Oh, Captain, My Captain

If you have even a drop of Big Blue blood running through your veins, you’re ready for March Madness. You’ve probably already got your bracket filled out, all your blue T-shirts washed, and the RV gassed up and ready to follow the team anywhere . . . or at least to the airport. I have not run across any genetic ties to Kentucky basketball players, past or present, but there was a cousin who was a basketball standout — not a Wildcat, but a Wild.

Laurence Albert Wild was my first cousin once removed. He was born in Wilber, Nebraska, population 1,226, on May 1, 1890. In high school, Laurence was captain of the first Wilber basketball team. After school, he set type in the printing office of his father, Joseph Albert Wild, who was editor and publisher of The Wilber Republican for 40 years, had practiced law for a time, and was a county judge in Saline county.

Laurence received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where he was known as “Jasper” and from which he graduated in 1913. A versatile athlete, Laurence excelled in track and field, equaling the collegiate record of the time in the 100-yard dash. He also played for the Navy Midshipmen basketball team and was named a 1913 NCAA Basketball All-American. After graduation, Laurence returned as head coach of the team for one year (1913-14), coaching for ten games and winning all of them. As is it for most college athletes, though, it was Laurence’s achievements in other arenas that were of lasting import.

In 1914, Ensign Wild married Louise Weber. Her father was a Washington, D.C., lawyer and stock broker. As a debutante, Louise was frequently mentioned in the Washington society columns, several describing her attendance at Naval Academy balls, where she no doubt met her future husband. The Washington Herald of October 4, 1914, described the wedding which had been at the Weber home: “The house was prettily decorated with palms, lilies and roses and a stringed orchestra played before the ceremony and during the reception which followed.”

In 1915, Laurence and Louise were living in Brooklyn, New York; their only child, Laurence, Jr., was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on August 9 of that year. The first World War had erupted, however, and U.S. Naval operations began on April 6, 1917. By 1920, Louise and her little son were living in her grandmother’s stately townhome just a few blocks from Dupont Circle in Washington.

Her husband, Lt. Wild, was aboard the U.S.S. Delaware, operating with the British Grand fleet; he was present at the surrender of the German fleet at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney islands, in November 1918. He also coached the Delaware’s basketball team.

After the war, Laurence was attached to the naval academy and had a tour of duty in the intelligence division in Honolulu.  In 1932, Lt. Commander Wild took command of the U.S.S. Twiggs, a destroyer. Following that duty, he served as senior aide to the commandant of the 11th naval district in San Diego, afterward being promoted to executive officer of the heavy cruiser, U.S.S. Vincennes, on patrol duty in the Caribbean in 1939 and 1940.

The U.S. took sovereignty of the eastern Samoan islands, which became American Samoa, in 1899, and it was under the jurisdiction of a naval governor. There are 14 islands in the group, with a total area of about 1,700 square miles, the chief island being Tutuila, about 200 square miles in extent and the location of the naval station. Capt. Laurence Wild was appointed Governor of American Samoa, the only U.S. possession south of the equator, on August 8, 1940.

laurence wild2

Capt. Laurence Wild

The Lincoln, Nebraska, newspaper described the inaugural ceremony of Governor Wild where the Fita Fita guard (Samoan troops) and band paid homage to him and he addressed the “officers and officials of the island government, district governors, county chiefs, high chiefs, high talking chiefs, chiefs, talking chiefs,” and others present. This was followed by a Siva Siva, in which the most competent dancers of the islands participated. Native girls prepared the kava, cocoanut milk in a cocoanut shell, for a ceremony in which the governor sipped the milk and spilled a little on the ground, after which each chief did the same.

It was a festive occasion, but there was serious work to be done under Wild’s leadership –building coastal defenses, gun emplacements, pill boxes, barracks, bunkers, roads, camps, command and observation posts, and an airstrip. After the December 7, 1941, attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, an attack on America’s sole armed base in the South Pacific seemed imminent.  The Samoan islands were an essential link in the chain of communications between the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, and the harbor of Pago Pago was one of the finest harbors in the Pacific. As a coaling and naval supplies base and site of a powerful wireless station, Tutuila and its capital were viewed as a desirable war prize for the enemy.

On January 11, 1942, shortly after midnight, the naval station at Tutuila was shelled by a Japanese submarine from the surface.  Most of the shells landed in the bay, but three people were wounded. The U.S. feared this was only the beginning, so on January 20 the Marine Brigade arrived with 5,600 officers and enlisted men with their heavy artillery to defend the island. Natives were also recruited to form a Samoan Marine Brigade that consisted of 350 men. Tutuila became the largest jungle training center in the South Pacific, but never again came under attack.

samoa

Capt. Wild’s term as governor ended in May 1942. In 1944, he was awarded the Legion of Merit by President Franklin D. Roosevelt “for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services to the Government of the United States as Governor of American Samoa and Commandant of the Naval Station, Tutuila, Samoa, from August 1940 to May 1942. Captain Wild achieved distinctive success in preparing the islands for use as a base for land, sea and air units of the fleet. His untiring efforts, far-sightedness and sound judgment in this assignment contributed materially in the prosecution of the war.”

Capt. Wild retired from the Navy in 1945 and lived in San Diego until his death in 1971. UCLA won the NCAA championship that year, and I’m betting that Laurence was cheering them on.

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