One of the most enjoyable exercises in family history is when one is given a photograph of someone whose name or life has been lost to history. They stare out at you from the image, longing to be identified and to have their story told. My wife’s family had in their collection an image of the subject of this blog with the note: “Jesse Learish was in World War II died at sea when ship was sunk by Japanese 1941 or 42.” Jesse William Learish’s life began in a small mining town in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, but it would end south of the island of Java at the outbreak of World War Two.
The Learish family had resided in Pennsylvania since the 18th century, but it was not until after service in the Civil War that Jesse’s grandfather William Learish decided to make Clearfield County his home. William had served in a Pennsylvania cavalry unit during the Civil War that had provided him an opportunity to see much of Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia during his three years in service.
William Learish married Nancy Rowles in 1868 and together they settled in Woodland, Pennsylvania in Clearfield County where they raised their seven children. He worked as a laborer in the community throughout his life, though in what industries are unknown. The couple would name their fourth child, a son born in 1883, Jesse James Learish. Jesse worked in the local brickyard and, in 1903, married Frances C. Young and settled into their own home on Main Street in Woodland where they raised their three sons.
Jesse William Learish, their first-born, was born on 9 July 1904. Very little is known about his schooling or his childhood in Woodland. Jesse’s veteran grandfather would die when Jesse was only 6, leaving it to William’s children to share his stories from the war years with young Jesse and the other grandchildren. Whether it was these war stories told of Jesse’s grandfather, a desire to escape a hard life in Clearfield County, or to just see the world; in 1927, 23-year-old Jesse William Learish enlisted in the United States Navy.
While it is difficult to determine Jesse Learish’s early naval service, his later service would seem to indicate that he spent much of his career as a sailor in the United States Asiatic Fleet with occasional service in the United States. The first reference to Jesse serving in the Asian theater appears in June 1934 when he arrives in Pearl Harbor while in transit from Yokahama, Japan to San Francisco aboard the SS President Coolidge.
After returning to the United States, Jesse Learish was stationed at the Long Beach Naval Station in Long Beach, California. While stationed there or perhaps even before, he met Doraine Schwartz, a New Yorker who had moved to California. They were married in Los Angeles in December 1934. The couple’s residence was recorded as being 634 Cedar Avenue in Long Beach in 1936, though it appears that at least part of that year Jesse worked in a United States Navy recruiting office in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The first indication we have of Jesse Learish’s rank and occupation in the Navy appears when he transferred back to the Asiatic Fleet in January 1939. That month, as a Chief Shipfitter, he boarded the light cruiser USS Trenton for Pearl Harbor on route to his posting aboard the coastal gunboat USS Asheville. According to the The Bluejacket’s Manual 12th ed. (Annapolis, MD.: U.S. Naval Institute, 1944) a Chief Shipfitter oversaw the fabrication of steel metal work, bending, repairing, and fitting pipes. They also trained to operate fire extinguishers and any rescue breathing apparatus that might be on board.
After his arrival at Pearl Harbor, Jesse was posted aboard the aircraft carrier USS Langley for the last leg of his trip to Manilla in the Philippines and the USS Asheville. Shortly after he arrived for duty on 9 November 1940, the Asheville steamed for Chinese coastal waters where it spent the next year patrolling the coast between the ports of Hong Kong, Swatow (Shantou), and Amoy (Xiamen).
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 the USS Asheville, along with other vessels of the Asiatic Fleet, was ordered to steam for safer waters to the south. The fleet made its way to the port of Tjilatap on the southern coast of Java, where it operated during the first two months of 1942 before being forced by continued Japanese attacks to make its way to the safer waters around Freemantle, Australia. The USS Asheville and another vessel were the last United States Navy ships to leave Tjilatap in March 1942.
While there were reports of the sinking of the USS Asheville at the hands of the Japanese as soon as March 1942, the details of what happened to the gunboat on its final cruise were only revealed after the war. A freed American POW recalled meeting the only surviving crew member of the vessel while in Japanese captivity and passed along his version of the sinking. Additionally, information on Japanese naval activity at the time of the engagement was more readily available after the war.
Two days after departing Tjilatap, 3 March 1942, the Asheville was having engine trouble that likely kept CSF Jesse Learish and his men busy with repairs. The ship’s slow speed as a result caused it to fall behind the rest of the Australia-bound fleet. Unbeknownst to the USS Asheville, a Japanese scout plane had spotted the Asheville and had directed surface vessels to its location.
Two Japanese destroyers, the Arashi and the Nowaki, engaged the outgunned Asheville for 30 minutes. The destroyers fired over 300 rounds to sink the 20 year old coastal gunboat as she put up a valiant defense. Given Jesse Learish’s role on the ship, it is likely that he was busy throughout the engagement trying to keep the ship running and afloat.
The precise details of what happened to the USS Asheville, and her crew, were not known to the United States Navy when she was presumed lost and stricken from the Navy list two months later. The names of the men lost on the Asheville, including that of CSF Jesse William Learish, are inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing in the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial.
When I first stumbled on Jesse William Learish’s photograph I knew that I wanted to know more about what had happened to this young man, raised in the mountains of Pennsylvania, who would die among his comrades-in-arms 10,000 miles away. I’m glad I did because now his story, while not complete, has at least been told.
© Noel B. Poirier, 2020.