Brave ship remembered by brave man
May 21, 2014
By Susan Erland
World War II veteran Hugh Preston was in the U.S. Navy well before he should have been.
“He went behind his father’s back and enlisted and came back and said, ‘I’m gone,’” his daughter Isabella Tobiason said. “He wanted to serve. He wanted to fight for his country.”
He was just 17.
“He was extremely proud of his service,” Tobiason said. “He loved nothing more than sitting around and talking about the war, talking about the ship, this happened this day, that happened that day. He had a photographic memory.”
Preston, who died May 1, 2014, served in the Pacific Theatre on a “picket ship” off Okinawa near the end of the war with Japan. It was the USS Aaron Ward “the third,” a distinction he emphasized, because there were two prior ships named Aaron Ward.
The ship came under attack off Okinawa on May 3, 1945, and was hit six times by kamikaze planes that crashed into its decks, towers and engine rooms. Three of the planes carried bombs that detonated just seconds before the planes crashed, causing explosions and fireballs on impact.
At the time of the attack, Preston was on watch in the wheelhouse. Once the approximately 25 Japanese planes began their onslaught, the men operating defense were able to destroy 10 of the oncoming planes, and all others not wounded — and many who were — did everything possible to keep the ship under power. They put out fires and tried to get the guns sighted on the next wave of suicide bombers. The entire attack lasted just over an hour.
When the attack ended, the ship was without power, listing to one side, and only several feet above the water. The deck of the ship was in ruins, fires were still raging and strewn everywhere were masses of red-hot twisted steel. There was a frantic effort by the crew and officers to douse the areas still burning from spilled jet fuel or bombs. They were also dodging exploding ammunition above and below deck. Any place relatively undamaged was used to care for the wounded.
Several Navy ships had arrived on the scene to assist with transfer of the wounded and provide cover in case of a renewed attack. One of those, the USS Shannon, was eventually able to secure a towline to the Aaron Ward and begin a 45-mile trip to Kerama Retto, to assess damage and attempt to regroup. Upon arrival, the officers and crew refused to leave their ship and insisted on staying on board to care for her.
Preston said the ship was made seaworthy enough to make the 7,000-mile trip to the Navy Yard in New York, where it was decommissioned Sept. 29, 1945. Commanding Officer William Sanders received the Navy Cross and said “he told them that he wouldn’t accept it just for himself, but said all of us deserved it, too,” Preston said.
“He loved that ship, and I think it was because of the journey back home, and how it was destroyed,” his daughter said. “He always talked about the Aaron Ward.
“He remembered so many details,” she said of his military service. “He would talk to anybody who would listen about it.
“He talked to a lot of people about it. He would tell us about his friends. He would give us a lot of detail about things.”
In the book “Brave Ship, Brave Men,” writer Arnold S. Lott shares the rest of the story. Sanders took the home addresses of every member of the crew and wrote a letter to each, quoting the citation for the Navy Cross as signed by the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan. He then added these words: “Although the above citation was presented to the C.O. of the Aaron Ward, he feels that by their heroic conduct … all the personnel of that vessel merit the honor … and takes pleasure in commending you for your magnificent performance during that period and stating that you and your shipmates share equally in the award bestowed in the name of the President of the United States.”
The ship and crew also received the Presidential Unit Citation award, stating, “By her superb fighting spirit and the courage and determination of her entire company, the Aaron Ward upheld the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
After the war, Preston attended Arizona State University and then the University of Mexico City. He got married and had three children. After seven years, they divorced.
He was a great single dad, Tobiason said.
“I would look at him and I was amazed that he went through all the things he went through and he survived,” she added. “I always thought he was a hero, not just because he was in the military, but because of the kind of father he was.”
Preston never married again. But he took his children all over the world, teaching them about other cultures and how to speak three languages.
The day before Preston died, Tobiason, knowing the end was near, talked with him about how she felt about him.
“I thanked him for raising us, and I told him he was the best father ever.”
Susan Erland is a volunteer at Providence Marianwood who does one-on-one nurturing visits with residents. Press Managing Editor Kathleen R. Merrill contributed to this story.