WWII Navy vets hold U.S.S. Biloxi reunion in Maggie

By Jessi Stone Assistant editor | Jun 01, 2014
Photo by: Jessi Stone Harold Penn, left, flips through an old photo album as he and other shipmates from the U.S.S. Biloxi recall their experience during World War II.

Even though their crew gets smaller each year, the World War II veterans who were aboard the U.S.S. Biloxi before it was decommissioned in 1946 gather together once a year for a reunion.

The group, which was once 400 strong, has held reunions all over the country since 1976, and this year they chose to have their reunion at Smoky Falls Lodge in Maggie Valley. The weekend is a happy time for the remaining seven men who sat at Smoky Falls Lodge looking over old photo albums and telling old war stories.

But it is an emotional time for Marilyn Moore and her sister Donna Sonenberg, both of Waynesville, who help plan the reunion each year. Their father, Harold Penn, 89, was a U.S. Marine aboard the Biloxi.

“As you can imagine, there are so few of these veterans left and this may well be our last one,” Moore said. “(Dad) served as a Marine on a naval ship in the heat of the Pacific battle… I am so proud to be his daughter.”

The Biloxi had a crew on about 1,200. When asked how long they were stationed on the cruiser, “forever” was Larry “Slatts” Slattemgren’s best guess.

These sailors have nine battle stars, were hit by a torpedo and a Japanese kamikaze. Because of the damage the Biloxi sustained during the war, it was soon decommissioned after the war.

“It was the best damn cruiser in the fleet,” said Clarence Inman.

The Biloxi, a 10,000-ton Cleveland class light cruiser built at Newport News, Virginia, was commissioned at the end of August 1943. In 1944, the ship was assigned to screen the carrier striking forces during their frequent attacks on Japanese-held islands and in the battles of the Philippine Sea in June 1944 and Leyte Gulf in October.

Biloxi bombarded Iwo Jima when the island was invaded in February. During late March and the first weeks of April her guns actively supported the landings and ground operations on Okinawa. According to Naval Historic Center, the ship was taking part in pre-invasion bombardment there on March 27 when it was hit by a Japanese suicide attack plane, but remained in action with minimal damage.

Returning to the U.S. late in 1945, the Biloxi soon began decommissioning at Bremerton, Washington, in October 1946. She was part of the Pacific Reserve Fleet for the next decade and a half. USS Biloxi was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in September 1961 and sold for scrapping in March 1962.

Penn said some of the Biloxi’s scraps, along with scraps from seven other Naval ships, were used to construct The Lone Sailor statue at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., that was unveiled in 1987.

During the group’s 2006 reunion in Washington, D.C., the group visited the Lone Sailor and a service was held to honor Biloxi’s 12 fallen shipmates. Penn said when he returned home, he received a call from the Navy asking if he wanted a large piece of the main deck they had. Of course he said yes, and his shipmate Inman used it to make 50 large picture frames to give to the remaining sailors.

The remaining Biloxi crew held a Memorial Day service on May 17 at Smoky Falls Lodge while Ron Rookstool with the Haywood Community Band played “Taps.”