WWII LEGACIES: Fort Wayne’s Wilbert Reinking- Navy
Wilbert Reinking was at Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago as a new recruit on December 7, 1941, when the alarming news arrived that the American naval base at Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese Imperial Navy. According to Reinking, one question was on everyone’s mind. “Where was Pearl Harbor?” he said. “We had never heard of it.
Reinking was born in 1924 in Fort Wayne. He attended Central High School until he turned 17 years old in September 1941. Then, Reinking quit school to enlist in the US Navy. “I thought of enlisting in the Marines but I was not muscular enough,” he said. He had learned how to swim and easily finished basic training before being assigned to the USS Butler.
The destroyer was named after Smedley Darlington Butler, a Marine who had fought with Teddy Roosevelt and had twice been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor awarded to a soldier for valor.
Note: American naval destroyers are named for people, while cruisers are named for cities (example: USS Indianapolis). Carriers and battleships are named for states.
After the Butler was commissioned in August 1942, the crew of approximately 300 completed frequent trips across the Atlantic Ocean. With a full armament, including 20-mm, 40-mm, and five-inch guns, as well as depth charge tracks, the Butler was equipped to provide escort protection to ships full of American troops headed to Europe, as well as other types of American ships that were part of the war effort.
During the next several months, the Butler’s crew traveled across the Atlantic often, providing security and Convoy duty for smaller vessels. In January 1943, the Butler arrived at Casablanca and Dakar in French West Africa.
Reinking recalled seven trips he completed aboard the Butler. “We were always alert when we were at sea,” he said. “We tried to evade the Japanese subs by zig-zagging through the waters. Every five minutes all of the ship captains coordinated this so we didn’t run into each other. They communicated via low-power radios so the Japanese didn’t pick it up.”
The crew observed two other provisions to avoid detection. They were not permitted to smoke aboard ship. “The lights could give away our location,” he said. Refuse disposal overboard was only done after sundown. “If an enemy sub came up and saw our garbage floating, they would know we were in the area.”
After an overhaul in New York and practicing with depth charges for enemy subs around Cape Cod, the Butler proceeded to the Mediterranean in summer 1943.
During his first year aboard ship, Reinking was part of the ship’s deck crew. “We scrubbed the floors and walls all day,” he said. In addition, Reinking was assigned watch from 4-8pm and again at 4-8am. “I didn’t get much sleep or rest,” he said.
Later, Reinking was transferred to the boiler room. The Butler had two boilers in the fore (front) and two boilers in the aft (back). “Two boilers were used at all times,” said Reinking. “The steam reached 900 degrees and we cruised at 23 knots (26.5 miles) per hour.”
In July and August 1943 the Butler fought at the Battle of Sicily. The crew picked up a German pilot who had been shot down and was floating in an inner tube. “He became a prisoner of war and was transferred to another ship,” said Reinking.
From down below at his battle station near the boiler at the forward part of the ship Reinking had heard the guns shooting, though he was unable to witness the actual battle.
It was a different matter the following June when the Butler fought at Utah beach during the Invasion of Normandy, also called D-Day, on June 6, 1944. “I was on deck and saw planes dropping bombs,” he said. “We were close enough to bombard.”
One particular target for the Allies was a German pillbox that hit many ships and planes. “It seemed to take a shot every five minutes,” said Reinking. Finally, one of the Allied offensive maneuvers aimed through the peephole and demolished the enemy hold.
When an American destroyer was sunk by German forces, the crew of the Butler brought the survivors from the cold water on board.
The Butler served escort duty throughout the remainder of the operation, then steamed for New York, arriving in late August 1944.
That fall Reinking was assigned shore duties in the Bronx, New York. Though disappointed to be off the ship, Reinking was glad for the move in spring 1945 when the Butler’s crew fought at the Battle of Okinawa. “During that battle, the front part of the ship was hit by a kamikaze,” he said. “If I would have been there in the boiler room, I was have been killed. I knew a couple of guys who died there.” Note: On May 25, approximately 14 men died by the assault, which included the loss of all steam and electric power.
With the Japanese surrender signed in September 1945, the war was over. Reinking was discharged from military service that fall, having never suffered injury. However, although Reinking was never seasick, he did suffer from another ailment in the Navy.
Early in the war, while the Butler had practiced using depth charges at Maine, Reinking began to feel queasy. He took some aspirin but by the time the Butler pulled into port at New York, he was too weak to carry his sea bag. At the hospital he was treated for a burst appendix. “It’s a good thing we were in port because we could not do surgery on board the Butler,” he said.
After the war, Reinking returned to high school and attended Indiana Tech. He worked for the Ohio Highway Department and was involved with several major road projects, including the Dan Ryan Expressway and John F. Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. He married in 1950 and he and his wife Nyra became parents to four children. Reinking participated with Honor Flight of Northeast Indiana in 2013. “I went to war without being drafted and thought nothing of it,” he said. “I was glad to be able to serve.”
Note: The Butler was decommissioned in November 1945. As a result of evading five attacks by kamikazes, the Butler received the Navy Unit Commendation for her service in the Okinawa operation and four battle stars for her World War II service. She was sold for scrapping in 1948.
Kayleen Reusser is an author who just finished the book “They Did It for Honor: Stories of American WWII Veterans” To read more about her book, click HERE