PHOTO COURTESY OF BILLINGS GAZETTE

Virgil Gust, now 99, in his clothing store in 2008. He founded the store in 1947 after returning from the Navy at the end of World War II.

Editor’s note: This is Part II of a three-part series on visits to small-town Montana. 

A bit of nostalgia and the story of a ship and a man who served on that ship in wartime.

While researching a future article for The Chronicle having to do with a relative starting her teaching career in one-room schools in rural Montana in the 1940s, I called Susan Metcalf, the superintendent of schools in Sweetgrass County, Mont. In asking questions about my subject, the conversation led to many other aspects of life in Montana in the 1940s and 1950s that I experienced as a young boy.

Metcalf writes for a magazine, “Raised in the West.“ She is a fourth-generation Montana rancher who is raising a fifth generation on the family ranch, which was homesteaded in the early 1900s. She has written a recipe column every week for 25 years. She enjoys horses, cooking, and being a grandma. She taught junior high English for 25 years before becoming superintendent of schools. She and husband Remi live near Big Timber, raising grandkids, cattle and horses. 

I mentioned several businesses I remembered as a child when visiting Big Timber. Coles’ Drugstore with soda fountain, which I wrote about in my last article. The second business was a clothing store on Main Street in the same block as the drug store, Gust Clothing. Metcalf had authored a well-written article regarding Virgil Gust, who started the store in 1947, on his return from the Navy at the end of WWII. The store is still owned and operated by Mr. Gust, who is now 99 years old! 

I contacted him by letter regarding the destroyer he had served on during WWII, DD-386, the USS Bagley, and was delighted in a phone call a week ago from Mr. Gust, answering my letter asking for information on his store and his service record on a famous warship.

The USS Bagley is one of eight of the Bagley class of destroyers. The Bagley class ship was named after Naval Officer Worth Bagley, who was killed during the attack on the battery at Barbenaf, Cuba, on May 11, 1898. He was the first to lose his life during the Spanish-American War. The Bagley class had a speed of 35 knots, two forward cannons and one rear deck cannon, numerous 50-caliber machine guns mounted on both sides and on the tail fin, namely for repelling aircraft, but they were used for surface battle as well. 

The primary purpose of a destroyer is to escort troop ships and cargo ships. They are built for speed and maneuverability, equipped with two torpedo launchers and two ash can launchers (depth charge). They are known as submarine hunters because of their maneuverability and speed. They are vulnerable to torpedoes because they are light – armored, vs. a battleship which is heavily armored in the hull. This lighter tonnage accounts for its speed and maneuverability.

Gust was on board the USS Bagley and was Officer of the Deck the day the Japanese Navy Commanders signed the surrender of the Japanese armed forces on the deck of the Bagley. The Bagley served as Flagship for Rear Admiral F.E.M. Whiting, U.S. Navy, on Aug. 31, 1945. He accepted the surrender of the Mercus Island Japanese Navy. The ceremony took place on the forecastle with the ship lying at anchor off Mercus Island. 

On Sept. 5, 1945, the Bagley reported to the commander of the Fifth Fleet for duty and joined Task Force 55 on Oct. 8 in Okinawa, where Bagley participated in the landing of Occupational Forces for that area during the period of Sept. 22-25. The ship remained on Occupational Duty until Nov. 1, 1945.

The formal declaration of unconditional surrender was signed Sept. 5, 1945 on board the Battleship Missouri, in Tokyo Bay. The Supreme Commander of the Pacific Operations, Douglas MacArthur, had full authorization by President Harry S. Truman to sign the Japanese surrender documents. MacArthur was named Controller to rebuild and reorganize the country of Japan, rebuilding the government, the economy, and the country following the surrender.

The history of the Bagley began in 1935 at the laying of her keel. She was launched and commissioned in 1936 and was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet. Her primary duty was in and around Cuba. The destroyer was sponsored by Michelle Worth Bagley, sister of Ensign Worth Bagley, in whose honor the ship was named. SS Bagley 386 was at anchor with her seven sister ships of the Bagley class at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.  

She was one of the first to be scraped and returned fire, putting down five attacking enemy planes that day. Two of her sister ships were badly damaged, repaired, and later lost at sea in naval battles. The Bagley repelled Kamakshi aircraft several times later on, but due to her deck guns, the suicde planes never reached her deck. As soon as other crafts could get steamed up and underway, Bagley steamed out the channel of Pearl Harbor and went in search of aircraft carriers that launched the planes that attacked Pearl Harbor. 

She is a 12-star United States warship. She participated in the layce operation and the Okinawa attack, the northern Luzon and Formosa attack, the battle of Surigao Strait, the landing at Leyee, the assault and occupation of Iwo Jima, the assault and occupation of Okinawa Gunto.

The accompanying picture was supplied to me by Virgil Gust, and it shows him behind the Japanese officers signing surrender papers.

Gust still runs his clothing store on Main Street in Montana. He climbs the steps to his office every day. And he is looking forward to his 100th birthday!

I am most grateful to have had the phone call from a WWII Naval War Hero. Of course, I do not remember him when we visited the store in the late 1940s and 1950s, but I do remember the store itself. As a young Gene Autry fan, I always had to get a new pair of cowboy boots when we visited. Gust is most proud to display a model of the destroyer Bagley that he served on in WWII. The model is proudly displayed in his store in Montana.

In the Willamette Valley, I know of only one store that is representative of this clothing store in Big Timber, Mont., and that is Schweitzer’s Men’s Wear in downtown Cottage Grove.

Gust is very proud of the fact that he is able to stay in business through a recession, pandemic, floods, and the competition from shopping malls.

From the official Naval records, the History of the SS Bagley D-386 “The Destroyer USS Bagley literally fought the war from beginning to end, fighting against the Japanese attackers at the Pearl Harbor disaster, to conducting part of the Japanese surrender ceremony on her deck. In between the dauntless Destroyer won twelve battle stars, shooting down 11 Japanese airplanes, rescued 465 survivors of the first battle of Savo Island, and fought in every important operation of the war in the SW and Central Pacific areas.”

Several years ago, after being decommissioned at the end of the Korean War in 1955, the Battleship Missouri was moored at Bremerton, Wash. Her decks were opened for visitors, and the trip from Everett across Puget Sound by Ferry was made often, to take relatives, guests, and friends from other states to visit where World War II ended, on the deck of the Missouri. Several years ago, the Missouri was towed from Bremerton to Pearl Harbor, Haw. She made one stop on that journey, at Astoria, Ore. Jean and I paid our final visit to the Missouri on her last journey across the Pacific. I remember I had made reservations at Best Western in Astoria, never dreaming that we would see the sight that greeted us when we opened the motel door and walked in. From the room, we had a beautiful view of the Battleship Missouri. Today, the Missouri is permanently anchored next to the Battleship Arizona as a lasting reminder. This is where the 4-year war began and ended.

It is interesting that we do not learn from history, but tend to repeat it. One example is the diplomatic agreement made with England in 1915 and the many events that led us into WWI. The steamship Lusitania, a luxury liner, was sunk by a German U-Boat on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,195 lives. April 1, 1917, the United States entered WWI. The first destroyer and the first ship to be fired on in WWII was the Destroyer Reuben James. The Reuben James and other destroyers were assigned to accompany a large convoy of cargo ships to Iceland. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had made agreements with England that the United States would supply the needs of England. The supplies were to be delivered to Iceland, and the British Armed Forces would take over from there. The Reuben James was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat U-552 on Oct. 31, 1941. 

The above is a nostalgic look at my history – what I have lived to see. The tragic part while researching the information for this article is the realization of the tragedy of war. In WWII, we lost two battleships at Pearl Harbor. Six others were badly damaged but recovered and repaired. We lost at sea five aircraft carriers, six escort carriers. The records show 70 destroyers lost at sea, an estimated 50 submarines with crew. This is just a few of the casualties of loss of ships and crews in WWII.

Don Williams is a longtime Cottage Grove resident. He wrote this for The Chronicle.