Thursday, April 18, 2019

BB-64 @ 75: Wisconsin at War, Part 2

Editor’s Note: As we observe the 75th anniversary of Wisconsin's commissioning this week, we remember the generations of former crewmembers who brought this iconic Norfolk landmark to life and sailed into harm's way. We continue the series with "plankowner" Marshall Pearson, who recounted his life life aboard the "Wisky" during World War II to David Kohnen for Nauticus' "City at Sea" Exhibit.
Personnel take cover on the forecastle of the battleship Wisconsin (BB 64) as the main batteries commence firing in 1945 as published in The Badger, Wisconsin's newspaper. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
By Marshall Pearson
as told to David Kohnen

Marshall Pearson was not even 20 years old when he enlisted in the Navy. The service was not a complete stranger to him as he had worked at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard here in Hampton Roads. But even this previous experience did not fully prepare him for his tour as a deck seaman on Wisconsin.

“It was an amazement, really,” he commented. “It was a great thrill and everything else for a young sailor to see something that big and know that’s going to be your home, and not knowing where you’re going, or what you’re getting into.”

Like all crewmembers, Pearson had his everyday duties along with a battle station. His everyday duty was working in 1st division on the starboard side. Probably the deck division’s most important job along with mooring the ship and holystoning the deck was refueling the battleship’s escorting destroyers.

First Division aboard USS Wisconsin (BB 64) in the May-June 1945 edition of The Badger. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Pearson’s battle station was turret #1. Gunner’s mates called upon the seaman and boatswain’s mates of the deck department to assist them in loading the big guns. Pearson’s job, at the young age of 19 was to ram the one-ton shell and the six 110-pound powder bags in behind them. There was no time to rest either.

“Thirty-two seconds…so you didn’t have to wait and think. You knew what you had to do and you had to do it then.”

To Pearson, the feeling of the big guns going off was somewhat unreal, yet quite quiet.

“You could feel it, but in the turret, you actually only heard a swish of the gun. You didn’t actually hear an exceptionally loud noise. Turret two was right behind us and when they fired, there were vent holes underneath that turret. When they fired, it would blow your pants legs off, like somebody was slapping you on the leg.”

Not every combat situation had Pearson running to turret #1. Sometimes he was called to help man a 5-inch or one of the 40mms. Then there was the “kamikaze watch.” While the Navy had used radar to great effect during the war (Wisconsin served as fighter director during the war), it could not detect anything directly overhead. The sailor on this special watch was given a mattress on top of the gun director and told to look up.
Antiaircraft gunners aboard USS Wisconsin (BB 64) in 1945 as published in The Badger. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
“You looked directly overhead up there and these kamikazes would be very, very high-I mean way up above…we had to watch for them.”
Like his shipmate, Quartermaster Bill Carpenter, Pearson was not particularly concerned about the Japanese suicide aircraft.

“I keep tell everybody, as a 19-year-old kid, you really don’t think of anything as serious for yourself. I mean, you just see a plane and you do what you’re supposed to do.”

Of course there was the one time when no one was on the kamikaze watch because the crew ‘s minds were given a brief moment to relax at Mog Mog. Like Foreman, Pearson and his fellow sailors from Wisconsin and from several other ships at anchor, including nurses from hospital ships, awaited the comical spoof “Two Little Hips” on the battleship’s fantail [on March 11, 1945].

The program from the musical Too Little Hips, produced by and starring Wisconsin crew members. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
One of Wisconsin's ship's servicemen puts the finishing touches on a wig for one of the performers of Too Little Hips. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
“They were all on our fantail, sitting there, waiting for the show to start…and two kamikazes, we had lights on and had mentioned that everybody had their lights on, came in and went right into the stern of the Randolph. All Hell broke loose.” 

“My battle station was all the way forward and me trying to get all the way forward. Everybody else was scrambling, trying to just get anywhere they could get…out of the line of fire. Nobody even knew really what it was until later. It was quite a mess for a few minutes.”
USS Randolph (CV 15) alongside a repair ship at Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, on March 13, 1945, showing damage to her after flight deck resulting from a Kamikaze hit two days earlier. Photographed from a USS Miami (CL 89) floatplane. (National Archives and Records Administration via Naval History and Heritage Command)
Like all of Wisconsin’s World War II veterans, Pearson will always be grateful to the warship that got him home safely. You see, waiting at home was his girl Gladys. The two of them had known each other since high school.
“When I was 15,” Gladys told us “he left to go to the Navy. He was 19 years old. I was heart broken. He was gone 18 months, I don’t know whether he remembers that or not. I don’t remember him coming home. When he did come home, got out of the Navy in April of ‘46, and June of ‘46, we got married. It’s been like that ever since.”

In addition to his contributions to award-winning exhibits on USS Wisconsin in Norfolk and the former U-505 in Chicago, Dr. David Kohnen is the author of numerous articles and books on naval history including 21st Century Knox: Influence, Sea Power, and History for the Modern Era (Naval Institute Press, 2016). He currently serves as the director of the John B. Hattendorf Center for Maritime Historical Research at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  

1 comment:

Navy Davy said...

Thank you for posting this article. The interview with Tommy Marshall and Jerry Blesch stick in my memory. WisKy is a grand old ship! Beat Army!