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 Leland Wickliffe, the son of Henry and Dollie Wickliffe. I was raised in Ferris and went to Ferris High School.
I had been listening to the news of the war and pretty much knew what was coming my way, one way or another.
It was impossible not to go, so I joined the Navy in February of 1944, and was sent by train to the Farragut Naval Training Station in northern Idaho. That was one big trip for me, as I had never been more than 75-cents outside of Ferris in my whole life.
Nothing would ever be the same for me again.
I was in boot camp with thousands of other new recruits from all over the country. This place was huge, thousands of acres and hundreds of brand new wooden buildings on the southern tip of Lake Pend Oreille. I have never seen such an enormous lake before. This is pretty countryside, but awfully cold weather here. I might as well be a million miles from home.
There are tens of thousands of men here, one huge boot camp for “Blue Jackets.” Most of them are recruits just like me, that have never been away from home before. They teach us things like how to march with a dummy rifle, how to row a whaleboat, how to swim, how to use firearms, things like that. I’ve never seen so many folks together in one place in my life.
The rest of the time we spend doing marching drills and learning to work together as a group, all kinds of things really.
We had instructions in all sorts of nautical things, knot tying and some seamanship stuff. There were a lot of physical activities, boxing, wrestling and judo.
Before we graduated boot camp we all had to jump into the water from a real high scaffold, like you were jumping off a ship I guess.
There are some good looking nurses at the base hospital, but they don’t let us talk to them.
Whenever we get a weekend liberty, we go into Sandpoint, Idaho and look for a dance or something. On Saturday afternoon the streets downtown were literally navy blue as we walked up and down the streets in mass and whistled at every girl.
In April of ’44 after completing my training, they sent us by train to a naval base at San Francisco and from there on a ship to Hawaii.
For several weeks I waited for an assignment and was generally bored most of the time. Thinking of what lay ahead for me; I figured that this war would be an opportunity to be somebody more exciting than the kid that I had been back in Ferris.
My orders finally came in. I was assigned to a light fleet carrier that had been at Pearl for about a month getting an overhaul. The name of my ship was the USS Belleau Wood, CVL-24.
At first I was a little overwhelmed on board such an enormous ship. A few times I pretty much got lost, trying to recall exactly how all these bull’s-eye location codes worked. I really felt out of place being so new to all this. I mean this crew was battle-tested combat veterans and had already seen lots of action in the South Pacific.
I sat around and listened to their stories of how they had been in all these different raids across the Pacific, and just a couple of months ago had been in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
The Avenger torpedo planes from the Belleau Wood had made direct hits on the Japanese carrier Hiyo and sank it. All this talk about combat was fairly scary to me to be totally honest. I just hope that when the going gets rough, that I don’t mess up and let anyone down.
We went straight from Pearl Harbor to rejoin the fleet in the western Pacific near Guam. We were to support the last stages of the fighting on the island, and were there when the Stars and Stripes were finally raised again.
In the coming weeks we took part in the air strikes on southern Palaus and the Philippine Islands. Then, for two days, we gave air support to the Marines fighting on Peleliu.
After that we took part in raids on Okinawa and northern Luzon. Then there was a raid on the island of Formosa, where we were attacked 47 times by enemy planes on the night of Oct. 12. All gunners really had their hands full that night.
They sure had us busy, zigzagging back and forth across the South Pacific from one island to another. I was getting better at all this, but still felt like a greenhorn compared to most of the other guys on board.
There were times though that I went to one of the hangar doors just to enjoy the view. It was especially pretty at night, to watch the moonlight glistening off of the open waters.
In October we were back near Luzon, hitting it with air strikes. The rumor was that General MacArthur was about to take back the Philippines.
In a few days we joined up with Admiral Halsey’s Task Force 38. The tension was thick, everybody was up-tight about this. We all knew that a major battle was about to take place.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was about to commence. It started for us on Oct. 24. We raced toward the north with nine other carriers, six battleships, eight cruisers and more than 40 destroyers. From what I could see, it looked to me like all the fighting ships in the world.
Admiral Halsey was taking us at flank speed to meet the Japanese Navy head on! I went to my battle-station and tried to keep myself occupied. I didn’t want anyone to notice, but I was plenty nervous.
Around dawn the next morning, our planes were launched along with all the other carriers in our task force. They caught up with the enemy fleet and pounded them with bombs, torpedoes and strafing fire.
There was air combat as well, but mostly it all took place beyond our view. When our planes returned, everyone was real excited. We had just busted the Jap Navy, and but good. … I heard they were in full retreat!
The big surface battle that we all dreaded, it didn’t happen for us, and I wasn’t too unhappy that it hadn’t.
There had been plenty of action around Leyte Gulf those few days, but luckily for us, we weren’t hit. As much as I had sweated this out, it felt good to be part of all this! We had just taken a big step toward turning the corner. I felt as though I was finally earning my pay.
There was no time to celebrate. In response to an urgent call for help, our task force made a sudden turn south and raced back toward Leyte Gulf where another Japanese naval force had attacked our escort carriers.
On the 26th our planes caught up with them and made them pay.
The next few days, we cruised about 90 miles off Leyte Gulf on patrol, covering for the American landings on the Philippines.
On Oct. 30 shortly after noon, enemy planes were spotted nearing our group. The intercom blared, “General Quarters! General Quarters!” As our sixth fighter plane cleared the flight deck, a Jap Kamikaze plane was seen hurtling straight down on the carrier Franklin, just off our port side.
There was a flash of flame near the island structure of the Franklin and instantly her flight deck was ablaze and smoking. Everyone’s mouth fell open as we witnessed the unthinkable almost right next to us.
Another plane peeled off from about the same spot and began another suicide dive on the Franklin. After dropping a large bomb that missed her, the plane turned suddenly toward us.
Our anti-aircraft batteries opened fire with everything we had, but the guy just kept coming straight at us, and straight at me!
Parts of the planes were falling off. I can’t believe it’s still flying. There are so many hits on it, but it just kept coming!
I couldn’t believe this was happening…
There was a huge explosion of white hot flame on the aft part of the flight deck, and a hot blast of concussion swept across the deck and through the hangar deck. There was burning gas everywhere and on everything. And then our own ammunition started going off.
Our own planes and bombs were exploding all around me.
It was a Monday, Oct. 30, 1944 and I was 19 years old. I was lost along with 91 of my shipmates. … They never found me.
My name is on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Manila.
Remember us, for we were sailors once, and young.
Perry Giles serves as co-chair of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Day Committee. The 2011 countywide tribute to veterans is scheduled for 10 a.m., Saturday, Nov. 12, at the Waxahachie Civic Center followed by a wreath presentation at the Ellis County Veterans Memorial located in front of the center.