John Fillmore Gaskill, a member of the “Greatest Generation,” passed away on September 27, 2013 at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi. He was born in 1916 in the village of Wanchese, North Carolina where he spent his formative years. His “Daddy” was Bodie Island’s Principal Keeper, so John spent his summers at the lighthouse with his family. He received his early education at Wanchese Elementary School and then when he reached high school age he attended Manteo High School. During high school, he drove the school bus between Wanchese and Manteo.
Shortly after his graduation in 1933 at the age of seventeen, he worked on the Shinook, an Army Corps of Engineers sea going dredge out of Norfolk, Virginia. It cleared shipping lanes from Alabama to Texas. After a brief stint of commercial fishing on a long net fishing boat, he painted the Lighthouse. This was accomplished by sitting on a board suspended by ropes from the top of the tower. He enlisted in the United States Navy in December 1934. His first assignment after Basic training was a short tour on the US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Ranger. Later he served on various ships including the battleship, USS Colorado, which was assigned the task of searching for Amelia Earhart while he was aboard. It was while the Colorado was at home port in Bremerton, Washington that he met his wife of fifty-five years, Dorothy Mini Broderson.
In February of 1941 John was transferred to the battleship USS Washington while it was being built in the Philadelphia Naval Yard. The Washington remained his home until the end of World War II. It was onboard this ship that John, assigned to the engine room, and his shipmates were involved in some of the most significant actions of WWII. After commissioning, the Washington was initially assigned to escort convoys carrying supplies to Murmansk, Russia under the command of the British Admiralty. King George visited the ship while it she was docked in the United Kingdom. Early in 1942 the Washington was transferred to the Pacific theater where it participated in most of the critical Pacific battles beginning with the battles of Guadalcanal and Savo. This would become the last surface-to-surface battle between two dreadnaughts when the Washington’s sixteen inch guns firing 2,000 pound shells sunk the Kirishima. John and his shipmates in the engine room remained four decks below keeping the boilers and engines working flawlessly during the engagement in 114 degrees of heat.
Subsequent actions involving the Washington while John was aboard were at Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, Bombardment of Nauru, Kavieng raids, bombardment of Kwajalein, and Saipan and the Battle of the Philippine Sea, air strikes on Palau islands, air strikes on Okinawa, Taiwan, Luzon and Visayan Islands, Battles for Leyte Gulf, air strikes on Indochina, Canton, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tokyo, Iwo Jima and Kyushu.
After WWII, John was assigned to various ships and to two eighteen month tours of shore duty. He retired from the Navy in July of 1957. After retirement John applied for and received his Merchant marine Officer and engineer’s license, although he never pursued a position in the Merchant Marines. Rather over the next twenty years he continued to hold positions and work in interesting and challenging jobs. He become certified as a Boiler and Pressure Vessel Inspector and Instructor throughout the Washington DC, Virginia, and Maryland areas; he developed a course and wrote a manual for teaching power plant operations. He then taught the course to US Air Force personnel in Michigan; he was the assistant engineer at the Air force power plant at Fort Lee, Virginia; taught power plant operations for nuclear fueled facilities at Fort Belvoir, Virginia and ended his full-time engineering work at the Defense General Supply Center in Richmond, Virginia which supported US operation during the Vietnam War.
John’s extraordinary life continued after his retirement, including becoming a member of the Town of Nags Head Planning Department and was briefly a town commissioner. He was appointed Director of North Carolina Ferries from 1973-1977 and initiated the Swan Quarter to Ocracoke run and was instrumental in the decision to locate the Ferry maintenance facility to Mann’s Harbor.
Some years after fully retiring, John became a volunteer at the Bodie Island Lighthouse where he spent his summers from childhood to his teenage years, and served there for nearly ten years providing information to visitors. Children and adults enjoyed the stories of his and his siblings’ adventures there and also appreciated his explanations of how the Fresnel lens worked. They loved to listen to his brogue as he gave them information on what life was like in the “Olden days” in and around the Roanoke Island and Nags Head /Bodie Island area. He was interviewed and appeared in a number of regional and national television programs including a History Channel program that was broadcast nationally.
In 2004 John moved to the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, Mississippi, but continued to return to his home on Roanoke Island during the summers where he enjoyed telling visitors about the lighthouse and the area he loved so much. He thoroughly enjoyed his time at the retirement home where he appreciated the friendly staff and loyal caregivers, Cathy Crocker and Lashonda Kelly. In 2007 his autobiography “John Gaskill Remembers” was published.
John is survived by his daughter, Joan Davis and spouse John Wyndham of Columbia, South Carolina and Wanchese; daughter Jean Dunn and spouse Justin Vana of Fairview, Kansas; sister, Erline Gaskill White of Norfolk, Virginia; five grandchildren, seven great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild as well as several nieces and nephews. John was predeceased by his wife, Dorothy, his parents Lloyd Vernon and Bertha Davis Gaskill; brother, Vernon Gaskill; and sister Dorothy Gaskill Sullivan , and brothers-in-law Albert Sullivan and Elton White.
A memorial service will be held at Bethany Methodist Church in Wanchese, North Carolina on October 27th at 3:00 in the afternoon. Military Honors and Masonic Rites will be performed following the service at Cudworth Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, please send memorials to Bethany Methodist Church Scholarship Endowment at: P.O. Box 239, Wanchese, NC 27981 or Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, P. O. Box 1005, Morehead City, NC 28557.
Twiford Funeral Home, Manteo, NC is assisting the family with arrangements. Condolences may be expressed to the family at www.twifordfh.com.Print Obituary & Condolences