for. I had never been to the West Coast. My orders were to go to the USS NASHVILLE. I was taken to Espiritu Santos in the New Hebrides.

Donald R. Lennon:

I have been through the Second Channel many times.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

The NASHVILLE was gone and nobody knew where it was. They soon found out that it had been hit, so the harbor master rewrote my orders and I was put on the HELENA.

Donald R. Lennon:

So your orders where changed to put you on the HELENA. Where did you join her? Was she in Espiritu Santos?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

She was stationed in the harbor, nearly hidden. The NASHVILLE was gone, but the HELENA, the ST. LOUIS, and the HO NOLULU were all there in the harbor. Admiral Ainsworth was on the HONOLULU. The HELENA and the ST. LOUIS were bombed the first or second night I was there.

Donald R. Lennon:

So two of your favorite ships were there together?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

That's right.

Donald R. Lennon:

When, approximately did you join the HELENA?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

After two, three, or four days. It seemed like there was very little possibility that I would get to the NASHVILLE soon.

Donald R. Lennon:

About what date would that have been?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I would guess June 1. It was early June or late May.

Donald R. Lennon:

Of 1942?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

You went to Communication School at Harvard, so I assume you went into the Communication Division?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes.



Donald R. Lennon:

How did you find the duty there?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

It was a great learning experience. I learned how to be a sailor and about ships. Of course I already knew a little and I liked it. It was just as good as I thought it would be.

Donald R. Lennon:

Who was the skipper then, was it Hoover?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

The skipper of the HELENA? I believe it was Cecil. I'm not positive.

Donald R. Lennon:

On October 11 it was Captain Gilbert Hoover.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

October '42? Yes, we were sunk about two in the morning on July 6,1943. It took ten to fifteen minutes for the ship to go down.

Donald R. Lennon:

What sort of operations did you do after you joined the ship?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I mostly did communication operations. They were going up and down the “Slot” and we were at battle stations a lot. Of course, I was at my battle station; I think it was Communication 2. It was a place for communication to take over if the communication department was knocked out.

Donald R. Lennon:

That was probably aft in the ship.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Midships. Aft in communication. It was in the superstructure.

Donald R. Lennon:

The HELENA was in the Battle of Cape Esperance?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

The Battle of Kula Gulf.

Donald R. Lennon:

She was also in a battle in Cape Esperance on October 11, 1942. Do you remember that one?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

No, I wasn't on it then. But I've been over Iron Bottom Bay many times. Are you familiar with that?

Donald R. Lennon:

Yes. We picked up the survivors of three destroyers that were sunk there one time. The HELENA was sunk in the Battle of Kula Gulf. Do you remember much about that?



Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes. Kula Gulf is between Kolombangara and New Georgia, and New Georgia is just north of Guadalcanal. We had been there about four or five times in the “Slot”. We had been there a couple of nights before bombarding Kolombangara. The destroyer STRONG, I believe, was sunk by the Japanese. I don't know how far back down south we went, but evidently we turned around, because we didn't go all the way to New Hebrides. We probably went to Tulagi and got orders to go back. The coast watcher had sighted a Japanese reinforcement fleet coming down to reinforce Guadalcanal. I think I saw the message, which read, "Intercept Tokyo Express at all costs. Halsey." That is how I remember it.

Donald R. Lennon:

Those coast watches were certainly valuable assets there, weren't they?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Nobody will ever respect them more then I do. They were the greatest people in the world. I was in New Zealand later, and they were great people there, too. I admired them.

Donald R. Lennon:

Do you remember much about the Battle of Kula Gulf?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes. It was at night. We contacted the Japanese. That fleet was supposed to have eleven to twelve ships in it. But we crossed the “T,” which was Admiral Ainsworth's objective. A friend sent me a newspaper from Rochester, New York. It said that the HELENA had the best gunnery crew that the Navy had ever had. They fired so fast that the Japanese announced that the HELENA had automatic machine gun cannons.

That was the downfall of the HELENA. They kept the ship lit up, firing, and it was a perfect target, even though we were moving. We took a torpedo and another one ten seconds later and a third one ten seconds later. A destroyer made a run on us. Of course, this was as we hurried and listened on board ship. I think there were three Japanese destroyers, and we sank all three of them. However, they had already launched the torpedoes in a spread.



Three hit us and blew the bow completely off. We floated all night. Fifty on the bow floated. There were spotlights from the Japs all night long. The battle would start and stop and start again. They were firing more or less all night. The bow floated and we abandoned ship.

Donald R. Lennon:

Were you in the bow?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

After we took the torpedoes, I went to the communication room with another fellow. The communication officer was badly hurt up on the bridge, so this other fellow and I tore out the coding machine. We couldn't get the nuts loose. In fact, I cut my hand trying. We finally tore it out, put all the stuff in a bag, and threw it overboard. Five of us, including the captain and the executive officer, were the last to leave the ship. It had gone down four to six feet already. We had swum about twenty-five yards away when it went down. We were swimming pretty hard. We all had on life preservers that blew up automatically, but most of the life preservers were damaged. There was one small one that we got the captain into. I've never seen anything like those men. They were so brave. They were laughing, talking, singing, and saying, "By God, we're going home now." I never saw one scared man. They were something.

We swam around quite a bit. Many men swam up to our life preserver. Those of us who had been in the life preserver or had been hanging onto it swam off. The ship went down about 2:10 a.m. I have an article that explains that the battle went on all night. They say that nine ships were sunk. The oil was three or four inches deep on the water and all of us where blinded by the oil in the water.

I was picked up the next morning around eight or nine o'clock. By daylight, only a destroyer was out there. The rest of them had gone. The battle was over, and the destroyer



had gotten special permission to pick up survivors. There was an overcast and for that reason they let them stay. We could hear planes, but they couldn't see us.

Donald R. Lennon:

About how many survived from the group that was in the after part of the ship? A couple of hundred survived in the bow.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

The ones in the machine room were gone. It was an original ship from Pearl Harbor and 865 men survived the battle. Most of them were saved. I always used to figure that there were about 1,500 men on a ship.

Donald R. Lennon:

That was about right for a cruiser.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

So, that would be half, 878.

Donald R. Lennon:

There were a couple hundred men in that bow that finally made it ashore on Vella Lavella and were consequently rescued by destroyers.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Their experience was unbelievable; we talked with them. They were hiding from the Japanese in ditches for a month. The Japs would walk right by them. They finally got word to a submarine and they were picked up. They had some experience.

Donald R. Lennon:

How about a little information about your life in the j.o. mess {junior officers mess} before the ship was sunk.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Well, we had one mess hall, and . . . what was that room where everybody stayed?

Donald R. Lennon:

The officers country wardroom?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

The wardroom, yes. Alll of us ate there. It wasn't a junior mess. The captain didn't eat there of course, but the exec did. I never regretted joining, and I am glad I went. I enjoyed everyday. I hate to admit it.

Donald R. Lennon:

What sort of watch schedule did you take?



Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Nearly the entire time I was in the Navy, until I got to be communication officer, my watch was two off and one on.

Donald R. Lennon:

Watch in three except when you were at general quarters?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

That's right, then you stayed the whole time. You did your work during the daytime, too, but I enjoyed that. It wasn't too bad.

Donald R. Lennon:

Where did you go after you were picked up?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I was picked up by the NICHOLAS.

Donald R. Lennon:

The NICHOLAS. Oh, I knew the NICHOLAS. The NICHOLAS and the BARTON. The NICHOLAS was sunk, later, but they were the two ships that we were with while escorting the battleship WASHINGTON. Excuse me.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

They were a great crew. One young ensign had the captain's gig and was out picking them out of the water. I understood that he was an admiral's son. He just wouldn't come back to the ship unless he brought somebody. They finally got him back so that we could leave. I climbed up a cargo net. I thought I was tired, but I went up that thing like a monkey. I could have climbed a mile high. When I got to the top, I stuck my head over the side and a huge blast of fire hit me right in the face. I thought to my self, 'This son of a bitch has been hit.' Then I realized it was a gun shooting right over my face, a five-inch gun. I climbed aboard, and they were firing and fighting. They took us down to sickbay. None of us could see. They tried to wash the oil out of our eyes. I saw one man who was covered up with a sheet.

Donald R. Lennon:

Oil was a major problem after the ship sank. If it didn't catch on fire it covered the people. This was a real problem with the eyes.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes. We were mighty fortunate that it didn't catch on fire.



Donald R. Lennon:

Where did the NICHOLAS take you?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I think that we went to Tulagi. There are some blanks, of course. For instance, I can't remember coming home from the West Coast when I got out. But I think we went to Tulagi and I was transferred to the HONOLULU. The HONOLULU took us off the NICHOLAS and others off of the MOORE back to New Hebrides, to Espiritu Santo.

Donald R. Lennon:

A lot of the destroyers operated out of Tulagi. They would go up the “Slot” and go back to refuel. It could have been Arleigh Burke's Little Beaver Squadron.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

What was he noted for?

Donald R. Lennon:

Thirty one. . . .

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

That's it.

Donald R. Lennon:

You were transferred right away over to the HONOLULU?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes, but I didn't stay on it. They just carried me to Espiritu Santo. I received orders to go to Auckland, New Zealand. I caught an army plane, a C-47, a two-motor job, and it was the ride of my life. The pilot looked like someone from a movie. He had his cap over his ears, was smoking a cigar, and had his feet up on the board. Four or five of us took off with him. We were sitting on the mailbags.

Shortly after we took off, I looked out the window and the motor was on fire. I said to the pilot, "Where are the parachutes?" He said," What in hell would you do with a parachute, but land in the ocean! Don't worry about it, I'll take care of it." He just turned the motor off and the fire went out. We went the rest of the way on one motor. He was telling stories, and I've never heard any in my life like the one he told.

He said, "We're going to land at Norfolk." That's the furthest outpost. You probably know where Norfolk pines came from, a thousand miles from Australia. He said " I want



y'all to look at the natives and see if you can tell anything about them." We landed and refueled. The pines were unbelievable, the biggest things I have ever seen, absolutely beautiful. The natives were different looking; they were striking looking. They looked like they were the offspring of “mad men British” who had intermarried with the Polynesians. They were good-looking people and smart. After we got back on the plane, he said, "They're the descendants of the mutiny on the BOUNTY." Which is exactly what they looked like.

We went on to Auckland, where I was stationed. Usually they send you back to the States, but I'd been on there a very short time and they were short of communication officers, so four of us stayed and didn't go home. But being sent to New Zealand was like being in paradise. I stayed there for three months and then got orders to go to COMSOPAC, which was Halsey's headquarters. I worked in communication there. That was the most wonderful beach I have ever seen in my life.

Donald R. Lennon:

That's the shore in Noumea?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes. Another fellow and I would go swimming down at the officers' place. One day we were by ourselves because we were on the night shift. I looked up and at least twenty or thirty people were coming. I recognized Halsey immediately. I had never seen so many admirals and generals in my life, and they were with a lot of nurses. We wanted to crawl in a hole and hide. There was nothing wrong with what they were doing, but we knew that we did not have any business being there. In fact Harold Stassen, Halsey's aide, was with them. You know he was nominated for President and is still on the Republican ticket. Nice fellow, I got to know him a little. I noticed that Stassen was mighty careful how close he got to the nurse. A sailboat that had been built for Halsey was there. They all went to the water,



laughing and playing, like you had to do to last through the war. I noticed that Stassen went around one end of the boat, and the nurse went around the other end, and they disappeared. I'm not trying to infer anything at all; you did what you could to stay alive, as you know.

I enjoyed it, but I saw a notice on the bulletin board: "Three volunteers needed for the USS HONOLULU," and boy was I glad to see that. I had been on the ship and knew some of the people on it. I volunteered immediately. Three of us went in communication.

Donald R. Lennon:

Where did you join the HONOLULU?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I really can't remember, but it could have been in Espiritu Santos. I loved that; the admiral's staff is the best duty you can have because nobody is your boss. The admiral doesn't pay any attention to you.

Donald R. Lennon:

So you were staff communicator?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes, and I enjoyed that. We had separate quarters. I had a room by myself with two bunks in it. Some of the ship's crew had three in a room. But for Admiral Ainsworth's men--we lived high on the hog. I stayed on the HONOLULU until it was torpedoed, about a year later.

Donald R. Lennon:

The Kula Gulf battle was in July '42, and the HONOLULU was in the Savo action on November 30, had you joined her by then?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I joined the HONOLULU around the end of November. Which action did you mention?

Donald R. Lennon:

The Savo action.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I think I was, but I can't remember. Is that Savo Island?

Donald R. Lennon:

Yes.



Herbert M. Wilkerson:

No. I don't remember that action, but that ship was unbelievably active. We went to so many islands, bombarding of course. I can't remember all the actions. There were so many, from Kwajalein and on and on and on, until we went to the Leyte for the landing.

Donald R. Lennon:

There were three heavy cruisers in the Savo Island battle: light cruiser HONOLULU and NORTH HAMPTON in the second division. The Japs fired twenty-four long lance torpedoes. Two of them hit the MINNEAPOLIS and almost blew its bow off; the NEW ORLEANS had its bow blown off; and the PENSACOLA got torpedoed amidships. The HONOLULU escaped.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Well, I don't believe that I was on it then, but I could have been. But with all that action, it seems like I would remember it.

Donald R. Lennon:

Yes, the NORTH HAMPTON was sunk in that battle.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I remember it sinking, but I think I just heard about it. We were on so many islands. Everywhere the Marines landed, we were there bombarding. I remember Ulithi for example.

Admiral Ainsworth was a mighty fine man. I began to realize that a junior officer is a mighty little thing on board ship. I didn't fully realize it until I became a full lieutenant, a senior officer. At that time I was treated entirely differently. I even got to eat dinner with the captain on the MOBILE. He was the greatest captain I've ever seen. He tried to get me to stay in the Navy and I should have. I loved the Navy. I said to him, "They will keep me out here forever." By then, I was ready to go home. He said, "No, I'll write your orders and I'll send you to Annapolis to teach." Instead, I went home and got in the unemployment line, like a fool.

Donald R. Lennon:

You were in HONOLULU in the Battle of Kolombangara, weren't you?



Herbert M. Wilkerson:

When was that?

Donald R. Lennon:

That was July 12, 1943, before the Leyte landings.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes. Kolombangara is the island where we had the battle.

Donald R. Lennon:

The HONOLULU, after doing some bombardments, was involved in the Leyte landings in the Philippines. What happened there?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

We bombarded, along with the other bombarding ships, cruisers, and battleships. Every thirty or forty-five days, we would go to an island and stay until the Marines landed. We would back them up, firing like we were supposed to. That's what we did at the Leyte Gulf operation. October the twentieth came, and we saw all the boats going ashore. We knew MacArthur was on our sister ship, the NASHVILLE, next to us. I had been looking for her for two years now.

Donald R. Lennon:

That was the ship you were originally ordered to?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes, and that was the first time I had seen her. We saw MacArthur leave a good while after the men went ashore. I was on the superstructure, a forty-millimeter mount, talking to one or two of the men, when I saw the Japanese plane coming low from over the hills, flying tree-top high, and nobody could fire at him. He got a good broadside feel of our ship and he passed right overhead. I could nearly identify him he was so close to us, sitting in his plane. Then the explosion occurred; he had dropped a torpedo. He hit us amidships. My men in the communication center were all saved, however. One man was isolated, the compartment flooded all around him, and he stayed down there for seven or eight days. They finally found a way through and got him out.

Donald R. Lennon:

The forty-millimeter gun mount was hit, was it not?



Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes, it was probably hit by friendly fire trying to shoot the plane down. When I saw the plane, I dashed for the watertight door and was in there. Then I saw and heard the explosion outside, only ten feet away, and I ran back. The man I was talking to was lying on the deck. The mount was blown up. Boys were lying everywhere. There must have been seven or eight or ten, I can't remember exactly. I reached out and grabbed a man's hand, and his arm came off. I knew he was gone; they were all gone. I went on and tended to my work; that's what we had to do.

By the way, the most beautiful thing I've ever seen in my life is a funeral at sea. I've been to several of them. It is the most touching thing in the world.

Donald R. Lennon:

Yes. The Service for the Dead is very moving.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

It certainly is. It is beautiful when they slide out from under the flag and hit the water. There is complete silence, because every motor possible has been cut off. I've never seen anything like it.

Donald R. Lennon:

Where did you go after you were torpedoed?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

We went with other torpedoed ships. I don't remember how many were with us, four, five, or six. We went down to the Manus and the Admiralty Islands off the coast of New Guinea, where there is the most beautiful natural harbor. It is ten miles long and many ships were there. They had a floating dry dock that was big enough to give us a temporary patch so that we could get back to the States for repairs. When we got back to the States, we found out that we had to go through the Canal and on to Norfolk. That was the only place we could be repaired. That's when I left the HONOLULU.

It was Christmas, December twentieth, and I was the last one to leave the ship. Of course, I was right across from the shipyard where I started out. I went over there every



night until I got my final orders and surprised my folks for Christmas. Then I had orders to go to the MOBILE in Los Angeles.

Donald R. Lennon:

What did you do in Manus?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

We went over to the Officers Club, of course. I went up on deck the day after we got there. We were anchored near an ammunition ship called the MOUNT HOOD. There were four or five ships near it. Early the next morning they sent us several miles away to the floating dry dock. They were waiting to repair us. I walked up on deck and looked back to see how far we had come. I heard a huge explosion and saw a cloud like an atomic bomb. The MOUNT HOOD had blown up. We found out later that there were only four or five survivors. A chaplain had gone ashore in a gig to get mail, but almost everyone on the ship was killed, and four or five ships were sunk around it. Jim Batten saw that himself.

We got our temporary patch so we could make fifteen knots an hour and headed back to the States.

Donald R. Lennon:

How long did it take them to put the temporary patch on?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I would guess four or five days. That was a whole lot of work. They had to shore it up. I had seen work like that going on in a shipyard before.

When we got to San Diego some of the men got off because their wives were waiting. I went through the Panama Canal, which was a great experience. I stopped at Panama and the town at the other end of the canal.

It was winter, and we went by Cuba, somewhere near our base in Cuba, on the way to Norfolk. We were off the Virginia coast when a snowstorm hit. Our men were sleeping topside. Most of them would not go below deck, because the odor of dead bodies was strong down below. I would go down to my room. I had been raised in a funeral home, and



although I felt mighty bad about those people, that didn't keep me from going down and sleeping. I remember that oil must of broken loose and everything was slick and when I would go down below I would skid.

If I may go back, I need to tell you what happened immediately after we were torpedoed that night. Three or four things happened while we were getting together with these other ships. That was about the time that the Japs fooled Halsey. He had gone north with his fleet. A bunch of converted flattops were guarding our entrance and the Japanese got to them and destroyed them. He got to the Japanese with his planes. It was a mighty close call. That's what we were afraid of. We had snuck by them, as I remember. But we knew that they were out there, and we knew that we had to go by them. We were sitting ducks. Our men were nervous, shocked, and in bad shape. A plane accidentally dropped a bomb near us before we left the harbor. That explosion! You should have seen the men coming out of the hatch from the bottom of the ship. They thought we'd been torpedoed again, I'm sure. A bunch came that had been in the shower and, boy, they didn't wait for clothes. They poked their noses out, and the next one's head would hit the butt of the guy in front, scaring him and making him jump. It was comical. It was really something.

That night, I went up to the bridge. It was about two o'clock in the morning. We got word that a seaman on deck where everyone was sleeping had been murdered and cut up completely, like somebody had sliced him. We immediately couldn't pass the alert because we wanted to catch the man who did it. I had gone up to the bridge and knew what was going on. We put a watch out immediately, but we didn't pass any word because we didn't want to alert whoever did it. During that night I think they found eight more. The next morning, early, they were searching everybody sleeping on the deck. They turned over this



Filipino. Filipinos are usually excellent seaman. He was a steward. While we were bombarding Tacloban, the other stewards had been telling him that they were going to kill his whole family. They were kidding. I think he went crazy, and he murdered the men with a cleaver, what you use to chop barbecue. He chopped up seven or eight men.

A few months before that, I had walked in my room one day, and discovered a steward. He looked like he was seventeen years old. He was a black boy, really nice looking, trying to do his best. I walked into my room and he was leaning over my desk and I said, "What are you doing?"

He looked kind of startled and said, "Mr. Wilkerson, this is the Daily Reflector. I'm from Snow Hill." I thought that boy was going to hug me.

I said, "You can have these Daily Reflectors, they are a month or two late."

He said, "I don't have any place to keep them."

Then I said, "When you are working in here you can read all you want to."

My shoes were the best polished shoes on board that ship. He polished and washed. I couldn't take off a pair of shorts without him immediately washing them so he could read the paper. He was the nicest boy. He was one of the ones who was chopped up. I wanted to visit his folks when I got home. I knew I couldn't tell them the story, so I didn't go. I still have never been, because I would have to tell them a lie. I wasn't going to tell them how he died. I don't even know his name now, but I bet I could look on a list of dead over in Snow Hill and find out.

Donald R. Lennon:

Were you operating in the South Pacific before the days of air-conditioned ships?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

The only air-conditioned space was the main battery computer room, correct?



Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

How did you find surviving the tropics below decks at night?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

The Navy knew how to pick their men. I enjoyed it. It didn't bother me one bit. A tube blew air on me. We slept nude half the time. We couldn't wear clothes because they would end up soaking wet. Sometimes, the messenger would wake me up, and I'd be lying there nude, fast asleep. I would cover myself up real quick. We survived, and we didn't mind it.

Donald R. Lennon:

You didn't know any different.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Exactly. And I enjoyed it, to tell you the truth.

Donald R. Lennon:

How about the food aboard your ships?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I never had anything to fuss about. I enjoyed the food. I thought they did great. We even had ice cream once in while. We had good food, powdered eggs. No, I didn't have anything to fuss about.

Donald R. Lennon:

Before you got out of the Pacific, did you make any liberty ports from these ships?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

At Honolulu we always stopped.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did you make any other liberty ports?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

We went ashore at Manus, to go to the Officers' Club. When we went ashore I looked over and thought they had thrown away some hams. I wondered what in the world would cause them to throw those hams away as hard as they were to get. Then I realized they had washed up after the explosion of the MOUNT HOOD. They looked like hams, big pieces of flesh.

Donald R. Lennon:

Were you at Ulithi?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes.



Donald R. Lennon:

Did you go ashore there?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Maybe. I remember they played ball over there. One time our ships had liberty at Ulithi, I think, but I didn't go ashore. I remember laughing when we heard a story about an event that happened on Ulithi. It seems that each man who went ashore for liberty was given two bottles of beer. When everybody got back, they checked and found one man missing. They went back to search the whole area and found him. He had been sitting on a log, getting ready to drink his beer, when somebody knocked him in the head for the beer. He was still out. He wasn't hurt, but that's how much a beer was worth.

Donald R. Lennon:

As I recall, the officers' beach was at Mog Mog island.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes, I think that is right. There were so many of them that I get them confused now.

When I was first on the HONOLULU it was coming in and out of Tulagi. I remember two things that happened. One day, I was down in my bunk or down in my room working . . . I may have had all-night duty. Anyway, a messenger came down and said, "There is an officer to see you from the destroyer so and so."

I went up on deck and a man called Bancroft Mosely was there. I had stayed with Bancroft in San Francisco before I first went out to the Pacific. Bancroft is a mighty fine person. I shook hands with him and he said, "Herbert, I didn't come to talk. I have not been to bed in three days, so show me your bunkroom." I told the messenger that I was busy and to take him down to my room. Four hours later he called me and came to where I was working. He said, "Best sleep I've had in a year." We shook hands and that was all of the story.



Another time I went ashore at Tulagi, to the Officers' Club, and I was standing there next to the bar. I'm not a heavy drinker by any means. A little of it does damage to me, but that was what we had to do, and I did it like all the rest.

Anyway, the fellow next to me said, "You sound like my wife."

I said, "Where is she from?"

He said, "NC."

I said, " So am I. What town?"

He said, "A little town you've never heard of."

And I said, "What is it?"

He said, "Greenville, NC."

I said, "Good God, I'm from Greenville. Who's your wife?"

He said, "Well I know you don't know her, Ann Gaskins."

I saw her when she was born; she and her family lived three doors from me. His name was Dale Digley and he was a Marine captain. I got to know him real well after I came back to Greenville in 1954. He's here right now, but Ann is dead. I told that story four or five times, and he always agreed with me. One day he said, "Herbert, I don't even remember that incident. I was drunk. I vaguely recall seeing you."

I did have a knack of running into people. Everywhere I went something happened. That's why I loved it so much.

One day I was in the bar and a Catholic chaplain approached me. The Catholic chaplains were great. They talked like the men and they acted like the men. They didn't put religion first. They lived religiously, but they were part of us. Anyway, the chaplain came up to me and said, "Herbert, come out here. I have a poker game up. "



So I walked out on the point overlooking Guadalcanal with the chaplain and I met all the people. One of them I had already heard about. He was the son of the ambassador to England. We thought he wasn't worth a damn, because he got drunk and drove a PT boat up on the shore and they didn't do anything to him. But it was John Kennedy--Jack Kennedy. I saw him a couple times after that. Like I said, he wasn't a hero or anything. I did see him when he ran for President. He drove in front of Globe Hardware and I said, "Hey, Jack." He turned around and scratched his head. It seems that he recognized me but could not place me. He kept shaking his head all the way up to Five Points and he waved back. I would have liked to have talked to him and told him where I had seen him.

Donald R. Lennon:

After you got back to Norfolk, how long was it before you where assigned to the MOBILE?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

I got thirty days of leave. They were shipping the boys out as fast as they could, and I think I was the last one. I was getting the orders. I wasn't the communication officer then. It was sometime in December, because we were torpedoed November 20, and I got to Norfolk about a month later. I got orders with thirty-days leave, so I went home and surprised my folks.

By the way, when the HELENA was sunk my folks had been getting letters from me from the HELENA. The HELENA sinking was announced by the Japanese before I was even out of the water, because they saw the number painted on the bow. My folks heard it on the radio on July 6. It was about two weeks before they got word that I was missing in action. Not long ago, my children lost all my ribbons and everything else I had. I was trying to replace them so I wrote the Navy Department. I told them what I thought I should get, and one of which was the Presidential Unit Citation given to the HELENA. They said



they didn't have a record of me being on it and I can understand why, with those orders from the harbor master. When my folks heard that, they called Jack Spain, who was secretary to Senator Erwin. They checked and came back and said, “He was not on the HELENA.”

They said, “The heck he wasn't, I have letters from him. I know where he was."

They replied, "No he was not there, we don't have no record of him."

What difference does it make. I never tried to straighten it out anymore. I would like it to be straight, cause what little record I got . . . .

Donald R. Lennon:

Weren't your pay records there, did you inquire about your pay records?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

No.

Donald R. Lennon:

You got paid while you were there?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes.

Donald R. Lennon:

Well you ought to check with the Defense Finance Office. They will locate your pay records. It will be in the archives someplace. You might follow up that way. So you went to the MOBILE. Where did you join the MOBILE?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

In Los Angeles. I had a great trip. I went home and then I went to see a girl I knew in Miami. I was single. I went to the bowl game in January 1945, and went on to Los Angeles. Everywhere I went somebody was looking after me. I was in the Hotel Roosevelt for one hour. I cleaned up and went to the Officers' Club and the hostess asked me to go home with her. I thought, 'What have I got to lose?' She said her chauffeur would be there. Sure enough, a limousine came and a chauffer got out and started to call her name. He took us home, out Wiltshire Boulevard past the Ambassador Hotel where Freddy Martin was playing. I have never seen anything like her house. You couldn't see the house next door, and they had a six-car garage.



After I arrived I was looking at the paper and saw Mister Saint's picture on the front page of the Los AngelesTimes. Her daddy came to the door and he was Mister Saint. I ate dinner and said that I had to go home. Mr. Saint said, "I sent to the hotel and got your clothes. You're not going home. You're staying here." I stayed there for a week or two. The ship I was to report to wasn't quite ready. I have never been entertained like that before.

I went to “The Country Club.” Mr. Saint said that there were a hundred country clubs there but that this one was "The Club." He asked me what I wanted to do. I said that I wanted to see some movie stars.

He said, "You don't see movie stars with us. They are too common to be in our club. There is only one exception: Bing Crosby." We went to Sunday dinner at the country club. I had my ribbons on, of course, and many many people were shaking my hand. They were not just being nice to me, but to all the service men. That night Mr. Saint said, "Here's the key to car #5." I took his daughter to see Freddie Martin. We saw Merv Griffith who was a singer and a pianist in Freddie Martin's band. Mr. Saint's daughter had gone to private school and had been very sheltered. The next day, he said, "My daughter had the time of her life. I want you to go back again tonight."

I said, "Mister Saint, I don't make enough money to go to that place."

He said, "You didn't pay for that."

I said, "Of course I did."

He said, "I told them to charge it."

He tried to pay me and I said, "No, sir."



He said, "Well go back tonight and this will be on me." We went every night. The orchestra got to know us. Is that not something? I had been in Los Angeles for one hour.

Donald R. Lennon:

That was certainly a great way to spend a little leave time.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

That type of thing happened to me over and over again.

The MOBILE left and I spent about a year on it. I saw all the difference in the world. You don't know what a junior officer is until you get to be a senior officer. I call it lieutenant full grade seniority. I was treated entirely different. The captain would consult me and talk with me and was a friend. You don't know how much you've learned until you sit back and see how dumb you were when you were an ensign.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did you become the communication officer of the MOBILE?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes. I don't remember exactly when. That's when the captain was trying to get me to stay in the Navy. He was very nice to me. I should have stayed because I liked the Navy. I enjoyed everything about it.

Donald R. Lennon:

What was his name, do you recall?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

No. He was younger and had been in Norfolk. I think he had just come to the MOBILE not too long before. He certainly was nice to me. I know when you're in the Navy you have to have some help to get promoted very high. He didn't exactly say that he would, but he told me that I was worth having, which I doubted at times because I was not from Annapolis. But he said, "You ought to stay. With your record you could get to be admiral, and I'll help you." Like a fool, I went home and got in the unemployment line.

Donald R. Lennon:

What did the MOBILE do while you where aboard her?

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

About the same thing, bombarding and everything--Guam, Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa. We had one explosion on board. They were firing too fast and blew the five-inch ship. The



man slammed a thing on it but didn't get it hooked in time, and it backfired, killing up to ninety men. Terrible explosion! I've forgotten where we went to get it fixed or what we did. That was in Okinawa. Ships were getting hit all around us. We would splash planes fifty yards from us.

Donald R. Lennon:

That was the height of the kamikazes.

Herbert M. Wilkerson:

Yes, that was really it, and we were preparing for the big landing coming up, and we knew it was coming. A million casualties were estimated.

[End of Interview]

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