WILLIAM F. GILLEN
Lieutenant Commander | United States Navy
“Silent mysteries of the Far East seas lurk within the domain of the Golden Dragon, to whom all dwellers must show honor and respect lest they witness the wrath of his displeasure.” So goes the lore of what lay beyond the International Date Line. The waters of Korea’s east coast lay still and glassy against what starlight shone off the surface. A small wooden whaleboat lowered down the hull of the U.S.S. Murrelet and slipped away into the sea for an intrepid little mission. Leading the volunteer crew was Lieutenant William F. Gillen, the Murrelet’s engineering officer, acting boat officer, and one of the creators of the innovative system used to locate sneaky enemy sampans.
The North Koreans became notorious for sneaking supplies up the coastline at night using the small craft that were silent, inconspicuous, and able to slide over un-swept areas laden with mines. Gillen and the Murrelet’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander John W. O’Neill, developed a system of radar to detect the elusive boats. The principles were similar to what fighter directors used on aircraft carriers. Gillen may have drawn on some experiences from when he was a Naval Aviation Cadet, though he washed out of the difficult course and opted for a place in the Merchant Marines.
He found a home at sea on the S.S. Benjamin Schlesinger among a typical crew of Mariners reputed to be full of drunks, thieves, liars, brawlers and gamblers but regarded as some of the most courageous and adventurous sea-going men of their time. The prospect of work and travel excited him, particularly after he spent much of his childhood at the Girard College for boys who were orphaned, homeless, or fatherless.
His first mission in the North Sea was bleak. Gray light prevailed for all hours of the day and barely dimmed at night. Ice over a foot thick lay above 29-degree waters restricting movement to an excruciatingly slow five knots. At that speed, without cover from a dark night sky, enemy planes or U-Boats creeping beneath the ice threatened to sink the merchant ship at any moment. Even if one survived the initial strike, no one could possibly survive long in the frigid waters. Their only protection was what they could deliver for anti-aircraft fire.
The Schlesinger made it to Archangel unscathed and the Russian dock workers – young women living on meager meals – unloaded their cargo. Gillen quickly appreciated the gravity of the Soviet contribution and suffering in the war. He returned to Scotland and finished the war steaming around on the S.S. John W. Brown in the more welcoming waters of the Mediterranean. After a few trips between Naples, Oran, the United States and back again, at the end of the war he graciously accepted a commission into the Naval Reserve and found himself fighting in Korea five years later.
The Murrelet had already established a reputation as an aggressive little ship by the time Gillen joined the crew. They were experienced in gunnery, having taken out a moving locomotive and even a cable car on a particularly slow day when no other targets presented themselves. She had been under fire several times and taken three hits – rough combat for a war scarce of Naval engagements. While cruising independently in mid-February 1952, the Murrelet’s radar detected something small in the direction of the beach about 10,000 yards away. Throttling to intercept, she illuminated the target to reveal a two-mast sampan. One 20-mm burst severed both sails and the boat lay dead in the water. Six North Koreans eagerly surrendered to the unassailable vessel and the sampan turned over to the ROK Navy.
After multiple similar incidents, Admiral Dyer demanded that crews implement armed whaleboats to capture sampan crews rather than sinking them. The dispatch prompted Commander O’Neil to get to work alongside Gillen to develop their unique detection system. The whaleboat itself required a willing crew, walkie talkies, and a custom radar reflector screen. An enthusiastic Gillen led the party on their missions. Ensign Suh In Byuk, an ROK Navy officer, accompanied the small crew acting as translator. In addition to the two officers, seven gallant sailors seized the opportunity for adventure: Boatswains Mate 1/c Frank Kennon, Stewardsman Brown, Seaman Clupe, Seaman French, Quartermaster 2/c Beauguard, Radarman 3/c Sherer and Fireman Chance.
The wooden craft had an operation range of three to four miles out from the ship. They remained close to the Murrelet when in swept waters, but operated alone when venturing out into mine-laden seas. The radar reflector enabled the Murrelet to vector the crew to contact and the walkie-talkies served as their only form of communication back to the ship. By May 1952, they had made six contacts resulting in six captured sampans and 26 prisoners, each time lashing sampans to the whaleboat and dragging them back to the Murrelet.
The contacts were adrenaline inducing, but relatively uncomplicated until May 31st. The usual crew motored out 3½ miles to meet a double contact. Next to the radio operator, Gillen listened to vectors coming in. These were passed over to the coxswain, Kennon, who deftly adjusted to the compass heading. “Hold that course,” came the voice over the radio. “You should be about 2000 yards….you ought to see them.” A moon shy of half glinted off the black waters of Hongwon Roads and illuminated the occupants of the two sampans: six figures in one and four in the other. Gillen ordered all hands to cover them with their weapons and Suh In stood up to call for their surrender.
“Son deul-eo!” he bellowed. “Ulineun dangsin-eul deop-eossseubnida. Hangboghageona juggeona!” Hands up! We’ve got you covered. Surrender or die!
The lot quickly threw up their arms and Kennon began to bring the boat closer to the sampans when one of the Koreans ducked down and hurled a grenade into the back end of the whaleboat. The blast blew a three-foot hole in the port quarter, instantly killed Kennon, mortally wounded Clupe, and wounded Brown as well. The Koreans unleashed a hail of small arms which the whaleboat crew countered with their own volley, immediately killing their adversaries from the rocking boat.
Lieutenant Gillen quickly stumbled to the stern and ordered the gaping hole to be plugged with their life vests. The sailors managed to stave off the flow sufficiently and feverishly bailed water using their steel helmets while the whaleboat floundered back to the Murrelet. It took nearly half an hour to limp back to the ship. From there, the sweeper could not cut back to Wonson fast enough despite cruising at top speed. Stewardsman Brown would survive, but Norman Clupe died from his wounds. The whaleboat crew of the Murrelet experienced naval combat like few others during the war.