WWII Reunion Brings Tears, Memories – Clete Ring

WWII Reunion Brings Tears, Memories – Dwindling Group of Battle Off Samar Survivors Honor Those Who Died In
Famously Mismatched Sea Conflict With Japanese


DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO — On Saturday morning, almost 70 years to the hour after the Battle off Samar, Cletus Ring needed only a little urging to share his memories of the brief, bloody World War II conflict known as one of the greatest mismatches in Naval history. 

In the Philippine Sea off east Samar on October 25, 1944, a Seventh Fleet task force of 13 lightly armed U.S. support ships known as Taffy 3 took on 23 of the biggest and most heavily armed ships in Japan’s Navy. In just over two hours, the scrappy, aggressive Taffy fleet sent the Japanese packing. 

Ring, 89, of Sauk City, Wis., was one of just 55 U.S. survivors of the battle who gathered Saturday on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum to remember the more than 1,000 U.S. sailors and pilots who died in what historians call a David versus Goliath battle that David won. 

“It was like going into a gunfight with a knife,” said Capt. F. Curtis Jones, commander of Naval Base San Diego, to the crowd of more than 600. “They fought for us, they fought for their lives and they fought for their shipmates.” 

Ring was an 18-year-old sailor on the USS Gambier Bay when a Japanese ship blew a hole straight through the escort carrier, and it began to sink. He climbed to the hangar deck where he was badly injured by flying shrapnel, then leapt into the water and swam to a distant life raft. Fifty-four hours later, he and the dehydrated sailors with him who hadn’t succumbed to thirst, delirium, injuries or shark attacks were finally rescued.

Ring’s heroic survival tale was one of many shared Saturday after the 90-minute service, which included speeches, scripture, songs, a three-volley gun salute and a gift to survivors of handmade patriotic quilts. The service was one of the concluding events of the annual Taffy 3 veterans reunion, which included a visit to Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery and a Battle off Samar memorial wall on Harbor Drive. 

Speaker James Zobel, an archivist with the General Douglas MacArthur Foundation, said the heroism of the outgunned Taffy 3 fleet kept the Japanese ships from entering Leyte Gulf and interfering with MacArthur’s long-promised invasion to liberate the Philippines. 

In a fiery speech that drew cheers from the often-tearful veterans, Zobel said the Taffy 3 ships — known as “tin cans” because they weren’t armored for heavy battle — bested the superior Japanese force through sheer force of will.

Author Pam Kragen, U-T San Diego