Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Ralph R. Skillman (1925–1944)

Ralph R. Skillman’s photograph in his U.S. Navy personnel file (National Personnel Records Center)
ResidencesCivilian Occupation
Born in Maryland, moved to Delaware by age 10Mill worker at Continental Diamond Fibre
BranchService Number
U.S. Navy7225068
TheaterShip
PacificU.S.S. Suwannee (CVE-27)
AwardsCampaigns/Battles
Purple HeartMarshall Islands, Palau, Mariana Islands, Battle of Leyte Gulf

Early Life & Family

Ralph Robert Skillman was born in Elkton, Maryland, on August 12, 1925. He was the son of Robert M. and Margaret Skillman (née Roberts). He had two younger brothers and at least one half-brother. His parents separated around 1930. As of April 17, 1930, when the 1930 census was taken, Skillman was living in Cecil County, Maryland, with his grandfather, James Roberts, his mother, and his two younger brothers. Census records indicate that by April 1, 1935, he had moved to Newark, Delaware.

When he was recorded on the census on April 2, 1940, Skillman was living with his aunt and uncle (Frank and Elizabeth Skillman) and two of his cousins at 129 East Main Street in Newark. (By September 1942, Skillman’s father was living with him there as well.)

Skillman in an undated photograph (Courtesy of the Newark History Museum)

Skillman attended Newark High School. His military records state that he dropped out of school after completing 10th grade. A November 16, 1944, article in The Newark Post stated that Skillman had been “employed at the Continental-Diamond Fibre Company” before joining the U.S. Navy.

Skillman’s military paperwork described him as standing six feet, ¼ inch tall and weighing 155 lbs., with brown hair and black eyes, and stated he was Catholic.


Consent form that Skillman’s father signed for his son to enlist at age 17 (National Personnel Records Center)

Military Career

Skillman volunteered for the U.S. Navy at the Navy Recruiting Station, Wilmington, Delaware, on September 3, 1942, shortly after his 17th birthday. Since Skillman was a minor, his father signed a consent form for his enlistment. His term of enlistment was until August 11, 1946, the day before his 21st birthday (the age of majority at that time). Skillman allotted some of his monthly pay to support his mother and two younger brothers. After attending boot camp at the U.S. Naval Training Station, Newport, Rhode Island, Skillman arrived at the U.S. Naval Training School (Aviation Maintenance) in Memphis, Tennessee, on October 15, 1942. There, he attended the Class “A” Aviation Ordnancemen’s School. Aviation ordnancemen were responsible for servicing and loading aircraft weapons. It appears that some served as gunners aboard larger aircraft like torpedo bombers, though there is no evidence that Skillman performed that duty. On January 23, 1943, Skillman was appointed to the rating of aviation ordnanceman 3rd class. Shortly thereafter, on January 28, 1943, he moved to the Mine Warfare School, Yorktown, Virginia. He attended a training course “in the Handling and maintenance of Mark III and Mark XII, Mod 1 Mines” from February 8–26, 1943.

On February 27, 1943, he transferred to the Receiving Station, Norfolk, Virginia, to ship out for fleet duty. Curiously, his personnel file has no information about his movements for nearly three months, beyond a memorandum that “he was transferred to Treasure Island, San Francisco, California, about the first week in March [1943], for further transfer[.]”

By May 1943, Aviation Ordnanceman 3rd Class Skillman had arrived at Nouméa, New Caledonia. From there, he was assigned to the escort carrier U.S.S. Suwannee (CVE-27). He arrived aboard the ship on May 25, 1943, at Havannah Harbor on Efate Island, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu). Two days later, he was transferred to a fighter squadron, VF-27, but was he rejoined the Suwannee’s crew at Havannah Harbor on June 24, 1943.

U.S.S. Suwannee (CVE-27) at Kwajalein Harbor on February 7, 1944 (Official U.S. Navy photo, U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Escort carriers were the U.S. Navy’s smallest type of aircraft carrier. Sangamon-class vessels like Suwannee were converted from tanker hulls. Escort carriers ferried aircraft, performed anti-submarine duties (especially in the Atlantic), and close air support for amphibious operations (especially in the Pacific).

During the second half of 1943, Suwannee escorted convoys and supported the invasion of Tarawa. Skillman was promoted to aviation ordnanceman 2nd class on December 1, 1943. The following year, Suwannee supported operations in the Marshall Islands, Palau, in the vicinity of Hollandia on New Guinea, in the Mariana Islands, and in the invasion of the Philippines, including the climactic Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Skillman’s records recorded that he “Crossed equater [sic] and 180th meridian at hour of Vernal Equinox on 21 March 1944. Qualified as Shellback, Golden Dragon and Purple Porpoise.” (Curiously, unless he flew to New Caledonia, Skillman must have already crossed the equator by sea at least once.)


The Battle of Leyte Gulf

During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in the morning of October 25, 1944, Suwannee was operating with the task unit known as Taffy 1 when it came under attack. According to the ship’s records, Suwannee’s radar picked up a group of enemy aircraft 30 miles out. Suwannee’s gunners opened fire, but one plane struck the carrier.

According to a November 6, 1944, report by the ship’s executive officer, Commander Schermerhorn Van Mater:

On 25 October at 0804 [hours] an enemy so-called “Suicide Plane” struck the flight deck of U.S.S. SUWANNEE just forward of the after elevator, its engine penetrating through the hanger deck to the main deck and its bomb exploding on the hanger deck.

U.S.S. Suwannee hit on October 25, 1944. The plane at left is an F6F Hellcat which unsuccessfully attempted to intercept the kamikaze. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The ship’s medical officer recorded casualties as 30 killed (plus another 42 who subsequently succumbed to their wounds, for a total of 72 dead) and 82 wounded.

Although suicide attacks using aircraft had occurred sporadically during the war, Leyte Gulf saw the first use by the Japanese of the of the Special Attack Unit (the infamous kamikazes), organized with the specific intention of using this tactic in combat.

Documents in Skillman’s personnel file indicate that he was blown overboard in grievously wounded. Although rescued by a destroyer escort, U.S.S. Richard S. Bull (DE-402), he died of his wounds at 1400 hours the same day. A memorandum dated November 15, 1944, stated that Skillman was one of five men recovered by the Richard S. Bull who had been identified by their fingerprints.

Memorandum that Skillman had been identified by his fingerprints (National Personnel Records Center)

Suwannee resumed flight operations but came under attack again the following day. Commander Van Mater wrote in his report:

On 26 October at about 1232 another plane struck and destroyed the forward elevator, its bomb exploding on contact with the flight deck. A minute or two later a bomb from another enemy plane struck the flight deck just above the catapult room, penetrating to and exploding in that room.

According to the medical officer’s report, in the second attack 16 men were killed outright and another 20 died of their wounds, a total of 36 dead. 78 men were wounded. In total, casualties from the two attacks were recorded as 108 dead and 160 wounded.

In his book, US Navy Escort Carriers 1942–45, Mark E. Stille wrote:

The entire nature of the threat against the escort carriers changed with the introduction of the kamikaze. The kamikaze lacked the means to deal mortal blows to large ships. The exception to this rule was aircraft carriers since they possessed the sources to start and sustain a conflagration. This danger was heightened on escort carriers, which lacked the protection, fire-fighting capabilities, and large damage control crews found on fleet carriers. For these reasons, and because escort carrier air defense capabilities were inadequate to start with, the largest ships sunk by kamikazes were escort carriers. In 1944, seven were struck and damaged, and one, St Lo, was sunk by kamikazes. In 1945, the toll grew, with nine escort carriers damaged and two, Ommaney Bay and Bismarck Sea, sunk.

The Suwannee‘s damage was repaired at Puget Sound Navy Yard and the ship returned to action the following year. Skillman was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. For the collective actions of its crew, including Skillman, the Suwannee was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

In a letter to Skillman’s mother dated January 8, 1945, Commander H. B. Atkinson of the Casualty Notification and Processing Section wrote:

It is with deep regret you are now advised that a report has been received which states that your son lost his life of 25 October 1944.  He was rescued by a United States vessel and died on board that ship as a result of the wounds he had received.  His remains were buried at sea in the Western Pacific in accordance with the time honored custom of the Navy.

Copy of condolence letter sent to Skillman’s mother (National Personnel Records Center)

Skillman’s personal effects (a fountain pen, and a leather wallet with $50.80 in cash) were shipped to his father. In the meantime, Margaret R. Skillman wrote to the Suwannee’s commanding officer to try to obtain them, explaining:

          My two younger sons would appreciate any personal effects that can be forwarded, they are very proud of their brother.  You see the father and I have been separated fifteen years and they have always been together.  I know it would have been his wish, as he made me a family allotment to help with the other boys, on his bonds I was co-owner and was beneficiary of his insurance.  The father does not contribute toward our support.  We would appreciate his personal effects as they are a small part of him.

Aviation Ordnanceman 2nd Class Skillman is honored on a cenotaph at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, at Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle, Delaware, and on Newark’s World War II memorial.

Skillman’s death certificate (National Personnel Records Center)

Notes

Middle Name

The State of Delaware Individual Military Service Record, filled out just after the war by Ella V. Sands (his paternal grandmother), gives his middle name as Roberts. That was his mother’s maiden name (not an uncommon practice for middle names at the time). It is certainly possible that Roberts was originally his middle name, though it is also possible that his grandmother was simply mistaken. Regardless, Skillman enlisted in the U.S. Navy under the name Ralph Robert Skillman, and signed his name that way on several documents in his personnel file.

Education

The November 16, 1944, article in The Newark Post stated that Skillman graduated from Newark High School, but he was not listed as a senior in the 1941 or 1942 Newark High School yearbooks. Indeed, if the 1940 census data (which stated that he had completed 8th grade) is correct, he could not have completed more than his junior year of high school. Skillman would have graduated in 1943, but he joined the U.S. Navy in 1942.

Time in VF-27

It’s unclear where Skillman was stationed during his time with VF-27. A summary of the unit entitled “Fighting 27 History” stated: “Upon redesigination as VF-27 in March 1943, the squadron operated their Wildcats ashore at Guadalcanal until July, except for a brief period at sea, again aboard the USS Suwannee, in June.”

Rating

Articles in The Newark Post and the Wilmington Morning News give his rating as gunner’s mate 2nd class at the time of his death, as does the Delaware World War II Memorial Volume (published by the Public Archives Commission in 1949, but likely using those articles as a source). However, the State of Delaware Individual Military Service Record filled out by his grandmother and U.S. Navy records give his rating as aviation ordnanceman 3rd class (2nd class by the time of his death).

Death

There were six separate lists of casualties in the medical officer’s “Reports of Killed and Wounded.” There was one list for those killed in action in each of the two attacks (that is, those who died outright or immediately after the attack), one list each for those who died of wounds due to each attack, and one list of wounded in each attack. The report clearly states that Skillman died of wounds received in the first attack (October 25, 1944), although it does not give a date of death. His personnel file shows that he was mortally wounded in the first attack and died of his wounds the same day.

On the other hand, the ship “Report of Changes” stated that he was missing after the second attack (October 26, 1944) and “remains not recovered.” One database, the Register, World War II Dead Interred in American Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil and World War II and Korea Missing or Lost or Buried at Sea gives his date of death as October 29, 1944. Documents in his personnel file conclusively disprove both of these versions of his death.

U.S.S. Richard S. Bull History

The U.S.S. Richard S. Bull ship history mentioned some details about the kamikaze attack and rescue of survivors:

The Bull hit the diving plane with her machine guns, but was unable to stop it.  The Bull was ordered to pick up survivors from the Suwan[n]ee, and shortly thereafter put over her whaleboat.  Twenty survivors were hauled out of the sea, five of whom died shortly after, either in the whaleboat or on the ship.  After hoisting aboard the whaleboat, the Bull went alongside the Sangamon (CVE-26) where she received medical supplies and took aboard a doctor.

The history added that later that same day, “Burial services were held for the men of the stricken carrier who had died aboard the Bull.”

Suwannee Casualties

The Wikipedia article about Suwannee gives figure of 107 dead rather than 108. There may be an error in the casualty report, or the 107 figure may omit Steward’s Mate 1st Class John L. Castille, whose name was appended to the list of those who died of wounds resulting from the October 25, 1944, attack.


Acknowledgments

Thanks to the Newark History Museum for the use of their photo.


Bibliography

“Anti-Aircraft Action by Surface Ships.” National Archives via the USS Suwannee (CVE-27) website. http://www.usssuwannee.org/images/Kerr%20Files/Disk%2001/Leyte%20Action%20Report/Leyte10.pdf

“AOM2 Ralph Roberts Skillman.” Find a Grave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/56777618/ralph-roberts-skillman

“Fighting 27 History.” http://www.oocities.org/vande4275472/History.html

“Missing in Action.” The Newark Post, November 16, 1944. Pg. 1. https://udspace.udel.edu/bitstream/handle/19716/18955/np_035_40.pdf

Muster Rolls of U.S. Navy Ships, Stations, and Other Naval Activities, 1/1/1939–1/1/1949. Record Group Number 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/311984616 (arrival aboard U.S.S. Suwannee), https://www.fold3.com/image/311984617 (transfer to VF-27), https://www.fold3.com/image/311984622 (return to Suwannee), https://www.fold3.com/image/311984788 (promotion), https://www.fold3.com/image/311985037 (death)

Ralph Robert Skillman Official Military Personnel File. National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri.

“Reports of Killed and Wounded.” National Archives, via the USS Suwannee (CVE-27) website. http://www.usssuwannee.org/images/Kerr%20Files/Disk%2001/Leyte%20Action%20Report/Leyte12.pdf

Sands, Ella V. Ralph Roberts Skillman Individual Military Service Record, circa October 1946. Record Group 1325-003-053, Record of Delawareans Who Died in World War II.  Delaware Public Archives, Dover, Delaware. https://cdm16397.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/p15323coll6/id/20852/rec/1

Gattman, J. R. “Ship’s History.” October 12, 1945. World War II War Diaries, 1941–1945. Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/301979553

Sobel, Eli “Enemy Attacks, preliminary report on” dated November 3, 1944, from U.S.S. Suwannee records at the National Archives. USS Suwannee (CVE-27) website. http://www.usssuwannee.org/images/Kerr%20Files/Disk%2001/Leyte%20Action%20Report/Leyte11.pdf

Stille, Mark E. US Navy Escort Carriers 1942–45. Osprey Publishing, 2017.

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/6224/images/4606970_00230

United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/2442/images/m-t0627-00546-00274

“USS Suwannee (CVE-27).” Wikipedia. Updated April 18, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Suwannee_(CVE-27)

U.S.S. Suwannee (CVE-27) war diary. World War II War Diaries, 1941–1945. Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. National Archives at College Park, Maryland. https://www.fold3.com/image/269421547, https://www.fold3.com/image/269459841

Van Mater, Schermerhorn. “Executive Officer’s Report.” November 6, 1944. National Archives via the USS Suwannee (CVE-27) website. http://www.usssuwannee.org/images/Kerr%20Files/Disk%2001/Leyte%20Action%20Report/Leyte11.pdf, http://www.usssuwannee.org/images/Kerr%20Files/Disk%2001/Leyte%20Action%20Report/Leyte12.pdf

WWII Buried At Sea (2016 DPAA List). https://www.fold3.com/record/700005265/skillman-ralph-r-wwii-buried-at-sea-2016-dpaa-list


Last updated on September 23, 2022

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