Sixty-five years is a long time to do anything, let alone something on a volunteer basis.
But that’s about how long Lovell veteran Frank Wilkerson has served his community as a member of the group of local veterans who regularly perform services on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day and at funerals with military honors.
For Wilkerson, a World War II veteran soon to turn 89, it’s not a big deal. He just loves to serve.
“I don’t ever remember refusing a time,” he said. “If I was in town, I helped ‘em. And during the last eight or 10 years I’ve had the American flag.”
Wilkerson is especially proud of being a member of the rifle squad for decades before the aging weapons were retired.
“I was on the firing squad for a long time. Then they took our rifles away from us,” he said due to the age of the weapons and the unavailability of replacements.
Wilkerson served under several squad leaders over the years, but the leader with the longest tenure was Bill Powell, who Wilkerson said ran the local service for some 40 to 45 years. He said he was proud to serve the community with Powell and said the former U.S. Army Air Corps pilot did a good job keeping the veterans organized.
“He took care of the rifles and getting us the blanks,” Wilkerson said. “He picked up the empty shells and put some of them in the flag to be given to the wife or next of kin. I was affiliated with them forever. They tried to go with the National Guard for a while, but pretty soon we had it back.
“We (Wilkerson and Powell) served together for quite a few years. I helped him whenever he called. I appreciated his leadership. I was proud of him and proud of anyone who does it now.”
After Powell retired as the organizer of the services, the job fell to Don Dover, then to Rich Fink.
“Whoever it was would call me and I’d go,” Wilkerson said.
Part of Wilkerson’s love of service stems from his longtime affiliation with the Boy Scouts of America. He volunteered in Scouting for about 60 years, he said, serving as a scoutmaster for 11 years.
“I learned about service from Scouting,” he said. “It’s kind of drilled into you. I’ve had Scouts from 1,000 miles away come to see their old scoutmaster.
“Scouts learn service. That’s what makes a Scout troop – serving people.”
In the Navy
As a boy, Wilkerson was itching to serve as World War II was raging, so on the day before his 18th birthday – June 20, 1944 – he enlisted, choosing to not finish high school. He chose the Navy as his branch of service and enlisted with his twin brother, Fred.
“Our older brother, Gene, was already in the Army, and he told us, ‘Guys, if you don’t want to hike 60 miles every day with a heavy pack on your back, you should join the Navy. On a ship you can’t march very far, you get three meals a day and a clean rack not very far off,’” Wilkerson said. “He was right. I was on the gun all day and never missed a meal.
“Fred and I were really lucky. We joined together and stayed together. When the orders came to split up twins and brothers we asked them (officers) to keep us together and they said they would do it as long as possible. They kept us together for 21 months.”
When Wilkerson was training in Astoria, Oregon, his years as a pheasant hunter came in handy, he said, because he knew how to lead a target, which impressed the training officers. They made him a gunner.
Wilkerson spent the bulk of his service serving aboard the USS Jerauld, an amphibious personnel attack ship – APA-174.
“We carried 250 Marines and all of their equipment, tanks, trucks, food and ammunition,” Wilkerson said.
The young gunner manned the Quad 40, a four-barrel, 40mm anti-aircraft gun.
“It was a good gun,” he said, adding that the gun played an important role when Japanese pilots started diving at ships on kamikaze suicide missions.
During the invasion of Okinawa in the spring of 1945 kamikaze planes attacked the U.S. fleet by the hundreds.
“I’ll never forget it,” Wilkerson said. “I shot down several including the first three that came at our ship. You had to get them or they’d get you.”
Just as dangerous was a hurricane that hit the Pacific fleet.
“We lost more sailors during that storm than during battle,” he recalled.
The Jerauld was to be part of an Allied invasion force that was departing to attack the Japanese mainland when the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After Japan surrendered the invasion force became an occupation force. The Jerauld reported to Nagoya Harbor.
“The guys (Japanese) were scared of us,” Wilkerson said. “They thought we would kill them all. Those two bombs really brought them to their knees.”
The Jerauld was eventually decommissioned in Virginia in 1946 and Wilkerson was discharged from Farragut, Idaho, where he’d gone for basic training, and returned to civilian life.
Since he was a year short of his high school degree and Brigham Young University required a diploma, Wilkerson finished high school in Provo before enrolling in the university. During college he met Billie Buchanan, who worked with his cousin Gladys in Salt Lake City.
The two were married July 6, 1948, and settled in Lovell, where Frank launched a 41-year career with Ohio (later Marathon) Oil.
And during those 41 years and beyond, Frank Wilkerson gave back to the community he loved and the veterans he respected by serving on the rifle squad and later the color guard for veterans’ services. He hopes the community enjoys the services.
“We always try to make it really good for them,” he said.
By David Peck