World War II sailorYou might say Don Gilbertson had about every kind of experience possible as a blue water sailor in World War II. “I was on 11 ships, seven for duty and four as passenger,” Gilbertson, 83, said during a recent conversation.
By: Jon Echternacht, Hudson Star-Observer
You might say Don Gilbertson had about every kind of experience possible as a blue water sailor in World War II.
“I was on 11 ships, seven for duty and four as passenger,” Gilbertson, 83, said during a recent conversation.
His service included three island invasions and a kamikaze hit that sunk his vessel and wiped out two-thirds of the crew.
In reflection about his experiences more than 60 years ago, he said, “I liked the Navy. I’d do it all again.”
Gilbertson’s war experience started when he was a 17-year-old senior at Hudson High School in 1943.
“I went into the Navy in the middle of my senior year. My dad had to pick up my diploma for me,” he said. “I was on a ‘kiddy cruise.’”
After boot camp in Farragut, Idaho, Gilbertson attended radio school, and amphibious training in Oceanside, Calif., before his communication team was assigned to Pearl Harbor in 1944.
“Pearl Harbor was my home port. We would get assigned wherever they needed us for an invasion,” he said.
Gilbertson’s first combat duty was the Battle of Guam (July 21-Aug.8, 1944). On the beach during the invasion, he became acquainted with a Japanese motor crew that attempted to blow up the halftrack he was in. The motor rounds were getting pretty close until a light U.S. tank came down the beach and turned the tables.
The next battle he experienced was in the Philippines at Leyte Gulf (Oct. 17–Dec. 31, 1944). “We were assigned to a merchant cargo ship that was full of high octane fuel,” he said. “There were five ships in a semicircle around us. They all were sunk and we stayed afloat.”
Gilbertson said most everybody has heard about the Japanese suicide planes, the kamikazes, but few people know the Japanese had suicide swimmers. “It only worked when a ship was at anchor,” he said.
Early on, while serving on the merchant ship, things were pretty cozy. With all the supplies aboard, the food was plentiful and good but toward the end of the cruise, supplies ran low. “For the last nine days all we had to eat each day was one spoon of beans and some wormy crackers,” he said.
General Douglass MacArthur made his historic return to the Philippines on Leyte Oct. 20, 1944.
The radio crew got a stateside stop in Seattle after the battle in the Philippines, and Gilbertson said he called his folks back in Hudson. “I put $7 in quarters in the payphone for the call,” he said.
His luck for staying dry ran out on the next invasion during the Battle of Okinawa (March-June 1945). He was on an LSMR equipped with rocket launchers on the deck, a relatively new weapon in the war.
“It would take about three and a half seconds to fire a barrage of 680 rockets to clear the beach,” he said. “Each barrage would tear up one square mile of land.”
The ship was struck by a kamikaze on May 4, 1945, and sunk. While Gilbertson was in the water, 3,000 rockets in the ship’s hold exploded underneath him, and he was injured.
“Out of a crew of 73, it was said only 27 survived the kamikaze attack,” he said.
Naval historians estimated the Japanese launched 1,900 kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Okinawa.
Gilbertson was picked up in the water by an LCSL on the fly and taken to a hospital ship. He was later transferred to a hospital in Saipan and spent about one and one-half months convalescing, he said.
He got back to the states in July 1945, then was stationed in St. Louis for 13 months until his discharge in November 1946.
“I did a foolish thing after I got home,” he said. “I joined the National Guard.”
The experiment only lasted three years when the 6-foot-3 Gilbertson found he didn’t fit very well under an Army pup tent.
“At least in the Navy you had a place to eat and sleep you didn’t have to worry about,” he said.