Lore of the Corps

This issue’s Lore of the Corps focuses on retired Supply Corps officer, Cmdr. Thomas Wylly, who completed 28 years of service and retired in 1945 after a recall to active duty during World War II.

     Retired Supply Corps Cmdr. Tom Wylly, had an unusual Supply Corps career and undertook two volunteer special assignments during his 28 years of service.  He delivered a secret government message in China in 1919, and was an unofficial cartographer in Panama in the early 1920s.

     He was born in Darien, Ga., in May 1893, where he attended public schools.  When the United States went to war in 1917, he selected the Navy and went to Washington for additional schooling.  He passed a competitive examination for a Pay Corps commission, was commissioned an assistant paymaster with rank of ensign, and attended the Navy Pay Corps School at the Washington Navy Yard.  He requested sea duty and was assigned to the troop transport USS Finland.

     Ens. Wylly was one of four newly commissioned ensigns ordered to Finland in dry dock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  He was the oldest of the USS_Finland_at_Newport_News_with_soldiers_on_boardfour, so he became Supply officer and the other three became his assistants.  The shipyard was repairing a torpedo hole, Wylly later recalled, “big enough to drive a train through.”

     He was Finland’s Supply Officer when she made 24 Atlantic round trips, taking American troops to Europe during World War I and bringing them back after.  In addition to his three Supply Corps assistants, he had 150 enlisted Sailors in the Supply Department to serve 3,600 military people on each loaded crossing.  As he was once quoted, “With girls in France and girls and shows in New York and dodging German submarines in between, life was never dull for a newly caught young naval officer.”

     When interviewed in 1986, however, he admitted that “most of it was very monotonous” except the time that his ship collided with another transport crossing Finland’s bow as a result of a malfunctioning rudder.  Both transports remained afloat, but Finland’s bow was bent at a right angle.  French shipyard workers made temporary repairs, and Brooklyn shipyard workers later fitted a new bow, German submarines never san a loaded troop transport en route to France, but an empty one was lost westbound after a successful eastbound crossing in a convoy with Finland.

     He was bored with his duty in a troop transport returning soldiers after the war.  He wanted “something more exciting, or at least interesting.”  At that time, junior officers did not make requests directly to the Navy Department.  Wylly was not shy, so he requested two days leave in 1919, went to Washington and asked Paymaster General Sam McGowan to transfer him to the Asiatic Station.  McGowan granted his request, and Wylly was ordered to report to the commander in chief, Asiatic Station, in the flagship USS Brooklyn (AC 3).  He reported aboard the flagship at Olongapo in the Philippines for several weeks before being ordered to the gunboat USS Wilmington as Supply Officer.  Wilmington was based at Shanghai and assigned to patrol the lower Yangtze River.

     Wylly was departing Brooklyn for his new duty when the command-in-chief, Vice Adm. William Rodgers, invited him to his cabin, where the Chief of Staff, Capt. Thomas Kearney, asked if Wylly would be willing to locate a man in Shanghai and deliver a message to him.  The young LTJG assured his superiors that he would be happy to do so.  They then told Wylly that the man’s name was Sze Ching Wong; the message was “No.”  They told him to see the U.S. consul general at Shanghai, where Wilmington was anchored off the Bund, in order to find Sze.

     He called on the consul general, whom he found pleasant and cooperative when he explained his mission.  The consul thought that he would be able to contact Sze in a shabby part of the native Chinese section of the city.  Several sampans appeared alongside Wilmington over the next several days with messages from the consul to Wylly.  He went to the consul’s office and met a mysterious American expatriate, George Sokolsky, who volunteered to help locate Sze.  Wylly went ashore again several days later to an address provided by Sokolsky, where a woman said she had never heard of Sze, but agreed to help when Wylly mentioned the consul general and Sokolsky.

     The next day, the consul requested that Wylly meet Sokolsky at the same address.  There, he was promptly invited in to find Sokolsky and two young daughters of a Chinese businessman, who spoke excellent English.  After an extensive discussion of world affairs and many questions about Wylly took place, they invited him to return for a third time a few days later.

     On his return, he was introduced to Sze.  Wylly delivered his message and returned to his ship.  A few days later, Capt. Kearney went aboard Wilmington to assumed command of the Yangtze Patrol.  One day he told Wylly in confidence that Sze was actually Syngman Rhee, a Korean in exile who became the first president of democratic Korea 29 years later.  Rhee had asked President Wilson whether he would send American troops to support him in the event that Rhee could mobilize the populace to overthrow the Japanese, occupants of his homeland.

     In 1921, Wylly was ordered to the Special Service Squadron, a group of small gunboats homeported in Panama and supported by USS Cleveland (CA 19).  The gunboats cruised the Caribbean and the west coast of South America, where Wylly visited countries in Central and South America, including Chile, Bolivia, and Peru.

     His supply duties were not overtaxing, so he volunteered to learn to draw maps.  He borrowed instruments from a U.S. Coast Guard Geodetic Survey ship and became adept at map-making.  When the teams sent out in small boats to survey the Panamanian Pacific coast returned each day, he used their notebooks and the borrowed instruments to make detailed maps.  The Navy Hydrographic Office put the finishing touches on his maps and published them.

     Tom Wylly had made lieutenant commander when he finally drew short duty, reporting to the Boston Navy Yard in 1926 as one of four assistant supply officers.  The submarines S4 was rammed and sunk by a rum-runner, but was raised and brought into the Boston Yard about a month later.  Wylly was assigned to board the submarine to recover the bodies and personal possessions.  He had the bodies embalmed and sent home and inventoried personal possessions and distributed them to surviving relatives.  That experience was the downside of his Boston duty, but the upside was meeting his future wife, Edith, in 1927 and marrying her in 1928.

     Lt. Cmdr. Wylly was outfitting supply officer of USS Northampton (CA 26), launched in 1929.  Northampton served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets during his two and half years aboard.  In 1932, he was transferred to the Mare Island Navy Yard, and in 1935 was assigned as comptroller and cashier of the Bank of Guam.  Wylly went to the Naval Powder Factory, Indian Head, Md., in 1937 as supply officer for two years.  He was promoted to commander in 1939 and assigned as Supply Officer, USS Enterprise (CV 6).  He did not care for carrier duty because he lacked an aviation background.  He developed a medical problem in 1940 and retired on disability in early 1941.

     He applied for recall to active duty when the U.S. entered World War II.  A medical board found him fit for limited duty on the mainland only, so he was ordered to the Supply Department, Naval Hospital San Diego.  He retired again in 1945.  He passed away in 1989, one week short of his 96th birthday.