It was 50 years ago, and 18-year-old Fred DiSipio was floating somewhere in the South Pacific on a pile of wreckage.
He was badly wounded. He hadn’t eaten in five days. His only water came from some passing rain showers.
Eleven other sailors who had clung to the same wreckage had all died during the five-day ordeal. Two were killed in a shark attack.
“It was at this point I started thinking I should be getting ready for my prom at Southern (South Philadelphia High School). And I began thinking this is all a dream,” said the Cherry Hill resident.
DiSipio’s ship, the aircraft carrier Gambier Bay, was sunk in one of the major sea battles of World War II.
The South Philly kid, near death, was found by chance by a passing PT boat 200 miles from where his ship had gone down. He would survive to become a major record-industry promoter and wealthy racehorse owner.
He calls his survival a “one-in-a-million” fluke. Although he won a Purple Heart and Presidential Unit citation for participating in the sea battle, there is no independent proof of his remarkable five-day odyssey. “It never made the newspapers because those kind of stories were very common. I didn’t do anything unusual,” he said.
Later this month, DiSipio and thousands of other survivors of the Battle of the Leyte Gulf will gather at anniversary reunions to share memories of the big fight off the Philippines that began October 23, 1944.
The Japanese threw all their big ships against America’s effort to retake the Philippines.
An enemy decoy plan drew most big U.S. fighting ships away from Leyte, where hundreds of transport and supply ships were landing an invasion force.
It was a force of six lightly armed, thin-skinned smaller aircraft carriers and seven destroyers that faced a Japanese fleet of 25 – four battleships, eight cruisers and 13 destroyers.
DiSipio had dropped out of high school to join the Navy at age 17. “The war was at a fever pitch and everyone wanted to get into it before it was over,” he said.
In the mismatched battle October 25, DiSipio’s Gambier Bay was soon to become the first and only American carrier sunk by surface-ship fire. Others were destroyed by submarine or air attack.
“All hell broke loose,” he recalled. “We were hit by salvo after salvo. Once they got the range they didn’t miss. One battleship (the Yamato) fired 18-inch guns.” DiSipio said he saw those huge shells go through one side of his ship and exit the other without exploding.
At one point, he saw a friend decapitated, and he was soon wounded. He said he was on the listing flight deck clinging to a cable, afraid if he let go he would slip into a huge fire.
He was saved by a tremendous explosion that blew part of the ship into the sea, DiSipio said. He had wounds in the shoulder, head, back and left leg, and fractured ribs.
He joined other men in the ocean in lashing together bits of debris into a sort of raft. “I had a ringside seat of the battle. I saw the first kamikaze attack of the war. I watched a Japanese ship smash right into the forward elevator of the (carrier) St. Lo.”
He watched his own ship sink. An enemy destroyer sailed close by, and he saw a Japanese cameraman taking film of the American survivors.
Sharks attacked the first day. “I was the most badly wounded, so I was put in the center of the raft,” DiSipio said. “Everybody was partially in the water. The shark attack lasted about half an hour. We poked at them with pieces of lumber or kicked at them. Two men were killed. . . .
“I was burned to a crisp by the sun. At night I froze. Eighty percent of my body was always in the water. We had caught a strange current that took us far away from all the other survivors.” One-by-one the other men died of injuries, exposure or were swept off the raft.
After his rescue, DiSipio spent 13 months in military hospitals. It was three months before his family discovered he was alive.
After the war, he “drifted” into the entertainment industry. “I got into promotions and marketing,” he said. “I worked with everyone from Chubby Checker to the Beatles to the Motown people up to Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson.
“I retired about four years ago, and I spent a lot of time in Italy every year,” he said.
The Battle of Leyte Bay has been called the largest naval battle in history. DiSipio witnessed only one part of it when four American ships were sunk and nearly 800 sailors killed, including 122 on the Gambier Bay.
But American planes crippled three Japanese cruisers. The Japanese commander was hampered by poor communications and did not know how well his ships had done. He broke off the attack and withdrew.
By Ron Avery, Daily News Staff Writer – Posted: October 3, 1994 – philly.com
Fred crossed the bar in November 2013