The late John Wild (1921-2014) served for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II, and took part in the Battles of both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He went on to become one of the Capital City’s most beloved educators.
Wild was born in Butte, where his grandfather Jesse Wharton established the fabled Columbia Gardens under the auspices of Copper King W.A. Clark. At the age of 13, his family relocated to Missoula. After graduating from Missoula County High, he enlisted in the Navy.
Wild served as a radio operator aboard the USS Auburn, AGC-10, which was a Mount McKinley-class amphibious force command ship. The Auburn was used by the amphibious forces and landing force commanders during large-scale operations.
The Auburn became the flagship for the Commander, Amphibious Group 2, Pacific Fleet, on Sept. 6, 1944. The ship then took part in training exercises in the Marianas.
During the assault on Iwo Jima, the Auburn coordinated and directed the movements of several hundred ships attached to Amphibious Group 2.
It remained off the island until March 27, and then returned to Pearl Harbor.
Next, the Auburn got underway for Okinawa, arriving there on March 31 and serving as the flagship for the 5th Amphibious Forces. Radioman 3rd Class Wild and his shipmates helped control the operations of hundreds of ships off the northern coast the “bitterly contested island,” but escaped damage despite Japanese air attacks and Kamikaze attempts.
“The Zeros would attack right down on the deck, about 50 feet above the water,” Wild related. “Our closest call was when a Kamikaze plane that was coming right at us, was shot down about 250 feet away, and the debris from the explosion flew all the way to the ship.”
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Wild told this reporter during a 2004 interview that he remembered “listening to the Navajo Indians onboard ship radioing instructions to the shore operations in their native tongue,” which the Japanese “did not have a chance to decipher.”
Years later, those patriotic Americans were immortalized in the movie, “The Code Talkers.”
The battle lasted until June 21, after which the Auburn left the Okinawa waters for Pearl Harbor on July 1. Following the dropping of the atomic bombs, the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. Wild and the Auburn sailed to ports in the Phillipines and Japan, before he was discharged from the Navy several months later.
He then returned to Big Sky Country, where he attended Montana State College (now MSU) in Bozeman. Wild attained degrees in both bachelor of science in education, and masters of education.
John served as the shop teacher at Helena Junior High/Helena Middle School (yours truly being among his students), for over 30 years. He also taught driver’s education in the Helena School District during the same period, mentoring over 4,000 local teenagers.
Wild and his wife Muriel parented three children; John, Robyn and Shelley. He passed away at 93 years of age.
“John’s shop classes were very popular and many of the projects constructed in class are still being used by former students,” his 2014 obituary read, after his passing.
The obit added that all of his family – including the grandchildren – were taught by John to drive with a stick shift.