Super Senior: Ken Wilkins
We turn on the spigot this week for Super Senior, the long-running WCAX series. Our Joe Carroll had so much to tell about Ken Wilkins and Alya Baker, he needed two-parts.
Ken Wilkins is about to get a birthday surprise. Fellow veteran Navy submariners have come to recognize his service on the USS Skate during World War II.
"For heavens sake, I wasn't ready for this," said the 95 year-old. It was 75 years ago on his birthday that could have been his last.
"Yeah, it was my birthday when we went through the mine field," Wilkins said. He was 20 to be exact, with 80 other men crammed in a submarine off the coast of Japan, slowly going through a submerged mine field. "This is the entrance to where all the mines were."
There was no birthday celebration, just silence so the crew wouldn't tip off the Japanese listening above. That was until they suddenly hit a mine cable. "We thought we were a goner because if it hangs up on something, it will drag the mine down," Wilkins said.
Reporter Joe Carroll: How tense was that?
Ken Wilkins: Well, it was a pretty quiet boat.
The submarine was eventually able to free itself from the mine. "It took four hours -- it was a long one," Wilkins said.
He says submarine duty during the war was very dangerous, with casualty rates over 20 percent.
Reporter Joe Carroll: Did you ever ask yourself, why on earth did I become a submariner?
Ken Wilkins: Well, I know why, not to come back half a man. Yeah, either you come back or you don't.
The subs grouped in what were called 'Wolf Packs,' with two other subs traveling up the coast of Japan in the spring of 1945, picking off military and transport ships. Unfortunately, the USS Bonefish never made it home after it was lost in combat along with all souls onboard.
One of the USS Skate's "kills" was a Japanese sub. The Americans put two torpedoes into it's side. "That caused a lot of silence on the boat, because even though they were the enemy, they were submariners," Wilkins said.
At around 400 feet below the surface, the doomed sub started to break up. "We could visually picture what was happening to them. So, it wasn't a hurrah so much, it was a... hum," Wilkins said.
Sobering thoughts for a man who had just turned 20. While he was at sea, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and shortly after the war was over.
Fast forward to 2020 and the Green Mountain Base of US Veteran Submariners want to show Ken appreciation for his service -- a certificate that honors his 75 years being qualified in being in submarines.
Of course there was a lot of living after he finished his service. On Friday, Joe Carroll explains how Wilkins met his wife, Alya. Their life story couldn’t be more different.