“He’s a miracle.”
Rev. Dr. Robert Wilch’s wife Sandra could not have been happier to see him make the 27-hour trip to Saipan from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The possibility of such a trip seemed unlikely to ever occur again just a few months prior to departure.
At 85 years old, it is indeed a miracle that former US Navy LTJG Robert Wilch was able to make his seventh trip to Saipan. He came most recently with his wife, son, Stephen, and a granddaughter, Grace. Barely a year before, a serious surgery made the trip highly unlikely. But his resilient spirit did not give up on the possibility. His desire to go made the trip a reality.
A delicate brain surgery
Sandra, Wilch’s wife of 34 years, told Island Locator, “About a year ago my husband got up in the middle of the night, fell, hitting the back of his head on the sideboard of the bed. He called the hospital and was advised to watch for any unusual symptoms in the days to come. But he seemed to be fine.”
A few days later on May 27th, Wilch preached the Baccalaureate sermon for the Commencement Exercises at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Sandra acknowledged that her husband is a “wonderful preacher” but this time, “something just didn’t seem right. He usually likes to talk with people after the service but not this time. He bypassed everybody, returning to the hotel.”
For Sandra, that was strange behavior. By the end of that week she noticed that he was dragging his left foot. “He got stuck in the pantry, hanging on to the shelves for support, because he could not make his left leg move.” Knowing that something was seriously wrong, she called the doctor the following morning and requested an MRI for Bob immediately.
Fifteen minutes after the MRI, an ambulance took Wilch to a Milwaukee hospital where the doctor scheduled brain surgery for Monday morning. However, early Saturday morning he called Sandra and said, “We can’t wait. We must operate now.”
On June 1st, 2007, Wilch underwent a four-and-a-half-hour brain surgery for a subdural hematoma pressing on his brain. During the next seven to eight weeks, he did not open his eyes or converse with anyone. His wife recalled, “He was out and didn’t respond to us. Sometimes he would talk but he wouldn’t make much sense. He would make statements like ‘I have 27 children.’ He really did not know where he was.”
After a number of weeks, one doctor suggested to her that they pull the plug. Sandra vehemently refused. According to her, “The question surprised me. I could not believe that he would not recover.”
Contrary to the doctor’s prognosis, after a Greenfield screen was inserted into his aorta, he came out of the operating room with his eyes open. According to Sandra, “When he came back from the procedure, his eyes were open and he began talking. From that point on, he had to relearn walking, swallowing and eating—it was a day to day miracle.” After six weeks of not getting out of bed, there had been great loss in body strength. It was a struggle at first as he had not energy to do anything. The physical therapy was intense, tiring but obviously successful.
Sandra acknowledged that it was the efforts of her husband’s neurologist, Dr. Krishna Neni, who was responsible for Bob making it. She said Dr. Neni, a very caring physician and in charge of Bob’s day to day treatment, would come down to the waiting room where the family gathered. He would say, “This is where he is, this is what I am going to do, and this is what I expect to happen.” And it did.
Several months after he was discharged from the hospital, Bob went through an extensive rehabilitation to regain his strength. A month after Bob’s discharge, the respected neurologist met with a freak accident on the highway on his way home from work. A semi truck coming from the opposite direction, lost a wheel which bounced over the median, hitting and demolishing the doctor’s car and killing him instantly. It was such a loss! It would not have been possible for her husband to make the 27-hour flight from Milwaukee to Saipan if it were not for that neurologist.
The entire experience has been remarkable for Bob whom one doctor thought would not make it but for his family’s love and faith which pulled him through. She said, “I would have to say the successful operation and recovery were a beautiful experience. He is a miracle!”
His family and faith and the pre-war years
The second of three sons in the family of teacher-businessman, Sam Wilch and his wife Cora, Wilch was born on May 20th, 1923 in Jenera, Ohio. When he was 5 or 6, the family moved to Appleton, Wisconsin where the brothers grew up. They attended church faithfully each Sunday. Wilch said they had a great life and acknowledges “I owe more to my family for faith matters that anybody else”.
His father died of a heart attack at the young age of 66. His mother, however, lived a long and rich life until she was 97. Wilch admires his mother for her stalwart character. When she was on her death bed, one of the family asked if she had seen Sam, her husband. She said no, but she would. When asked if she had seen Jesus, she answered, “Oh, yes!” And when asked what Jesus looked like, she said, “Just the way I thought he’d look.”
Bob’s family was greatly influenced by the college town. Each brother pursued interesting professions: the oldest, now deceased, was a chemist; Bob became a minister and the Bishop of the Wisconsin-Upper Michigan Synod of the Lutheran Church in America and his younger brother also became a Lutheran minister. Bob attended Lawrence University in Appleton. He thoroughly enjoyed his college years, being elected president of the fraternity as well as the student body. He said his attention to class work was “pretty good”. He was a sophomore in college when the war broke out.
According to Wilch, “I was in Green Bay, Wisconsin (near my Appleton home) nurturing my passion for music, playing trumpet in a fine symphony orchestra conducted by a German genius. On the way home, we heard over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked.” With that breaking news, it occurred to Wilch that he could be conscripted into military service anytime. Initially, his reluctance to immediately volunteer his services led him to enlist in the V-12 program that permitted men like him to stay in college until needed.
Bob was in the Navy V-12 program. In the middle of his senior year at Lawrence in Appleton, Wisconsin, he was ordered to go to Northwestern University, one of three midshipmen schools—Notre Dame, Columbia University in New York and Northwestern in Chicago—offering the navy officer training program.
Initially, Wilch enlisted in the V-7 program designed to create officers for the fleet as contrasted with the V-5 program that produced officers for the Navy Air. Both programs created what Wilch called “ninety-day wonders” in a program that trained officers initially for 90 days, then lengthened to 120 days. These midshipmen’s schools provided the fleet with officers who were needed since the Naval Academy’s program was for 3 years. But because Wilch and other young men like him, had already completed their college courses, they only needed to take Seamanship, Ordnance, and Navigation courses in the midshipmen schools. At some point, the two programs, Wilch said, were merged into a V-12 program. Upon completion, these young men were deemed ready to go to war.
After completing the program, Wilch and his classmates were ready to go to war. They were given 30 days leave so they could go home. In 1943, his orders were to report to San Francisco for transportation to CINCPAC—Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Area Theater. There he was ordered to report to the USS McDermut, DD677, a destroyer. What he did not realize was how fortunate he was to have been assigned to destroyer duties. He also did not realize at the time how perfectly suited he would be for the tasks he would be assigned. Asked by Island Locator if ever he had reservations at this point, Wilch said, “Honestly, I was ready. I had no qualms about going. I wanted to get going.”
From Pearl Harbor the destroyer sped to Eniwitok in the Marshall Islands before joining the other invasion forces on Saipan three days before the actual invasion took place in 1944. “I must tell you, that was one of the eeriest experiences to arrive at Saipan at 3 o’clock in the morning knowing that the people on those islands would actually fight back.”
The War Years
Bob’s life has been one filled with fortune. He could not have agreed more. During the years he spent in military service aboard the USS McDermut, his life was fraught with dangers which he was fortunate to have survived. The worst were the typhoons with waves 70 feet high and winds of 125 mph. Floating mines, easy to see and destroy during the day were a great peril at night. Later in the war, a real peril was the Kamikaze planes which suicidally crashed on ships causing severe damage and loss of life.
Bob recalled, “When Tinian was being fought for, the McDermut spent all night bombarding when the troops at shore asked for fire support and we fired star shells to light the battlefield to expose any Japanese attempt to make a charge. At about 7 a.m. the Norman Scot, another destroyer, relieved McDermut. Twenty minutes later Norman Scott was hit with a number of 6” shells from the beach. Many of the ship’s crew and officers were killed, including the Captain.” Had they not been relieved, Wilch probably would have been among the casualties.
The McDermut remained in the Marianas, supporting the Army and Marines with its 5” guns until Saipan, Guam and Tinian were secured. Bob told this interviewer, “We didn’t have an airplane on the destroyer. There were airplanes on the cruisers and battleships with pontoons—so they could land in the water and would be able to take off and fly over Tinian, Saipan or Guam. They would direct our fire to wherever the soldiers wanted it—‘Down 50 or Right 50’ or wherever.”
When war broke out in the Pacific, it was inevitable for Wilch and the rest of the men—and women—of his generation to rise up and serve their country. Ideally he would like to have finished college before heading off to war but that was not possible. When IL Magazine asked if he had reservations about the war, Wilch replied, “That war (referring to WWII) was so important. We had to stop Hitler’s advances in Europe and the Japanese atrocities in Asia. I don’t think anybody even thought about not going. I had a friend who was a conscientious objector but he had a worse time than I did.”
The USS McDermut and Task Force 38/Task Force 58
Bob Wilch clearly remembers the most important battles their ship DD 667 participated in during the waning years of World War II.
Following the successful invasions of Saipan, Guam and Tinian, McDermut joined a huge fleet in the retaking of the Phillipines. Destroyers, cruisers and battleships bombarded the landing beaches to softer up the Japanese resistance. The Japanese also had a large armada of ships to defend the islands.
One of the more exciting and dangerous actions for McDermut and other destroyers in Squadron 54 was the order to engage the Japanese fleet as it was attempting to pass through the Surigao Strait. Initially, PT boats attacked the Japanese ships firing torpedoes. Then it was the destroyer’s turn to attack. Destroyers raced down each side of the Strait firing 10 torpedoes from each ship. All this was done in the glaring light of many Japanese searchlights hoping to find us in the night’s darkness. After firing torpedoes, each destroyer made a hard u-turn and at flank speed (about 38 knots or a little more than 40 mgh) hoping to escape the intense barrage from Japanese battleships and destroyers. All of Squadron 54 returned safely. Another destroyer, the USS Grant, one of the last to fire torpedoes, was not so lucky. It was caught in the crossfire of Japanese and American ships. It was hit by 22 large shells and suffered severe damage and a great loss of life.
The Americans were not finished with this Japanese fleet. Japanese large ships were moving south in single file in an effort to escape. Yet to come was a hail of 16” shells from four battle ships lined up at the southern end of Surigao Strait. This was an execution of the most favored of sea warfare tactics, the crossing of the T. The four battleships became the horizontal top of the letter T and the Japanese ships were in the worst possible position to fire. This action further reduced the Japanese ability to wage war in the Pacific.
Invasions depended heavily on amphibious ships, the largest being LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) which carried tanks and personnel. These ships had large ramps which were let down as the ship hit the beach so tanks and personnel could exit the ship. The danger to these ships was their extremely slow speed (about 10 knots or approximately 12 mph). Other “amphibs” were LCTs (Landing Craft Tank) which could carry one tank and its crew to the beach, LCVPs (Landing Craft Personnel) carrying marines and soldiers to the beach. There also was the LCR (Landing Craft Rocket). These ships had many rocket launchers on their deck, able to deliver a hail of rockets on the Japanese. Today LCACs are the amphibious work horse. These hydrofoils can approach the beach at 40 knots—over 40 mpg. When they reach the beach they can keep on going with their cargos of tanks and personnel.
After the Phillipines were secured, McDermut set sail for Okinawa for a D Day invasion on Easter Sunday, 1945. Once again McDermut joined other destroyers, cruisers and battleships in bombarding the beaches to make the landing of the troops safer. Periodic air attacks by Japanese planes kept all ships alert.
When a Task Group is at sea, the normal formation has 20 plus destroyers in a large circle with the more powerful ships inside that circle with aircraft carriers at the very center because of their extreme value to the war. This formation allows destroyers which are equipped with sonar equipment to detect and then destroy enemy submarines.
But when an air attack is about to take place, all the large ships including the carriers take positions in the circle of destroyers. At Okinawa, McDermut was in position immediately next to the USS Missouri, a huge and powerful battleship and about three ships down from the USS Intrepid, an extremely large and fast carrier.
“Since the Japanese wanted better targets than our destroyers, we felt safe even though Kamikazes were attacking. Our ship was not a prime target. But the Carrier Intrepid was. Planes kept diving on it hoping to disable or sink it. As the attack continued and as the Missouri was firing as furiously as possible with all its anti-aircraft guns, their gunners continued to fire at diving planes. In their desperate hope to destroy the diving suicide plane, their shells began to hit my ship, killing some men and wounding many. After the attack was over, we discovered 286 holes in our ship with some hitting in the boiler room, reducing our speed to about 5 knots (about 6mph).
Along with the Intrepid, we took station inside this huge circle of ships for protection. The fleet had to continue to launch and retrieve planes during daylight hours and to do that, the fleet had to head into the wind at a pretty high rate of speed. Intrepid and McDermut at times would be left behind. But as soon as the launch or landing of planes was completed the fleet would change course in our direction so we could be protected inside the circle again. When dark came Intrepid and McDermut were detached along with a cruiser for an escort to head for one of the islands with repair facilities,” Bob Wilch told Island Locator.
Continuing his recollection of the battles, Bob said, “After Okinawa was secured, McDermut joined TF38 for our attacks on Japan itself. All the ships in these carrier groups were capable of high speeds so this was, again, very interesting duty. Destroyers periodically had the responsibility of being a plane guard. Frequently, planes returning from a strike on Japan were damaged in such a way that landing on the carrier was not safe or the pilot was wounded badly enough that he could not properly land on the flight deck. When that occurred, the pilot was ordered to ditch in the water fairly near the carriers. It was then our job to approach the sinking plane and bring the pilot safely aboard our ship. Swimmers from our ship went over the side to rescue the pilot. It was an extremely dangerous duty for the swimmers since sharks were always a concern. To protect them, a number of us would be lined up on the ship with machineguns, rifles and revolvers to attack the sharks if they appeared.”
According to Bob, “When a pilot was returned to the carrier, we would always receive 20 gallons of ice cream for our crew—a real treat. In those days, destroyers did not have ice cream makers as they do today.”
In late July of 1945, McDermut was detached from TF38 to carry out an anti-shipping sweep along the coast of Japan and also the Kuriles and then turn east and head for home via Adak, Alaska for an overhaul in preparation for the invasion of Japan later that year. When it reached Adak, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. A few days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Instead of continuing on to San Francisco, the ship was ordered to return to Japan for initial occupation. Their arrival in the bay at Aomari in northern Honshu preceded the signing of the Peace Treaty in early September. After about two weeks of occupation, they were ordered home by way of Pearl Harbor. The war was over!
Discharges from the service were based on points—time in the service plus time overseas. Bob Wilch had enough points to be discharged for the fall semester 1945 at Lawrence. “I like the Navy a lot and I could have continued but since I was a graduate of Midshipmen’s school with only four months of training, I was concerned that promotions would be slower for me than for those who were graduated from The Navy Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.”
After finishing his last remaining semester for graduation from Lawrence, Bob was invited to be the Assistant to the President of the University.. At that time, Dr. Nathan M.Pusey was the President. Three or four years later, he was named the president of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
After two years at Lawrence, Bob decided to enter the Lutheran Seminary (then Northwestern) in Minneapolis. “My first call was to St Paul’s Lutheran Church in Spokane, WA. After 5 years I was called to St. Peter’s church in Janesville, WI. In early 1963 I was called to be the Assistant to the President of The Wisconsin-Upper Michigan Synod of the Lutheran Church in America.
Upon his retirement, he was elected Bishop of that Synod in 1974. Being the Bishop was fraught with a great deal of travel and stress. His churches were spread over the entire state of Wisconsin and also Upper Michigan. There were 260 congregations and 350 ordained ministers. During his time as Bishop there were a number of memorable experiences.
He relishes with gusto, “I was privileged to meet The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Istanbul, Turkey for a week, spend a week at the Vatican with a one hour audience with Pope John Paul II and a week with The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie. The Runcies became close friends after that meeting and gave my wife and me considerable hospitality in London at Lambeth Palace and in Caterbury. Lord and Lady Runcie have been guests at our home in Wisconsin until his death some years ago. He is often remembered as the clergy person who performed the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Sandra and I also were privileged to have lunch with the Dahlai Lama.”
According to Bob, their interest in the Northern Marianas is magnified in part because one of the pastors in my synod was the late Rev. William Downey who was especially selected to be the protestant Chaplain to the 509th Composite Group charged with the dropping of two atomic bombs in Japan. He remembers his widow, Gladys, who lives nearby and is a wonderful source of information about the special atomic Bomb Group. Because the Marianas were his first battles, these islands have become important to them and they’re fortunate to visit often.
“We have made good friends here, most notably Jerry and Irene Facey. They are so wonderful to us, even meeting us at our arrival at 1:30 in the morning and seeing us off when we leave. We saw much of Saipan through Jerry’s willingness to show us the sights,” said Wilch, adding that he wishes the best to all who live in this part of the world.