Remembering A.G. Wilkins

Gove Wilkins: Captain in the Marines

Gove Wilkins: Captain in the Marines

Born on April 25, 1920, and raised in Denver, Aaron Gove Wilkins, known by most as “Gove,” entered Dartmouth in the fall of 1938 as a member of the class of 1942.  It is quite possible that Gove knew of Dartmouth from his great uncle Frank Edward Gove (1865-1938), Class of 1888, and a well-known Denver lawyer, who died when Gove was a teenager.  Frank Gove’s brother, Aaron Morrill Gove (1867-1924) was Gove Wilkins’ maternal grandfather and a famous Denver architect, who designed the center section of Union Station in Denver, the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, the Macky Auditorium for the University of Colorado in Boulder, and several other buildings that display the Beaux-Arts Neoclassicism style.   Aaron Gove’s father and Gove Wilkins’ great grandfather, Major Edward Aaron Gove (1839-1919), was the Superintendent of the Denver Public School system for thirty years, after serving in the Civil War as adjutant with the 33rd Illinois infantry.  Major Gove received an Honorary Dartmouth degree in 1878, presumably in recognition of his outstanding work as a secondary school educator.  Thus, Gove had a second Dartmouth connection in his family!

Gove’s father, J. Herbert Wilkins, Jr. (1891-1981) was a well-known lawyer and realtor in Denver, as was his grandfather, James H. Wilkins (1864-1939).  Gove’s father married Margaret Gove in 1917 and Gove was born three years later a few years after his sister Margaret (“Margie”) (1918-2005) was born.  Both sides of Gove’s family – the Goves and the Wilkins – were quite famous in Denver.

Growing up in Denver, Gove and Margie were extremely close and were both active in high school activities.  The family spent many wonderful vacations at their summer home in Grand Lake near the Rocky Mountain National Park, a tradition that continues today with Margie’s two children and grandchildren, encompassing seven generations.  At East Denver High, which was also the high school attended by actor Douglas Fairbanks in the late 1890’s, young Gove played varsity football, was a member of the Pep Club, and both the Glee Club and Acappella Choir.  Perhaps indicative of his future leadership abilities, he was the track team manager and a member of the debating team.

Dartmouth academics proved challenging for Gove as his grades were below average for his freshman and sophomore years (none of today’s “grade inflation” in 1938!).  At the end of his sophomore fall term in 1940 he got a “scholarship warning”.  This reprimand had the effect of turning Gove’s academics around and his grades markedly improved, especially in Sociology, Public Speaking, and Education.  His worst grades were in Geology, Economics, and Spanish.  As a History major, Gove’s standing in 1941-42 was in the Third Honor Group, ranked 229th of 503 in the class of 1942. 

While at Dartmouth, Gove sang in the Glee Club, was a Cheerleader, and a member of Sigma Nu.  He lived in Hitchcock, in a dorm room (405) that no longer exists due to recent renovations.  Other Hitchcock dorm members of the class of 1942 were Robert Atwood, Richard Cardozo, and Armstrong Stambaugh.  Fellow History major and Glee Club member Guy Swenson remembers Gove as “a fellow bass”, and Leo Caponi, who was a pilot at Iwo Jima, remembers Gove as a “heck of a nice guy – well known in the class.”

Gove’s apparent dream was to follow in the footsteps of his father, his paternal grandfather, and his great uncle by attending law school after Dartmouth.  Indeed, his file reveals that his transcript was sent to the University of Michigan Law School on May 16, 1942, although he had signed up for the Marine Corps in January 1941.  His official enlistment occurred on April 6, 1942, just a month prior to his graduation from Dartmouth with a degree of Bachelor of Arts.  In fact, by May 18, 1942, Gove was attending officers’ school in Quantico, Virginia, as evidenced by his letter to the Dartmouth Dean:

May 18, 1942

Dear Dean,

Today the Captain asked certain ones of us to obtain from our colleges transcripts of our college work.  I would appreciate it very much if you would send me my transcript as soon as possible.

The class is nearly completed and these records are necessary for commission.  I believe there is a small sum connected with obtaining the above and if you will be kind enough to send a bill with the transcript I will send the money immediately.

Best wishes to you and the college.  I pray God that I may come back some day.

A. Gove Wilkins ‘42
P.F.C. A. G. Wilkins
Co. B. Candidate Class
Marine Barracks
Quantico, Va.

On June 13, 1942, Gove was appointed as second lieutenant and attended reserve officers’ class at Quantico, Virginia, where in August he was assigned as an ROTC instructor. On January 13, 1943, he was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.  After a year of duty as an ROTC instructor with the training regiment, on January 8, 1944, Gove was transferred to Headquarters and Service Company of the 28th Marine Regiment at Camp Pendleton, California. From January 14, 1944, through March 10, 1944, he attended the motor transport school at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and then returned to his unit at Camp Pendleton.  On April 1, 1944, he was promoted to his ultimate rank of Captain, and on June 26, 1944, he became the commanding officer of Headquarters Company, First Battalion, 28th Marines.

Gove’s final promotion came on August 29, 1944, when he was given command of Able Company, First Battalion, 28th Marines.  As commanding officer of Able Company, Captain Gove Wilkins was responsible for the lives of more than 200 men, as they were soon to enter World War II in the Pacific.  Gove wrote the following letter to his sister and her baby daughter (“Lizbe”) shortly after his promotion and before embarking to Iwo Jima:

Dated September 6, 1944 (Camp Pendleton, CA)
To:  Miss Elizabeth Effinger 400 Lafayette Street, Denver, CO
Tuesday

Dear “Lizbe,”

This time I write to you.  Maybe you will want to cherish these words for yourself but please at least tell your mother and Grandmother that I wrote to you so they will know I’m still around.

Perhaps you don’t know what sore feet are—maybe you do!  But if you will imagine my feet as being two weenies boiled until they pop, then ozzing juice, you see the picture.  The reason being that today we came back from 27 miles of walking with pack on back.  Yes, it was long but sort of fun.  We left yesterday am. and went to a beach way up the coast.  They let us swim and drink beer all the p.m. then we hiked home early a.m.  Today all feet are sore; all 6,000 of them so don’t feel sorry for me.

This past week-end was swell.  Bax, you don’t remember him but if you ask your Ina, she will tell you, was in Coronado.  He has been transferred there for about three months so I went to say hello.  I went down with Burt Dreyer (Bn-4), arriving there about 4:30.  I took off my uniform, put on some shorts and a sweater and didn’t get out of them until Burt picked me up at 0600, Monday.  We swam, ate, slept, and talked and t’was most pleasant.  He is fine, just arrived from Floyd Bennett over-seas.  I was very glad to see him.

Here things are much the same except for one thing.  I now have another good job.  No longer am I C.O. of Hdqrs. Co. but now I am C.O. of “A” Co.  That is what Major Fagan promised and it came true.  It is a good company. Well trained-good people.  My only job now is to live up to its ability.  It means much study and work – pray that I make the grade.  Tis indeed the best job in all the Marine Corps.

Other than the things that I’ve mentioned life is very routine.  This evening I sat in the club awaiting a phone call from a beautiful blond – but I shall not forsake you.  There are ping pong games, crap games, bridge, singing and drinking going on around me still it is a very peaceful night.  Warm – quiet.

I guess – from news today we have about 2 weeks in this country – at least that – very upsetting – pleasant in some ways.  Don’t tell this to any of your callers, however.

Say, don’t tell your old lady or your old man but I want to get them a wedding present but bless me if I can find a thing.  Just remember I haven’t forgotten.  Also – that goes for Ma’s birthday.

Will you do me another favor.  Tell your Grandma that if she will take the whole fifty of next months allotment, I say O.K.  Otherwise I will send her 50 cash.  She may take her choice.

That is all – Don’t night life too much.  Keep the clan in tow.  You and I alone are left to solve their problems.  Be a good girl or have fun.

My love to my favorite niece and girl,
U. G.
(Uncle Gove)

This touching letter clearly shows the love that Gove had for his sister, newborn niece, Lizbe, and his family.

The 28th Marine Regiment was organized on February 7, 1944, and, along with the 26th, 27th, and 13th Marines, comprised the Fifth Marine Division.  In July 1944 the Division departed for Camp Tarawa on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Following additional training and several simulated landings on Maui and Kohoolawe, the Division returned to Pearl Harbor for brief liberty before heading to the Western Pacific and “Island X” on January 27, 1945.  While at sea Captain Wilkins and his men of Able Company learned that “Island X” was the tiny porkchop-shaped island Iwo Jima (“Sulfur Island”).  Following a brief stop at Eniwetok Atoll on February 5 for a shore break and “beer bust”, the armada of ships, including the troop ship USS Dickens carrying Captain Wilkins and the rest of the 28th Marines, arrived at Saipan in the Marianas on February 11.  One final landing exercise on the island of Tinian on February 13, and the fleet was off to Iwo Jima.  Most of Captain Wilkins’ Able Company men were on LST 70, with the remainder on LSTs 440, 758, and 1033.  These four ships carried a total of 1,034 Marines of the four Companies of the 1st Battalion, 28th Marines.

The three divisions that assaulted Iwo Jima, roughly 60,000 Marines and Navy personnel, were under the command of Major General Harry Schmidt.  The assault landing was to be spearheaded by the 4th Marine Division, led by Major General Clifton B. Cates, and the 5th Marine Division, commanded by Major General Keller E. Rockey.  The 3rd Marine Division, under General Graves B. Erskine, was held in floating reserve.  The 28th Regiment of the 5th Marine Division was commanded by Colonel Harry B. (“Harry the Horse”) Liversedge, a former Raider and a veteran of several battles.  There were three battalions in the 28th Marines, and Captain Wilkins commanded Able Company, one of four companies in the 1st Battalion.

Despite 72 days of continuous bombing and offshore shelling of Iwo Jima, from December 8 until the beach landing on February 19 (D-Day), the island fortifications were largely unaffected and relatively few of 23,000 Japanese defenders were killed.  The 28th Marines’ three battalions landed abreast on a 1,500-yard stretch of beach (Green Beach) closest to the formidable Mt. Suribachi at the southeastern part of Iwo Jima.  The First Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jackson B. Butterfield had the task of cutting directly across the narrow neck of the island under the shadow of Mt. Suribachi, a distance of 750 yards.  Leading the Battalion, Captain Wilkins’ Able Company suffered many casualties during this gauntlet charge, knocking out enemy pillboxes and blockhouses along the way.  By 1400 (2 pm) the entire 1st Battalion was on the western side of Iwo Jima.  One of Gove’s men, Corporal Tony Stein, won the Medal of Honor for his heroism and extreme valor during this first day’s fight, the first of 27 Medals of Honor awarded on Iwo Jima.  Wounded during numerous assaults on Japanese pillboxes, Stein continued his one-man attack across the foot of Iwo Jima to the western beaches.  Although Captain Wilkins ordered him to the landing beach for treatment and evacuation, Tony talked him out of it.  Sadly, Corporal Stein’s devotion to duty cost his life as he was later killed on March 1 during the assault on Hill 362A, the same day that ended Gove’s life.

After Gove and the 1st Battalion had encircled Mt. Suribachi on the west, units of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, were successful in capturing Mt. Suribachi on February 23 (D + 4).  Units of this battalion planted the well-known flag on Mt. Suribachi.  By the end of February 21 (D + 2), some 5,400 Marines were killed or wounded of the 40,000 men ashore.  Suffering enormous casualties in their dash across the island, on February 25 (D + 6) the 28th Marines reverted to Corps Reserve for much needed rest and recuperation.  This short break ended on February 28 (D + 9) when the 28th was ordered to advance up the western side of Iwo Jima, where the real battle awaited them.  They reached the designated sector on February 26 (D + 7), which was the heavily defended Japanese cross-island defense line anchored by Hill 362A, an enormous rock fortress that was to claim the life of Captain Wilkins and many of his men on March 1, 1945 (D + 10).

On March 1 (D + 10) at 0630, the 28th passed through the battered 27th Regiment to continue the attack against the heavily fortified and defended Hill 362A.  The three 28th battalions were aligned right to left (east to west), 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Battalions.  As these units advanced over the south slope to the crest of the hill, which dropped off as a sheer 80 foot cliff, they were met by ferocious machine gun and mortar fire from Nishi Ridge, 200 yards to the northwest, and from caves on the north face of Hill 362A.  At this point the 1st Battalion commander ordered Captain Wilkins and his Co. A, which had been in reserve, around the right side (east side; to left of the photo and sketch) of the hill down into the draw.  Retired General Fred Haynes, who was Gove’s best friend in the Marines, knew the extreme danger of this advance:

“I was on a reconnaissance to check on routes of approach to the area at around noon the day before our attack on 362A.  While I was walking back to the Combat Team command post, I happened to meet Captain Wilkins as he was moving north.  He said to me, “I hope we don’t go into the line of the right flank!”  Gove sensed that the eastern side of our zone of action would be the most difficult.  He was right.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the plan of attack called for his A Company to lead the attack on that flank.”

“Early in the afternoon of 1 March Wilkins’s Company A moved into the ravine in front of the northern face of 362A.  His mission was to neutralize the maze of cave positions on the hill’s vertical northern face.  His company was pinned down by mortar and machine-gun fire.  Wilkins, in an attempt to break the deadlock in which his Marines found themselves, ran to the front to assess the situation and was mortally wounded.  Wilkins was my best friend in the Marine Corps at that time, and when I heard of his death, I was devastated.”

At this point Gove’s Silver Star Citation explains what happened.

WASHINGTON

The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the SILVER STAR MEDAL posthumously to

Captain Aaron Gove Wilkins

United States Marine Corps Reserve

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Commanding Officer of Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, during action against enemy Japanese forces at Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, on 1 March, 1945.  With his company pinned down by devastating hostile fire emanating from a series of heavily fortified emplacements artfully concealed and deeply entrenched in rock-studded cliffs, Captain Wilkins fearlessly exposed himself to the shattering barrage to maintain contact among his assault platoons and, calmly walking through the front line areas, skillfully located strong points and personally directed powerful gun-fire against the enemy, inspiring his men to hold fast and lending encouragement throughout the bitter engagement.  Realizing the necessity for close observation, he dauntlessly penetrated Japanese infested territory alone under a concentrated barrage of mortar and small-arms fire to single out his designated target and then, returning to the skirmish line, promptly directed his machine-gun and mortar section in delivering a furious assault to gain the objective and inflict heavy casualties on Japanese forces with minimum loss to his own.  Constantly in the forefront of action, he again led a daring strike against a fiercely resisting enemy later that same day and while indicating targets and directing the assault, was fatally struck down by a sudden hostile shellburst.  Inspired by Captain Wilkins’ heroism, indomitable spirit and aggressive determination, his company pushed relentlessly forward to silence the indicated positions and continue the sustained advance to capture the island.  His selfless devotion to duty, maintained in the face of tremendous odds, reflects the highest credit upon Captain Wilkins and the United States Naval Service.  He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

For the President,
James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

The exact cause of Gove’s death beneath Hill 362A remains controversial.  Although the official records indicate that he died from sniper bullets in the chest and neck, his Silver Star citation states that a mortar shell killed him and two of his men instantly during their reconnaissance mission.  Of Captain Wilkins’ original complement of 200 men, 43 were killed on Iwo Jima, 119 were wounded, and only 40 escaped unhurt.  Several of the latter men were casualties of combat fatigue (“shell shock”).

Iwo Jima survivor Sergeant Kent F. Stegner of Greeley, Colorado, had this to say about his commander in a letter to me on March 17, 2010:

“Captain Aaron Wilkins was a soft-spoken gentleman, and was well thought of as our commanding officer!  A-1-28th [Company A, 1st Battalion, 28th Marines] was made up of new recruits to a large number of the inactivated Parachute Regiments Marines, who had from 3-7 campaigns under their belts in the British Solomon Islands.  Captain Wilkins guided our way, but was smart enough to let those of us with combat experience do a lot of the teaching!” 

Another one of Captain Wilkins’ men was PFC Wayne H. Higgs of Clovis, New Mexico, who said this about his commander:  “He was a good leader in combat.  One time I remember seeing him directing us during battle.  He was standing by a big rock and had visible wounds.  I was glad to know he had been awarded the Silver Star.”  And Corporal Eldred (Bud) Gott of Corning, California, told me that Captain Wilkins “was a fine commander.”  Both Higgs and Gott were wounded late in the battle.

Gove’s remains were removed from the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima (plot 4, row 7, grave 931) in 1946 and reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Gove’s family probably had a memorial service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Denver where the family had attended for years.   As revealed by the Denver Post in a 1946 clipping, Gove’s mother Margaret didn’t receive his Silver Star until sometime in 1946.  Dartmouth was clearly special to her and she wrote the following (undated) letter to the Alumni Office:

“We have had several indirect reports that Gove was to receive the Silver Star but so far there has been nothing official.  If and when such information comes, I will notify you so that it may be put in the record.  Margaret G. Wilkins”

I close my Memoir with some words from Gove’s best friend in the Marines, retired General Fred Haynes. In a phone conversation General Haynes told me that Gove has “a wonderful sense of humor and was always wearing a smile.”  In his book, “Lions of Iwo Jima,” General Haynes wrote the following:

Capt. Aaron Gove Wilkins, a fun-loving Dartmouth grad, had a broad smile and a terrific sense of humor.  He was one of scores of high school football players who peopled the ranks of the 28th Marines.  Gove had become one of my closest friends when we were at Quantico.  One night he came into the tent I shared with Capt. Arthur Neubert, our regimental intelligence officer.  Wilkins said, “Hey guys, come over to my tent very quietly.  I’ve got a mouse who breaks wind.”  So we got a piece of cheese from a box of K rations and very quietly went to Wilkins’s tent.  We placed the cheese on part of the tent frame toward the corner and sat quietly to see what happened.  Shortly after, a mouse in fact did appear and perched itself next to the cheese, tasting it very carefully.  Right after his first bite, the mouse broke wind.  We could hardly contain ourselves!  After a few minutes of enjoying the spectacle, we looked down under Wilkins’s cot, and there was a little puppy that he had taken as a pet.  We had uncovered the real wind breaker!

Gove Wilkins’s humor would show itself when least expected.  Capt. Ace Britton, who later commanded Wilkins’s A Company after the big battle [Iwo Jima], was on weekend liberty with Wilkins and several others in L.A.  In the bar at the Biltmore, the conversation inevitably turned to women.  According to Britton, Wilkins said he’d made the acquaintance of a movie starlet, and he planned to seek her out.  After a brief phone call, he told the group that the lady would meet him. “But,” she had added, “no funny business.”

The group gathered the next morning for brunch and Bloody Marys and a full debriefing of the previous night’s activities.  Wilkins reported that the starlet did in fact show up — in a full-length mink coat.  And, he added, with a big grin, “absolutely nothing on underneath it!”

March 26, 1945 marked the end of combat on Iwo Jima, a terrible battle that resulted in the deaths of thousands of brave U.S. Marines and determined Japanese soldiers who fought to the death.  Like so many other warriors on this bleak, tiny island, Captain Gove Wilkins was cut down in the prime of his life, never having the chance to marry, raise children, or become a useful citizen of society, as he surely would have become.