2010 Gambier Bay Reunion Memories

2010 – USS Gambier Bay Association Reunion Meeting
with Survivors and Members of my Dad’s Gambier Bay Experiences

By Philip Young (son of survivor Lt. (jg) Robert G. Young, Gunnery Officer)

 

Robert Young - 1

Earlier this year in doing some internet research about the Gambier Bay on which my father, Lt. (jg.) Robert Young, served as gunnery officer, I discovered the association website and was rewarded by the opportunity to learn about the experiences of other survivors who had shared some of their stories in the “Scuttlebutt”. I was fascinated to read the personal accounts of survivors Norm Loates & Charles Heinl and was inspired by John Hagertyʼs piece, ʻThe Next Generationʼ, in which he shares his childhood impressions of learning from his father, survivor Ed Hagerty, about the Leyte Gulf events. When I contacted Paula Grond, the president, and Marlene Hughes, the treasurer, for more information, I received a warm welcome to join the association and attend the annual memorial reunion in October. Intrigued by the chance to meet survivors and their families, my wife and I decided to postpone our plans for a trip to China so I could attend the reunion for the first time.  The reunion in St. Louis exceeded my expectations. Introduced by Paula & Marlene to the survivors in attendance, I was profoundly honored to meet them.  Then when talking with Bud & Darlene Petit during the banquet dinner, I was delighted to learn that Bud knew my Dad and considered him “a real good officer” on board the Gambier Bay. Bud explained that he was only 17 when he enlisted and was assigned to one of the 20MM guns on the carrier. He was not in the same gunnery division as my father but knew him  “real well”.

Bud & Darlene Petit and Philip Young

Philip - Bud - Darlene

The next day after the memorial service, one of the family members excitedly told me that I really needed to go over and talk with Murray Brown who had mentioned knowing my father on the ship. Interviewing Murray turned into one of the unexpected highlights of the trip for me as he confirmed that he & my Dad were in the same division together and remembered him as a fine officer on board who he liked and respected. Murray was very patient in sharing his recollections about the sinking and experiences in the ocean. A photo in one of the Gambier Bay scrapbooks at the board meeting was discovered that showed my father standing in the third row and Murray sitting in the front. The commitment of the survivors and the next generations of family members to carry on the remembrance of the heroic Gambier Bay sailors is truly impressive. Many have been attending annual reunions for a number of years. The group had clearly bonded and I immediately felt welcome as part of the Gambier Bay family. I only wish that my mother and father had learned about the association and been able to attend prior to my Dad passing away in 1991. I was surprised by the good condition of the survivors at this stage in their lives. The mystery of their relatively youthful appearance was cleared up when I learned that many of them had enlisted at the tender age of 17 when they needed their parents permission. My Dad, on the other hand, was more than a decade older than many of the young sailors when he became an officer on board.

Robert & Ruth YoungRobert - 2

My earliest recollections of my fatherʼs Gambier Bay experiences started around 1952 when I was five years old. Too young to grasp the full impact on my Dad and other survivors of their aircraft carrier sinking in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, I intuitively absorbed a sense of their heroism during family visits to a neighborʼs house to watch Victory At Sea episodes of the WWII naval engagements in the Pacific. There were heated conversations about Admiral Halseyʼs infamous blunder in falling for the Japanese decoy, chasing Admiral Ozawaʼs ships north and leaving the escort carriers and the San Bernardino Strait unprotected. Overhearing the adults and watching the thrilling ocean battles on TV, I learned that my father had served as a gunnery officer on one of those escort carriers and that we were lucky that he was rescued. I did not fully understand at my young age that, if he had not survived, I would not be alive as I was born in 1947 well after his return.

Growing up in the post war ʻ50s, we had a rather idyllic life in a small New England town as my father built his insurance business and my mother worked as a teacher and a librarian. Like most kids our age, my brother and I watched Howdy Doody, Superman, Westerns, played cowboy & indians, football, baseball, tennis, etc. and had snowball & apple fights with our neighborhood gang of “little rascals”. When we watched “Father Knows Best” starring Robert Young, we assumed our Dad was the real one because he had the same name and, as far as we were concerned, he did know best. Then when we got to see “Mister Roberts”, the 1955 hit war movie about a ship in the Pacific, starring Henry Fonda & Jack Lemmon confronting the volatile captain played by James Cagney, we imagined that my father had similar experiences on the Gambier Bay. Henry Fondaʼs soft spoken, self-assured manner made it easy for us to envision our Dad in that role -especially when our mother recounted how my Dad was popular with his men who respected him for standing up to the captain on their behalf. We feel fortunate that our oldest son, Wendell, interviewed my mother for his 8th grade history project about WWII so we have a tape of her recollections about my Dadʼs war experiences. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, my father first tried to enlist in the Air Force but was told that he was too old to fly at the age of 29, Instead he signed up with the Navy for a 3 month officer training program at Princeton Naval Training School to become a gunnery officer. Then he was sent to Montara, California to train 40 men on the shooting range on the ocean prior to being assigned to the Gambier Bay. My mother recounts that his training proved effective during the Battle of Leyte Gulf such as the time when my Dad spotted a Kamikaze plane attempting an attack on the carrier and he swiveled one of his gunners around just in time to shoot down the diving aircraft. She told us the episode was captured in a photo that was reprinted in Time magazine.  On October 25th my father had just completed his duty as “Officer of the Deck” and had gone below to get some breakfast just before Admiral Kuritaʼs force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers was spotted.

Robert - 3In my Dadʼs written notes about the events, he recalled in his own words that “Lt. Richard Elliott announced that ʻA strong task force of 4BBs, 6CAs and 4DDs is 25 miles astern of us & closing.ʼ General quarters clanged & the ship was instantly veined with snakelike files of men running to battle stations. I made my way to the bridge and joined the rush for steel helmets, talker phones & binoculars. I was to man a telephone that controlled the 40MM batteries. Suddenly geysers of water were splashing up inside our formation in salvos of 2 to 4 shells. The battleships & cruisers had opened fire from about 18 miles. We were under attack. Chaplain Carlson stood near me giving a play by play description of the action to the men below decks over the PA system. At 0715 we took the first hits. The ship gave a shudder as a salvo of heavy shells landed in the middle of the after elevator at flight deck level. Suddenly the Gambier Bay gave a violent shudder, as though she had been mortally struck. ʻThe forward engine room is hit & water is rising,ʼ announced the bridge squawk box. At 0840 we were dead in the water. At 0842 Lt. Warren Stringer, gunnery officer, swung from the captain & screamed ʻAbandon, ship, abandon ship.ʼ Into my head phones I repeated, ʻAbandon ship, abandon ship.ʼ Then there were hundreds of us in the water. I concentrated on staying afloat and trying, unsuccessfully, to inflate my life preserver. I reached the nearest raft with my last stroke. Seaman Elledge held my head out of water until the nausea had passed. Ensign Epping called me aside and pointed below us. Down 15 feet were several monster sharks, shadowing us. No one became panicky at sight of them. A few violent kicks kept them at a safe distance. Had we known that one of our shipmates who was swimming in his scivvies had been attacked and killed by a shark, we would not have been so nonchalant. The Gambier Bay was listing badly to port now.  Some ammunition, probably 40mm, was popping & flashing. As she disappeared, a cheer rose from the next group of rafts – a tribute to the only carrier ever sunk by surface shell fire.”  For approximately 43 hours, My Dad and the men in his flotilla clustered around the raft which he described as “a partly submerged piece of doughnut-shaped wood in unstable condition”. Then before dawn on October 27th, an L.C.I. troopship spotted them with searchlights and picked up the survivors. Weeks later they arrived back in San Francisco where my Dad called my mother on December 2, 1944, which happened to be her birthday, to share the wonderful news of their rescue! On December 27th, long time friends and shipmates on board the Gambier Bay, Lt. Richard Elliott and Lt. (jg) Robert Young and their wives were joyously reunited in Hartford for a newspaper interview (see article below) about their Battle of Leyte Gulf experiences.

Robert - 4

Robert G. Young crossed the bar in 1991