Friday, July 13th 1945
Bill Billoite (World-Herald Correspondent)
Aboard the USS Bennion, Somewhere in the Pacific.
She is a trim little lady who bears the scars of a hard fast life with dignity. There was no peace-time finishing school touches for her. She was born in war-time, given a short, hard shakedown cruise and tossed in with her fast, worldly-wise sisters, and now she moves among them with the quick, sure grace of experience. If her make-uphas grown a bit faded and blotched and she seems a little old for her years, it makes no difference to her crew of cocky boy friends: They love her.
In nine invasions her stout heart never faltered, and in two months at Okinawa she shrugged off a countless number of suicide plane attacks. She knocked down 12 kamikaze planes and helped send four others into the drink. She is the USS Bennion. The men who man her talk about her as if she were a member of their families. Among these men are Nebraskans and Iowans. Any of the crew will tell you she was commissioned one cold day in December 1943, in Boston. Many of them, like the ship they were manning were untried in combat. They learned together what it was to fight the Japs. Except for a few old salts, it is a young crew from the skipper and executive officer on down.
"We have a happy ship," said Commander R.H. Holmes of Cambridge, New York, who is in his early thirties, "And the Lord knows we needed a happy ship in the times we have been aboard her. I don't think we would have made it if every man hadn't done his job."
His executive officer, Lieutenant James Leonard of Westport, Connecticut, nodded agreement. Although only 27, his black head is shot with gray. You can't tell the experiences of the Nebraska and Iowa men who were on her without telling the history of the ship. They were too busy sending her out of her corner ready to fight each round to remember how well she called her shots when the going was tough. We got the details out of the ship's log.
It would take a book to tell how she went in with her sister destroyers at "Surigao Strats" and sank a battleship, and to relate her exploits at Saipan, Lingayen Gulf, Iwo Jima, Leyte, Palau, and the rest of them.
We will pick her up at Okinawa and let her record of the two months there speak for her. She was prowling off Okinawa alone for eight days before D-Day, but it wasn't until April 1st that she got her first plane. There wasn't much to that one. It came over and her crew shot it down. The next day she was cruising north of Okinawa when a two-engined Jap bomber came rocketing out of the clouds at her. The plane was closing rapidly and the "ready guns" had to fire before the men had answered "general quarters." The first shot fired by a ready gun dropped the plane into the water in flames. On April 3rd, she tangled with her first two suicide planes and got them both.
They were zeros.They circled at ten thousand feet and went into their glides, not bothering to take evasive action. It was when they flattened out and started to come in at a head-on angle that the ship's guns nailed them. One fell into the water 1000 yards out and the other crashed 500 yards from the ship.
There were three Nebraskans and three Iowans with us as the ship's officers explained the Bennion's log book. They lived their combat over again as they listened avidly to every incident. They were Chief Gunner's Mate Kieth Kinart, who enlisted in the Navy in Council Bluffs; Motor Machinist Third Class Harold Herskind, of Omaha; Fire Controlman Second Class Paul Hoschek, of Burlington; Ship's Serviceman Third Class Max Smith, of Ottumwa; Chief Water Tender Jerome Hinds, of Bairbury, Nebraska; and Seaman First Class James Wheeldon of Lewiston, Nebraska.
All Agreed that April 12th was one of their ship's toughest days. The Bennion was plowing along the west of Okinawa as part of a screening action for a heavy task force. That afternoon 12 Jap planes of all types tried to crash through to the big ships. Several of the Nip planes were suiciders. The Bennion knocked down three and helped to shoot down three more. One of the Jap planes crashed 20 yards from the destroyer as it tried to crash into her. The destroyer, shortly afterwards, stopped to pick up a man that had gone overboard off another ship.
On April 28th, a suicide plane came after the Bennion as she was making maximum speed and taking violent evasive action. The after guns were pouring out everything they had as the Jap came in. They nailed him just as he came over. The wing of the plane crashed into the stack of the Bennion and the plane plunged over the side into the water.
Two days later the Bennion almost got it. Ten planes attacked her and another destroyer. The Bennion shot down two and the other ship got three. One of the planes the Bennion got fell into the sea near her fantail. She saw her latest action at Okinawa on May 25th when she shot down two more planes to bring her total to 12 shot down and four assists in the Okinawa campaign. It was early on the morning of the twelfth in bright moonlight when a two engine Jap plane tried to make a torpedo run. The Bennion knocked it down. The last one was a Nip float plane attempting a suicide dive.
"I came as close to getting it as I want to when that Jap Zeke's wing hit our stack," sailor Herskind said. "It hit us amidships and I thought I was a goner. I hit the deck when I saw it coming and the next thing I knew it was over the side and we were still going on with the fight. I still have a piece of the Nip plane for my 2-year-old son, Terry.
"I've seen just about everything our little old tin can has gone through because, as long as everything is going all right, I have a grandstand seat. That April 30th show was almost too rich for my blood. It was dark and I saw the Nips coming by the flame from their exhaust pipe. I dived behind a gun and had parts of that plane dropping all around me. Brother, that was close."
One of the oldest and best-liked men on the USS Bennion is a bewhiskered salt of more than 18 years service. Comfortably upholstered, with his luxurious beard resting on his ample chest, he is something of a sea-going daddy to the youngsters around him. He is Chief Watertender Jerome Hinds, 37, a bachelor from Fairbury, Nebraska. His mother lives with his sister in Fairbury. Aboard since the Bennion was commissioned, Jerome rates the Okinawa show the toughest of her nine invasions. And she is his favorite of the five ships on which he has served. Jerome has put into ever big port in the world and his yarns, which he tells by the hour, keep the youngsters amused during the long nights at sea. They call him "Broomface" and "Uncle Whiskers" and they are very fond of him. While the younger fellows talked excitedly about the Okinawa adventures, Jerome sat contentedly on the fringe of the group taking it all in.
Ship Serviceman Third Class Max Smith of Ottumwa, Iowa is about 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 120 pounds. Like his dad, Charles E. Smith, he is a barber. He is just 21. "Say, straighten those folks out back there on one thing for me, will you?" Max asked. "They think when a sailor is a barber on a ship that all he does is cut hair. My battle station is on a gun, and I have fired in every major action we have been in. I got my big gun thrill on the night of April 12th. Five of them were coming at us and they kept coming. One got within 50 yards of us before we shot it down. The gang on the ship roared like they were at a football game when that Nip hit the drink in flames."
Fire Controlman Third Class Paul Hoscheck, 23, of Burlington, Iowa has a fiancee waiting for him back in Burlington. The former left tackle for the Burlington high school was a brick mason when he left for the navy. Miss Shirley Hanson is the girlfriend. Six foot slim Seaman First Class James Wheeldon of Lewiston, Nebraska is only 20. He has little to say. Good-looking, with hazel eyes, Jim said he never had a girl--and the rest of his friends howled their disbelief. On his arm the word "mother" is tattooed. He said he had that done when the Bennion put into Pearl Harbor after a cruise.
That's the story of the USS Bennion and her cocky boyfriends. Wily wench that she is, the Bennion knows that some day she will put into port and they will leave her for other girls. But she knows, too, that in the years to come they will often whisper tales about her to their children. Because she had them when they were young and gallant--at their best.