Hal Berven Local Veteran Recalls Service Aboard
Ship Built at Kaiser in Vancouver
Seventy years ago, workers at Vancouver’s Kaiser Shipyard watched as they saw the USS Gambier Bay take form.
Hal Berven had a different view of the aircraft carrier while treading water in the Pacific on October 25, 1944. He watched it disappear.
After being ordered to abandon ship, the wounded sailor swam away from the damaged aircraft carrier, and then he looked back at his sinking ship.
“I saw it turn over,” Berven said during an interview just west of his ship’s launch site. “Steam came up, and the ship was gone.
“I sensed a rumbling.” And then, the Vancouver veteran said, “I felt alone.”
But the Gambier Bay and its crew had done their jobs in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. They were part of a task force that turned back a much larger Japanese force opposing the Allied invasion of the Philippines.
The Gambier Bay was one of 14 Vancouver-built escort carriers that fought in what’s been called the biggest naval battle of World War II.
The USS St. Lo also was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which included four different naval actions over the span of four days.
The Gambier Bay and St. Lo were among 50 carriers built during Vancouver’s WWII shipyard boom.
“They were in the thick of the battle,” said Bill Wheeler, professor emeritus of engineering at Clark College and retired Navy officer.
Five Vancouver-built carriers were lost due to torpedoes, kamikaze aircraft or enemy gunfire. Eleven were heavily damaged, Wheeler said, including 10 that were hit by kamikazes.
The “baby flattops” helped fill a huge gap in the U.S. arsenal. After losing four aircraft carriers early in the war, “We had three carriers left,” Wheeler said.
With no air cover for convoys crossing the Atlantic, German U-boats sank ships faster than we built them, said Wheeler, who discussed the Kaiser carriers at the Clark County Historical Museum in April.
Production was hitting its stride 70 years ago along the Columbia River. In 1943, Kaiser workers launched 25 escort carriers and started work on 12 others.
“Just 14 of our crew were killed in battle,” he said.
One of them was a buddy; he was killed while arming a plane for an attack, when a rocket he was holding went off.
Planes from the USS Gambier Bay also supported amphibious operations in the Pacific, including landings at Saipan and Peleliu.
Berven was an aviation machinist’s mate on the Gambier Bay. He described his job as a plane captain, the crewman who made sure an FM2 Wildcat fighter was ready for its mission.
On October 25, 1944, the Gambier Bay was assigned to Task Force 3 off Samar Island, in one of the four engagements that were part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. “Taffy 3,” as it was nicknamed, included six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts.
It was an epic mismatch. The Japanese had four battleships, eight cruisers and 11 destroyers.
“They had the biggest battleship ever built, the Yamato. It weighed more than all of us put together,” Berven said. “It was rather hopeless.”
The Yamato had nine 18.1-inch main guns; each escort carrier had a 5-inch gun.
“They all could travel at 32 knots and our carriers’ top speed was 18 knots. They closed in quickly.”
The Gambier Bay’s commander was able to avoid the shells for a while, Berven said: “Our skipper would change course and the shells would hit where we had been.
“They got close enough to fire point-blank. Armor-piercing shells were going right through us. Then they sent shells that exploded on contact.
“We got all our planes off but one, a torpedo bomber on the hangar deck that was loaded with gas and a torpedo. A shell hit that plane. It blew me into the air.”
Two Days in the Water
He regained consciousness, and then Berven said he crawled out in time to hear the captain order the crew to abandon ship.
Berven spent two days in the water before a rescue ship arrived. He held on to the side of a life raft because there wasn’t enough room in the raft. Most of the life rafts went down with the ship.
“We had no water for two days. Several men died from drinking salt water,” Berven said. A couple of sailors were killed by sharks.
But Taffy 3 turned back the Japanese. Shells and torpedoes fired by the American destroyers and destroyer escorts knocked the Japanese off stride. Aircraft from Taffy 3’s escort carriers were reinforced by planes from Taffy 1 and Taffy 2, damaging or sinking several Japanese cruisers.
The Japanese thought they were facing a much more formidable U.S. force and didn’t press their attack.
“They could have sunk every one of our ships,” Berven said. “They left. I think they were afraid of us.”
In misjudging Taffy 3, the enemy commander also misjudged the baby flattops his forces had sunk, the Gambier Bay and St. Lo. The Japanese mistakenly thought they’d destroyed two of the Navy’s big aircraft carriers, Wheeler said.
Gallantry and Guts
Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote: “In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar.”
The St. Lo, the other Vancouver-built escort carrier lost that day, was the first major warship to be sunk by kamikaze planes.
Navy veteran Hal Berven looks over a 1945 newspaper with a photograph of him, at the right, getting a Purple Heart for wounds received during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Berven took part in an oral-history taping on July 18, 2013 at the veterans’ memorial mural, not far from where his aircraft carrier, the USS Gambier Bay, was built at Vancouver’s Kaiser Shipyard.
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Excerpts from story by Tom Vogt, republished with his permission.
Photos by Troy Wayrynen / The Columbian Newspaper.
Kaiser Carrier Veteran Hal Berven Interview with
Tom Vogt, The Columbian Newspaper
Hal Berven crossed the bar in August 2013, shortly after the
story and interview were published.
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Eulogy by Gary Berven, Son of Hal Berven