Tonka Navy veteran recalls rescue at sea

More than 70 years later, he still remembers historic battle

By Gabby Landsverk

The year is 1945; in the last months of fighting, on April 6, the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet was targeted by more than 700 Japanese planes in the largest kamikaze attack of World War II. Among the 26 American ships struck was the U.S.S. Hancock, a fleet carrier hit by a bomb and an enemy plane, causing a blast that threw sailors overboard or forced them to abandon ship.

But all was not lost: the sailors of a nearby destroyer, the U.S.S. John W. Weeks rushed to save the Hancock’s crewmembers, leaping into the sea to pluck the burned and injured men from the waves and debris, carrying them to the safety of nearby lifeboats. At least 73 sailors were saved in the effort — without the bravery of the Weeks’ crew, many more lives would have been lost in the battle, which saw two American ships sunk and nearly a dozen more heavily damaged.
After more than half a century, one of those quietly heroic men now lives in Minnetonka, and still vividly recalls the events of that and other battles of World War II, 80 years after the U.S. joined the war in the Pacific Ocean.
Chief Radio Technician Morris Gillett, 93, is a self-described “misplaced Texan” currently residing in Minnetonka. These days, the Navy veteran travels not by boat but by motorized scooter. Still with a lingering Texas twang, Gillett is more than happy to show off his current hobby, leading the way at an alarming pace down the halls of his senior living complex, to the atrium gallery displaying his work; a series of pen-and-ink drawings, carefully rendered in the likeness of presidents, battleships and other monuments to Gillett’s past and present. He also does commission work, including portraiture of the pets of staff or neighbors.

Morris Gillett, 93 years old and living in Minnetonka, still recalls the fateful day when he rescued several sailors of U.S.S. Hancock when it was struck by a kamikaze aircraft in World War II. Today, he keeps himself busy creating pen and ink drawings. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Gabby Landsverk)

Most of Gillett’s wartime memories have been outlined in an autobiography, “My War,” which he wrote for his children and family. The book is available in e-book format on Amazon.
“I started writing down my ‘sea stories,’ as I call them, primarily for my children,” Gillett said. From bootcamp, uniforms and seasickness to Navy drinking, close calls with enemy submarines, massive ocean storms and other adventures on the high seas, Gillett’s book recounts his wartime experience in great detail.
And he’s more than happy to recount the stories in person.
“A lot of people that have fought in wars don’t like to talk about them. I’m not like that,” Gillett. “I consider it a part of history and I’m happy to share it.”

Morris Gillett, 93, of Minnetonka, was aboard the destroyer the U.S.S. John W. Weeks, which helped in a daring ocean rescue after the U.S.S. Hancock was struck by a kamikaze in World War II. Gillett was among those who dove into the water to find sailors knocked overboard by the blast and bring them safely to a lifeboat. (Chuck Guthrie Photos-Courtesy of the USS John. W. Weeks Association)

Gillett was just 17 years old when the war started, and joined a program for radio technicians, learning about radar and other Navy electronics. As the youngest second-class petty officer in all of the U.S. Navy, Gillett went to sea aboard a submarine-seeking ship, first in the Atlantic Ocean and was later in the Pacific Ocean aboard the John W. Weeks DD701.
“I was on a destroyer when the U.S.S. Hancock was hit. There were big explosions, sailors were blown off the ship into the water. A lot of them were burned and injured,” Gillett recalled.
Gillett was among the rescue swimmers who leapt into the water after the injured, helping pull them to safety on special lifeboat deployed by other crewmembers.
“I was too young to be scared,” he said with a laugh. “I jumped right in and swam out there. One guy was badly burned — I got him onto the life raft. Another guy was pretty excited — he couldn’t swim! I got him onto the life raft as well.”

Gillett and his fellow sailors saved more than 70 people that day, according to author and historian Marty Irons, who has spoken to Gillett about the battle.
Irons, of Vermont, has written a soon-to-be-published book on the war, called “Phalanx Against a Divine Wind,” and said Gillett has provided invaluable insight on the first-hand experiences of the sailors.
“Morris has been a tremendous asset during my research of this battle,” Irons said. “Throughout my time writing the book, Morris has expressed regret not knowing the fate of the sailor.”
With help from Irons, Gillett was able to contact one of the men aboard the Hancock. Philip Mule, of Long Island, was one of the sailors rescued and, like Gillett, has vivid memories of the event.
“When our ship was hit by the suicide plane, caused everything to explode, to catch fire. As the smoke and flames came up, we all tried to get out of the compartment we were in. There were nine of us in that compartment. Three of us survived,” Mule said.

He said the actions of Gillett and others on the nearby ships certainly saved his life.
Mule spent three weeks on a hospital recuperating and went on to receive a Purple Heart, along with many other medals from combat.
“I still think about World War II. It was only three years out of my life, but it was an important three years,” he said. “It was quite an experience.”

Every year, Mule has attended the reunions of the Weeks, as an honorary member of the destroyer that saved his life.
“I got to know a lot of those fellows and I enjoyed it. It was great,” he said.

Given that fewer and fewer World War II vets remain to talk about their experiences, Gillett said it was a rare pleasure to be reacquainted with Mule. Both men had similar recollections: the haunting memory of a kamikaze’s dive, scuttlebutt from various Navy crews and the work of moving on with ordinary life after combat.
After the war, Gillett went on to work for Atlantic Refining Company, a since-disbanded oil business, as an electrical engineer. He went on to pursue an education in seismography and geophysics, starting a consulting firm of his own in Dallas. After retirement, Gillett moved to Birchwood, Wisconsin, to be closer to his children.

He has since settled down in Minnetonka to be near his son, also a Minnetonka resident.
“I sure do like it here,” Gillett said. Around the neighborhood, he has a reputation for his remarkable drawings, rendered in a unique style he has proudly dubbed “Shaky Art” due to his tremors.
He’s moved on from the war, he said, but will never forget the memories of his days at sea.
In spite of his life-saving work, however, Gillett shies away from any glory or accolades, describing himself in his memoir as “a young sailor trying to do his part in winning a great war.”
“I just did what I thought was best,” he said, smiling. “I got a few things done and I helped a couple of guys. I’m sure not a hero.”

During the war, and since, Gillett has lived by a simple life motto, one that has served him well to this day.
“Keep a good attitude. It counts for a lot,” he said. “If you do that, you’ll have a good life.”