By TIMOTHY M. NIXON
Special to the EagleHerald
Seventy-five years ago, the world changed in 11 short minutes. It was particularly personal for those at Pearl Harbor and their loved ones. It was an intimate event for my family. My mother’s only brother was there.
Donald Bilkovich grew up on a farm in rural Marinette County, Wisconsin, in the 1920s and 1930s. He was born in 1922 and his father died one month after he was born. His mother and sister, my mother, had to move into their grandfather’s small farmhouse with 21 people. There was a particular tom turkey that used to take joy in chasing a young Don across the farm yard at every opportunity.
This was a different America. Horses and sleighs were used in winter rather than autos. Children were let out of their classrooms when an airplane flew by. There was no electricity. Then there was the Great Depression. All the food grown on the farm had to be sold for cash. They lived off the game and the fish that the men brought home.
Not surprisingly, at the earliest opportunity, he joined the United States Navy to “see the world.” He was 19 years old and posted to the USS Argonne. The Argonne was an auxiliary ship, functionally a repair and command ship. It arrived in Pearl Harbor from Los Angeles in August 1941. It was a great assignment for a young farm boy from rural Wisconsin. Attached are pictures of Don in Honolulu and with my mother, Alyce Dorothy Bilkovich Nixon in Marinette.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Argonne, flagship of Rear Adm. William L. Calhoun, Commander, Base Force, Pacific Fleet, was berthed in the first repair slip at the north end of the “1010 Dock,” with the minesweeper USS Tern alongside.
Machinist Mate Donald Bilkovich was not on board his ship. He was up along the Navy shipyard in the Southeast Loch prepping the dock to receive the USS Indianapolis, which was supposed to be returning from gunnery practice. He saw the planes circling and coming in low. Coincidently, he was right at the place where Commander Fuchida launched the attack. He looked right at Fuchida, saw the “red meatball,” and knew that this was very real. With no weapons, his detail took cover behind a garbage dumpster for both attacks before returning to the USS Argonne. A picture of the Argonne taken hours after the attack is also attached.
Meanwhile, back in Marinette, my father was working at the Western Union Office and received almost immediate notice that Pearl Harbor was under attack. He went running down the street to tell his girlfriend Alyce. The families had to live without any knowledge about Don for three long months until March when a postcard arrived in the mail. It had boxes that the sailor could check. His two boxes checked were: “I am alive” and “I am not wounded.”
Many years later, my Uncle Don recounted in detail the events of that morning to an enraptured young nephew. I found out later that even though it was 30 years after Pearl Harbor, neither my mother (his sister), nor his wife, had ever heard the story until they heard him recite it to me. This was the first time I heard of the sailors trapped alive in the sunken battleships tapping for 25 days before they finally died.
The Argonne went on to New Caledonia where it was the flagship first for Admiral Gormley and then for Admiral Halsey during the Guadalcanal campaign. Don was then assigned to a new build “baby” aircraft carrier, the USS Hoggatt Bay. The Hoggatt Bay participated in the Leyte Gulf landings in the Philippines. Hoggatt Bay, and her sister the USS Ommaney Bay, left on New Year’s Day 1945 for Linguyan Gulf and transited Surigao Strait two days later. The next afternoon, while in the Sulu Sea, they were attacked by Kamikazes. Ommaney Bay was sunk and Hoggatt Bay damaged. After supporting the Linguyan landings, it returned to the United States for repairs. It finished the war supporting operations in the Pacific.
Don had to have felt some satisfaction when they sailed the Hoggatt Bay with the U.S. Fleet into the Sea of Japan to participate in the occupation of the country that turned his life upside down a mere three and a half years previous. He never held any animus toward the Japanese. His view was that he was a farm kid from Wisconsin who did what his country told him to do. He said that if he were a farm kid in rural Japan, he would likely have done the same thing.
He was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1946 as a Chief Petty Officer. After the war he went to Milwaukee and ran the steam plant for Red Star Yeast. Like all kids that grew up on farms in the depression, he could fix anything. He married and raised three children. He retired and died at his cottage in Lakewood, Wisconsin, in 1996.
Heroes are not all like Audie Murphy. They are also average people who do their duty in exceptional circumstances. Here is hoping that the United States has not exhausted its supply.