Sunday, September 20, 2015

Harrowing Experience Aboard the USS Saratoga

70 YEARS AGO TODAY -- February 21, 2015

Here's a harrowing experience of my Dad, a nineteen-year-old aboard the USS Saratoga (CV-3), off the island of Iwo Jima (Have you ever seen the photo/film/sculpture of the Marines pushing up the flag at Iwo Jima? This event took place two days before that film/photo was taken):

I had taken my place on lookout watch at about 1600 hours (4:00 p.m.) The day was Wednesday, February 21, 1945.

I had been on lookout watch for about an hour when our lookout leader advised me to proceed to my battle station as bogeys had shown up on our radar screen at 80 miles. I immediately left my lookout station, ascended down through the superstructure, and was crossing under the flight deck to the port side when I heard, "Boing--boing--boing." This was the general quarters alarm. I sprang into a dead run, as did all the other sailors, and as I arrived at my battle stations, our starboard guns began firing, while at the same time, the ship was jolted heavily as I heard loud explosions. I suddenly realized that this was the real thing--we were under attack. As I joined my gun crew, they were breaking out ammunition furiously. I took my place as second loader and began to pass clips of 40 millimeter ammo to the first loader. At this time, the gun captain yelled out, "You second loaders, if the first loader gets hit, drag him off and get up there and take his place." Fright began to overtake me as I realized the possibility of death had become very real. I immediately thought of Mom and Pop. I could see them opening a telegram from the Navy Department informing them that their son had been killed in action. All this came to me in an instant. I could hear the whine of the electric motors on the gun as they started up. By now, many guns, both port and starboard, were firing, even the 5-inches. (Our 5-inch guns were for long range, our 40 mm guns were for intermediate range, and our 20 mm machine guns for short range.)

At this moment, as I looked up and out across the water, I spotted a plane leveling off low on the water and coming directly at us. Thinking it was one of our F6F Hellcats, I started to say, as I pointed, "What's he doing?" All of a sudden our gun swung into position and began firing rapidly at it, as did all other guns on the port side. I then realized it was not one of ours--it was a Japanese Zeke [aka "Zero"]! I pulled my helmet down tight on my head and began to pass ammunition as fast as I could. At this time, our 20 mm began firing and then I knew that he was getting in close to us. I didn't have much time to be frightened--though I was. My main concentration was on passing those shells into the hands of the first loader in the right position so he could, without pausing, drop them into the breach of the gun. (The correct procedure here was critical.)

A few moments later, the ship again was jolted heavily as a loud explosion followed. We were showered with pieces of teakwood and metal fragments. Heavy black smoke blew over us. By now, every gun was now firing rapidly. The noise was intense and I had no cotton in my ears. I don't know if the plane I saw was the one that hit us or not.

At this time, I again glanced out over the water and I saw one of our destroyers coming across our bow at flank speed and firing every gun it had. Apparently, the attacking aircraft were coming in from our starboard bow and the destroyers were moving into position to protect our bow.

We had already taken several hits, and the entire forward end of the flight deck was on fire. We continued firing, but at what, I don't know. The ship would quiver every few moments and I realized we were really taking a beating. I could hear the water pumps start up as the fire fighters began fighting the flames. Much water was being pumped aboard in an effort to douse the fires. Again, the ship was jolted, as though it had been blown entirely out of the water. And almost immediately, black smoke poured through the large ventilation fans from the hangar deck and onto our gun mount. We nearly choked. A suicide plane had crashed into the starboard side of the ship and had gone through to the hangar deck. A fire followed as some of our planes began to explode and burn.

Above and behind me, on the passageway, I could hear rapid footsteps and voices shouting, "Get out of the way!" I looked up momentarily and saw some men running toward the forward bow. They had left their guns in a state of sheer panic as a large twin engine Japanese bomber was bearing down on us at the stern. Some men, however, remained on their guns and shot it down just before it got to us. If that bomber had made it through, he could have put our steering gear out of commission and we would have been sitting ducks.

We were taking on water more rapidly now and we began to list to starboard as the ship began losing speed. A lull in the firing ensued and we were instructed to smear flash burn cream on our faces, neck and on the back of our hands to protect us from any flashes from bombs or other explosions. After that we began dumping empty shell casings, clips and ammunition cans over the side. I could see all the other guns were doing the same. We had to do this to make room for more. Probably tens of thousands of brass casings were going into the ocean.

By now we were dead in the water (stopped) and we all began to put on life preservers as some began to cut life rafts loose. I began to prepare for the worst. A terrible fright came over me as I thought of abandoning ship and having to jump into that cold, gray Pacific. I knew that at this time of year, a person would only last a few minutes there, even with a life preserver. About this time, two jeep (small) carriers had come in our vicinity. Some Japanese suicide planes took after them and made direct hits on both of them. I saw them burning. Later, we got the news that they were both sunk. One of these was the Bismarck Sea. I can't recall the name of the other one.

Darkness began to overtake us now and we again began to fire. I believe our guns were now being fired by radar.

The bilge pumps were finally started up and now the water taken on to fight fires was being pumped overboard. A short time later, the ship began to slowly move forward. I began to feel somewhat relieved. At least we weren't sinking. We slowly picked up speed and, in a short time, were making at least seventeen knots.

We remained on our guns and periodically fired--at what, I don't know. I believe there were times that they were firing at stars as clouds would part.

The smell of fire and burning chemicals was everywhere and the stench was more than we could stand. The fires on the flight deck were put out only after much effort.

Some of our air group was still aloft, so we turned into the wind and landed them. One pilot we took aboard was from another carrier in the vicinity, probably one of the jeep carriers. As he climbed out of his plane, he exclaimed, "I'm sure glad I'm not on the Saratoga. They're sure catchin' hell." When he was told that he was on the Saratoga, he nearly fainted.

We lost a number of our air group. Because we were under fire, some of our pilots couldn't land. Some probably just ran out of gas and were ditched, others were probably shot down. Some of our pilots were still aboard and some were killed by the kamikaze attack.

A lull in the firing came well after dark, probably about 2200 hours (10:00 p.m.). We stayed on our guns. The word was passed to send a representative from each battle station to the galley for "K" rations (Army field rations). No one felt much like eating, but we knew we must to keep up our strength. I opened mine and began eating some very old and hard biscuits about the size of a fig Newton. There was also a small can of sponge cake and a can of veal loaf; also a small roll of toilet paper and cigarettes.

We could hear people moving about on the flight deck, cleaning up debris. The stench was worse than ever now as the smell of burned flesh was mixing with it. Corpsmen with menua (?) stretchers were now moving through the passageways on their way to sickbay. Only once in a while we would doze off in an effort to sleep, but the cold and the fear of freezing to death kept us awake.

Morning finally dawned and we were relieved of our duty. I went to our sleeping quarters and the deck had been flooded, but our lockers were okay. Everything seemed in tact as we were away from the damaged area. Many of the men's lockers in other parts of the ship were completely destroyed. Many lost all their gear--and their sleeping quarters.

I moved about on the ship assessing the damage. It was incredible. It was sickening. Some men had been blown to bits and their flesh had to be hosed off the bulkhead and decks. The smell of burnt flesh turned my stomach and I nearly vomited. As the dead were being counted, I wondered how some of my high school chums fared. I knew a fireroom on the starboard side had been hit and I became concerned about Keith Crawford. I later learned that the fireroom that was hit was the next one aft from his. Thank goodness. All the rest of my classmates were okay. I learned that one tall, handsome, red-headed LDS boy from Provo died on a forward gun just below our lookout station. I learned that the marine detachment we had suffered extremely heavy losses. They manned 40 mm guns on the forward end of the flight deck, where most of the damage occurred. Some Marines had to go over the side or burn to death. Some were burned to death, many went over the side never to be found.

I was approached by someone to proceed to the bomb locker and help remove some badly burned bodies. I declined, as I'm sure the person who asked me could see my sickened condition and knew I would be of no use to him. I later learned that those bodies there were literally roasted and if you tried to pick them up, they fell apart. They finally had to shovel them up.

I passed the galley, and it was a mess (no pun intended). Large baking pans containing hams were still on the stoves, now ruined by water and debris. Some of the cooks were beginning to clean up the debris and spoiled food. I passed the bakery and saw much the same thing--ruined cakes, pies and bread now water-soaked and debris-covered. Death, destruction, and fear was everywhere. Everyone was very solemn and said very little.

As the day proceeded (Thursday, February 22, 1945), the activity picked up markedly. We cleared away debris, cleaned up living quarters. The airmen were dumping damaged planes over the stern. The dead bodies were being taken to the flight deck for burial at sea. The most sickening sight of all was to see those dead bodies, row after row. They put whatever bodies they could into mattress sacks. It was terrible to see the sack tied around their ankles and their feet protruding out of the sack. Most of them still had their shoes on. I thought of all the telegrams that had to be sent and the poor parents and loved ones who received them, and what their thoughts would be. I was grateful that my own parents were spared. If Mom and Pop knew what I had just gone through, they would have died. I was grateful they didn't know.

All the bodies were draped with the American flag. Here I saw the dead who had given their lives in defense of their shipmates and their country.

The call went out for all hands to muster on the flight deck for burial services. It was a very cold, gray, solemn day as we took our places in our respective divisions. I could see that a couple of our lookouts were missing. I later learned that some had been wounded.

The chaplain gave a short eulogy and as he pronounced the name of each dead shipmate, he would "command to the deep" and to God. Each body was then slid into the sea from underneath the flag. I shuddered to think of that deep, cold, watery grave. Their loved ones didn't even have the privilege of laying them to rest by their own homes. They sank quickly as they were weighted with a 5" projectile.
It was necessary to bury them as soon as possible to keep the ship as free from contamination as possible.

We all went back to work to make the ship as clean as possible. All day long, more debris and damaged aircraft were being dumped into the sea.

The thing that kept us from sinking was that most of the damage was above the water line. This was the only good thing about the whole battle. Even at that, it could have been much worse. I felt very lucky. As I recall, we took about seven hits, but we also shot down a number of the attackers. Our destroyer escort contributed heavily to our staying afloat. They were pulled in tight around the bow of the ship, which gave considerable protection. One of the ship's starboard fuel tanks was hit, and it emptied into the sea. Why it didn't catch fire, I'll never know.

We still needed an anti-submarine patrol, because we were very vulnerable. So the old Sara proved her worth again. Since we couldn't launch our planes off the bow because of battle damage, the old Sara simply backed down at 17 knots into the wind and launched them that way. When it came time to land them, we were steaming ahead and could take them back aboard. It was a super surprise to go top side that morning and see the sea passing by us in the opposite direction. No one had even realized, except the bridge, that we had come to a stop, and then proceeded to back down. It was most comforting to know that we still had a few planes and pilots to give us that protection.

(Copyright, Jack Lee Bytheway)

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