Water was worse than war

The war was over. The Allies had won.

U.S. Navyman Richard “Rick” Wilkes stood aboard the USS LSM-15 about a mile from Tokyo Bay, where Japan signed surrender documents in September of 1945.

A Bazetta High School graduate, Wilkes began shifting his attention from dodging bullets and bombs in some of World War II’s biggest battles, including invasions of Okinawa, Luzon and Ulithi, to reuniting with his wife and brothers back home.

Little did he know the most intense fight for his life was yet to come.

“I thought, three invasions and getting bombed and strafed, and now I’m going to die in the water with the damn war over,” Wilkes, 90, said last week from his Cortland home.

Following Japan’s surrender, the LSM-15 motored to regroup on water just off of Okinawa’s shores in the channel entrance to Buckner Bay.

That’s when it hit.

“We were ready to get the word of where we were going to go when the typhoon came up,” Wilkes said.

On Oct. 9, 1945, “Typhoon Louise” blew over the waters of Okinawa with the violence of wind gusts up to 140 miles per hour and souring waves reaching 70 feet high, trapping any ships unlucky enough to be caught in its path.

The LSM-15 was one of those ships.

“We were anchored out about a half mile or so from the beach,” Wilkes said. “It was blowing like heck and we had the front anchor out. We put the stern anchor out to hold it.”

The pounding water and wind was so severe, it dragged the anchored ship onto a reef, tearing a hole in the 206-foot long vessel before the wind shifted, blowing the mortally wounded vessel 30 miles out to sea.

The 22-year-old Wilkes and the other 55 men aboard the LSM-15 scrambled to fill the life rafts hanging to the side of the ship, eight men at a time. Wilkes recalls the feeling of terror as the men watched the LSM-15 sink, desperately clinging to the raft under the intense pressure of the massive typhoon.

“You couldn’t sit on (the raft) because it would just flop right over,” Wilkes said. “We had to hang on to the outside of it. We tried to tie them together, but that was impossible. We were all by ourselves out there.”

The soldiers aboard the rafts were at the mercy of the tides. Swells lifted the men on waves cresting as high as mountains, only to drop into deep valleys as the waves rolled through.

“You’d go up on one of these huge waves and see a big ship, but then go back down,” Wilkes said. “They couldn’t see us because we were too small on those rafts.”

Long hours turned into agonizing days and terrifying nights. Desperation grew. Some of the men discussed trying to swim for the larger boats off in the distance, while Wilkes tried to maintain his sanity.

“Some of the guys actually almost went nuts out there,” Wilkes said. “You had to talk to them and try to reason with them. You just told them, if they try to swim away, you can’t get them because the waves were so high. They would have been done.”

Two days passed and, though the typhoon was beginning to calm, rescue ships were unaware of the survivors’ location. Suddenly, other threats became as dire as the rough seas threatening to swallow the stranded men.

First, since the life rafts had been sitting unused for years on ships involved in heavy battle, some of them had sustained damage.

“They would beat against the ships and get cracked,” Wilkes said. “The rafts were way under the water and half our body was under with them, because we had to hold onto it.”

Secondly, the lack of food and water was becoming a major crisis. There were small rations of canned precooked meat, but Wilkes worried about what opening those containers might bring with it.

“The sharks would smell that and just come right after you,” Wilkes said. “One big one swam right alongside the raft. They’d rub against you … felt like sandpaper.”

Finally, after three sleepless days and nights, a victory ship spotted the men and began a rescue operation. The large vessel worked on pulling the now exhausted soldiers aboard.

Remnants of the storm continued to produce 20 foot waves, ensuring the Pacific would not let go of the men without one last fight.

“They threw us a rope ladder and some guys had to be pulled up,” Wilkes said. “I couldn’t hardly make it myself. To climb up that ladder after three days out there without water?”

After all the men were loaded onto the ship, rescuers later told Wilkes about their attempt to pull aboard the raft that saved his life.

“When they lifted it up out of the water, there were six sharks underneath it,” Wilkes recalled. “That’s what they told us after it was over.”

At long last, Wilkes was back on solid ground in the rescue ship. In all, nine of the 55 men aboard the LSM-15 were killed during the typhoon.

“I knew the guys who died,” he said. “We were on the boat together for damn near two years.”

With the war at an end and no ship for the men to use, officers decided to send the survivors of the LSM-15 home a few weeks after the ordeal.

Just like that, Wilkes found himself on a transport ship headed for San Francisco, but it was a long ride for those who had endured those three long nights desperately grasping a damaged life boat with water and wind battering them from all sides.

“Us guys didn’t want to go down below because what we just went through,” Wilkes said.

After landing in San Francisco, Wilkes hitched a ride back to Trumbull County and started a life with his wife, Dorothy. The couple raised four children, Richard, James, Donna Mae and Barb (deceased).

Today, the 90-year-old lives in a quiet home along Wilson Sharpsville Road in Cortland, often talking of his three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

When he looks back upon his service in the Navy, Wilkes details his involvement in three invasions.

He saw horrors such as kamikaze Japanese pilots plowing into large battle ships.

“You just hope they don’t come at you,” Wilkes said.

Still, while Wilkes was honorably discharged as a second class motor machinist and is highly decorated with several invasion medals and a good conduct medal, the typhoon still haunts him.

To this day, through all the battles, Wilkes recalls the helpless feeling of being at the mercy of Mother Nature.

“It was scary being in that water,” Wilkes said. “Even today, I won’t go fishing or anything like that. It has stayed with me.”