Three WWII veterans share faith, Navy in common

Eighty years after America entered the war, three South Carolina Baptists who are among an ever-dwindling number of veterans of World War II share something in common, in addition to their faith: They all served in the Navy.

Myles Isbell, now 94, was only 17 years old when he joined the Navy. At the time, the Navy was building ships called LSTs, short for “Landing Ship, Tanks,” for amphibious assaults, and he was assigned to one. Aboard the LST-540, Isbell would serve in both the European and Pacific theaters.

Early on, the ship was part of a convoy near the English coastline that was training along the upper shores of England when it was attacked by German E-boats. That convoy lost six of its transport ships to torpedoes, Isbell recalled.

Myles Isbell, gunner’s mate

The LST was also among about 200 to participate in the Normandy invasion on D-day. “Normandy was 30 miles long, that was all shore. Part of it was covered by high property, with big guns to protect the shoreline,” he recalled. “It was said to be Hitler’s pride and joy. He said, ‘Nobody could ever come in there.’ But we did!”

His LST made 38 runs back and forth from England to the beach, ferrying tanks, ammunition, and other supplies. “We would take trucks, troops, jeeps, whatever they needed over. Then, going back, we would take prisoners and the wounded to England,” he said.

“I was a gunner’s mate; I used to fire the guns,” Isbell said. “I was on an anti-aircraft gun when we hit the beach in Normandy.” Isbell later became a helmsman and steered the ship.

The LST-540 also participated in amphibious assaults on various Japanese islands. After Japan surrendered, the boat would be turned over to the Japanese to be used for humanitarian relief efforts.

“They gave it to the Japanese to haul food to the islands. There are a lot of islands out from Japan, where they didn’t have any food or any stores,” Isbell explained. “I was on that ship from the time it was built until it was done [turned over].”

Isbell was then transferred to a Naval oil tanker, which made runs between China and Bahrain, Arabia. “I’m the only one that I know of that’s alive today, who had traveled during World War II around the world,” he said.

He was fortunate, though, to have never been injured. “No, I never as much as had a scratch,” he said.

He and his second wife, Barbara, are members of Clearview Baptist Church in Travelers Rest. “Miles is such an important part of Clearview and the Greenville community,” said Pastor Michael Welch. “In many ways, he is a modern-day hero. He is quick to give God the credit for where he is today. Miles has had the opportunity to share with our congregation on multiple occasions how he has seen God’s provision.”

Gordon Leslie was a freshman at Clemson University when he was drafted for service in 1943. When a recruiting officer at Fort Jackson asked how he’d like being in the Navy, he responded, “I wouldn’t like that at all. I don’t swim, and I don’t like the water,” Leslie said. But he was inducted into the Navy anyway.

Gordon Leslie, signalman

At first, Leslie wasn’t assigned to a ship. Instead, after boot camp at a Maryland base, he was sent to Norfolk to serve in a mess hall, “washing dishes, peeling potatoes, and stuff like that,” he recalled. While additions and repairs were being made on ships there, crew members would eat at the mess hall, he explained.

When he was finally selected, Leslie went aboard the USS Whitehurst, a destroyer that escorted fuel tankers and supply ships. “I was trained as one of six signalmen,” he said. “Flashing lights and flags were used to send messages to other ships.”

The Whitehurst performed escort duties in the Pacific, along the Philippine Islands, Leslie explained, noting that two days after a Japanese submarine sank an American ship, they found and sank the sub.

When the Americans landed on Okinawa in April 1945, the Whitehurst was part of a task force, protecting transports and cargo vessels. The destroyer drove off enemy planes that attacked the ships.

Leslie was injured by a kamikaze attack on April 12, when four dive-bombers attacked his ship from all directions. Two of the planes were shot down, but one tore through the pilot house, penetrating bulkheads and starting fires that enveloped the bridge. Thirty-six sailors were killed, and six of those listed as missing in action were never recovered.

“It hit 12 to 15 feet from where I was standing,” Leslie recalled. “I was next to the closest crew member,” Leslie said. “A 50-pound bomb [on the plane] did not go off on impact, but went all the way through the bridge of the ship and exploded over the water,” he said.

“I got hit by several pieces of shrapnel in my shoulder,” Leslie continued. Along with several other medals, he received the Purple Heart for his valor.

The Whitehurst later was converted into a floating electric power station, which supplied the city of Manila with power from August through October 1945.

After the war, Leslie completed his degree in architectural engineering at Clemson, after which he worked with his uncle who was an architect in Newberry. He owned and operated the Leslie Company for approximately 65 years and sold Seagrave firetrucks for many of those years. He was married to Miriam Leslie from 1950 until her death in 2008.

At 97, Leslie is a longtime member of First Baptist Church, Newberry, where he has served in many leadership positions, including youth department director, deacon, Sunday school teacher, training union leader, and choir member. He has been “a strong and consistent lay leader for decades after the war,” Pastor Albert Allen noted.

“I got to First Baptist, Newberry, as pastor a little late to witness Gordon [Leslie] in full stride and strength as one of our church’s most impactful lay leaders, but I have seen his faith and have experienced his warm friendship, his gentle and sweet spirit, and his stories (and hugs) in copious supply,” Allen said. “Gordon loves Jesus, his family, his church, his country and his pastor. He has faithfully served each with honor and distinction.”

Bill Donahue, helmsman

Before joining the Navy, Bill Donahue was working as a delivery boy in Columbia. Then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and his boyhood was over. He enlisted three weeks later.

“At the time, I was 16 years old,” Donahue said. He would turn 17 on Jan. 15, but he wrote on the form that he was 18. “There were no questions asked because they were just needing people then,” he said.

He was assigned to the USS Delta, which soon made a supply run to Iceland. On the way back, somewhere off the coast of Greenland or Newfoundland, Donahue accepted Jesus as his Savior.

Donahue, now 96, recounted to fellow members of North Trenholm Baptist Church in Columbia in a Veterans Day video how he was steering the ship during a midnight-to-4-a.m. watch, when German submarines were known to pick off ships in the sea lanes. “A little after 3 a.m., the captain said, ‘If we can make it past four o’clock, I think we’ll make it,’” Donahue recalled. As soon as he was relieved from duty, he returned to his compartment, which was below the waterline. “I knelt by my bunk and asked the Lord to come into my life,” he shared.

The USS Delta later joined a 32-ship convoy that formed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. By the fifth day, the convoy had lost 21 of its ships. German subs were following convoys and torpedoing ships at night, Donahue said.

About two o’clock one morning, Donahue walked out onto the ship’s deck, looked over the starboard side, and saw two torpedoes heading right for the ship. “In that salt water, they looked like spotlights running under there, but I knew it was torpedoes,” he said. “There was nothing I could do. I just sort of froze and waited for the explosion.”

But an explosion didn’t happen. The torpedoes apparently streaked past his ship. “The Lord was guiding it, and He spared us from that,” Donahue said.

“I think the scaredest I was — and I was scared a lot,” he admitted, “was when we got word that airplanes were coming in” on bombing runs. “When I was stationed at the guns, I had a trigger and a foot pedal, and I’d mash both of them because I wanted to be sure they fired,” he said.

After the war, Donahue went into automotive repair at a Chevrolet dealership. He met Helen, and they soon were married. “The Lord has been so good to me. Where I started from, with nothing, to what I have now has just been a total miracle.

“Today I am here because of what the Lord has made me, and what He helped me with. And I give credit to the Lord because He handed me most of it,” Donahue added.

He and his wife joined the church about the third week it was open for services, he said. Since November 1957, they have been very involved in the church. “I’ve served on every committee in the church, but the WMU,” he quipped.

“Bill Donahue has been a faithful member at North Trenholm and a servant of our Lord throughout Columbia for years,” said Pastor Casey Williams. “His family’s testimony serves as a witness to his love for Christ, his commitment to living out God’s Word, and his selfless service to his country. I consider it as one of my greatest honors to serve as his pastor, and pray that I will be able to serve our Lord as faithfully as Bill Donahue has all these years.”

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