EDITOR’S NOTE: The following feature series profiles Ellis County veterans killed in the line of service to their country during the 20th century.
The features, researched and written by Perry Giles, are read in first-person voice by area students during the annual Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Ceremony as a special way to remember and pay tribute to our friends, classmates and neighbors who gave their lives for our freedom.
“We Were Soldiers Once and Young” will appear every Sunday in the Daily Light through Veterans Day.
We stand on the backs of their sacrifice. Their history is our tradition, as long as there are Americans to remember...
My name is Benny Lawrence Wilson. My friends call me Ben.
I was raised in Ferris and played quarterback for the Yellow Jackets. I attended Baylor University before getting into the trucking business.
I remember that December Sunday in 1941. When we heard the news, I ran home through the streets of Ferris and burst through the front door, yelling to everyone, “Pearl Harbor has been bombed! Turn on the radio!” The whole family spent the rest of the day next to the radio. A month later, I quit my job and joined the Navy along with my twin brother, Bill.
I served as a storekeeper aboard the USS Morrison, DD-560, a Fletcher class destroyer. Our ship saw action in the Marshall Islands, the Admiralties and the Caroline Islands. We also saw action at Eniwetok, Mindanao, Peleliu, Luzon and Samar Island. We put a lot of wear and tear on that tin can.
The guys that I served with on this ship were a good bunch of men, some were just boys really. But under fire they were all ready and willing. I was proud to be part of this crew.
I served as the acting chaplain aboard our ship, since we didn’t have a real chaplain. They guys on board called me “Ben the Preacher.” I didn’t mind, in fact, I kind of liked the job.
We were in some serious fighting during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. We where operating off of Luzon when we stopped to pick up 400 survivors from one of our carriers, the USS Princeton, that had been badly damaged by enemy planes. Just ten minutes after we left the side of the Princeton, she blew up with the loss of many lives.
In the early morning hours of March 31, we arrived on the scene where another of our destroyers was in pursuit of an enemy submarine. We dropped a pattern of depth charges and within seconds the sub was forced to the surface. We sank it with gunfire off the island of Okinawa. That was a moment of celebration on board, but at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel for those poor men.
During our invasion of Okinawa, we were stationed on the forward picket line in order to guard the fleet. I was worried about Okinawa because my brother was going to land in the invasion with the Seabees.
On May 4, 1945 we were on the line as the fighter director ship, which made us a main target for the enemy. Our alarm bells rang to life and over the loudspeakers came, “This is not a drill! This is not a drill! All hands man your battle-stations!”
The first attack that day was a suicide run by a “Zeke.” The plane broke through heavy flack to drop a bomb, which splashed off the starboard beam and exploded too close for comfort.
Next a “Val” and then another “Zeke” followed with unsuccessful suicide runs. Every gun on ship was firing away, desperately trying to defend the ship. They literally shot the wings off the kamikazes before they could reach us. This is getting serious now!
About 8:25 another “Zeke” approached through murderous anti-aircraft fire and managed to crash into the bridge. There was fire and twisted metal blown all across our ship. The blast inflicted heavy casualties and knocked out most of our electrical equipment.
With our bridge knocked out of action, the next three planes, all twin-float biplanes, managed to maneuver through all our anti-aircraft fire and hit us. With each kamikaze hit, there was a terrible blast that rocked the entire ship. After four direct hits, she began to list sharply to starboard.
The communication circuits went out and we received no order to abandon ship, so I and most everyone else stayed at our battle-stations. There wasn’t time to think about being scared; we were all busy trying to save the ship. But you could hear her making sounds that she wasn’t supposed to make.
Then suddenly there was a tremendous explosion, and our bow lifted into the air. Our ship broke into and cold seawater rushed inside. There just wasn’t time! Almost nobody below deck made it out.
I went down along with 151 of my shipmates. It was a Friday and I was 27 years old.
My name is on the Tablets of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial in Hawaii.
Remember us, for we were sailors once, and young.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2013 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 9, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.