Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. Part two will be published on Aug. 5.
In this time in history being the captain of a battleship was one of the highest commands a military officer could hold. After she exited the Panama Canal on the west coast, the USS South Dakota headed for the Tonga Islands and then set sail again.
She then hit an unchartered coral pinnacle in the Lahai Passage and suffered extensive damage. She was ordered to Pearl Harbor for repairs by the USS Vestal. After repairs, the USS South Dakota set sail to meet up with task force TF17 centered with the USS Hornet. Her duties were to block Japanese shipping supply in Guadalcanal.
Wesley George, U.S. Navy
Later the USS South Dakota was hit by a torpedo dive bomber in the battle of Santa Cruz but received little damage. The ship lost one officer who was on the captain's bridge, and the captain was severely hit with shrapnel. Though he could have gone home, the captain chose to stay with his ship and rejoined her after recovery.
The South Dakota was in extensive battles throughout the war. She was so feared by the Japanese that in Japanese papers recovered after the war, articles were printed of her sinking on four different occasions in order to boost the Japanese morale. The President and Navy Department, when discussing with the press certain battles and island bombings, would call the South Dakota Battleship X to avoid revealing her name or location.
A helmsman is a person who steers a ship, sailboat or submarine.
A deckhand is a member of the ship's crew that performs manual labor.
A gunner's mate is trained to protect the ship. They are naval personnel who show confidence in all ordinance and have skills in firing the ships weapons.
Weapons used: 16 inch, 5 inch, 155s, twin 40s
Ports: Norfolk, Va.; Mayport, New York, San Diego, San Fransisco Pearl Harbor
Major land, air and sea battles: Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Marshall Islands, Wake Island, Okinawa, Norway, Artic Circle, Guam and the Philippines
Married: Rita (Jankowski) They were married for 55 years when Wesley lost Rita in 2001.
Sisters: Glendora Rowland and Lottie Dodge
Wesley George was born on Memorial Day (then called Decoration Day), May 28, 1928. Decoration Day was a day set aside to decorate the graves of our fallen heroes. The last weekend of May was picked because flowers were in full bloom in Washington. Later it was changed to the last Monday in May, making it a long weekend and giving families more time to decorate graves. The name then was changed to Memorial Day.
Wesley was born at home in Panama, a small town between Jamestown and Findley Lake. It was a great place for young kids to grow with plenty of farmland and pastures full of cows and horses. Many kids, when escorted by older ones, got to play at the Panama Rocks, a fun place to swim, dive and have fun.
They later moved to Fredonia. Wesley attended all of Fredonia's schools. While in school, he played football. He also worked at the Jamestown Metal Equipment. Because he was a great worker, he was later able to get a job with Allegheny Steel Company.
On his 17th birthday, Wesley had to decide whether he should join the Navy or be drafted into the Army. He decided that being on a ship with three meals a day, a cot and a shower was much better than crawling in the mud, so he joined the navy. After boot camp at Sampson in upper New York state, Wesley received orders to report to U.S. Naval Station in Norfolk, Va. These orders meant there was a good chance he would be assigned a ship. Wesley was then granted a ten-day leave which puzzled him because most of his boot camp buddies were granted a 30-day leave.
When the leave ended, Wesley reported to Norfolk only to find out that he was heading to New York City where he was to report to the commanding officer at the Atlantic fleet office. There he would find out what the navy had in store for him. Wesley was then told to wait for a couple days because he was going to be assigned to a ship that was being built and ready to join the fleet. As Wesley walked the Navy yard, he saw that it was mostly lined up with new L.S.T.s (landing ship tanks), a couple of new tankers and two air craft carriers that were less than complete. He feared that he would be assigned to an LST or a tanker, but he was happy to hear that he would be reporting to the commanding officer of the USS South Dakota hull number 57.
When Wesley rode down dock B, he could see this brand new shining battleship taking up most of the dock. It was a dream come true. After reporting and getting settled in, Wesley was informed that he would be retrained for three jobs: a deckhand, a helmsman and a gunner's mate. His chief petty officer told him that his number one duty would be a helmsman.
The ship sailed through the Panama Canal. As she was in one of the lifts, Wesley recalled that there were only a few inches of clearance that kept the ship from hitting the walls.
Wesley remembered some of his experiences while at the wheel of this 680-foot long ship. Going at 27 knots felt good. It was like racing a car.
The only difference was if you lost all controls of the ship, it would take about eight miles before it came to a complete stop. Thank god for the tug boats. Docking a battleship leaves all control to the tugs. Wesley also remembered the time the South Dakota came across an abandoned German ship. After boarding the ship, the crew returned with Nazi items such as uniforms, books and charted maps. Another memory was about the time the ship was in submarine waters.
He was ordered to zig zag, which was a navy maneuver to make it more difficult to fire torpedoes at its target. While the USS South Dakota was zig zagging, there was a sudden loud noise, and the ship's alarm started ringing. They soon discovered that the USS South Dakota had hit a United States destroyer. It was later found that the captain of the destroyer wasn't zig zagging. The destroyer was towed to the nearest port and was dismantled and destroyed.