The Greatest Generation: Part I - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

The Greatest Generation: Part I

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May 24, 2004

Albany-- Three-hundred-thousand Americans died in World War II; fighting in the Europe, North Africa, Japan and the Pacific. Now, 1,600 American World War II veterans die each day, many taking to the grave personal war stories that shaped American history. But, Tonight the story of a veteran who still lives right here in Albany.

Jesse Piland joined the Navy in October 1941. "It was before Pearl Harbor." At 25, he left his hometown of Pelham, with orders to serve on the destroyer the  U.S.S. Russell. "We went to the Pacific, we left from San Diego Jan 6, 1942 going to fight the Japs.  I was in the Navy for four years, on one ship." 

The Russell guarded massive aircraft carriers with famous names like; Yorktown, Hornet, Saratoga, and Lexington . "We were part of 33 ships that entered the war in the Pacific. That's all we had."

"We were first warship to fire on enemy plane during war. We heard this airplane but couldn't see it. We manned our guns. All of a sudden, this big thing came through the clouds. It looked like a freight train compared to our ship. We fired every gun we had-- pistols, targets, star shells, machines guns, everything. We were so frightened we didn't know what we were doing."

Piland got the job of gunner because of an unusual question from an officer. "He asked 'Are you from Georgia?' I said 'Yes.' He said 'Have you ever shot jackrabbits?' I said 'Yes.' He said 'Get on that machine gun.'"

Piland practiced shooting, hours each day; preparing for Japanese fighters, bombers and even Kamakazi attacks. "No one told me when to shoot at any plane. You just shot at them."

"My stomach was just like a knot at all the times. I saw a plane coming right low in the water. I thought 'That's got to be a Jap plane.'"

He looked to the bridge to get orders to fire, but saw no one. "I looked again and saw the plane. I did about ten rounds. He was coming to another ship right in front of us like he was going to hit that ship. I opened up the rest of my magazine. As the plane went down, and I thought it had hit the ship in front of us. But a few seconds later that ship sent us a light message that said thanks for shooting," he said.

A single gunner saved a destroyer and hundreds of sailors. "It's pretty hard to talk about it."

For decades, Piland kept his memories of attacks in the Pacific hidden. "We lost four carriers in one year."

Now, he shares the history. "We were with McArthur's Navy for one year. That was something else. We would bomb the beaches. I've seen 200 bodies just floating in the water."

Thousands of men died in the Pacific, but Piland says the U.S.S. Russell seemed to be divinely protected. "We didn't lose a man. We went through 16 battles. Of all the ships in the Navy, there were only five that went through them all."

In four years, Piland set foot on land only 54 days. Every day at sea, the fear of that one deadly attack loomed, but this Pelham, Georgia sailor made it home.

Piland now lives here in Albany with his wife.

Tuesday, we'll meet a soldier who fought in Europe with the Big Red One, the Army's 1st Infantry Division.

posted at 10:50AM by dave.miller@walb.com