Last of the Big-Gun Warships – Richard Person

Aptos Veteran, Richard Person, Recalls the
“Last Battle of the Big-Gun Warships”

Richard Person - FinalRichard Person of Aptos, pictured with his wife Ruth, survived the sinking of the USS Gambier Bay during one of the most savage naval battles of World War II.

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In a 35-man raft, Richard Person and 85 other Navy men, clung to each other, belly-to-belly, most of them holding onto the outside of the tube.

The men with the worst injuries were put in the center to keep their blood from working the sharks into a frenzy. But the sharks, fins thrashing, still attacked, pulling some of the men away.

One of the survivors, Richard Person, 85 and originally from Illinois, has been living in Aptos with his wife, Ruth, for the past 65 years. He is charming in a grandfatherly way and his eyes are warm behind black rimmed glasses when he smiles.

He survived one the most savage naval battles of World War II: The Battle of Leyte Gulf in the South Pacific in 1944. It has come to be known as the last great battle between big-gun warships.

Person served as a throttleman in the engine room of the USS Gambier Bay, a 512-foot steam-powered escort carrier, that sailed off the coast of Samar, an island in the Philippines, with 12 other U.S. ships in a support unit called Taffy 3. Their mission was to support the U.S. landing to re-take the Philippine Islands. On Oct. 25, just after sunrise, 23 Japanese ships ambushed “Taffy 3” by sailing under cover of fog into their midst and opening fire.

Person, a 19-year-old machinist second class, was at the throttle in the aft engine room.

“I remember a shell coming down through the deck into the engine room and hitting the boiler,” he said. “It exploded right there, but I remember being taken aback first by the light from outside, piercing down into the engine room through the hole the shell had made.”

Within 10 minutes of first sighting the Japanese, shells were exploding all around their ship, according to Petty Officer Second Class Tony Potochniak, who was also aboard the Gambier Bay, founded the USS Gambier Bay Association in 1968 and has researched the battle extensively.

“We were out-gunned by the bigger ships and our 20 and 40 mm anti-aircraft guns might as well have been pop guns at that range,” he said.

The U.S. destroyers in the group, the USS Johnston, USS Hoel and the destroyer escort USS Samuel B. Roberts, charged the oncoming Japanese fleet, knowing it was a suicide run, in order to divert them so the Gambier could get its planes in the air, Potochniak said. Many of the planes didn’t have bombs or torpedoes but made “dummy runs” to fake-out the enemy.

As shells churned the water and tore the ship apart, the Gambier’s chaplain, Rev. Vern Carlsen, reported what was happening on deck and what part of the ship the shells were going to hit over the loud speakers, Person said.

Back in the aft engine room, Person was surrounded by wreckage and up to his knees in sea water. The ship had three main compartments and two of them were flooded.

The Gambier was taking point-blank shell fire from enemy cruisers, the Tone and the Chikuma, even as she sank, Potochniak said, which he added was “not very kosher” of them.

Potochniak rushed onto the slanting deck and could see the gun flashes of the Tone firing on them before sliding down a rope into the ocean.

The Gambier was dead in the water, Potochniak said. Other ships in Taffy 3 were able to continue fighting ducking under the cover of a passing squall.

U.S. destroyers weaved in and out of the smoke and fog, laying smoke screens, attacking and maneuvering, but two were sunk, he said. More than 100 aircraft from the units Taffy 1 and Taffy 2 flew in to assist.

The Gambier sounded its alarm to abandon ship as it listed on its side, water rushing in and fires burning, Person said.

“We shut the engine down as best we could, because we had live steam, and then ran topside,” he said.

He burst through fire curtains onto the deck as a shell struck a fully fueled aircraft still on the flight deck, Person said. The explosion blew him back 10 feet and slammed him against the bulkhead. Though he didn’t feel pain at the time, he had severely injured his back.

The ship was listing so far that, after he recovered from the explosion, Person stepped right over the railing and landed in the water. As the ship rolled, he swam as fast as he could to get away from the flight deck, which hung far out over the hull, and dragged several men under as it hit the surface. Life rafts were launched and men were hauling each other aboard.

The position of the USS Gambier Bay was not correctly reported when it went down, and over a two-day period 1,110 men from all the ships that were sunk in Taffy 3 drifted in overcrowded rafts between 35 and 45 miles in shark infested waters, Potochniak said. They had no fresh water and few rations.

Person remembers the ocean swell carrying him up to where he could see the Japanese ships firing guns at their rafts. They could see shells coming right at them. As they dropped into the troughs of the waves, the shells whooshed directly over their heads. The men aboard a nearby raft were hit.

Early in the morning after the Gambier Bay sunk, in dim light, Person vaguely recalls a Japanese ship passing nearby. Japanese sailors lined the deck, but instead of firing their guns, they stood at attention and saluted.

Potochniak confirms the story in which the Japanese sailors aboard the Yugumo-class destroyer Fujinami commanded by Tatsuji Matsuzaki passed the Americans in life rafts and made a gesture of respect.

Tatsuji was killed in the following days when his ship was sunk by American forces, Potochniak said. The Japanese commander was posthumously promoted to captain.

Potochniak explained that the story of the unusual event has only recently been brought to the attention of wider audiences.

Two days after the sinking, a U.S. patrol craft found the raft he was on, Person said. To make sure they were Americans in the raft, the crew yelled down at the survivors, “Who won the World Series?” The survivors answered and were hauled aboard.

Five ships from Taffy 3 were destroyed during the battle and there were 960 casualties, Potochniak said. Of the 860 aboard the USS Gambier Bay, 137 died.

Person was sent to Santa Cruz in 1945 and stationed at the Casa Del Rey Hotel, near the Beach Boardwalk. He met his wife, bought a small house in Aptos and started a family that now includes grandchildren. Though his war experiences were more than 65 years ago, he still has panic attacks, nightmares and wakes up in cold sweats, Person said. A long time has passed since he served on the USS Gambier Bay, but some things can’t be forgotten.

Published by Joel Hersch in Santa Cruz Sentinel – November 11, 2010
Photo by Dan Coyro