World War II oral history interview
Date: March 20, 2002
Veteran: William A. Gill
Chief Quartermaster, US Navy 1942 - 1945
Interviewer: Michelle Carrara
Summarizer: Ed Bimberg, Joseph Bilby
William Gill graduated from high school in 1938 and joined the United States Navy in February, 1942. He attended boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, and, upon completion, a four month course at the Quartermaster School, also located at Great Lakes. He learned how to maintain shipboard charts and records and the technicalities of radio communications, including the Morse code.
After Quartermaster school Gill began training on Patrol Torpedo (PT) boats at the navy’s PT boat training base in Rhode Island. The location of the training suited Gill well. He had recently married, and the Rhode Island base was close to his home in New Jersey. After finishing the course in Rhode Island, Gill went by way of the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Bayonne, New Jersey. There he was assigned to the crew bringing the newly commissioned PT-166 into service.
Eventually Gill and his fellow trainees were sent to a tiny island off the coast of Panama where they awaited orders for transfer to the Pacific. When the orders arrived, the PT boats themselves, complete with crews, were loaded on a tanker. After a thirty day cruise, made longer than it should have been in an effort to avoid submarines, the tanker was unloaded at Noumea, New Caledonia. The new arrivals began patrols in the waters around Guadalcanal, which by this time had been cleared of most of the enemy. Each PT boat had a crew of ten men and two officers. After PT-166 was sunk with another crew aboard, Gill was assigned as Quartermaster of PT-171, a duty he knew quite well by this time. Things were fairly quiet and the patrols were routine, but that was all to change soon enough.
The action had moved to the Northern Solomon Islands, and the PT boats moved with it. PT-171 participated in the invasion of New Georgia, which still had a dangerous garrison of Japanese. While patrolling off the nearby island of Rendova, Gill saw his first action when his boat was bombed by enemy planes. From then on, the war for William Gill was a kaleidoscope of long, exhausting nocturnal patrols, interspersed with nerve-wracking hide-and-seek engagements with enemy planes and ships. In one of these encounters, Gill’s boat fired its torpedoes, but they both missed the target, a Japanese destroyer. It seems the torpedoes were ancient relics, left over from World War I, and defective. In this and other fights during the same period, quite a bit of damage was done to PT-171, and some of her crew were wounded, but she managed to sail on. This was also the time and area of the disappearance of John F. Kennedy’s PT-109, and some of the boats of Gill’s Squadron, including his own, were involved in the ensuing search for and rescue of Kennedy and his crew.
After New Georgia was conquered, the next target for the Americans was the much larger and more important island in the Solomon chain, Bougainville. In this battle, Gill’s PT-171, along with many other PT boats, was used as a landing craft to put ashore U. S. Marine Raiders who captured part of the island to establish American airfields.
During this period, there were some unfortunate occurrences, including a number of mistaken “friendly fire” incidents among U. S. vessels, and the sinking of PT-166 by American bombers. Gill attributes these accidents to a lack of up-to-date communications and fire control equipment, suggesting that the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) device of the modern era would have alleviated the situation. Gill’s boat actually shot down an American B-25 bomber, although further experience allowed valuable cooperation between the PT boats and the Navy’s PBY “flying boats.” On a more personal level, at about this time Gill suffered an illness, suspected to be malaria, and was sent to a naval dispensary on nearby Friendly Island. This hospital was under canvas and apparently manned only by medical corpsmen, not physicians or nurses, but Gill survived, recuperated and eventually returned to his boat.
In all, Gill spent sixteen months at sea in the Pacific before he was granted a thirty-day leave back to the U. S. Following his leave he was shipped out again, this time to the Mediterranean. Following brief stopovers in North Africa, he ended up on the island of Maddelena, located between Sardinia and Corsica, where there was a small naval establishment and an airfield. Here, his principal duty was teaching young sailors what he had learned in the Pacific. Since he was stationed on an airfield with friendly pilots, Gill took the opportunity to visit interesting places like Marseilles, Rome and Pisa. The only thing he didn’t like about his new assignment was the relatively cold weather. He arrived on Maddelena in December, and after the gentle breezes and tropical weather of the South Pacific, he was annoyed to have to sleep under a blanket.
Gill returned to the U. S. in June, 1945. He was on duty at the Brooklyn Navy yard when the war ended in the Pacific, and was out of the service by the end of September. Looking back, he remembered that his unit had started out with twelve PT boats and ended with seven, and that some of his companions had not survived the war. He also recalled being afraid during combat, but realized that everyone else was as well. The long close friendship and interdependence between shipmates lessened the fear. The war changed everyone, he remembered, and people grew up in a hurry. After his discharge, Gill went on to Rutgers University on the GI Bill. Since that time he has kept in touch with a number of his wartime companions and has attended some PT boat reunions.