A bay in the coast of Alaska.
(CVE-73: displacement 7,800; length 512'3"; beam 65'; maximum width 108'1"; draft 22'6"; speed 19 knots; complement 860; armament 1 5-inch, 16 40-millimeter; 20 20-millimeter; aircraft 27; class Casablanca)
Gambier Bay was classified as an aircraft escort vessel (AVG-73) on 20 August 1942; laid down as an auxiliary aircraft carrier (ACV-73) by Kaiser Shipbuilding Co., on 10 July 1943, at Vancouver, Wash.; reclassified to an escort aircraft carrier (CVE-73) on 15 July 1943; launched on 22 November 1943; sponsored by Mrs. Herbert C. Zitzewitz, wife of Lt. Cmdr. Herbert C. Zitzewitz, the senior naval liaison officer at the yard; and commissioned on 28 December 1943, at Astoria, Ore., Capt. Hugh H. Goodwin in command.
While the ship worked-up and prepared to go to war her assigned air squadron, Composite Squadron (VC) 10, was established on 23 September 1943, at Naval Air Station (NAS) Sand Point, Wash., Lt. John R. Stewart, USNR, acting in command. Lt. Cmdr. Edward J. Huxtable Jr., assumed command six days later. Huxtable had worked as a postmaster before he entered the Naval Academy, where he served on the outdoor rifle team and the football team. Graduating in 1936, he served at sea on board heavy cruiser Quincy (CA-39) and destroyer Truxtun (DD-229), and then completed flight training and served in two aircraft carriers in succession—Ranger (CV-4) and Yorktown (CV-5).
The squadron was organized to fight with both fighters and torpedo bombers, and initially drew its planes and men to make up the authorized allowances from Sand Point. From there, VC-10 moved to Clatsop County Airport in Astoria, Ore., where the men carried out preliminary training in bombing, gunnery, field carrier landing practice, formation flying, navigation, and combined tactics.
As the fighter pilots continued their training at Astoria, on 6 December, the torpedo crewmen shifted to NAS Whidbey Island, Wash., where they studied torpedo tactics, and each pilot dropped two training (unarmed) and one “live” torpedo. On 20 December 1943, the entire squadron moved to Naval Air Auxiliary Station (NAAS) Holtville, Calif., where they emphasized night flying, with training in day and night low-level bombing, fighter gunnery, fighter strafing, and practice in combined attack tactics.
The day the ship commissioned, the squadron trained at NAAS Holtville with three Eastern FM-1 and ten Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats, along with 11 Grumman TBF-1 Avengers. The squadron’s strength fluctuated, however, depending upon the circumstances, and as Gambier Bay trained and completed post yard repairs early in the New Year on 5 January 1944, VC-10 trained with seven FM-1 Wildcats and six Eastern TBM-1 Avengers at Holtville. Five days later the squadron shifted to NAAS Brown Field, Calif., for advanced training in group tactics, bombing, gunnery, navigation, and the use of radar. In addition, the men took part in field carrier landing practice, catapult practice, and some work in supporting amphibious landings.
Following a shakedown cruise out of San Diego, Calif., Gambier Bay sailed on 7 February 1944 with 400 troops embarked for Pearl Harbor, T.H. In the interim on 8 February, VC-10 counted three FM-2s, one TBF-1, six TBM-1s, and a pair of TBM-1Cs at NAAS Brown Field. The squadron began carrier qualifications on board Altamaha (CVE-18) on 12 February, after which it returned to Brown Field for further training in air support. VC-10 then (2–6 March) embarked on board Altamaha for a shakedown cruise that emphasized squadron tactics, deck load strikes, and bombing and strafing towed targets. On 2 March, the squadron suffered its first fatal accident when Ens. Hovey Seymour, USNR, crashed an Avenger into the water while approaching the ship for a landing. Seymour died but the plane guard destroyer rescued his crewmen.
The Wildcat pilots returned to Brown Field while the Avenger crews went out to the Mojave Desert for rocket training at Naval Ordnance Test Station Inyokern, Calif. Each pilot fired 12 three-inch rockets with runs at 20- and 40-degree angles. While the squadron readied for war, Gambier Bay set out from Hawaiian waters and turned further westward, escorted by destroyer Norman Scott (DD-690), for a rendezvous off the Marshall Islands, where she flew off 84 replacement planes to aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6) and shore establishments. The ship returned to Pearl Harbor and then San Diego, ferrying aircraft for repairs and qualified carrier pilots off the Southern Californian coast.
Gambier Bay carried out a brief (5–15 April 1944) training cruise in Southern California waters, during which she finally embarked her assigned squadron. VC-10 emphasized deck load strikes, bombing and strafing towed targets, fighter director training, navigation, radar training, and torpedo tactics. The squadron, which numbered 31 pilots and 195 men, was streamlined and the surplus people over their authorized complement were transferred to the ship. Ens. Nicholas Carter, USNR, made two consecutive flights during the voyage in which the engine failed on a Wildcat, and the pilot made a water landing and survived both ditchings. Gambier Bay returned to the San Diego area, where VC-10 went ashore to NAS San Diego through the end of the month for what Huxtable later summarized as “rigorous air support and amphibious support training.” The squadron also worked on torpedo tactics and fighter formation flying, and drew its full wartime allowance of planes and equipment.
The ship’s call to battle sounded and she loaded a dozen FM-2s and nine TBM-1Cs of VC-10 and stood out to sea for Pearl Harbor (1–8 May 1944), following which (10–17 May) she trained in Hawaiian waters. Gambier Bay prepared to join Rear Adm. Harold B. Sallada’s Carrier Support Group 2, Task Group (TG) 52.11, staging in the Marshalls for Operation Forager—landings in the Marianas Islands. Key officers of the ship’s company and VC-10 attended briefings on the forthcoming operation, and the squadron practiced parachute drops and group combined tactics. Ens. James F. Lischer, USNR, wrecked an FM-2 (BuNo 16317) on 18 May. Capt. Goodwin drove his men hard as Gambier Bay worked up for the war, and he sent the crew a message evaluating their performance and elucidating his expectations:
“We are working hard, and we are making progress. That is evident from increased efficiency of lookouts reduced time for manning General Quarters Stations, more accurate shooting, fewer engine casualties while steaming and a hundred other small items. I am pleased with the wholehearted cooperation of the officers and crew, but -- I AM NOT SATISFIED!!!!
By that statement I mean that I shall not be satisfied until this ship is ready for battle in every respect -- that even the best efforts of every man are not enough until each of us can say “yes” to these two questions --
(1) Am I ready for battle?
(2) Is the GAMBIER BAY ready for battle?
When that day comes we can consider our immediate task accomplished -- until it comes I shall drive relentlessly toward our goal, and I know that I can count on each and every one of you.
Remember that it is not enough to do what you are told -- you must use all your ingenuity to explore and use all the potentialities of your particular assignment to the fullest advantage.
GOOD INTENTIONS EXCUSE ONLY CHILDREN AND FOOLS. WHEN THE CHIP’S ARE DOWN AND BATTLE IS JOINED -- IT IS THE RESULTS THAT COUNT!!!”
Gambier Bay set out for Forager on the last day of the month. The squadron practiced group attacks and flew combat air patrol (CAP) and antisubmarine patrols. Lt. (j.g.) Owen E. Wheeler, USNR, piloted a TBM-1C (BuNo 45652) that made a water landing on 31 May, though he and his crew were rescued. The ship lost two TBM-1Cs (BuNos 25416 and 25418), however, while en route to the Marshalls on 2 June. Lt. Robert E. Weatherholt, USNR, piloted the first plane and survived but one of his crewmen, ARM3c Paul E. Collins died. The carrier lay to at Roi in Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands (8–10 June), and then set out as part of Carrier Division (CarDiv) 26, launching planes that flew CAP and searched for Japanese submarines.
The ship sailed in Vice Adm. Marc A. Mitscher’s Task Force (TF) 58, which also included Bunker Hill (CV-17), Enterprise, Essex (CV-9), Hornet (CV-12), Lexington (CV-16), Wasp (CV-18), and Yorktown (CV-10), and small aircraft carriers Bataan (CVL-29), Belleau Wood (CVL-24), Cabot (CVL-28), Cowpens (CVL-25), Langley (CVL-27), Monterey (CVL-26), Princeton (CVL-23), and San Jacinto (CVL-30).
The carriers of Rear Adm. Forrest C. Sherman’s TG 58.3, Bunker Hill, Cowpens, and Monterey, hurled strikes against the Japanese forces on Saipan on 11 June 1944. A fighter sweep engaged enemy planes in the air and strafed and bombed others on the ground. Vice Adm. Mitscher threw some of those strikes against the Japanese garrison on Saipan on 13 June, when carrier planes sank aircraft transport Keiyo Maru, which had sustained damage in the fighter sweep on 11 June, and annihilated a convoy of small cargo vessels and sank Myogawa Maru, No. 11 Shinriki Maru, Sekizen Maru, Shigei Maru, and Suwa Maru. Grumman F6F Hellcats from some of the other carriers attacked a Japanese convoy spotted the previous day and damaged fast transport T.1 southwest of the Marianas.
Gambier Bay launched planes that blasted the Japanese troops on Saipan and flew aerial observation spotting missions, beginning on the 14th. The Americans did not achieve their victories without cost, however, and Lt. James F. Oliver, USNR, flew a Wildcat (BuNo 16271) off Gambier Bay on the 14th and crashed, though he survived. Aircraft from an initial force of 11 escort carriers covered the landings. Gambier Bay launched planes that flew close air support to the initial landings of marines on Saipan on 15 June 1944, destroying enemy gun emplacements, troops, tanks, and trucks. Huxtable did excellent work as an air coordinator.
The enemy fought back fiercely and antiaircraft fire shot down Lt. John R. Stewart, USNR, in an FM-2 (BuNo 16150) on the 15th. The Wildcat hit the water but Stewart clambered out, and was rescued by a destroyer and returned to the ship 15 days later. In addition, Lt. Herman J. Harders, USNR, crashed in another FM-2 (BuNo 16262) that day but Harders escaped the wreck. Japanese ground fire shot down Ens. Lee C. Giger, USNR, in an FM-2 (BuNo 47427) over Tinian on the 17th. The pilot landed the Wildcat in the water and a destroyer picked him up. Ens. Berham F. Dillard, USNR, cracked up another fighter (BuNo 47073) during flight operations on board the ship but Dillard escaped the crash.
Forager penetrated the inner defensive perimeter of the Japanese Empire and triggered A-Go—a Japanese counterattack that led to the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Their First Mobile Fleet, Vice Adm. Ozawa Jisaburō in command, included carriers Taihō, Shōkaku, Zuikaku, Chitose, Chiyōda, Hiyō, Junyō, Ryūhō, and Zuihō. The enemy intended for their shore-based planes to cripple Mitscher’s air power in order to facilitate Ozawa’s strikes—which were to refuel and rearm on Guam. Japanese fuel shortages and inadequate training bedeviled A-Go, however, and U.S. signal decryption breakthroughs enabled attacks on their submarines that deprived the enemy of intelligence. Raids on the Bonin and Volcano Islands furthermore disrupted Japanese aerial staging en route to the Marianas, and their main attacks passed through U.S. antiaircraft fire to reach the carriers.
Gambier Bay steamed in company with Coral Sea (CVE-57), Corregidor (CVE-58), Kitkun Bay (CVE-71), and their screen during the afternoon and first dog watches on 17 June 1944, when American radar detected Japanese planes as they repeatedly probed the U.S. defenses. Just after the second dog watch began, the radar operators grimly determined that at least three separate groups totaling as many as 30 aircraft headed for the task force, and the carriers vectored their CAP accordingly. Fighters splashed the first attacker, a Japanese Mitsubishi G4M1 Type 1 attack plane, at 1826, and the Betty crashed in flames.
Wildcats of VC-10 flying from Gambier Bay reported “Tallyho!” (a term traditionally coined by British fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain when they identified enemy aircraft) at 1844, reporting the Japanese planes approaching from 185° at range of 23 miles, and promptly attacked. Six pilots, Lt. (j.g.) Ernest H. Courtney Jr., USNR, Lt. (j.g.) Charles A. Dugan, USNR, 23-year-old Lt. (j.g.) Dean W. Gilliatt, USNR, Lt. (j.g.) Harders, Ens. Joseph D. McGraw, USNR, and Lt. (j.g.) Eugene W. Seitz, USNR, flew Wildcats from the ship and jointly splashed another Betty. Reports flooded into Gambier Bay in rapid succession as the opponents dueled in deadly earnest in the air, but some of the enemy planes broke through the CAP and lunged determinedly for the ships.
"They are coming in high and dead ahead,” Gambier Bay logged ominously at 1849 on 17 June 1944. The ship’s lookouts and spotters first sighted the Japanese planes at an altitude of approximately 8,000 feet, but the carrier’s gunfire fell short as the aircraft peeled off and bombed her. One of the attackers dropped a bomb that splashed close aboard the port bow, near No. 44 gun, and water from the attack splashed up over the mount and onto the flight deck. Other aircraft hurtled past her port side and released two bombs that splashed just astern as Gambier Bay heeled over in turbulent turns zig-zagging, guns blazing. More enemy planes thrust toward the carriers of the formation, flying low and aggressively as they attacked. The ship shot down an aircraft on her port side, and caught another one in a cross-fire with Coral Sea’s guns and it plummeted burning into the sea.
Watchstanders attempted to count the number of attackers that flew simultaneously into the chaotic fray and estimated 17, though possibly duplicated some of the planes in their count. Coral Sea and Gambier Bay appeared to bear the brunt of the enemy’s assault, most likely because of their stations in the formation, and because they both had planes on deck. A pair of bombers made a torpedo run against Gambier Bay and her antiaircraft guns combined with those of the other vessels to throw up a barrage of fire that splashed both attackers. All of the planes assailed the ships from port and slightly overhead, and the final two torpedo bombers did not attack until after the bombing run, possibly because the CAP fighters broke up their timing.
Radar reported another group heading toward the task force at 1901, and Gambier Bay executed Emergency Turn No. 6. Within the next five minutes, a formation of Japanese planes approached from dead ahead and to port, apparently dividing into two groups to attack, but as the ships opened fire the aircraft continued at high altitude without dropping their bombs. The evening almost ended in tragedy as some of the CAP fighters returned to their ships to refuel at 1920 and Kitkun Bay and her destroyers opened fire, but they missed the planes as they entered the landing pattern and recovered on board their respective carriers.
The ship launched further strikes against the Japanese at the airfield at Ushi on Tinian on 18 June 1944. Lt. (j.g.) Richard W. Roby, USNR, and Ens. Lischer, flew a pair of Wildcats and teamed up to shoot down a Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 carrier attack plane as the Kate flew in the traffic circle over the airstrip—each received half credit for the victory. The enemy retaliated and hurled multiple aerial counterattacks against the Americans that afternoon. At 1635, radar operators reported a “Bogey” (hostile aircraft) bearing 190° at 71 miles, followed almost immediately by a second Bogey at 231° and 38 miles. The task force’s carriers scrambled the fighters of their CAP and Gambier Bay launched five Wildcats at 1638 to intercept the Japanese aircraft—her achievement in doing so in barely three minutes demonstrated great efficiency. The Wildcats radioed Tallyho at 1641 and counted at least 35 planes, a mix of Bettys escorted by Kawasaki Ki-61 Hiens (Tonys), in the first formation—heading inbound. Corregidor launched a half dozen FM-2s from VC-41 to reinforce the CAP, and the Japanese split their formation into two attacks, one to bomb and the other to drop torpedoes. The FM-2s of VC-33 flying from Coral Sea splashed three Tonys, and an estimated six Bettys and 12 Tonys turned back.
The fighters of the task force’s CAP stacked up overhead at 1708 on 18 June 1944, as they attempted to protect the ships, and as radar reports flooded in of additional groups of Japanese planes attacking various vessels of the fleet. Gambier Bay’s Wildcats began to run low on fuel and the ship needed to recover them, however, doing so in the middle of the attacks as she heeled over in emergency turns proved a daunting prospect. Oak 1, one of the planes, reported at 1725 that it had only eight gallons of fuel remaining, and the ship feared a crash and reluctantly ordered the fighter to “keep clear”. Nonetheless, seven Wildcats landed on board (1733–1738) and the carrier again turned sharply to avoid sudden aerial attacks, as well as potential enemy submarines thought to be in the area.
Another Japanese strike group then roared in toward Gambier Bay and her consorts and split into two groups. Fighters of the CAP radioed Tallyho at 1747 and within minutes Coral Sea’s Wildcats claimed to splash six planes. One group of nine Bettys and a dozen Tonys headed for the task force at 1752, and a minute later Gambier Bay heeled hard over as five Yokosuka P1Ys peeled off from the second group and dived on the ship on her starboard beam. A Frances appeared to be in a direct line with the bridge and dived swiftly and very low, but the ship’s guns hit its port engine, which burst into flame. The twin-engine bomber rose and crossed the ship just above the bridge and dived on Coral Sea but crashed into the water off the latter’s port side. Another Frances approached Gambier Bay directly across her bow, but the forward guns shot into its fuselage and it began smoking and crashed into the Pacific on the carrier’s port side.
A Frances attacked Coral Sea from almost dead ahead of the formation, but as Gambier Bay launched Lt. Seitz in an FM-2 he climbed the Wildcat to barely 100 feet and boldly fired into the bomber, and it fell into the sea to port. The Japanese planes dropped a torpedo on Gambier Bay’s starboard beam but it missed, and a second torpedo splashed into the swells on Coral Sea’s starboard beam but landed tail down, skipped, and nose-dived. A destroyer downed a Betty as well, and all of the action occurred within barely two and a half minutes.
Throughout the day on 19 June 1944, TF 58 repelled Japanese air attacks and slaughtered their aircraft in what Navy pilots dubbed the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” American radar detected multiple Japanese strike groups heading toward the fleet early that morning, and at 0625, Gambier Bay began launching five Wildcats, which joined those from Kitkun Bay for CAP. Ships steaming in the task group opened up intense antiaircraft fire into their flight path, and in a harrowing feat termed by Capt. Goodwin as “another shining example of the adaptability and courage of the young men of our country,” the fighters flew through the bursting rounds to help repulse the aerial onslaught.
Despite the CAP, however, one of the enemy groups broke off and attacked Gambier Bay from the northwest at 0658. A plane dropped two bombs that fell near her port beam, and another attacker approached on the starboard bow and dropped a bomb that narrowly missed the ship on her starboard quarter. In addition, a third aircraft attacked but missed a destroyer steaming in the distance. All three of the planes attacked high with the sun behind them, which hindered observing and tracking them, so that none of the ship’s guns hit the aircraft and they escaped.
While the Japanese attacked the ships, the carriers launched strikes against the enemy forces ashore. Japanese antiaircraft fire hit Ens. Jesse B. Holloman as he flew a TBM-1C (BuNo 25537), and the Avenger caught fire and Holloman made a forced landing in Tanapag Bay, Saipan. A vehicle and personnel landing craft (LCVP) rescued Holloman and took him to a hospital ship, from where he was transferred to a hospital on Guadalcanal in the Solomons, from there to Naval Hospital Mare Island, Calif., and then on to Naval Hospital San Diego. He was subsequently discharged because of his wounds. Both of the plane’s crewmen, however, AMM2c Jack D. Bacon and 22-year-old ARM2c Howard M. Rivers died.
That afternoon, Mitscher launched an air attack at extreme range on the retreating Japanese ships. The strike sank Hiyō and two fleet oilers, and damaged Zuikaku, Chiyōda, and Junyō. Despite the risk of submarine attacks, Mitscher ordered his ships to show their lights in order to guide the returning planes, thus saving lives when the planes consumed fuel. The night degenerated into chaos as pilots desperately sought carriers or ditched in the water, and after the carriers recovered the last of the aircraft, the formation turned to westerly courses.
The day’s action cost Gambier Bay dearly. Lt. Gilliatt crashed a Wildcat (BuNo 16198) into the water on a flyaway takeoff, and the accident killed the pilot instantly. Two other Wildcat pilots, McGraw in (BuNo 47039), and Ens. Giger in (BuNo 55069), also crashed on that busy day, as did Ens. William C. Shroyer, USNR, in an Avenger (BuNo 25670) when its engine cut out “in the groove,” but the plane splashed into the water and the men survived. Ens. Robert C. Crocker, USNR, crashed in another TBM-1C (BuNo 45658).
In addition, submarines Albacore (SS-218) and Cavalla (SS-244) sank Taihō and Shōkaku in separate attacks, respectively, and Japanese suicide aircraft narrowly missed Bunker Hill and Wasp. The Japanese lost 395 carrier planes and an estimated 50 land-based aircraft from Guam. The Americans lost 130 aircraft and 76 pilots and aircrew.
Gambier Bay continued to operate off Saipan, repulsing aerial raids and launching planes that strafed enemy troop concentrations, bombed gun emplacements, and supported marines and soldiers fighting ashore. Gambier Bay recorded 16 FM-2s and a dozen TBM-1Cs on board on 20 June, her increased number of planes a revealing indication of how aircraft had desperately sought available flight decks the night before.
Rear Adm. Alfred E. Montgomery, Commander, TG 58.2, forwarded a message that Rear Adm. Harry W. Hill, Commander, Western Landing Group, sent the ships and aircraft of TG 52.11 praising their actions during the fighting:
“The air support you have given us in the past few days has been of the highest caliber and has given us a feeling of great security in our unloading job. Well done.”
“This “’Well Done,’” Goodwin added as he addressed Gambier Bay’s company… “is evidence that our mission supporting the expeditionary force has been highly successful. This mission has involved strike sorties against enemy shore objectives, air and anti-submarine patrols, reconnaissance and photographic missions.”
The captain furthermore noted “we have done an excellent job in protecting ourselves and inflicting damage on enemy aircraft. We have weathered three air attacks and have seen Japanese aircraft flaming in the air and on the water -- we have had bombs land close aboard -- and we have launched fighters in the midst of an attack while both our anti-aircraft batteries were blazing. Throughout these actions, your coolness, efficiency, and fighting spirit have been in accord with the highest traditions of the Naval Service. To the commendation of our superiors, I humbly and proudly add: WELL DONE TO THE PERSONNEL OF THE SHIP AND EMBARKED SQUADRON.”
While the Americans won the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the fighting continued ashore. Manila Bay (CVE-61) and Natoma Bay (CVE-62) ferried aircraft to operate from captured airfields. On 17 June Stinson OY-1 Sentinels of Marine Observation Squadron (VMO) 4 arrived ashore, followed on 22 and 24 June by USAAF Republic P-47 Thunderbolts and Northrop P-61 Black Widows. Ens. McGraw crashed in a Wildcat (BuNo 16289) while the ship steamed to the battle for Tinian on 24 June. Ens. Henry A. Pyndrowski, USNR, went down in a TBM-1C (BuNo 25471) on the 28th, and the following day the carrier lost a second Avenger (BuNo 17036).
Gambier Bay stood out of the bloody fighting on Saipan on 3 July 1944, and turned toward Eniwetok. That day McGraw suffered another mishap when a wing tank broke loose and tore off the horizontal stabilizer on a Wildcat (BuNo 47039) he was flying. The pilot bailed out at 2,000 feet and a destroyer picked him up. The ship spent a welcome week refueling and provisioning at Eniwetok, and then (12–14 July) returned to the conflict for Tinian. Gambier Bay primarily launched planes that flew air support for the men ashore, but they also did quite a bit of reconnaissance work and some aerial spotting. The Japanese shot down Ens. Leo P. Zeola, USNR, in a Wildcat (BuNo 47267) on 15 July. The ship counted roughly the same number of planes on board for nearly a month until, on 18 July, she reported 16 Wildcats but only ten Avengers. Gambier Bay then (19–31 July) sent mostly close ground support flights over Tinian.
Ens. Pyndrowski crashed in another Avenger (BuNo 45908) on 21 July, fatally injuring one of his crewmen, AMM2c Larry B. Ransom of Topeka, Kan. Lt. John P. Sanderson Jr., ARM3c Jack L. Richards, and 22-year-old AMM2c William L. Zanon, spun in on a catapult take off in a TBM-1C (BuNo 45510) on the 26th. The depth bombs on the Avenger exploded, destroying the plane and killing all three men. The ship recorded the loss of an FM-2 (BuNo 47035) on the 27th.
Gambier Bay then (1–5 August 1944) turned her attention to Guam, where she gave identical aid to the invading troops. From there the ship came about and returned to Eniwetok, where she stood in to the channel on the 8th, and two days later moved on to Espíritu Santo in the New Hebrides [Vanuatu]. Gambier Bay crossed the equator at 162°21'30"E on 13 August, while en route to Espíritu Santo, which she reached on the 15th. The ship next (22–24 August) steamed to Tulagi in the Solomons. The carrier made a brief shakedown cruise near Savo Island, the scene of a horrific Allied defeat two years before, in order to break in new pilots and aircrew. A Wildcat (BuNo 16392) crashed during the training on 27 August.
After a respite for logistics in the Marshalls, Gambier Bay spent a couple of weeks (15–28 September 1944) working with the aircraft of TG 38.4 and four escort carriers of Rear Adm. William D. Sample’s Carrier Unit One (15–28 September) during Operation Stalemate II—the landings of the 1st Marine Division on Peleliu. The Japanese had prepared their main line of resistance inland from the beaches to escape naval bombardment, and three days of preliminary carrier air attacks in combination with intense naval gunfire failed to suppress the tenacious defenders. The ship hurled her planes against the enemy each day of her deployment to the battle as they flew reconnaissance flights, CAP, and antisubmarine barrier patrols. Wildcats flying from the ship bombed and strafed the airstrip on Yap Island on the 21st. The following day, she launched Wildcats and Avengers that performed the same missions over Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands. VC-10 counted 16 FM-2s and 12 TBM-1Cs on board Gambier Bay on 26 September. The Army’s 81st Infantry Division later reinforced the marines and the final Japanese only surrendered on 1 February 1945.
In the meantime, Gambier Bay came about on 23 September 1944, and steamed by way of Hollandia, New Guinea, on the 28th, to Manus in the Admiralties on the 1st of the month, where she joined forces staging for the invasion of the Philippines. Screened by four destroyers, Gambier Bay and Kitkun Bay turned their prows seaward on 12 October, and escorted transports and amphibious landing ships safely to Leyte Gulf before joining other carriers off Leyte on 19 September.
Adm. William F. Halsey Jr., Commander, Third Fleet, led nine fleet and eight light carriers in those troubled waters. Vice Adm. Thomas C. Kinkaid, Commander, Seventh Fleet, led a force that included TG 77.4, Rear Adm. Thomas L. Sprague—consisting of 18 escort carriers organized in Task Units (TUs) 77.4.1, 77.4.2, and 77.4.3, and known by their voice radio calls as Taffys 1, 2, and 3, respectively.
Escort carriers Chenango (CVE-28), Petrof Bay (CVE-80), Saginaw Bay (CVE-82), Sangamon (CVE-26), Santee (CVE-29), and Suwanee (CVE-27) and their screens formed Taffy 1, Rear Adm. Thomas Sprague, and fought off northern Mindanao. Chenango and Saginaw Bay swung around on the 24th to carry planes to Morotai in the Netherlands East Indies [Indonesia] for repairs and overhaul. Kadashan Bay (CVE-76), Manila Bay, Marcus Island (CVE-77), Natoma Bay, Ommaney Bay (CVE-79), and Savo Island (CVE-78) of Taffy 2, Rear Adm. Felix B, Stump, operated off the entrance to Leyte Gulf.
Gambier Bay steamed with the two CarDivs of Taffy 3, Rear Adm. Clifton A.F. Sprague, off Samar. Fanshaw Bay (CVE-70), Kalinin Bay (CVE-68), St. Lo (CVE-63), and White Plains (CVE-66) formed CarDiv 25, Rear Adm. Clifton Sprague, while Gambier Bay and Kitkun Bay (CVE- 71) comprised CarDiv 26, Rear Adm. Ralph A. Ofstie. Heermann (DD-523), Hoel (DD-533), and Johnston (DD-557), together with escort ships Dennis (DE-405), John C. Butler (DE-339), Raymond (DE-341), and Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), screened Taffy 3.
The Army’s Sixth Ranger Battalion landed on Dinagat and Suluan Islands at the entrance to Leyte Gulf to destroy Japanese installations capable of providing early warning of a U.S. attack, on 17 October 1944. The garrison on Suluan transmitted an alert that prompted Japanese Commander in Chief Combined Fleet Adm. Toyoda Soemu to order Shō-Gō 1—an operation to defend the Philippines. The raid thus helped to bring about the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
While the enemy gathered their naval and air forces, the Allies landed on Leyte. Gambier Bay launched multiple air strikes to support the troops as they fought their way ashore and then inland (20–25 October 1944). Planes bombed and strafed the Japanese troops and their positions, flew reconnaissance missions, and maintained CAP over the ship and her consorts. In addition, the carrier provided fighters to protect transports and the invasion beaches. As a part of Gambier Bay’s daily routine, she catapulted eight Wildcats aloft each morning an hour before dawn to be on station over the transports nearly 100 miles away by daybreak. The Japanese counterattacked more than once and during the carrier’s time supporting the landings, her fighters claimed to splash seven enemy aircraft.
Seven planes flying from the ship, piloted by Ens. William W. Abercrombie, USNR, Ens. Darrell C. Bennett, USNR, Giger, Harders, Stewart, Oliver, Ens. Jack T. Turner, USNR, and Zeola, dropped napalm on a force of several hundred Japanese troops on 20 October 1944. On the 23rd, Lt. Cmdr. Huxtable’s engine failed while he entered the landing circle. Huxtable splashed the Avenger down into the water in a forced landing, though all three men were rescued. A formation of at least 15 enemy bombers attacked some of the transports anchored offshore on 24 October, and Ens. Courtney assisted fighters flying CAP from other carriers and broke up the assault. Courtney was credited with assisting in splashing at least one Mitsubishi Ki-21 Sally and probably destroying a Kawasaki Ki-48 Lily. Wildcats flying from Gambier Bay tangled with other Japanese planes that eventful day, and Lt. Roby splashed a Lily and assisted in shooting down a Sally. Lt. Seitz claimed to splash another Sally, while Lt. (j.g.) Phillips probably destroyed two Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 Zekes, and Lt. (j.g.) Dugan two Sallys. McGraw and other Wildcats in a CAP flight intercepted a group of 15–21 twin-engine bombers escorted by six to eight Zekes, and McGraw claimed to splash two Lilys and damage a third.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, a succession of distinct fleet engagements, began on 22 October 1944, when Shō-Gō 1 attempted to disrupt the U.S. landings in Leyte Gulf. Japanese fuel shortages compelled them to disperse their fleet into the Northern (decoy), Central, and Southern Forces and converge separately on Leyte Gulf. Attrition had reduced the Northern Force’s 1st Mobile Force, their principal naval aviation command and led by Vice Adm. Ozawa Jisaburō, to carrier Zuikaku and light carriers Chitose, Chiyōda, and Zuihō. Darter (SS-227) detected a group of Japanese warships northwest of Borneo on the 22nd and into the following day shadowed them. Bream (SS-243) meanwhile torpedoed heavy cruiser Aoba off Manila Bay, and Darter and Dace (SS-247) unflinchingly attacked what turned out to be the Japanese Center Force, Vice Adm. Kurita Takeo in command. Dace sank heavy cruiser Maya, and Darter sank heavy cruiser Atago and damaged her sistership Takao, which came about for at Brunei.
The planes of TG 38.2, TG 38.3, and TG 38.4 attacked Kurita as his ships crossed the Sibuyan Sea. Enterprise, Intrepid (CV-11), Franklin (CV-13), and Cabot launched strikes that sank battleship Musashi south of Luzon. Aircraft from the three task groups also damaged battleships Yamato and Nagato, heavy cruiser Tone, and destroyers Fujinami, Kiyoshimo, and Uranami. Planes furthermore attacked the Southern Force as it proceeded through the Sulu Sea, and sank destroyer Wakaba and damaged battleships Fusō and Yamashiro. Ozawa in the meanwhile decoyed Halsey’s Third Fleet northward, and aircraft subsequently sank all four Japanese carriers, Chitose with the assistance of cruiser gunfire, off Cape Engaño. Halsey’s rapid thrust, however, carried his ships beyond range to protect the escort carriers of Taffy 3.
Ashore, the fighting continued unrelentingly as these naval actions took place. Two divisions of fighters took off from Gambier Bay beginning at 0500 on 24 October 1944, to make rendezvous and proceed to the objective area over Leyte Island for CAP. Lt. Roby, Lt. (j.g.) Courtney, Lt. (j.g.) Rockford L. Phillips, USNR, and Lt. (j.g.) Hunting flew in the first division; and Lt. Seitz, Lt. (j.g.) Dugan, Lt. Charles R. Ellwood, USNR, and Ens. McGraw in the second division. The Wildcats orbited at the various initial points west, north, and northeast of Tacloban on Leyte for approximately two and one-half hours, and then flights of Japanese planes began to appear on the scene coming from the west and northwest intent on attacking shipping in Leyte Gulf. The fighters intercepted whenever possible but an acute shortage of gasoline in several planes greatly curtailed their effectiveness.
Twenty-two-year-old Lt. (j.g.) Walter A. Dahlen, ARM3c Edgar H. Burns, and AMM3c James Ubink, flew an Avenger (BuNo 45964) on a strike that morning but returned with a full load of bombs. As Dahlen approached the ship’s ramp he got caught in a slipstream and attempted to take a waveoff, but hooked one of the wires and went over the side. Destroyer Heermann (DD-532) rescued the crewmen. Gambier Bay’s weary company completed flight operations for the day and set their nighttime watches.
Occasional rain squalls swept through the area as the sun dawned on Wednesday, 25 October 1944. The visibility gradually opened to approximately 40,000 yards with a low overcast, and the wind was from the north-northwest. Gambier Bay and the other ships of Taffy 3 greeted the day preparing to launch strikes to support the troops fighting ashore. The carriers thus armed their planes with light bombs and rockets to attack Japanese soldiers and positions, or depth charges for those intended to fly antisubmarine patrols, armament not well suited for attacking ships.
Unbeknownst to Gambier Bay and her consorts, however, the surviving ships of the Japanese Center Force, which included battleships Yamato, Haruna, Kongō, and Nagato, heavy cruisers Chikuma, Chōkai, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, and Tone, light cruisers Noshiro and Yahagi, and 11 destroyers, made a night passage through San Bernardino Strait into the Philippine Sea.
Ens. William C. Brooks, Jr., USNR, flew a TBM-1C of VC-65 from St. Lo and sighted the pagoda masts of some of the Japanese ships at 0637 on 25 October 1944. Brooks initially surmised that they might be Allied reinforcements but followed established procedure and radioed a sighting report. His superiors demanded confirmation so he closed the range and positively identified some of the enemy vessels. Undaunted by the overwhelming enemy firepower, Brooks and his Avenger crew pressed home two attacks against a Japanese heavy cruiser, dropping depth charges that bounced off the ship, and then joined a pair of Avengers that dived on one of the battleships, feats of extraordinary heroism for which the pilot later received the Navy Cross.
Lookouts on board the ships of Taffy 3 could see bursts of Japanese antiaircraft fire on the northern horizon as the enemy vessels fired at the Avengers, and within minutes, ships began to detect the approaching Japanese vessels on their radar, and to intercept enemy message traffic. The Japanese surprised the Americans and caught Taffy 3 unprepared to face such a powerful onslaught, and the battle almost immediately became a precipitate flight in the face of the overwhelming enemy force. Sprague ordered his ships to come about to 090° at 0650, and flee to the eastward, hoping that a rain squall would mask their escape. Taffy 3 urgently called for help, the carriers scrambled to launch their planes, and the escorts steamed to what quickly became the rear of the formation to lay protective smoke screens.
Kurita ordered his ships to form a circular antiaircraft formation and then ordered “General Attack!” The Japanese opened fire and huge geysers of water erupted around the American ships, but the enemy lost precious time while their ships turned from their antiaircraft formation and attacked by divisions rather than as a concentrated fleet. As the two forces fought a running fight, the U.S. destroyers and escort ships gallantly raced in and out of the mist and smoke and charged the Japanese battleships and cruisers, until ordered back to cover the escort carriers with more smoke.
The Japanese closed the range and Chikuma, Chokai, Haguro, Noshiro, and a destroyer hurled salvo after salvo at Gambier Bay. The ship launched all but two of her planes while under fire. Gambier Bay’s aircraft did what they could and her Wildcats and Avengers joined others that repeatedly bombed and strafed the Japanese warships. Some planes launched lightly armed, and, along with those that quickly dropped or fired off their ordnance, flew dummy runs against the enemy vessels.
Lt. Cmdr. Huxtable launched in an Avenger without bombs or torpedoes, and, despite the lack of weapons, made repeated dummy bombing runs on the column of heavy cruisers to divert their antiaircraft fire from the other planes. The Japanese threw up such intense flak during his first dive that he pulled up. Huxtable flew parallel to the enemy column on a reverse course, several thousand yards out, and he continued to draw fire and flew through the smoke of some of the bursts. In addition, Huxtable acted as the air coordinator and led an early morning attack against the cruisers. The intrepid pilot radioed a recommended course change to Taffy 3, and during the exchange, the group recommended that he return to the airfield at Tacloban to rearm. Believing that the Americans had only just liberated the field and would not have had enough time to stockpile bombs, he disregarded the recommendation and resumed flying runs against the Japanese ships.
Ens. Turner took off in a Wildcat (either BuNo 16027 or 55441) but it developed engine failure and he made a water landing and was picked up by a rescue boat in the vicinity. Ens. William Gallagher, USNR, AMM3c Leonard Holley, and ARM2c George M. Saint, took off in a TBM-1C (BuNo 46205) while Japanese shells rained down on Gambier Bay. Gallagher carried a torpedo but only 35 gallons of fuel in the haste to get planes airborne and into the fray. The pilot could have flown to another carrier or ashore to refuel, but he chose to attack and flew a torpedo run on one of the enemy battleships. Japanese antiaircraft fire shot him down and the Avenger hit the water, and none of the three men survived the battle.
Lt. James R. Jackson Jr., USNR, dropped a 500-pound bomb on a cruiser and claimed what he saw as a direct hit, and Ens. Shroyer dropped two 500-pounders on a cruiser. Lt. (j.g.) Charles F. Hunting, USNR, lived up to his name as he flew a Wildcat (BuNo 16297) and splashed a Zeke. During the confusion, U.S. antiaircraft guns shot him down, but Filipinos bravely rowed out in an outrigger canoe and rescued the pilot.
Ens. P.A. Bennett flew off the flight deck in an Avenger without bombs and despite intense antiaircraft fire undauntedly made two strafing attacks on a battleship and a cruiser. Bennett landed on board Manila Bay, where the maintainers refueled and rearmed his plane with four 500-pound bombs. Bennett joined a strike group of FM-2s and TBM-1Cs of VC-82 that launched from Manila Bay that afternoon and bombed one of the enemy cruisers as she came about to retire, scoring an estimated three hits on the ship.
As the enemy gunfire pounded the carriers into blazing hulks pilots desperately sought available flight decks, and if their fuel gauges still indicated enough of the precious liquid remaining, headed inland. Huxtable landed on an airfield at Dulag on Leyte.
The planes and escorts desperately attacked the Japanese ships and succeeded in throwing them into disorder, and gave Gambier Bay a momentary but valuable respite from the withering gunfire. The ship’s lone 5-inch gun spat out at one of the enemy cruiser that shelled her; and Heermann made an unsuccessfull effort under the combined shooting of the heavily armed enemy ships to save Gambier Bay.
Japanese fire continued to rain down onto Gambier Bay, however, and a large caliber round tore into her at 0820, causing flooding in her forward engine room and dropping her speed by nearly half. Many of the American survivors afterward surmised that Chikuma fired an 8-inch shell that fatally penetrated the ship, but the Japanese debated that either Yamato or Kongō hit the ship. Both battleships claimed to hit a carrier around this time, but the former possessed a better target angle and closed the range. Lt. (j.g.) Dahlen acted as an aircraft spotter on board Heermann until fragments fatally cut him down.
Gambier Bay soon lay dead in the water as three enemy cruisers closed to nearly point blank range. Fires raged through the riddled escort carrier, and she capsized at 0907 and sank at 0911 on 25 October 1944. The flames horribly burned some men, while machinery tore loose and crushed other men, and others succumbed to exhaustion or shock. A number of planes including at least four TBM-1Cs (BuNos 46348, 73220, 73228, and 73271) also disappeared beneath the waves with the ship.
Three other ships, valiantly fighting to the end, also went down: Hoel; Johnston; and Samuel B. Roberts. In addition, Japanese gunfire damaged Fanshaw Bay, Kalinin Bay, Heermann, and Dennis, and straddled Kitkun Bay, St. Lo, and White Plains but scored no direct hits.
Thick black oil covered many of the men who abandoned ship, and rubbing their eyes from the sting and stench only worsened their condition because it made them burn, and some of them accidentally swallowed oil and grew sick. Men also ingested seawater and consequently suffered from stomach pains, psychosis, and hallucinations. Sharks added to the men’s misery as they mercilessly savaged some of the sailors in the water.
After Gambier Bay sank, Ens. McGraw landed on board Manila Bay and launched with other Wildcats from VC-82 during the afternoon watch. The fighters sighted a flight of ten to twenty Aichi D3A1 Type 99 carrier bombers escorted by Zekes flying in to attack the carriers. McGraw maneuvered with the other Wildcats as they intercepted the enemy formation and he claimed to splash a Val and a Zeke. The valiant rearguard efforts threw Kurita’s ships into disarray and compelled his retirement despite the Japanese superiority in weight and firepower.
“At 0925 my mind was occupied with dodging torpedoes,” Sprague afterward reflected, “when near the bridge I heard one of the signalmen yell ‘They're getting away!’ I could hardly believe my eyes, but it looked as if the whole Japanese fleet was indeed retiring. However, it took a whole series of reports from circling planes to convince me. And still I could not get the fact to soak into my battle-numbed brain. At best, I had expected to be swimming by this time.”
During the Battle off Samar and the Japanese retirement, the Americans damaged Yamato, Kongō, Chikuma, Chōkai, Haguro, Kumano, Suzuya, and Tone. Chikuma Chōkai, and Suzuya suffered repeated explosions and fires and destroyers Nowaki, Fujinami, and Okinami, respectively, scuttled the cruisers with torpedoes—though Nowaki may have reached the area after U.S. aircraft delivered the coup de grâce to Chikuma. About 60 planes from TGs 38.2 and 38.4 tore into the retiring Japanese and sank Noshiro on the 26th. That day U.S. cruisers also crippled Nowaki with gunfire, and Owen (DD-536) sank her about 65 miles south-southeast of Legaspi, Luzon. The casualties the Japanese surface fleet sustained and its virtual withdrawal to anchorages because of a lack of fuel finished it as an effective fighting force. Following Taffy 3’s ordeal off Samar, however, Japanese kamikaze suicide planes sliced into the carriers and sank St. Lo and damaged Kalinin Bay and Kitkun Bay.
Rear Adm. Daniel E. Barbey, Commander, Northern Attack Force, VII Amphibious Force, and TF 78, formed TG 78.12, Cmdr. James A. Baxter, USNR, the commanding officer of patrol craft PC-623, to “search for, pick up, and return to Leyte, U.S. Navy survivors from CVE’s, DD’s, and DE’s sunk during enemy action eastward of Samar Island.” Baxter broke his flag in PC-623 and gathered PC-1119 and infantry landing craft LCI-34 (rocket-equipped), LCI-71, LCI-337, LCI-340, and LCI-341. The vessels set out from San Pedro Bay at 0600 on 26 October 1944, and carefully worked the region of the battle searching for survivors, later extending their formation into a line from three-and-a-half miles to seven. A Consolidated PBY Catalina circled the area of a heavy oil slick that afternoon, and LCI-340 investigated and discovered and captured a Japanese sailor sitting on a floating box, and sighted a great deal of articles bearing Japanese labels. They later turned the man over to task force interrogators.
The searchers experienced good moonlight that night which aided them and, at 2229, they sighted red, green, and white flares bearing 225° from their position at 11°31'N, 126°1'E. PC-623 left the formation at 2237, instructing the other vessels to continue their search, and made for the flares. Nine minutes later the patrol craft observed that men in a life raft had fired the flares, and just after midnight began picking up the first survivors from Gambier Bay. Most of the men emerged from the water covered in oil, and in addition to their wounds, many suffered from shock, exposure, exhaustion, and thirst. The sailors from the rescue craft did everything they could to alleviate the suffering among the survivors, and many men furnished their own clothing and blankets to them.
Samar lay about 11 miles distant at 0348 on 27 October 1944, when PC-1119 detached with over 200 survivors and came about for San Pedro Bay to report to Barbey. Baxter formed the remaining vessels into a search line at 0615 and closed the island to about eight miles, and then continued to search in a northwesterly direction. At 0745, an enlisted man floating with some survivors shouted out that he could see a vessel flying the Stars and Stripes. Lt. Cmdr. Robert W. Copeland, USNR, Samuel B. Roberts’ commanding officer, believed the man to be hallucinating until one of the landing craft sighted some of the life rafts and fired a 20-millimeter gun to let the men know that they were nearing the end of their ordeal. The rescuers pulled on board survivors initially from Hoel and Samuel B. Roberts. PC-623 carried a doctor and thus went to each raft and took on board the severely wounded men.
All told, they counted more than 900 men from the sunken ships on board the rescue vessels by 0950 when a Japanese twin-engine bomber identified as either a Betty or Sally disrupted the search as it passed over LCI-34. A number of the rescue craft opened fire on the plane but it winged out of the area without attacking. The rescue vessels resumed the search until 1019, when Barbey ordered them to return to San Pedro Bay. They formed a cruising disposition and returned to their anchorages, where they disembarked the total of 1,150 survivors for transfer to hospital ship Comfort (AH-6), attack transport Fremont (APA-44), and tank landing ship LST-464 (operating as a hospital ship), which they completed by 0458 on the 27th. Capt. Vieweg subsequently approved a report that estimated that 706 men of Gambier Bay’s company survived the battle.
Capt. Vieweg wrote a letter of thanks to LCI(L)-337 on 22 November:
“1. The officers and crew of the Gambier Bay desire to express their appreciation of the hospitality and comfort tendered by you and your ship’s company after rescuing us off the shores of Samar Island on 27 October 1944.
2. The efficient manner in which you accommodated, under extremely crowded conditions, the exhausted and many wounded survivors reflects great credit on you and those under your command. The open hearted generosity of your individual officers and men was such as to bring the warmest praise and heart felt thanks from those who benefited thereby.”
With their ship gone, the Battle of Leyte Gulf marked the temporary end of VC-10’s operations. In small groups the men traveled by various means to Manus, Pearl Harbor, and San Francisco, Calif., and then home on leave. Some of the veterans were transferred to other duties, but 19 pilots and 25 crewmen chose to stay with Huxtable and form the nucleus of a resurrected VC-10 when the squadron reformed on 27 January 1945 at NAAS Ventura, Calif.
Huxtable visited Ens. Holloman while the latter recovered from his wounds over Saipan. “I was in pretty bad shape,” Holloman recalled, “and was sitting on the edge of my hospital bed with the nurse massaging my legs trying to get the blood to circulate, when the door opened and there was Hux smiling at me. I hadn’t walked a step up to this time, but I got up and walked halfway across that room to him. After he and the squadron had gone through the Battle of Leyte, the first thing he did upon reaching the U.S. was to come to the hospital to see me. I never forgot that. I know a part of Hux will always be with each of us.”
Gambier Bay received four battle stars for service in World War II, and shared in the award of the Presidential Unit Citation to Taffy 3 for extraordinary heroism in the Battle off Samar.
||Dates of Command
|Capt. Hugh H. Goodwin
||28 December 1943–18 August 1944
|Capt. Walter V.R. Vieweg
||18 August 1944–25 October 1944
Mark L. Evans
9 July 2019