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

Ralph R. Skillman (Courtesy of the Newark History Museum)
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 Heart (presumed)Marshall Islands, Palau, Mariana Islands, Battle of Leyte Gulf

Early Life & Family

Ralph Roberts Skillman was born in Elkton, Maryland, around November 1925. He was the son of Robert M. and Margaret Skillman (née Roberts). As of April 17, 1930, when the 1930 census was taken, he 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. Skillman attended Newark High School. 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.


Military Career

Skillman volunteered for the U.S. Navy in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 3, 1942. The November 16, 1944, article in The Newark Post stated that his training was “at Long Island, Memphis, Tennessee and Norfolk, Va.” After his training, Skillman shipped out from San Francisco, California, to the South Pacific.

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, Naval History and Heritage Command)

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.

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 performed 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.


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 was an F6F Hellcat which unsuccessfully attempted to intercept the kamikaze. (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.

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.

Understandably, following two deadly attacks in consecutive days, Suwannee’s records contain contradictions (discussed in the Notes section below). It is unclear which attack resulted in Skillman’s death. The medical officer’s report stated that Skillman was mortally wounded in the October 25, 1944, attack. After his death, he would have subsequently been buried at sea. Indeed, his name was on a list compiled by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency of servicemen who were buried at sea.

However, another document that recorded changes to ship personnel stated that he was missing and presumed dead following the October 26, 1944, attack.

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.

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.


Notes

Age

The 1930 census recorded Skillman’s age as four years and five months as of April 17, 1930. That suggests he was born around November 1925, which would mean he was probably 17 when he joined the U.S. Navy in 1943 and 18 or 19 when he was killed. The November 16, 1944, article in The Newark Post gave his age as 19 at the time. If correct, then the 1940 census erroneously recorded his age as 15 on April 2, 1940 (when, in fact, he would turn 15 later that year). However, discrepancies in ages are not uncommon in census records. When the National Personnel Records Center reopens after the pandemic, I am planning to obtain a copy of his personnel file, which should reveal his date of birth.

Middle Name

All U.S. Navy records available online give his middle name as Robert. However, his 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).

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. If this report is accurate, Skillman would have subsequently been buried at sea.

On the other hand, the “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, but it is unclear if this was when he died of wounds, when it was realized he was missing, or is simply an error.

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)

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. National Archives at Washington, D.C. https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=4283&h=135293

“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

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. Last edited April 18, 2020.

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 January 16, 2022

More stories of World War II fallen:

To have new profiles of fallen soldiers delivered to your inbox, please subscribe below.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s