This is an article written by a newspaper writer from Chilton County Alabama the County the Chilton was named after. He interviewed me by phone-below the article is a follow up article which corrects a couple of errors that were in the first article.
John Bottone 08-14-06
Chilton County's ship
Who would ever guess that Chilton County has a link to the sea that, if followed, would take you on a 30-year trip around the world before finally resting on the ocean floor?
Or that one of the few surviving reminders of this historical footnote could be found resting in the least likely of places - an auto parts business in Staten Island, N.Y.?
If one became interested enough to do the research, one would find much more than a historical footnote.
The USS Chilton was a means of transportation, shelter and protection for some 2000 seamen over more than 30 years of service to their country. She carried troops and cargo through the unforgiving waters of battle during World War II and performed amphibious duties in the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.
Anyone researching the history of the Chilton would likely get lost in stories of kamikaze attacks and "Magic Carpet" voyages before learning how she came to be named after Chilton County, Alabama.
"It was back during World War II," said Mary Louise Ray Hopson, a historian and Chilton County native who lives in Cookeville, Tenn. "There was a big push all over the country to buy War Bonds to help pay the costs of the war. The winning prize was having a ship named for the county that reached their goal first and Chilton County was the first. Therefore, the USS Chilton was named for the county."
The Bond drive was held in 1942, the same year the ship was launched from San Francisco. A celebration coincided with the event back in Chilton County.
"I remember there was a big street party there in Clanton and everybody came," recalled Hopson. "The intersections were blocked, there was music, dancing in the street, singing, lots of food and we all had a very joyful time. That's been in the back of my mind for a few years and I just became more interested in it."
What sparked Hopson's interest was a picture she happened to stumble across on the Internet. The picture was apparently of the commission bell that was once located underneath the forward 5-inch gun tub on the USS Chilton. At the time, the bell was in the possession of John Bottone of Staten Island, NY, who actually sailed on the ship during WWII.
After researching the Web site, The Advertiser was able to contact Bottone, 82, who still has the bell at his auto parts business in Staten Island. He acquired the bell recently from an Army base in Missouri, where Army engineers were being trained on the use of heavy equipment.
"They were disciplining a couple of guys and they had them chip paint from the bell. When they got the paint off, lo and behold, the lettering "USS Chilton 1943" was clearly visible. This was the ship's commission bell," Bottone said.
After discovering the bell, the Army base found Bottone's contact information on a Web site advertising upcoming reunion dates for shipmates of the Chilton (Bottone is one of the reunion coordinators). They contacted him and asked him if he would like to have the bell. With some help from a friend in West Virginia and Bottone's grandson, Bottone was able to get the bell home.
Transporting the bell wasn't an easy task, however, considering it weighs 320 pounds.
"He said it weighed down the back of his SUV and he got lousy gas mileage from Ohio to West Virginny," Bottone laughed.
The commission bell's purpose was chiefly ornamental, as it had no clapper. But when the ship was anchored in a foggy bay, the bell was struck with a hammer and sounded over the water to help men locate the ship.
"Somebody would crack it with a hammer," Bottone recalled. "That bell brought many a guy back to the ship in the fog. I had one guy tell me if it wasn't for that bell, he wouldn't have found the ship."
Whenever Bottone rings the bell, it takes him back to those nights out at sea.
"Boy, does it have a nice ring to it," he said.
Bottone sailed on the Chilton from November 1944 through March 1946 as a first class motor machinist. His battalion, or "beach party" consisted of 45 men, two officers and doctors. He said there was a strong camaraderie among the shipmates that has remained evident throughout past reunions.
Bottone called himself the "Scuttlebutt King." Scuttlebutt is another term for hearsay or stories, because when the men were out at sea they never knew what they were going to face next.
"When that ramp went down, you never knew what was going to be in front of you," Bottone said. "When you get in combat stage, the normal routine is not adhered to. When the ship came back into port, it was kind of raggedy because it wasn't maintained the way it should have been, but normally it was maintained pretty well. The Chilton was very proficient and had an excellent crew."
One of Bottone's most vivid memories was when the Chilton survived an attack from Japanese kamikaze (suicide) planes while stationed in Okinawa on April 2, 1945.
"The Japanese really creamed us that night. They killed a lot of officers aboard the ship. Our deck was getting machine-gunned. We shot the plane down and it hit our superstructure when it went down."
Kamikaze pilots would aim for the ships as they went down, setting off bombs aboard the planes and consequentially showing debris and body parts onto the ship deck. Bottone described the sight as nothing short of surreal.
"They fall like toys; they don't look real," he said. "You can't believe how many black puffs of smoke are in the sky because all those ships are firing at the same time. Boy, we sure put a lot of ammo up in the air - a lot of ammo. I got shot at many times."
One of the suicide planes hit a sister ship, the Henrico, in the bridge, killing many officers aboard who had reportedly just sat down to eat dinner. Bottone said every ship he looked at was burning, but the Chilton had survived the attack.
The next day, however, a Tokyo Rose - the name given to female English speaking broadcasters of Japanese propaganda - erroneously announced that the Chilton had sunk the day before.
"We all got the biggest laugh out of it," Bottone said. "We were eating lunch at the time."
Among the lighter moments aboard the ship was when Ernie Pyle, a famous American war correspondent, would hang out with the men.
"He was the GI's man, let me tell you," Bottone said. "He never took notes; he just took them in his head, and he was accurate as hell."
Tragically, Pyle was shot by a sniper while aboard the Chilton, most likely because his journalist's uniform made him stand out.
At the war's end, the Chilton sailed to Korea to accept the Japanese surrender and liberate two POW camps. Bottone said he had the distinction of being one of the first Americans to set foot on Korean soil.
"At the end of World War II, no one knew where the hell Korea was," he joked.
Several years after the war, the Chilton transported nationalist Chinese troops from south to north China and helped evacuate Marines who were under a constant threat from Chinese war guns. She was also in support of the Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba.
On July 1, 1972, the Chilton was removed from active shipping and two years later was sold by the Navy to Ships Incorporated of Camden, N.J. It is believed that in 1974, she was towed off Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. and sunk with other ships to create fishing reefs.
"The Chilton has a dear place in my life and in my heart," Bottone said. "I was 20 years old. It was a crucial time in our lives. We went through it together - we all had the same situation happen to us at the same time."
While many of the men never returned from the war, Bottone has been able to contact many who did and continues to coordinate reunions annually. Late this October, he plans to take the bell to Atlantic City, NJ, the place of the next reunion.
While Bottone has never been in Chilton County, he said he does plan on furthering his Chilton experience soon - by trying his first Chilton County peach.
Note: Historical information in this story was taken from "Any Time, Any Beach" compiled by Lieutenant John Carpenter and pharmacist mate John Donald.
Inspiration comes from the strangest places
Every once in a while, life carries you through experiences that change the way you think about things. I believe sometimes you can sense these experiences before they take place.
Back in April, I got a call from Mary Louise Ray Hopson, a Chilton County native who is now a historian in Cookeville, Tenn. She told me something I had never heard before: that there was a ship named after Chilton County and that someone in West Virginia had discovered a bell that used to be on the ship.
Upon hearing that, I was curious to know how a ship was named for our landlocked county.
Well, it turned out to be true. In the early years of World War II, Chilton County reached its quota in War Bonds, which were set up at the time to pay unexpected costs of the war. As a reward, the county was given the opportunity to have a U.S. naval vessel bear its name. Thus, the USS Chilton was born.
After asking several "older" citizens about the ship, I found that very few people knew of her existence. I came to find out that very few, if any at all, people from Chilton County actually sailed on the ship. But I thought it would still be an interesting read for local people. It was certainly interesting to me, as shipwrecks and their histories have always fascinated me.
After researching the Web site that had the picture of the bell on it, I found a phone number of a man named John Bottone. I called the number and, lo and behold, found out that he had the bell!
The bell was the ship's commission bell. Its purpose was chiefly ornamental, but it was used to help men find the ship in thick fog.
It turned out that Bottone, who lives in Staten Island, NY, has the bell at his auto parts store in Staten Island. He is 82 years old and he sailed on the USS Chilton. Since then, we have had three interesting and enjoyable conversations over the phone.
If you're interested in learning more, see the Sunday, Aug. 13 edition of The Clanton Advertiser.
But before you read, I would like to clear up a couple of errors that appeared in the story:
1) The famous journalist Ernie Pyle was on the USS Chilton, but when he was shot by the sniper he was not aboard the ship. He was on Ie Shima, a small island just west of Okinawa.
2) When the kamikaze pilots attacked the Chilton, I had said several officers were killed. I had actually meant to say that several officers were killed on the Chilton's sister ship, the Henrico.
I apologize for any confusion these errors might have caused.
Note: Scott Mims is the news editor of The Clanton Advertiser. His column appears each Friday.