Interview of Clyde Hilbourne Transcript Number 73

Today is July 30, 2001.  We’re in the Columbus County Library in Whiteville, North Carolina.  Today we are interviewing to Clyde Hilbourne  of Lake Waccamaw, who served on the USS North Carolina in the Pacific in World War II. 

HILBOURNE:  Well, let’s see, where do I start?  I was working in the shipyard in 1941, and then my mother died and I came home to stay with my daddy and lost my draft exemption. So the Army was about to get me, so I joined the Navy because I had a brother that was in the Navy.

The shipped me to Camp Peary, Virginia, for my boot camp. After that, I was chosen to go to quartermaster school in Gulfport, Mississippi, which is navigation in the Navy. And so I went down to Gulfport, Mississippi, on a train and stayed there several months. I graduated in October of 1944, and graduated as a seaman first class. I was the first class graduated that didn’t come out as a quartermaster third class because they decided they had so many different petty officers on different ships that they didn’t need.  They’d wait until we got on board ship.

When I got aboard my ship, we were allowed, I believe it was one first class, two second class and three third class. And so I never got to advance in rank.  Anyway, I got on a troop train after I finished school in Gulfport.  Down there they trained us in the signaling the flags, Morse code and how to go out at night and take a reading of the stars with a sextant which would really locate where you were at any time. 

They did that because the Navy had three ways of identifying to be sure where it was at. They had a gyro-compass, which I learned later on ship, which was supposed to be a true reading of which way you were going, north, south, but they also had magnetic compasses still back in the old days.  But the least little amount of metal around a magnetic compass throwed it off.  And so then, every night the master in the division who was a commander and we’d go out with a sextant and he’d read it and get our position and check it with our gyro and so forth.

But anyway, I got off of a troop train in Oakland, California, got aboard a transport, which transported us to I don’t remember if it was Pearl Harbor.  I knew it was to be the islands before I got aboard the ship. And that is where they called different names out and my ship was the North Carolina.

INTERVIEWER:  What year was this, please?

HILBOURNE:  It was the last part of ’44, 1944. And I was very disappointed at the time, but since then it’s meant so much to me because what while I was schooled in Gulfport, Mississippi, Paul Leffer Jr. from Mobile, Alabama, his dad had a cottage on Mobile Bay. We’d go down, his wife would come pick us up on the weekends.  While were in school, we’d go down there and they took care of us and we enjoyed it — boat rides and different things. And Paul was the next man down after my name was called to go aboard the North Carolina. But they filled the quota.  So my name was called and he got aboard the Indianapolis which was sunk and he lost his life. (Sounds of sobbing.)

About Paul Leffer, I read some time ago, I saw a documentary on TV of the Indianapolis. I knew he’d lost his life when it sunk, but I still don’t know to this day if he was one who lost his life when the ship went down or if whether he was in shark-infested waters and lost his life then, that’s kind of hard to bear over the years.

Well anyway, they called my name and the North Carolina which made me mighty proud. When I went aboard ship, I’ll never forget the night when those 16-inch guns, whew.  A little farm boy from Columbus County you know.  They were huge and you could see sailors laying down sleeping.  I wondered how in the world they were sleeping up on deck. Of course, it’s cooler, I found out later.

INTERVIEWER:  (Laughter.)

HILBOURNE:   Took a nap when we got a chance because when we were out in the war zone, a lot of times we were at battle stations. We didn’t get all the sleep we needed. But being in M Division, I was lucky.  We didn’t have duty but every fourth day instead of every third day like the regular crew.  And I was on the bridge, the navigation bridge, and my duties were going in and out of port, Navigation M Division always drove the ship. And then at sea, the deck men drove it.

And so, but my job was aboard the navigation bridge, and we had what we called “zig-zag” courses, to kind of throw the Japanese submarines off so they couldn’t just get us in line where they could shoot us. And of course we was always in a blackout condition, but had little flashlights, and at certain times I’d tell them to come to a certain course. And that was my job there.

Then at battle stations, right outside the bridge where my normal duties was, there was a port _______ where your little compass and things were, where you could see which directions the airplanes was coming in on in what we called “bogies” and I’d report it.  I had earphones on and I’d report it — you know, what time of day it was or if they was comin’ in right over top, 12:00 o’clock, to the right it would be 3:00 o’clock, 9:00 o’clock, and so forth. It was very simple.

Of course I don’t remember all of that or how I did it, but that was … and the 5-inch guns were right under and  that’s the reason I'm hard of hearing now.  That was basically my duty aboard ship. Now we had five calling stations, the regular navigation bridge which was used most of the time. But when we was in a battle like bombarding Okinawa or Iwo Jima or somewhere, we’d go down in what we call a conning tower which had 16 inches all around it. It had a periscope just like an airplane that could go out and just see all the ships around us because we were always in a big fleet.  I think it was 38, 58 something like that. 

We were directly behind the…I was always thinking it was the Fletcher, but I was reading that book and it was the Intrepid, a big carrier, where a suicide plane came in which was a Japanese pilot that would just give up his life, come in with his plane.  Of course, when he hit, they were loading the planes on the top deck fixing to make a strike and when the suicide plane come in, they just hit those loaded planes of gasoline and there’s a ball of fire.  It didn’t sink, but it had thrown men off in the water and a smaller cruise ________, but they were carried back to Pearl Harbor later on.

Those suicide planes, well we saw a lot of them the last part of the war, they didn’t ever come in and hit our ship, but the carriers were of course their main target.  Sometimes, there was another time it got hit while I was aboard the latter part of ’44 and ’45 was when some of other ships was trained on the suicide plane coming down and some of the ______ hit our ship, wounded some of our boys, and I think killed maybe one.  That’s the only time we was ever hit as far as I know.

And one of the memories I have, we were fueling, using the fuel for a tanker.  We’d be on one side of the tanker and another ship would be on the other side and the ship was bobbing in the sea, a small ship, a destroyer, 535 men I believe.  My brother was on it and I hadn’t seen him in years.  I saw that number come up and right below the navigation bridge was the signal bridge.

I went down there and they signaled over there.  He come up, he was asleep I think, he come up and we talked to each other by signals.  Then we went back out to the ______ islands and he came and spent the night with me.  It was the first time I’d seen him in several years. 

Then of course another highlight was Iwo Jima, bombarding that island.  It was so tough to take.  ____ basic regiment, we could see five miles in as plain as day.  You could see so many of the Marines going in.  The Japs were back in the mountains and they just slaughtered them.  We finally took that.  Of course Okinawa was next.  That was the first part of ’45.

Sometime in ’45, the war was over and we went to Tokyo Bay and one thing, I still don’t know exactly how, there were a bunch of brown buildings, I don’t know 15 or 20 stories it looked like.  But Kilroy had been a lot of places and somebody on the wall had got up there and wrote, it had to be on a skyhook, (laughter) Kilroy had been here.  It was funny because the war was over and we were laughing.  I remember when they announced the war was over how I felt like I made it.

INTERVIEWER:   You know again this tape is going to be seen years from now.  So spend just a few more minutes to educate the people who are going to see this tape as to what that Kilroy stuff was about.  I know and you know, but the future generations, give them a little explanation.

HILBOURNE:   Getting back to Kilroy, there was some kind of thing going like a lot of times there were fads and everywhere we’d been, we’d see Kilroy had been there.  There never was a person named Kilroy really, it was just a made up name.  Of course we heard that a lot.  We didn't think much about it until we were in Tokyo Bay and that huge building which was nothing but a shell left and it was covered with white smut and Kilroy had been here.  Kilroy was just a make believe man that everywhere we went, was ahead of us.

Getting back to the first storm I was in, it was in the Philippines.  It was probably November of 1944 and the storm got so bad, it was up to 100 miles an hour, that we would usually do formations, zigzag together.  Some of the smaller ships, they hadn’t been able to refuel.  We lost about four destroyers that night that keeled over and went under.  That was the only time I remember that I got seasick aboard the North Carolina.

We had five battle stations, the regular navigation bridge, conning tower which is two stories above.  Everybody figured the conning station was down below the regular navigation, still aft, there were different places we could steer the ship.  _________ rudders and of course the vibrations of the rudders and that storm was so big, most of the time I’d simply go through those waves.  Maybe some times you’d go through them and the next time, you’d just ride them and shudder.  That’s where the destroyers, they just couldn’t take it. 

INTERVIEWER:   How long is it, what’s the length of a battleship?

HILBOURNE:   729 feet long I believe.

INTERVIEWER:   And what did it weigh, do you remember?

HILBOURNE:   30-45,000, the North Carolina weighed 35,000 tons standing with a full load, it was 44,800 tons. 

INTERVIEWER:   And the storm…

HILBOURNE:   And the storm would make our ship…if one went through, it would just bring green water up on it, what’s called navigation waves that could knock it down almost.  Some of them if it went up on top of it a little bit, it would just make the whole ship shudder just like if you were standing in a hurricane or something.  That’s the reason I got seasick…of course back in the aft, down on the lower deck above the steering station, was where the rudder and everything was at.

We kept somebody on duty there all the time in case the lower steering station got knocked out, there were three or four different stations.

INTERVIEWER:   How long did this storm go on, do you remember?

HILBOURNE:   Two or three days.  That’s the reason we lost those ships because it was so rough, they couldn’t refuel.  You’d break the lines.  If you got them hooked up, by the time we got them refueled, we’d break the lines.  They had to abandon that.  When it go so bad, a lot of the carriers had a big superstructure flight deck, but we didn't and it would knock some of those gun replacements off.  So we had to let all go their own way and do the best they could.

INTERVIEWER:   Had you had forewarning of that terrible storm?

HILBOURNE:   I don’t remember.  I imagine they did.

INTERVIEWER:   Was the mess hall open during that time?

HILBOURNE:   Nope.  Anytime we’re shooting the guns or a severe storm like that, we had all the bulk head doors closed, couldn’t go back and forth anywhere.  When shooting the 16-inch guns, they had them closed on account of the vibration.  When those guns go off, it would push you sideways in the water.  Of course with 5-inch guns, _____________. 

INTERVIEWER:   Were you able to sleep any during that storm?

HILBOURNE:   During the storm, I don’t remember, but I’m sure we did some.  You got used to about anything and of course when we weren’t on active duty watch, we could go down below.  When it’s rough like that, the smaller ships like my brother was on, the destroyer, they’d strap themselves in the bunk all the time which I very seldom did.  This particular storm, I had to keep from ______ out because we were in different bunks just about 18 inches apart and one above you and one below.

That’s the only time that I remember that we had any trouble staying in our bunks.  Of course aboard our ship, we had a mechanical __________.  We had an ice cream soda shop, had an air-conditioned barber shop, had an air-conditioned sick bay.  Some quarters weren’t that bad without air-conditioning.  Through some parts, it would be so hot down there, that’s when the people were sleeping above deck because they didn't have air-conditioning down below just some sections.

The sick bay and the barber shop were air-conditioned.  Then we had a mascot on there when I first went aboard named LuLu.  That’s what I tell my grandchildren.  I have pictures of that.  We started to speak Japanese and had a lot of fun with it.  But LuLu was lost in that storm off the Philippines, the typhoon, got washed overboard.  For some reason or other, they didn't have it down on the lower deck and she came topside.  It was unbelievable.

The navigation bridge if you’ve ever seen the Carolina down there, I don’t know how many feet, ______ drain water, that’s heavy water come across our bow and come up there and it was just terrible.  Of course anybody on the outside unless they were tied onto something, they washed away.  They had so much equipment on those big carriers because they were top heavy, the big carriers.  They had the small carriers _______ it wasn’t quite as bad, but the big carriers like the Franklin, Intrepid and Ticonderoga, they were….of course that’s where they did most of the launching of airplanes.  They were the ones that were the most dangerous.

Japs liked to sink any ship, especially the carriers, because they’re the ones that did the most damage with the planes and so forth.

INTERVIEWER:   But this storm took place when you were off the Philippine Islands, is that right?

HILBOURNE:   I believe it was the China Sea off the Philippines.

INTERVIEWER:   Where did your ship go after that storm?

HILBOURNE:   After the storm, we went to Ulithi after that was over to refuel, refurnished everything.  Then we went to Iwo Jima.

INTERVIEWER:   For shore bombardment?

HILBOURNE:   Bombardment, yeah, 16 inch guns.  While we did that, the smaller ships protected us with antiaircraft guns.  We couldn’t use anything but 16 inch guns because too much ______ so we had to have all the bulk heads closed and doors and everybody had to be inside on account of it was a big thrust.  It’s in some of these books somewhere how much it pushed through the water.

We bombarded.  After we had so much trouble _______ we bombarded for two or three days, I don’t remember exactly.  Maybe there were three battleships.  I remember the Washington and the North Carolina were sister ships and then they had the _____ Missouri, New Jersey.  The Missouri is where the peace treaty was signed.  In fact I was watching on the bridge when the Missouri shot down its first Jap plane. 

When they first came in service and joined our fleet.  I had the privilege to see them shoot down the first plane.  It just was … of course I was only 21, 22 years old and I wasn’t scared or anything back in those days, but it was _______ is what it was.  Well we got hit on a ship, a suicide plane came in.  We went back into Pearl Harbor for repairs and they had this little place back of the island, a little narrow gauge railroad would take us all around and spend some time swimming and so forth.

The ______, those boys from the carriers, like I said, they were nervous wrecks because they were _________ when the suicide plane came in.  Therefore I was lucky I got on a battleship and had plenty of food, milk, ice cream, but still you were away from home.  I had two small boys at home at that time.  The oldest one was about 2-1/2 and the youngest was about six months, nine months when I left to go.

My wife, she stayed home, took care of everything, Mary Louise Davis.

INTERVIEWER:   Where did the ship go?  After the Philippines, it went…

HILBOURNE:   Iwo Jima.  We took that and then the next one was Okinawa.  Iwo Jima was the bad one.  That’s where we lost so many people.  The landing craft would unload them and they’d go in and you could see them hit the beach and hit the deck.  Then when they’d get up to go again, they’d get a few yards.  Maybe half of them would get up the second time.  I forgot how many, but we just lost terrible. 

We had already bombarded, but then we lined up and bombarded again for a few days trying to knock all the Japanese out of there.  Then when we went in, we took it.  Okinawa wasn’t as bad.

INTERVIEWER:   Wasn’t there another storm at Okinawa?

HILBOURNE:   That was the only big storm we were in, was the first one I was on, was that typhoon.

INTERVIEWER:   And I assume that was enough.  You didn't want to go back for seconds.

HILBOURNE:   Well you know, it made me think about the weather cause I knew ______.  Of course we lost four of them and we had a lot of ships in our task force.  We had several battleships, several cruisers and then we had I don’t know, quite a few destroyers as escorts and then we had several carriers with the planes aboard them.

They would be so many miles ahead of the whole task force looking for enemies and reporting back.  They were under attack like the antiaircraft because ________ getting the word back ______.  There was a lot going on out there.  Coming back home after the war was over, I never will forget, Okinawa, I had a chance to go ashore there.  Had the chance to go ashore in Tokyo.  But I was busy getting my clothes ready cause I knew I was on my way home.

We came through the Panama Canal which is a sight and then on in to New York.  They met us with a bunch of bands and different things.  Sent home, glad to get home to my wife. 

INTERVIEWER:   Well I’ve got to ask, when you graduated from that Navy school early in your career, because there were so many petty officers 3rd class, you ended up as a seaman 1st class.  What was your rank when you got out?

HILBOURNE:   Still seaman 1st class because ________ stayed there.  Unless somebody got killed or transferred off the ship, we had a number of 3rd class, I believe it was two or three, and so many 2nd class and one 1st class.  If I stayed in a little longer because some of them got transferred off, then I could have gone up.  I had already passed everything I needed to make 3rd class, but they had so many noncommissioned officers.  So I was seaman 1st.

INTERVIEWER:   You were probably making a magnificent salary as a seaman 1st class in 1945.  Do you happen to remember?

HILBOURNE:   I think it was about $21 a month.  I was telling the boys the other day, my boys, she was the one, how she carried on.

INTERVIEWER:   And she was living in Whiteville?

HILBOURNE:   She lived in Delco with my father when I left and then her mother died of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever when she was 46 years old.  So she moved to Bolton and got a house.  Her and her sister had the house and she stayed there until I got out of the service.  She kept the house going, kept the kids fed and clothed.  I don’t know.  Army didn't send her much, they sent her a little bit.

INTERVIEWER:   How did you earn your bread and butter when you got out of the Navy?

HILBOURNE:   Well I went back, I was in training to be a ________, sharpen the big band saws in the sawmill.  So I went back into that and took training on the GI Bill to finish my apprenticeship in that.  Then I took a saw filer job in Hallsoro and the North Carolina Lumber Company.  That was my head filing job.  Back in those days and still is to this day, a good paying job.  I was making as much as the college boys because it was a job, trades still this day not everybody can do and it takes a lot of training to make what you call a first class saw filer.

We have a lot of help now with machinery.  They’ve got leveling machines now, computerized, that take the place where we had to do it by hand before.  They’ve got different things which have improved it, but you still have to have a head saw filer to keep all those saws and knives and so forth going.  Of course the sawmill down there, after I left saw filing and went ______ at Riegelwood, National Paper now.

They cut about 200,000-300,000 feet ________ which I learned the training on to be a saw filer and can only cut but 100,000 feet a day and that was one of the most modern electrical sawmills at the time.  But that was a long time ago, that was in ’45, 46 when I went back to work over there.

INTERVIEWER:   But you never went back into the Navy.

HILBOURNE:   Never back in the Navy, no.

INTERVIEWER:   Did you belong to the Reserves?

HILBOURNE:   Never did.  When I cut my ties, that was it.  I had a family to raise.

INTERVIEWER:   You walked off the ship where, in New Jersey or New York?

HILBOURNE:   New York, Hudson River I believe.

INTERVIEWER:   You walked off the ship with your sea bag over your shoulder and where did you go?

HILBOURNE:   Well we went to somewhere in New York where they paid us off and gave us a ticket home and said so long (laughter).  We were on our way home by train.  I had a wonderful time because the war was over and I made it back home.

INTERVIEWER 2:   Now they brought you to Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1961, didn't they?

HILBOURNE:   I believe it was ’61.

INTERVIEWER 2:  Were you related to _____ then?

HILBOURNE:   Yeah.

INTERVIEWER 2:   I guess you were glad to hear the news that …

HILBOURNE:   I was proud of him.  By that time, I was ________ Company driving as a salesman for ______ wood cut tools, saws and knives and I had Canada down to Texas.  I had 10 salesmen under me so I was out of town a lot back in those days.  I wasn’t at home when the ship came into port.  But outside of the first reunion, I think I’ve been able to make every one ever since. 

I know the first reunion was the only one I missed.  One boy from Atlanta, Georgia, a fellow named Kidd and seemed like some other old shipmate, came by the house when I wasn’t home.  That’s the only one I ______ small like about 26 people, the deck force maybe had 1500-2000. 

INTERVIEWER 2:   Some of them had lived in Wilmington after the war?

HILBOURNE:   Yeah, ______ that’s right.

INTERVIEWER 2:   But you’re one of the closest ones to it.

HILBOURNE:   Yeah.  The year before last, my boy come by and spoke to me, don’t remember his name now, but that was the second time that someone from my division had been down here for a reunion and I couldn’t find him after.  We were in the stands.  It was the 50th reunion.  Of course the governor was there and all that.  ______ saw me and I hardly recognized him because _________.  Of course that was two, three years ago.

The main thing about it now, we still have a good crowd.  Just about someone from every state in the union comes.  But hey it’s dwindling fast.  _______ said usually on Sunday morning after a reunion because so many people have died, they throw wreathes of flowers in and I believe it was 13 or 14 at this last reunion.

INTERVIEWER:   Let me take you back in history a little bit.  Do you remember where you were and how you learned about the surrender of Germany?

HILBOURNE:   Yea!  We were out in the Pacific somewhere just floating along and it came across the loud speakers that the war was over, Japan had surrendered.  That’s when we went crazy.

INTERVIEWER 2:   What did they do, _____ fire guns or not?

HILBOURNE:   They didn't fire the guns.  It came across the loud speaker and I imagine everybody hollered as loud as they could because it was a relief.  Even though we didn't come under attack ourselves like the carriers did, we lost one or two or several people by this or that and by antiaircraft fire when the suicide plane came in.  Like I said we went so long without seeing land and we were out there waiting to refuel and get provisions from provision ships, you ______

INTERVIEWER:   Do you remember when Germany surrendered?

HILBOURNE:   No, I don’t remember that.

INTERVIEWER 2:   That was in May.

INTERVIEWER:   What were you tasked to do on the North Carolina going into Tokyo harbor?  What were you supposed to do?

HILBOURNE:   When we went to Tokyo harbor, our division, we had charge of steering the ship.  We might have a harbor patrol on there, but we had a quartermaster on the steering wheel.  Our job was to do plus taking bearings and so forth and all the navigation end of it. 

INTERVIEWER 2:   You manned the wheel yourself, I guess.

HILBOURNE:   Yeah, usually when you came into port, it had a 2nd class petty officer on the wheel.  But I drove it, but it would just be when we were out sailing.  I think top seas were about 25 knots and that thing would move.  Of course some of the ships would move on, like Annapolis, the cruiser. 

INTERVIEWER:   Got a question to ask.  Would you look right into the camera.  You’re now talking to your grandchildren and maybe your great-grandchildren.  Would you tell them all the months and years that you spent in military service, what did you learn from it?  What did it mean to you and what would you tell your grandchildren?

HILBOURNE:   Well the biggest lesson I got, like I said before, when they announced the war was over was that I made it and I saw how important life is and then came home and my two sons still remembered me.  Of course I hadn’t been gone that long, a little over a year.  Then over the years, I’ve had three children, two boys and a girl and now I’ve got seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren and two more on the way.

INTERVIEWER:   Would you do it again?

HILBOURNE:   Oh most certainly.  Of course back then when you’re that age, it was exciting and it made me proud to go to school.  I was the only one that they picked out of _____ anyway to go to school.  I didn't have a college education.  I just finished high school.  My potential, they saw in me and they sent me to school.  Of course when they called my name out to go aboard the North Carolina, I was real proud.  And it brought us home.