It happened nearly 70 years ago, and yet now, at 85, he thinks about it nearly every day.
The geysers from Japanese artillery fire shooting into the air around the shop. The blast that took a pal’s head off. The frantic Dlimb down the monkey rope as the ship started to list. The screams of guys on the outside of the life raft who’d been attached by sharks.
Norman St. Germain of Springfield believes he’s the youngest surviving member of the October 25, 1944, sinking of the USS Gambier Bay during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
With is parents’ permission, he enlisted as a 17-year-old, one of four St. Germain boys in the military.
Only one wouldn’t make it home to International Falls, Minnesota, Orel, who survivor the Bataan Death March in the Philippines in 1942, later died in a prison camp. “He was my hero,” St. Germain says. “H could throw a baseball through a barn door.”
When the USS Gambier Bay came under fire that morning, St. Germain figured he wasn’t coming home, either. “The bombs kept hitting us every 30 to 60 seconds, andeverything was shaking and I strated thinking, “well, this is it. I’m going to die right here.”
“Right here” was about 60 miles east of the island of Samar in the Philippines.
“One of our engines flooded, and we were literally dead in the water, he says. “ I was going down over the shop’s side on that monkey rope and a buddy yells, “Saint” – that’s what they called me “Saint – Better hurry, it’s gonna roll.”
He let go and splashed into the sea. He found a raft to cling to and watched the ship, minutes later, slip into the depths.
“It’s an emotional thing,” he says. “That’s your home.”
Many survivors, including St. Germain, expected rescue within hours. But the US fleet in that area had been decimated. Night came and went.
The survivors had little food or water.
“The sun was baking down, and we’d take turns hanging on the outside of the raft,” St. Germain says. “It was a deadly game of musical chairs. I remember seeing the sharks – 6 to 7-footers – but for some reason they left me alone.” A second day turned into a third, some men hanging to the outside were so tired they had to have their wrists tied to the boat to keep from drowning.
Of the 950-man crew, 200 died, according to “The Men of the Gambier Bay.”
St. Germain’s group was rescued by a US amphibious assault ship on the third day.
“The deck was full of guys just lying there, so tired,” he says. “They say I never talked much after. I just sat there are stared.”
Reprinted with permission from Bob Welch of the Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon