The Long Blue Line: Warren Gill—Oregon’s forgotten Navy Cross hero

Lieutenant Warren Gill was the only Coast Guard Reservist to receive the Navy Cross. After surviving a deadly explosion on a Navy Landing Ship-Tank being manned by the Coast Guard, Gill returned to his home state where he practiced law and served as an elected official.

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LT Warren Gill’s official portrait in dress uniform photographed by the U.S. Coast Guard. (The Gill Family)
LT Warren Gill’s official portrait in dress uniform photographed by the U.S. Coast Guard. (The Gill Family)

C. Douglas Kroll, Ph.D., United States Coast Guard Auxiliary

Lieutenant (junior grade) Gill, while directing the lowering of small boats from U.S.S. LST 357, which was under enemy fire, was seriously wounded. Despite his wounds he continued with utmost intrepidity to efficiently carry on his duty as commander of the assault flotillas, giving last-minute instructions to the officers and crews. He then collapsed and his injuries were found to be so severe that many months of hospitalization will be required for recovery.
                               -Navy Cross Medal citation, Lt. (j.g.) Warren C. Gill, LST-357

The Navy Cross Medal citation above describes the actions of Lieutenant (junior grade) Warren Gill, recipient not only of the Navy Cross, but also the Legion of Merit Medal and Purple Heart Medal. During the war, this hero was the only Coast Guardsman to receive all three medals and the only Coast Guard Reservist to receive the Navy Cross, however, little of his story has been revealed to the public.

Born in 1912, Warren Calavan Gill grew up in Lebanon, Oregon, in farm country not far from the State’s capital of Salem. Gill longed to go to sea and, during his junior year in high school, he signed-on with a ship in Seattle. He returned home to graduate from high school and then attended the University of Oregon. There, he competed on the football and swimming teams and completed a law degree. He passed the Oregon bar exam and moved to New York City where he worked in an admiralty law firm.

Newspaper photograph of Lt. (j.g.) Warren Gill, wearing his Legion of Merit Medal, together with his young wife Vadne. (Coast Guard Magazine)
Newspaper photograph of Lt. (j.g.) Warren Gill, wearing his Legion of Merit Medal, together with his young wife Vadne. (Coast Guard Magazine)

On December 7, 1941, he attended a concert in New York where his future wife, Vadne Scott, was performing. They later met and married the next month. A few days after their wedding, Gill enlisted receiving an ensign’s commission in the Coast Guard Reserve. By August 1942, he had become an Assistant Beach Officer attached to the Coast Guard-manned troop transport Samuel P. Chase. In November, Gill helped direct amphibious landings at Morocco.

After the capture of North Africa, Allied planners focused their attention on capturing Italy. The campaign began in July 1943 with an amphibious landing on the island of Sicily. In that operation, Ensign Gill was placed in command of a flotilla of small craft that landed elements of General George Patton’s Seventh Army near Gela, Sicily. During the landing, not a single man was lost in Gill’s flotilla of landing craft. For his leadership, Gill received the Legion of Merit Medal and promotion to lieutenant (junior grade).

Gill next saw combat in mid-September 1943 when he took part in the invasion of Italy’s western coast. This time, he served on board the 328-foot LST 357. It was one of 76 Navy LSTs (Landing Ship-Tank) manned by the Coast Guard in World War II. The landing at Salerno, Italy, would be far different from the one at Sicily where the biggest challenge had been a storm that struck during the operation. Gill and Allied troops expected to meet only light resistance since Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had been deposed and placed under arrest, and the new Italian leadership had signed an armistice with the Allies the day before the landings.

The Coast Guard-manned attack transport Samuel Chase showing the landing craft tied to its decks. (U.S. Coast Guard)
The Coast Guard-manned attack transport Samuel Chase showing the landing craft tied to its decks. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Unknown to Allied forces, the Germans had rushed large numbers of battle-hardened troops to Italy to prevent its fall. The Germans installed sound monitoring devices miles offshore and had their artillery ranged for amphibious vessels. As the invasion ships approached in the pre-dawn darkness, German artillery opened up. Gill’s landing craft was waiting to lead the first wave to the beaches when the first salvo hit his boat. An 88mm shell sent shrapnel tearing through Gill and his assistant. His deputy’s body absorbed much of the shell fragments while Gill received the rest of the shrapnel in his back and chest. Several more crewmembers and 25 soldiers were wounded by the same shell hit. Although severely wounded and fighting for breath, Gill remained at his post and oversaw the landing of his craft on the beach.

After the deadly explosion, the medical officer aboard the LST gave Gill an immediate blood transfusion. Gill refused to take morphine, however, until he received word that the boats had beached successfully and the Germans were falling back. A boat then took him away for medical treatment. Gill spent the next three months in a British hospital in the North African desert before transferring to an American hospital in Algiers. During hospitalization in Algiers, he was awarded the Navy Cross Medal by Vice Admiral Henry Hewitt, Navy commander of amphibious forces in North Africa and Southern Europe. The Navy Cross is the U.S. Navy’s second highest decoration for valor in combat. During the war, he was one of only six Coast Guardsmen to receive the Navy Cross and he received the Purple Heart Medal for the wounds sustained at Salerno.

Photograph of LT Warren Gill receiving the Navy Cross Medal during his recovery from near-deadly shrapnel wounds. (The Gill Family)
Photograph of LT Warren Gill receiving the Navy Cross Medal during his recovery from near-deadly shrapnel wounds. (The Gill Family)

Later sent home to the U.S. for treatment, he ended up at the Navy Hospital at Long Beach, California, for another 20 months. During his hospitalization, Gill participated in the nation’s War Bond campaign in Southern California. He was the guest of honor at a rally held at the University of Southern California to salute Trojans purchase of war bonds. The student newspaper Daily Trojanannounced, “Lt. Warren C. Gill, known as the Coast Guard’s most decorated man, will appear today.” He spent the next several months undergoing repeated surgeries to remove pieces of shrapnel from the right side of his torso, however, doctors failed to locate all the shrapnel in Gill’s upper body.

On August 20, 1945, Warren Gill was discharged to his hometown of Lebanon, Oregon, pending his medical retirement. On April 1, 1946, he was medically retired from the Coast Guard due to physical disability. Since the Secretary of the Navy had commended him for performance of duty in combat, Gill received the rank of lieutenant commander on the retired list. 

Back home, Gill practiced law and served as an elected official for the State of Oregon. He served in the Oregon House of Representatives, representing State District Thirteen from 1949 to 1951, and then served in the Oregon State Senate from State District Two, from 1952 to 1957, and served as Republican leader of the State Senate in his final term. In 1958, he ran for the gubernatorial nomination of the Republican Party but was narrowly defeated by an up-and-coming Secretary of State named Mark Hatfield, who served nearly 10 years as governor and then 30 years as U.S. senator.

A 1958 photo showing then Oregon Republican Party gubernatorial candidate Warren Gill before the Republican primary. (Oregon Republican Party)
A 1958 photo showing then Oregon Republican Party gubernatorial candidate Warren Gill before the Republican primary. (Oregon Republican Party)

Warren Gill retired from politics to devote his later years to serving his hometown of Lebanon. He became the Lebanon City Attorney in 1961 and held that office until his death. During these years, his personal interests returned to the water. He founded Lebanon Boat Works, built boats and joined the Lebanon Outboard Racing Association. He became an avid racer himself, building three hydroplanes–Vadne IVadne IIand Vadne III. He also received an appointment to the Oregon State Marine Board, and served more years on that board than any other individual. In 1975, he joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary, Albany Flotilla (No. 67), and served a year as flotilla commander. In the Auxiliary, he was an active instructor of navigation and boating safety classes.

In 1981, Gill was chosen as the Linn County (Oregon) “Veteran of the Year.” When he learned of the recognition, he called it “my greatest honor” because his fellow veterans had selected him.  Warren Gill died in October 1987, at the age of 75, while making a series of take-offs and landings in an ultralight “autogyro” aircraft he had built at home. His valor in combat during World II and his service to his state and community truly made him a great Coast Guard combat hero and honorable citizen of the State of Oregon.

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