Southold man helps woman understand brother’s final moments in WWII

08/10/2011 7:51 AM |

COURTESY PHOTO

In the 66 years since Mattituck resident Lillian Wagner-Dykhuis learned that her brother, Edwin Warren Hill, was killed during a disastrous Japanese attack on an aircraft carrier in 1945, not a day has gone by that she hasn’t wanted to learn more about what might have happened during his final moments.

Last summer, while having lunch at the town senior center in Mattituck, she met Southold resident Bob Mallgraf, who was wearing a hat emblazoned with a picture of the U.S.S. Franklin, the ship her brother sailed on. She asked if he’d been on board when it was bombed on March 19, 1945. It turned out he had, and the two formed a fast friendship.

Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis and Mr. Mallgraf are just two of the North Forkers tied together by their remembrance of the Franklin. That day the Navy lost 807 soldiers when a dive bomber dropped two bombs on the ship 50 miles off the Japanese coast, igniting jet fuel and Tiny Tim rockets and destroying Corsair bombers and their pilots waiting on the flight deck for a bombing run.

Joe Small of Southold, who recently produced the movie “The Wereth Eleven” about 11 black soldiers serving in the 333rd Field Artillery Battalion massacred in Belgium, met Mr. Mallgraf at Hart’s Hardware last winter. Despite the freezing weather, when he saw Mr. Mallgraf’s Franklin hat, he stopped to ask what he knew about the deadly attack.

Mr. Mallgraf put Mr. Small in touch with author Joseph Springer, who wrote the book “Inferno” about the Franklin. Mr. Springer agreed to work on the production of Mr. Small’s new documentary film, “Franklin: Honor Restored,” which was just picked up for worldwide distribution last week by The Ardennes Group.

Both Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis and Mr. Mallgraf were at Mr. Small’s Southold home last Friday afternoon to watch the film and discuss the disastrous day that had such a great impact on all of their lives.

Mr. Mallgraf was assigned to the Franklin in 1944, under her first captain, James Shoemaker. Not long before the March 19 attack, Capt. Shoemaker was replaced by Captain Leslie Gehres, who crewmen said was a tyrant who treated the seamen as if they were unworthy of being his crew.

Mr. Mallgraf was stationed just behind the bridge when the bombs hit. He and another sailor crawled onto the bridge, where they watched the captain hold a picture of his wife to his chest while offering little in the way of guidance to his panicked crew.

Many men, stuck between the flames and the open ocean, chose to dive 90 feet from the flight deck rather then be burned alive. Capt. Gehres later tried to court-martial all crewmen who were not on the ship after the fires were put out, charging them with desertion.

“We were treated like dogs afterwards,” said Mr. Mallgraf.

“A lot of men went bananas after that,” said his wife, Phyllis. “It’s so ridiculous to treat the men that way.”

“Not many people know what really happened to these men and boys,” said Mr. Small. “They saved the world.”

Mr. Small was just named an honorary Franklin crew member and given a hat of his own by the U.S.S. Franklin Museum Association. He was wearing it last week in Manhattan for meetings with the film’s new distributors when a man stopped him on the street to tell him that he had been on the work crew in New Jersey that salvaged the Franklin when it was scrapped in 1966.

“The hat works,” said Mr. Mallgraf, who was still wearing his own U.S.S. Franklin hat Friday afternoon.
“Incredible things happen with this hat.”

Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis didn’t know the full story of Admiral Gehres’ treatment of the crew until after she met Mr. Mallgraf. Up to then all she had was a telegram from the Navy saying her brother had been killed, his dog tags and a sense of loss at having never really gotten to know her brother’s daughter, who was born just before Edwin shipped out and was raised by her mother’s family.

This past summer, after years of not seeing her, Edwin’s daughter, Beverly Hill, found her Aunt Lily through a letter Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis had written to The Suffolk Times about her experience meeting Mr. Mallgraf, which was posted on the paper’s website. Ms. Hill visited with her aunt in Mattituck earlier this summer.

“My niece and I finally got together June 14 for a week,” Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis said. “She had so much to catch up on about the father she never knew.”

On Friday, Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis pieced together one of the final chapters in her story about what happened on the Franklin. Mr. Small called author Joseph Springer, put him on speakerphone and asked him what he might know about U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Edwin Hill.

“Your brother was a very special man,” said Mr. Springer, confirming what Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis knew. Her brother was part of a group of elite Marines who worked on the Corsairs flown by the storied “Black Sheep Squadron.”

Mr. Springer told her that the Marines on board the Franklin that morning were either waiting on the chow line, on the flight deck or in their sleeping compartment below deck. Because Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis was given her brother’s identification tags, he said it was likely that her brother was in the Marine compartment, where he was likely killed instantly.

Ms. Wagner-Dykhuis took the news stoically.

“This wasn’t the only family this happened to. It happened with all families in the war. I’m so glad I lived long enough to solve this mystery,” she said.

byoung@timesreview.com

34 Comment