Ship's History

The History of the

USS Robert L. Wilson DD/DDE 847

“Any man who may be asked what he did to make his life worthwhile…

can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction,

I served in the United States Navy”

                                                                 John Fitzgerald Kennedy


USS Robert L. Wilson DD 847 was laid down by the Bath Iron Works Corporation of Bath, Maine on 2 July 1945. The USS Robert L. Wilson DD 847 was launched 5 January 1946. The Wilson was commissioned at the Boston Naval Shipyard on 28 March 1946 with Commander John T. Probasco, USN in command. The sponsor was Mrs. Joe Wilson, mother of Private First Class Wilson. The commissioning ceremony marked the transition from construction to active service as a unit of the United States Fleet. At the moment of the hoisting of the Commissioning Pennant, The USS Robert L. Wilson DD 847 became the responsibility of her Commanding Officer. He, together with the officers and crew, took on the duty of making her and keeping her constantly ready for any active service demanded by her country in war or in peace.

Robert Lee Wilson, in whose honor the USS Robert L. Wilson was named, was born in Centralia, Illinois on 24 March 1921.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps at Chicago on 9 September 1941 and was called to active duty on 12 September 1941.  He received his training at the Marine Corps Base, U.S. Naval Operating Base, San Diego, California.  Upon completion of this vigorous training, he was sent to the forward area on 20 January 1942.  While serving with the First Marine Division in August 1942, he was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation during action on Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands.  Again in November 1943, with the Second Marine Division, he was awarded a second Presidential Unit Citation for outstanding performance in combat on Tarawa of the Gilbert Islands.  Private First Class Wilson also wore the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, the American Defense Service Medal, the Purple Heart and a Gold Star in lieu of a second Purple Heart.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously with the following citation.

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with the Second Battalion, Sixth Marines, Second Marine Division, during action against enemy Japanese forces on Tinian Island, Marianas Group on 3 August 1944.  As one of a group of Marines advancing through heavy underbrush to neutralize isolated points of resistance, Private First Class Wilson daringly preceded his companions toward a pile of rocks where Japanese troops were supposed to be hiding.  Fully aware of the danger involved, he was moving forward while the remainder of the squad armed with automatic rifles closed together in the rear, when an enemy grenade landed in the midst of the group.  Quick to act, Private First Class Wilson cried a warning to the men and unhesitatingly threw himself on the grenade, heroically sacrificing his own life that the others might live and fulfill their mission.  His exceptional valor, courageous loyalty and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave peril reflect the highest credit upon Private First Class Wilson and the United States Naval Service.  He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

Following a shakedown cruise in Cuban waters, USS Robert L. Wilson sailed from Norfolk, VA on 23 July, 1946 for a six-month tour of duty with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea.  She returned to the United States in February of 1947, spending the next two years based at Newport, RI.  During this time, she operated off the Atlantic Coast and in the Caribbean Sea.

After being overhauled at the Boston Navy Yard, she stood out of Hampton Roads, VA on a midshipmen cruise to Plymouth, England; Cherbourg, France; and Guatanamo Bay, Cuba.  On 4 March 1950, USS Robert L. Wilson was redesignated an Escort Destroyer, DDE 847.  She finished out the year with a midshipmen-training cruise to Northern Europe and duty in the Mediterranean Sea.  This cruise included special anti-submarine warfare demonstrations and hunter-killer operations along the United States Eastern Seaboard out of Norfolk, VA.

On 1 January 1951, as a result of fleet reorganization, USS Robert L. Wilson became a unit of Escort Squadron 4 and hoisted the pennant of Commander, Escort Division 42.  By 30 June 1960, she had completed eight tours of service in the Mediterranean Sea since commissioning, provided training for cadets of the U.S. Military Academy and conducting the annual summer midshipmen cruises for the U.S. Naval Academy, always stressing anti-submarine tactics.  On 1 July 1956, she was assigned to the newly established Destroyer Squadron 36.  This squadron was composed of destroyer escort type ships that were specially configured for anti-submarine missions while still maintaining the capability of handling all destroyer missions.  During the last week of November and the early part of December 1959, USS Robert L. Wilson and two other escort destroyers participated in “Operation Monsoon,” manning sea-air rescue stations for the presidential flight to Europe from the United States.  She then operated in the Western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea until she went into Norfolk Navy Yard for overhaul in the summer of 1960.  A shakedown cruise and crew training at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, followed this overhaul.

Returning to the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean operations in January 1961, USS Robert L. Wilson pursued the Portuguese liner SS Santa Maria that had been seized by a group of revolutionaries. An 8-day chase took Wilson across the equator to Recife, Brazil. Returning to Norfolk, Wilson underwent a month of preparation, then departed on 8 June for her ninth Mediterranean cruise. She spent the fall and winter of 1961 operating in the Western Atlantic out of Norfolk.

In January 1962, Wilson participated in recovery operations for the Project Mercury manned space capsule. Wilson deployed with Task Group Bravo to Northern Europe in February, returning to Norfolk in mid-June 1962. Wilson and the other ships of Destroyer Division 362 deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba as a unit under the command of the Naval Base Commander for the purpose of base defense. She was at Guantanamo Bay and in adjacent waters during late November 1962 and operated locally until March 1963 when she entered the Phildelphia Naval Shipyard for a FRAM I modernization. Emerging from her overhaul period in 1964, she continued to serve with the Atlantic Fleet for the balance of that year and throughout 1965.

After serving as gunfire support ship at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in late January and early February 1966, USS Robert L. Wilson was assigned the abort station for the first unmanned Apollo space shot. In April and June 1966, she was rescue destroyer for USS Wasp CVS-18, prime recovery ship for the Gemini 9 space mission. Following ASW exercises, she made her twelfth deployment to the Mediterranean on 22 July 1966, returning to on Norfolk 17 December 1966. Following service as school-ship for the Fleet Sonar School in January and February, Wilson spent the rest of 1967 operating in the Atlantic and the Caribean Sea.

USS Robert L. Wilson continued these operations until May 1968 when she joined the search for nuclear submarine Scorpion.  She searched the continental shelf off the coast of Norfolk and the followed the Scorpion’s track back to her last reported position Southwest of the Azores without success. Returning to Norfolk on 13 June 1968, Wilson operated in the Atlantic until steaming on 6 September 1968 for a Western Pacific deployment.

Touching at San Diego, Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guam, and Subic Bay, USS Robert L. Wilson took up a naval gunfire support mission 36 miles south of Hue, the ancient capital of South Vietnam. She then undertook search and rescue duty in the Gulf of Tonkin after 28 October 1968, destroying two sampans with .50 caliber machinegun fire and hand grenades. In early November1968, Wilson was assigned as plane guard for USS Constellation CVA-64 on Yankee Station. She remained in the Far East through the end of the year.

Wilson returned to San Diego from the Far East on 27 March 1969, and operated off the West Coast until transiting the Panama Canal and arriving in Norfolk on 21 June 1969. She then operated in the Western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea until deploying to the Mediterranean Sea on 5 March 1970. During this Mediterranean cruise, USS Robert L. Wilson participated in two combined NATO exercises; DAWN PATROL and MEDTACEX.  She was, for a time, diverted to the Levantine Basine due to another Middle East crisis. She returned to Norfolk 16 September 1970 for a leave, upkeep, and training cycle, which continued until the end of the year.

Upon completion of overhaul, refresher training and other operations in the Atlantic, USS Robert L. Wilson commenced another deployment to the Sixth Fleet, departing from Norfolk 17 September 1971. After six months away, she returned 17 March 1972 and completed the year operating out of Norfolk. She continued to operate out of Norfolk throughout 1973 and 1974.   She was then assigned a new homeport in Philadelphia, PA. This proved to the last port for this U.S. Navy warship.  She was decommissioned and stricken from the Navy list on 30 September 1974.  Although designated as a target for destruction in July of 1976 and relocated to Norfolk, VA, it was not until 25 January 1980 that she was sunk as a target in 3,010 fathoms (18,060 ft) of water.  Her final resting place is at location 020 Degrees, 00 Minutes, 00.7 Seconds North Latitude and 062 Degrees, 00 Minutes, 00.2 Seconds East Longitude, 286 miles NE of San Juan PR, 857 miles East of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and 1227 miles SE of Miami, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean.  These were the same waters where she had sailed in for so many years, completed countless successful missions on behalf of the United States of America and provided a safe home for so many U.S. Navy sailors.

The USS Robert L. Wilson DD/DDE 847 was born out of the greatest war known to man, and served the country that created and manned her, during peacetime and wartime, for over 28 years.  The USS Robert L. Wilson DD/DDE 847 earned three battle stars for service in the Vietnam conflict and the eternal respect of those who served aboard her.

As a lasting testimony to her and the friendship shared by her crew, the USS Robert L. Wilson DD/DDE 847 Association was founded in 1982 in Norfolk, VA.  The association members, spouses and guests continue to meet annually for fun, relaxation and especially to swap sea-stories about their adventurous days aboard the “Willy Boat.”

Compiled by John E. Scully, former Seaman & Fire Control Technician 3rd Class aboard the USS Robert L. Wilson, 1960-1962 and former President and Secretary/Treasurer of the USS Robert L. Wilson DD/DDE 847 Association.

November 5, 1999