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Every Veteran Has A Story: William Howard Pearce

January 12, 2018

MM1C William Howard Pearce
United States Navy, World War II

USS Gatling

©By Larry Hume, VFW Post 8904, Center, Texas (01/12/2018)

The US Navy Destroyer USS Gatling (DD-671) was built at the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company shipyards in Kearney, New Jersey.  It was named in honor of Richard J. Gatling who is known for his invention of the rapid-fire machine gun that bears his name.  She was launched on June 26, 1943 with the Commissioning Ceremony almost two months later on August 19, 1943 at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, New York.  Lieutenant Commander Alvin H. Richardson was her first Commanding Officer.  The crew complement was 19 officers and 280 men.

One of the enlisted crew was a 23-year-old from Center, Texas who a year earlier had enlisted in the Navy.  William Howard Pearce was born on January 26, 1920 to John Howard (1889-1967) and Laura Booth Pearce (1896-1973).  He grew up with two sisters, Evelyn Pearce Alexander and Madge Pearce. 

Having voluntarily enlisted on August 18, 1942 eight months after Pearl Harbor, William had attained the rating of Fireman First Class.  I am sure not many sailors are assigned to a brand-new vessel for their first sea duty but I’m sure it was an exciting time.  The first month was spent around Long Island Sound and then on September 10, 1943 the Gatling cruised to Bermuda for five weeks for what’s called “shakedown training”.    Returning to the New York Navy Yard for shake-down repair and alteration that took about two weeks, she left for Norfolk, Virginia to conduct training cruises for crews that would join destroyers that were then under construction. 

The Gatling began her service in the Navy escorting the aircraft carriers USS Langley and USS Intrepid on cruises back from Trinidad and roundtrip from Norfolk to Rockland, Maine.  On December 3, 1943 she received her orders to proceed to the combat zone and sailed as a unit of the famed Task Force 58.  As a member of this task force the Gatling saw action from the invasion of Truk to Saipan, from the invasion of Emirau Island to New Guinea, from the Marianas Islands to the Philippines, from the battle of Leyte Gulf to Iwo Jima and even to the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

It was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on October 24, 1944 that the men of the Gatling distinguished themselves.  After Japanese bombs had sunk the light aircraft carrier Princeton, the Gatling was among those assigned to rescue operations and 316 survivors of the Princeton were taken aboard.  Four men of the Gatlin’s crew were awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and two officers, and fourteen men received the Bronze Star Medal.

Munitions Mate Second Class William Howard Pearce was among those awarded the Bronze Star Medal for heroism.  His citation read “For Distinguishing himself by heroic and meritorious achievement in connection with rescue of survivors from the U.S.S. PRINCETON on 24 October 1944, while serving as a member of a motor whale boat crew.  He carried out his duties calmly and efficiently even in the face of attacks by enemy aircraft.  His services contributed materially to the prompt rescue of a large number of survivors under unfavorable conditions, and were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”  He was presented his medal by Rear Admiral William H. P. Ablandy at ceremonies aboard the Gatling.

On September 3, 1945 MM1C William Pearce and the USS Gatling entered Tokyo Bay as part of the Occupation Forces of Japan.  During all of her World War II operations the Gatling traveled approximately 175,000 miles, fired over 3100 rounds of ammunition (77 tons) and its machine guns fired uncounted thousands of rounds.  At least eight Japanese planes and two ships were sunk by her guns.  In addition to her combat operations the ship performed many rescue missions that also included 37 pilots and crewmen of allied planes that were forced to make water landings.  Maybe even more amazing was that all of the Gatling’s operations were without the loss of a single man, either to enemy action, sickness or accident.  She was awarded the American Defense Ribbon, the Asiatic-Pacific Theatre Ribbon with 9 combat stars and the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with 2 combat stars. 

On September 30th, 1945 this 25-year-old from Center, Texas was transferred from the USS Gatling to the USS Amsterdam for honorable discharge.  He had seen and did more in two years than most experience in a lifetime.  “And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: I served in the United States Navy.”….John F. Kennedy.

Mr. Pearce passed on January 10, 1977 at the age of 57.  He and his wife Opal (1923-2008) rest in the McClelland Cemetery, Shelby County, Texas.  His parents John and Laura are buried in the Fairview Cemetery, Center, Texas.

(Sources: USS Gatling Cruise Book 1953; History of the USS Gatling, Fold3 declassified document 12/31/2012; Muster Rolls, USS Gatling, Fold3.com; War Diaries USS Gatling, Fold3.com; Champion Newspaper, Center, TX 9/6/1945; Honolulu Star Bulletin Newspaper 11/24/1944)