BY ANDI COOK
THE DAILY NEWS
January - 2003
BOGALUSA - This week marks the 58th anniversary of the kamikaze bombing of the USS Ticonderoga on January 21, 1945. An 18-year-old Washington Parish boy, Wilton Warner, literally survived the attack by the cloth of his pants. He still has the naval dungarees that sport a fist-sized hole made by flying shrapnel, after he fled from the area damaged by the first Japanese plane to make a direct hit on the ship.
"I was slender and long-legged and was running flat out," Warner said. "I made it up a ladder and through a hatch and had stooped over to get my helmet, life jacket and phones when shrapnel came roaring by and a piece took out the wrinkle in the side of my dungarees near my knee, only stinging my leg. If it had been an inch over, it would have taken my knee cap and my leg right off." A friend of Warner from Georgia named Stovall was fleeing with him, but being shorter and stockier, he couldn't run as fast. "I out ran Stovall," Warner said sadly. "We both were 18 years old. Stovall didn't make it past where the second suicide plane hit. I'm afraid he was blown to pieces." Warner, who is being treated for cancer, spoke about his war experience in deference to the anniversary of the bombing of the Ticonderoga. He said he has never told his story before because there are so many men who served longer and better, but he was willing to relive the horror of war in hopes that his story would help young people today understand just what war is all about. .
~~Waiting to turn 18~~
Like most young Americans during the war years, Warner was primed and ready to go to war in April of 1942 when he graduated from Pine High School. One small problem kept him at home. He was only 16 years old and wouldn't turn 18 until February 5, 1944. He graduated young because formal schooling only took 11 years and he had skipped the second grade. "They tried to start me to school at State line, but when my Dad dropped me off and headed for the Saw Mill, I took off and caught him. I wouldn't stay at school with my Dad working so close. My Granddad drove a school bus to Pine so he took me there," Warner explained. "When I started the second grade, the teacher said, ‘I believe you can do third grade work.' She took me over to the third grade class and I never went back to the second grade room again."
After graduation, Warner and three of his friends enrolled in Spencer Business College in New Orleans. Before completing the requirements, they dropped out to seek employment. All four applied for a job with the TPMP Railroad, but Warner got the coveted job simply because he was the only one home when the railroad called the boys to interview for the position. The others eventually left Warner alone in New Orleans. He quickly became homesick and when he returned to Washington Parish one weekend to celebrate his 17th birthday, his Dad recognized his unhappiness and helped him secure a job in Bogalusa, working as a yard clerk for the GM&O railroad.
The bout of homesickness Warner experienced in New Orleans did nothing to prepare him for the homesickness he would feel when he ended up halfway around the world on an aircraft carrier. "It's hard to believe that a little ole kid from the sticks could end up in Japan," Warner said. He ended up in Japan courtesy of the U.S. Draft Board. "I tried to enlist in the Navy Air Corp at the age of 18," he said, "but they turned me down for some reason. So I went home and waited for the draft notice to arrive."
When the draft notice came, Warner chose to enlist in the navy. He was sent to Boot Camp in Texas where he spent 9 weeks in training before being sent by troop train to the Distribution Center in Camp Pendleton, CA. "When we got there, we saw a brand new ship that had just been brought through the canal. I will never forget how huge that ship looked. I thought it was invincible," Warner admitted. "I thought with boats like that the war would be over in no time." To complete the necessary roster, Warner and 95 other raw recruits were assigned to that invincible ship, the Ticonderoga.
They sailed toward Hawaii where they would unload cargo, take on planes, and prepare to join the Third Fleet in the South China Sea. "The Captain talked to the recruits assigned to the ship," Warner said. "He told us, ‘You're going to see bloodshed. Anyone who is not prepared for bloodshed will be released to go back to the Distribution Center.' No one left."
~~Off to war~~
For the first time, Warner and the other recruits put out to sea. "When we left out the next day, some of the new recruits were hangin' around the side, not holding our food too well," he admitted. "After several days of this agony, Chaplain Gilmore asked one young guy who looked about 15, ‘Son are you sick?' The young man answered, ‘No Sir, I'm dying.' And that's about how most of us felt for a few days until we got our sea legs."
The young men were soon to learn that death could be much worse than sea sickness. After leaving Hawaii, the boat was escorted toward Japan. "We spent a lot of sleepless nights because we were surrounded by Japanese submarines. We dealt with the torpedoes and the planes every day," Warner said. "But we felt protected because the U.S. aircraft were bigger. We knew there were Japanese pilots surrendering for training as suicide pilots; Tokyo Rose kept us informed. We didn't encounter any at first. We were more concerned about the submarines and experienced two or three torpedo scares, but we finally joined the Fleet without mishap."
Eventually, though, Japanese bombers began diving towards the big aircraft carrier and other ships in their fleet. There were a few near misses before the double hit on January 21 disabled the Ticonderoga.
~~Saving the ship~~
It took two hours to get the fires on the ship under control, but much longer to completely extinguish them. Men were burning and crying out for help, but often could not be reached. When the crew finally could take stock, 143 were dead and 337 injured, including the man in charge, Commodore Kiefer, who suffered 65 separate wounds but continued to direct the recovery efforts and refused treatment until all of his men had received medical help.
As part of the recovery plan, damaged planes and bombs were dumped into the ocean. Men braved the flames and possible explosion to dispose of the planes and bombs. Loaded gasoline tanks were hacked open with axes and the fuel poured overboard to prohibit explosions. During the fight to save the ship, Warner was mistakenly reported missing because he didn't make it back to his station that day. He, along with every other able-bodied man, was told to man hoses so that the fires could be put out. The next day, the erroneous missing report was rectified.
Simmons returned to the States in April 1944, married, and then chose training as a fighter carrier and night fighter in the F6F Hellcat. He went through some very strict training to be a "Night Bird". Simmons says their training was strenuous, precise, and dangerous. A few pilots were lost. This training was done in Florida. Simmons was then sent to the Quonset Point, RI, Naval Air Station for more night flying and night carrier landings.
"When the fires died down, I made an effort to get back to my office, but I couldn't," Warner said. "There were burned bodies all over the deck blocking my way. Some were still alive and crying for water. I found the suicide pilot's shoe laying on the deck; his foot in a white sock was still inside." Although badly damaged, the Ticonderoga was still afloat. Under escort, it limped back to Bremington, WA. While in port, Warner received a 21-day leave but then returned to war on the repaired vessel.
He was then sent to VF-8 Squadron 87 along with seven other VF navy pilots on the USS Ticonderoga, Task Force 58, Fifth Fleet under Rear Admiral Sprague, USN. He was assigned as senior night fighter pilot on this ship. Each carrier had only eight VF(N) pilots aboard. The Third Fleet under Rear Admiral Halsey relieved the Fifth Fleet shortly thereafter and consisted of Ticonderoga, Yorktown, Shangri-La and Independence carriers, along with battle ships, cruisers, and destroyers. This fleet began combat north to Tokyo and Hokkaido, which lasted from May, 1945 until the end of the Pacific War.
During the second tour, two Franklintonians joined the crew of the ship. Wade Bateman and Stuart Simmons were pilots who boarded in Hawaii as the ship headed back to the warfront. Warner had been assigned to records because of his time in Business College and was in charge of officers' records. When he saw that two officers were from Franklinton, he made it a point to meet the two men.
Air Group 87 aboard the Ticonderoga was credited with sinking the battleship Hyuga, three merchant ships, 34 planes destroyed, and 61 combat strikes on many Islands and airfields. Simmons came back to the States in October, 1945 on the CVN Ranger Carrier USS Wasp. On Navy Day, Oct. 27, 1945 aboard the CVN Ranger, they arrived in New Orleans. He was discharged Dec. 1, 1945 from United States Navy and was in the reserve until 1956. Simmons was in active duty four years and three months, retiring as a Lieutenant.
The Ticonderoga was in Tokyo waters when they received word to get as far away from land as possible. The warning came prior to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Warner said. "I probably wouldn't be here today if it hadn't been for that warning," he stated.