In late October of 1944, Patrick Akers floated for over two days in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of the Philippines, fighting off sharks and dehydration, but the one thing he remember the most: “It was cold.”
Akers, 86, currently of Iowa City and formerly of Williamsburg, served in the Navy on the USS Gambier Bay during World War II and was part of the Battle of Samar, deemed to be the largest sea battle of all time in terms of the number of ships (282), men (190,000) involved, and the vast area (nearly 500,000 miles) over which it was fought.
It was during this battle, taking place October 25, 1944, in which the USS Gambier Bay was sunk by a Japanese fleet, that Akers and his fellow crewman found themselves bobbing in Leyte Gulf for 50 hours.
Akers, original from Morse, was a 25 year old making parts for tanks at John Deere in Walterloo when he was drafted into the Navy, May 3, 1944. He was married to his wife Vivian at the time, and they had three children: Sheila, Nancy, and Patrick, with a fourth, Mary, on the way. “We never in all the world though he would be drafted,” said Vivian Akers, who moved home to Iowa City when Akers left for duty.
Seven of Akers’s brothers were already serving in World War II, two were in the Marines, one was in the Navy, and the rest were in the Army. Akers knew he didn’t want to crawl through trenches, so he signed up for the Navy. “My brothers slept in the ditches. I didn’t want to go to the army,” he said. “I was pretty well satisfied with the Navy.”
A seaman second class, he was put on the USS Gambier Bay, a carrier that transported aircraft to small island in the Pacific. The planes bombed the small islands and the marines followed, securing the islands. Akers’s brother Joe was one of the marines on land, and he was always one island ahead.
Akers’s job was to crank up the wings of the planes during preparation for takeoff. He was up at 5 am every morning, and they had to be on top of the carrier before everybody else to warm up the planes and get them ready to go. “One of the good things was I didn’t have to wait in the chow-line,” he said.
Originally, Akers wanted to be a cook, but his job on top of the carrier turnout to be a fortunate turn of event. When the Gambier Bay was sunk, may of the cooks working below didn’t make it or were severely injured.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf resulted from the Japanese response to the American invasion of the Philippines, October 20, 1944. The American fleet in the Gulf was overwhelming, so the Japanese sent a decoy, a large portion of the American fleet was pulled out, chasing phantom ships. Three groups were left to guard the Gulf. A Japanese fleet of four battleships, eight cruisers, and 13 destroyers moved in from the north, south, and center of the Philippines. The call of attack came just before 7 am that fateful morning. Akers never got to eat breakfast.
The battle lasted only two hours long, but it seemed like days.
Akers hurriedly cranked up the wings of the carrier’s 30 planes while explosions wracked the ship. Every plane got off except for one, which was hit with a shell. “They shot the devil out of us”, Patrick said. He said the Japanese were using the wrong shells. The torpedoes went right through the hull of the Gambier Bay without exploding. Otherwise the ship would have taken a lot more damage. The Gambier Bay was the only ship that was “shot up,” Akers said. Another hallmark of the Battle of Leyte Gulf was it was the first engagement in which the Japanese used kamikazes, or suicide planes. “They did a lot of damage with the suicide planes. We saw a lot of kamikazes” Akers said. “They were like a big ball of flames.”
Akers was busy preparing planes for flight when the call to abandon ship came at 8:05 am. The American Sailors formed a line as smoke billowed around them, and one by one dropped 15 to 20 feet into the frigid, gray ocean below. A fellow sailor Akers talked to later said for some reason before he jumped into the Pacific, he stopped to take off his shoes and socks.
Once they were in the water, the sailors swam to lifeboats, which Akers said were porous from bullet holes. The wounded stayed in the rafts. Everyone else hung onto the sides, taking 10 minute turns in the rafts. They wore donuts around their waists, which were like small, rubber inner tubes. “They weren’t very good, “Akers said.
Eventually, the Japanese sailed right up to the Gambier Bay, and Akers said he could see his attackers. He said there were some reports of the Japanese throwing potatoes and onions at the American sailors. “You just keep still for fear they would shoot us,” he said. Takeo Kurita, the Japanese vice admiral, reportedly told his sailors not to shoot Americans in the water, and there were other reports of Japanese sailors helping American Sailors into life rafts. The Japanese eventually left, and Akers and his fellow seamen were left alone, floating in the Pacific, where they would stay for the next two days.
To sleep, they would use a buddy system. One man would lay his head on the shoulder of another and snooze, while the other stayed awake. They tended to the wounded the best they could. Akers used a silver dollar and sulfur powder to cover a hold in the leg of a “big red-headed guy.” But then the sharks came. Attracted by the white sailor uniforms, the sharks started pulling away the wounded sailors. Akers said he kicked his feet and made as much noise as he could to scare the predators away. “There were a lot of them,” he said. Other sailors started to get delusional. Akers said some would say they were going to get a beer, and they would just swim off into the wild blue yonder. Others swam to hallucinated islands, never to be seen again. “There is nothing you can do, but just let them go,” he said.
Akers said nobody really knew what to do. They thought there was a nearby island, so they figured the tide would carry them into land. Meanwhile, a search plane identified them in the water, but gave the wrong direction sot the search party, who spend 19 hours trying to find them before giving up the search. Finally, in the wee hours of Friday, October 27, a landing craft discovered the remaining crew of the Gambier Bay. To make sure they were rescuing Americans, they called out and asked won the World Series. After receiving the right answer, after 50 hours in the ocean, and floating 30 miles from where the Gambier Bay was sunk, Akers was rescued.
“If they had picked us up sooner, a lot would still be around,” he said. One sailor who died was Mearl Barnett of Oxford. After he was rescued, Akers went to Australia where they stayed one night. They picked up supplies and headed home for a 30-day survivor leave. Meanwhile, back at home in Iowa City, Vivian was clueless to what her husband had gone through. She hadn’t heard from him in three months. She did not even know what ship he was on. Vivian just knew he was on a carrier.
Mary Akers, now Mary Fox of Williamsburg, was just three days old when Vivian read in the paper the Gambier Bay had sunk. Then Akers came home for Thanksgiving on his survivor’s leave. From floating in salt water for so long, he had developed sores and scabs all over his body. He had to take some shots, but otherwise he was healthy. He still has the watch he wore for those 50 harrowing hours.
After his 30 days, he was reassigned to another ship, but due to a steering malfunction, the boat ran aground. A measure was passed sending home people with two children or more. Otherwise, Akers was off to Japan. He was honorably discharged November 21, 1945.
Akers worked in dry cleaning and performed maintenance for 30 years in Waterloo and Iowa City before retiring to Williamsburg in 1984. In 1998, he and Vivian returned to Iowa City. Now in his spare time, Akers does woodworking and fixes up antique cabinets. He gives most of them to his grandchildren, but he also sells some.
He has suffered two strokes and his left leg was temporarily paralyzed, but Akers said he is “coming out of it pretty good.”
September 3, he and Vivian will attend a reunion for survivors of the Gambier Bay in Washing, D.C. Several books have been written about the sinking of the carrier, including “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors”, and The Men of the Gambier Bay.”
Akers keeps in regular touch with other survivors who survived the ordeal. “You make a lot of friends and a lot of them you don’t forget,” he said.
For his service during World War II, Patrick was award the Honorable Service Lapel Button, the Navy Discharge Button, the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal with Two Bronze Service Stars, the African Campaign Medal, and A World War II Victory Medal.
Patrick crossed the bar in September 2009.
Article was published in the Williamsburg Neighborhood Newspaper – September 2008