State Rep. Sheilla Lampkin conducted this interview of the late Charles Jackson as part of Veterans Oral History Project. Jackson died March 6.
Charles Jackson’s military service began when he graduated from Henderson State Teachers College in 1942 and was invited by a group of naval officials visiting the graduates to enlist in a naval officer’s training program. He began this program in the fall at Northwestern University in Chicago and received his commission as a lieutenant in the spring of 1943.
Jackson’s orders were to report immediately to the battleship USS Pennsylvania in Long Beach, California, and he reported there on March 5, 1943. Soon thereafter the ship departed for Cold Bay, Alaska, and then proceeded westward to the Aleutian chain of islands and entered the Bering Sea. Their objectives were some of the islands in that chain that had been invaded and occupied by Japanese troops.
There the USS Pennsylvania was engaged in bombardments of those Japanese forces to distract them and allow American ground troops to land. Bombardments there in May weakened their ground forces so that our ground troops could go in and retake those positions.
On May 19, an explosion aboard ship caused the battleship to go to Puget Sound Naval Yard in the state of Washington for repairs. The ship remained there through June and July and then returned to the Pacific.
Jackson and the battleship sailed for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Leaving there in November 1943, the ship was involved in several bombardments of the ports of landings for the 5th Amphibious Forces in the central Pacific around a group of islands called the Gilbert Islands. On November 24 an escort carrier in the fleet, the Lipscomb Bay, was torpedoed and sank within sight of Jackson’s ship. 644 men were lost in the inferno; 272 were rescued.
After the Gilbert Islands, the USS Pennsylvania shoved off to an atoll in the Marshall Islands for another major operation. From January 31, 1944, to February 4, 1945, the Pennsylvania’s shelling supported the landing of 11,000 soldiers from transport ships in their fleet. American forces had 886 killed or wounded men while Japanese casualties were over 4000 during this operation.
After this operation there was a lull of about 4 months before their next engagement with the enemy. During this time the ship went to a harbor in the New Hebrides group that was co-owned by France and Great Britain. They remained there for a time to rest and relax before leaving for the harbor at Sydney, Australia, for a continued rest before returning to combat.
After leaving Sydney, the USS Pennsylvania joined a force of carriers, battleships, cruisers, escorts and destroyers heading toward the very important Marianas campaign. Their principal islands were Tinian and Saipan. (Saipan was strategic because later on it was to serve as an air base for the US planes delivering the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) In the fighting to retake these islands, American losses amounted to about 5000.
On July 12-14, 1944, the USS Pennsylvania began bombardment of Guam in preparation for assault troop landings there. The Pennsylvania’s participation in the repossession of Guam lasted until August 20, 1944.
By September 15th the ship had just moved offshore of the island called Palau in the Caroline Islands. There the Pennsylvania delivered intense firing support for the landing of American troops.
The Pennsylvania’s next mission involved the Philippines campaign. From October 18-24, 1944, the ship sat in the Leyte Gulf off the southern shores of the archipelago of the Philippines. There the USS Pennsylvania again gave offshore firing support for the invasion to retake the Philippines from the Japanese forces.
On the morning of October 24 it became apparent that a major naval engagement was developing. This historic battle was to be the first actual surface combat encounter for the Pennsylvania. Called the Battle of Surigao Strait, this encounter was the largest naval battle of the war to this point. Along with the battleship USS Pennsylvania, other battleships assembled for the engagement were the USS West Virginia, the USS Maryland, the USS Mississippi, the USS Tennessee and the USS California. Cruisers and destroyers were involved too.
During the battle the Japanese lost two battleships and three destroyers in this fierce struggle. This resulted in the strength of the Japanese fleet being broken and of little consequence during the rest of the war.
Soon afterward Lieutenant Jackson received orders to leave the ship and enter another phase of his career. While the ship was anchored at Manos in the Admiralty Islands off the shore of New Guinea, he was ordered to fly to a base in California. There he was to participate in intensive training for joint assault operations as a naval officer coordinating naval gunfire from offshore ships in support of assault troops.
From that preparation Jackson was flown to the Philippines where he was occupied in training soldiers in a unit called a Joint Assault Signal Company. Even though he was a naval officer, he was serving in the Army at this point.
In August 1945, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, and the war was over.
Jackson’s remaining months of service were spent in the 8th Naval District Headquarters in New Orleans, Louisiana. He remembers well the revelry of Mardi Gras, 1946 – but that’s another story.
Throughout WWII Mr. Jackson served as a lieutenant. During battle he served as turret commander at one of the rear turrets of the ship. When not in battle, Jackson served as second in command on the bridge as officer of the day.
After the war ended Jackson was eligible for promotion to Lieutenant Commander. He chose however to return to Monticello where he became a successful businessman, family man and outstanding citizen.
For its wartime service the USS Pennsylvania was given a Presidential Unit Citation and awarded 8 Battle Stars; five while Lt. Jackson was on board. Mr. Jackson was awarded a World War II Cross of Military Service for faithful and honorable service to our country.
Charles Jackson died this spring. He was proud of his country, proud to be an American and proud to live in Drew County. Drew County is proud of him. I personally counted him among my closest friends and often referred to the most distinguished and debonair gentleman as our “Cary Grant” – a title he humbly denied. Our lives are richer for knowing him, yet made poorer by his passing.
[The fate of the USS Pennsylvania in the aftermath of WWII is also an interesting story. The Pennsylvania was chosen to be a part of the hydrogen bomb testing on Bikini Island, an atoll in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific. During those experiments the battleship was damaged so badly that it couldn’t stay afloat and was purposely scuttled (sunk). It now rests on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.]