Media Theater Veterans Alliance Honors U.S. Navy Veteran Dick Wilson – Delco Times
MEDIA — The cast of “Sister Act,” which is currently playing on stage at the Media Theater until June 5, weren’t the only ones to receive a standing ovation last Saturday night. Audience members rose to give thunderous applause to Navy combat veteran Richard “Dick” Wilson, 97, who was honored by the Media Theater Veterans Alliance before the curtain time on May 7, for his extraordinary service in the United States Navy during World War II.
“Thank you for coming here tonight and honoring my ship and those who served on it,” the humble Middletown resident said after receiving a congratulatory plaque on stage. “This award is not just for me, but for everyone who has served on my ship.”
After graduating from John Bartram High School, Wilson enlisted in the United States Navy on January 11, 1943. Being only 17, his mother had to sign up for him.
“I joined the team right out of high school,” recalls the winner. “But my parents gave me their blessing. They knew that was what I wanted and I probably would have been drafted anyway.
Wilson was sent to basic training in Sampson, NY, then attended radio school. In August of the same year, he was assigned to the USS Santee, one of five escort carriers converted from tankers. The USS Santee (CVE-29) was the prototype of an all-new combat ship for the Navy.
“I spent three years on the same ship,” Wilson said. “I was there when I was 17, 18 and 19.”
Wilson was a radioman on the Santee, one of three sailors who worked 24 hours a day. vessel progress and emergencies, sent and received distress calls and copied codes.
During the winter of 1943, the Santee sailed in a convoy in the Atlantic Ocean which was constantly threatened by German U-Boats patrolling the Atlantic. When the Santee finally ended her operations in the Atlantic, her crew had sunk six U-boats and badly damaged three others.
In the early winter of 1944, the weary convoy sailed to Glasgow, Scotland, before finally returning to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia. His tour of duty in the Atlantic was over, but his service was not. His next destination was the South Pacific.
In February 1944, the Santee departed Norfolk, transited the Panama Canal, and embarked with 200 Navy and Navy personnel and 31 aircraft for delivery to Pearl Harbor. She also took 24 F4F Wildcats and TBF Avengers as her own instruments of war.
In March, Santee completed her mission at Pearl Harbor, sailing with a fleet of destroyers, designated “Carrier Division 22”. The ship joined the fast carriers of the US 5th Fleet and sped west to Palau, with her aircraft patrolling over vulnerable Allied tankers.
In April 1944, Santee joined Carrier Division 24 and a Destroyer Squadron, and set sail for New Guinea. The Santee Air Group aircraft helped destroy 100 enemy aircraft and tear through enemy airfields.
During the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the first organized kamikaze attacks took place. Concentrating on US Navy escort carriers, Japanese pilots hit Santee and many other carriers.
Twenty minutes after being hit by a Kamikaze, the Santee was torpedoed, causing extensive damage. When the vessel began to list, the captain ordered the crew to abandon ship. Fortunately, damage control was able to right the ship and the crew did not need to abandon ship.
“I shouldn’t say the new generation has no idea what we’ve been through, but that’s what I sometimes think,” the proud veteran said as he recalled his war service.
The Santee returned to Los Angeles for repairs. In February 1945, Santee was ordered to return to Pearl Harbor and head for Leyte Gulf, in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. The largest force yet mustered in the Pacific assembled in preparation for the assault.
Guarded by destroyers and destroyer escorts in March 1945, Santee’s aircraft provided air cover for the transport fleet carrying the 7th and 96th Army Divisions, scheduled for the southern landings on Okinawa. In April, the Okinawa landing began at 8:30 a.m. Santee torpedo bombers deposited thick clouds of smoke over the area to provide a screen for the landing craft. Meanwhile, Santee fighters were constantly machine-gunning the landing beaches.
For 42 days, the Santee’s aircraft flew over target areas in the East China Sea, with daily returns to Okinawa for routine ground support. During those long weeks, the Santee was constantly on alert for Japanese suicide bombers. The guns were manned 24 hours a day.
By August 14, 1945, hostilities with the Japanese had ceased and Santee was sent to Formosa to evacuate former prisoners of war (POWs) captured in 1942 by Japanese troops in Malaya, the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor. The Santee also picked up over 100 Japanese prisoners of war and took them to Pearl Harbor. From November 1945 to February 1946, the Santee brought large numbers of troops back to the United States. On February 3, 1946, the Santee returned safely to San Pedro, California.
On March 4, 1946, Petty Officer Dick Wilson was honorably discharged as Radioman 3rd Class.
“I’m absolutely happy to have served, but three years was enough,” Wilson said with a smile.
He returned home and went to work at his family business, the Wilson Safe Co., while attending the University of Pennsylvania in the evenings. Wilson married his wife Peg and they had two children: Ray Wilson, who currently resides in Upper Providence and third-generation owner of Wilson Safe Co. in Southwest Philadelphia, and Margaret Larkin, a Springfield resident. The couple have four grandchildren.
In addition to the award given in recognition of his service on Saturday night, Media Theater Veterans Alliance members Ed Buffman, Bob McMahon and Arthur Burn presented Wilson with a Navy Combat Action (CAR) ribbon. The CAR was originally awarded retroactively to March 1961 for Navy veterans. Then, in 1999, it was made retroactive to December 7, 1941, allowing World War II veterans to apply for the honor.
The Media Theater Alliance also presented Wilson with a broken duck pin. The Honorable Service Lapel Button, colloquially referred to as “Ruptured Duck” by the military, is a lapel button awarded for honorable Federal military service between 1925 and 1946. The award may be worn on the left lapel of civilian clothing.
“We wanted to get these honorable awards for our fellow veteran,” said Buffman, himself a World War II veteran, “because you are the greatest generation.”
Wilson can add the new additions to his other medals and awards: Navy Presidential Unit Citation, Pacific Theater Medal with Five Battle Stars, European Theater Medal with One Battle Star, Philippine Liberation Medal with Two Battle Stars, American Theater Medal with One Battle Star, World War II Victory Medal and Good Conduct Medal.
“It is important that we never forget what these ships and their crews have done for the United States,” the honoree told the audience, as he was recognized on Saturday evening. “Thank you for coming here and honoring my ship and those who served on it.”
The Media Theater Veterans Alliance is in its 21st year of honoring local veterans for their service. All veterans and their families are invited to attend a private reception and see a show at discounted prices, to show their support and honor their comrades. A different veteran is chosen by the Alliance to be singled out and honored during the run of each show.
The hit musical: Sister Act, starring Dené Hill and Jennie Eisenhower, is on stage at the Media Theater until June 5.
Other actors in the hit musical include Megan McDevitt, Andre Dion Wills. Megan Opalinski, Suzanne Briar, Zoran Kavcic, Danny Wilfred, Ethan Walker, Rocco Barbera, Dante Bratelli, Meredith Beck, Tina Delano, Essence Williams-Grigsby, Emily Humphreys, Ronnie Keller, Jarret Martin, Morgan Sichler, Sierra Wilson and Tiara Whaley. The show is directed and choreographed by the Media Theater’s Associate Artistic Director, Christian Ryan, and Ben Kapilow is the Music Director.
Filled with powerful gospel music, lots of dancing, and a moving story, “Sister Act,” based on the 1992 hit movie of the same name, is a lively musical that has been pleasing audiences since 2006.
For more information on the upcoming Veterans Night or for tickets to “Sister Act,” call 610-891-0100 or visit http://mediatheatre.org. The Media Theater is located at 104 E. State St., Media. To name a special veteran to honor or to learn more about the Media Theater Veterans Alliance, contact the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum, 12 E. State St., Media, at 610-566-0788 or visit http://paveteransmuseum.org.