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Oral History-War in the Pacific: Actions in the Philippines including Leyte Gulf, as well as the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, 1943-45

Recollections of Sonarman 1st Class Jack Gebhardt, USN, a crew member of USS Pringle (DD-477) in action against Japanese forces in the South Pacific from October 1943 to 16 April 1945 when Pringle was sunk by a Japanese suicide (Kamikaze) aircraft during the Battle of Okinawa.

Adapted from: "Sonarman First Class Jack Gebhardt," a document edited by Senior Chief Yeoman (YNCS) George A. Tusa, USNR (ret) and reproduced by the Naval Historical Foundation Oral History Program, from the original manuscript written by his brother-in-law Jack Gebhardt. The postscript by Tusa is dated 7 November 2000.

Initial Operations

From her launching in 1942 the Pringle was assigned to convoy duty with the Atlantic Fleet. In late 1943 after a grueling year in the North Atlantic providing antisubmarine protection for supply ships carrying war material to England and Russia the Pringle was assigned to the Pacific Fleet for duty that would lead to her demise.

The South Pacific

After a variety of routine convoy escort duties the Pringle was assigned to shore bombardment support for the invasions of the Saipan, Guam and Tinian Islands. When these islands were finally secured in October 1944 the Pringle was ordered back to San Francisco for some much needed rest, relaxation (R&R) and repair. The crew received a well deserved "Leave" (time off) and the ship underwent some necessary repairs. As soon as the Pringle was tied dockside the shipyard workers immediately swarmed aboard and began the refurbishing, replenishing and repairing work while the crew enjoyed a break from the stress of war and loneliness from being away an extended period. However, all too quickly the repairs were completed and in November 1944 thePringle sailed back into the Pacific war. She made a brief stop at Pearl Harbor to join a convoy bound for the Philippine Islands and arrived at Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands on 26 November 1944. The Pringle was anchored among a vast number of battleships, cruisers and destroyers being gathered for the next island assault. It was here during this port stop that the sailors heard about Japan's newest style of warfare called the "Kamikaze" (Divine Wind)[referring to a typhoon which saved Japan by destroying a 13th Century Mongol invasion fleet]. It was "planned suicide" as a Kamikaze plane only had enough fuel for a one-way trip and Japanese pilots intentionally crashed into our ships. The Jap[anese] planes would explode in a ball of flames from the fuel and bombs they carried which would kill the pilot. The only way to stop a suicide piloted plane was to shoot it down before it hit you. Now there could be no margin for error. Prior to the Kamikaze attack style we would shoot at the Japs and they would bomb us, sometimes everybody missed! It was horrifying to try and comprehend someone intentionally diving through a hail of deadly anti-aircraft fire with the sole purpose of killing themselves in a blinding explosion.

The first Kamikaze attack against the Pringle occurred the day after arriving at Leyte Gulf. As the Japanese planes approached our anchorage area the anti-aircraft fire from US picket ships [warships posted in outlying rings to protect the main force from Japanese air attacks] intensified and a continuous stream of red tracers [bullets that leaves a trail of fire or smoke to aid in aiming a weapon] could be seen as our ships hurried to circle or steam away to avoid the attack. The Jap planes seemed to be everywhere and the noise of gunfire, explosions and yelling was intense as we manned our battle stations. A light cruiser came under persistent attack by about a dozen planes and all were shot down without hitting the ship, but then suddenly a lone Jap plane dove out of the clouds and struck the ship. The explosion was ear shattering and smoke and flames were soon belching from the stricken vessel as she maneuvered to avoid further hits. The frequency of enemy air raids over the next several weeks at Leyte Gulf was intense and many times the Pringle crew remained at battle stations for several hours. The human stress level from the constant air attacks rose and fear could be seen in the eyes of every man, but showing fear was not a sign of cowardliness.

The Pringle was assigned to anti-aircraft patrol in the Philippines area and was constantly in the thick of the air attacks. Finally thePringle was ordered to Pamoc Bay on the western side of Leyte Gulf for fire support duty covering our ground troops moving along the coast. During the transit to Pamoc Bay with another "tin can" [destroyer], a Japanese submarine was sighted on the surface and both destroyers attacked immediately. The gunfire exchange was short but deadly as the sub took a direct hit, exploded and sank quickly. There was no time to search for survivors as the air attacks had become so frequent that to stop would be very dangerous. The air raids continued in the Leyte Gulf area, but Pringle was ordered to make a quick run to Tagoban Island for supplies and mail. Some of the crew got ashore, but the town only consisted of a few tin huts and mud buildings, but it was a safe haven from the Jap air raids.

In December 1944 the Pringle participated in the invasion of Mindanao in the [southern] Philippine Islands and escorted several supply convoys carrying men and equipment through the Sunigare Straits, southwest past the Cebu and Negros Islands to Mindanao. The trips took almost four days due to the slow speed of the supply ships and we were attacked frequently resulting in numerous casualties. The air attacks now involved Jap suicide planes which made the encounters even more deadly.

The final Pringle trip to Mindanao was escorting supply ships and the Japanese attacked continuously day and night as we steamed through the Sunigare Straits, then just north of Mindanao the Japs really hit us hard. A large ammunition freighter got hit and exploded in a blinding flash. When the ship blew up the pilothouse was blown onto another ship which exploded and the debris rained down on the Pringle almost a mile away from the blast. There were no survivors from the ammunition ship and the convoy never slowed down to search for survivors due to the threat of attack. The raids became fanatical and furious in their attempt to hit us. Sometimes a suicide plane would pass so close overhead we could see the pilot struggling to control his aircraft before it plunged into the ocean and exploded. There were seldom any survivors among the Jap pilots.

The enemy air raids continued and the Pringle crew seldom slept or ate with any regularity. Our Marine CAP (combat air patrol) pilots were extremely heroic as they pursued "Nip" planes right into our anti-aircraft fire without any hesitation or thought of being hit by friendly fire.

The Pringle's luck finally ran out while on patrol in the Philippines area when while steaming at flank speed, a Japanese airplane suddenly dove out of the clouds and crashed into our aft 40-mm [antiaircraft] gun mount killing eleven men and wounding eighteen. Many of the wounded men were burned severely when the fuel tank exploded and one man was killed from jumping over the side to avoid the flames and being ran over by the ship. We buried our shipmates at sea the next day between attacks and there was not even time for prayer as we scanned the sky for enemy aircraft from our battle stations. After the Pringle was hit I walked past the Officer's Wardroom where the wounded were being treated and the smell of burned flesh and cries of pain were overwhelming. The explosion and fire had destroyed a 40-mm [antiaircraft] and a 5" [main battery] gun mount so the Pringle was ordered to the Admiralty Islands, north of New Guinea for repairs. The ship tied up between a heavily damaged cruiser and a destroyer tender performing the repairs. In less than a week the destroyer tender crew had cut several holes in the Pringle deck, removed the damaged guns and replaced them with salvaged guns from the sinking cruiser. The repair took a couple of weeks and then Pringlewas steaming back into combat.

The Pringle sailed to Ulitihi Island where a vast number of capital ships were being assembled for another invasion. At the anchorage were battleships, cruisers, carriers, destroyers, landing craft and support ships. It looked like the entire US Navy was there.

The Pringle was assigned to gunfire support for the invasion of Iwo Jima Island on February 19, 1945. On D-Day the Pringle was providing anti-submarine protection off the assault beaches when the Japanese resistance stiffened and the Marines requested gunfire support. The Pringle moved closer to the island and began sending gunfire on call from the Marines. During the Iwo Jima invasion there was minimal air activity since the island was beyond Japanese aircraft range and except for one hit on the aircraft carrier Saratoga [CV-3] by a suicide plane, our anti-aircraft gunners had little to do. The island of Iwo Jima was so small that we had to monitor our gunfire to avoid shooting over the island and hitting another ship on the other side. One afternoon while patrolling about two miles off shore a salvo from the other side of Iwo Jima landed about 50 yards astern of Pringle and the Officer of the Deck (OOD) got confused by the explosions and ordered all engines "Full astern" which would have backed us directly into the next salvo. A quick thinking crew member changed the order to "Full ahead" and got us out of trouble. The Captain immediately got on the Telephone Between Ships System (TBS) and got the firing stopped. For shore bombardment the Pringle would anchor a few hundred yards off Iwo Jima and frequently received enemy small arms fire from Japanese snipers. To avoid being hit the crew would use the Port side, but the constant pinging of enemy bullets hitting the ship was very nerve racking. When the ship swung around the crew had to remember to move only on the Starboard side. Afterward we discovered plenty of nicks in the hull from the gunfire. At night the sound of gunfire and explosions on the island was intense as the battle raged and we wondered how our Marines coped with the stress. We could smell the smoke, hear the sounds and tried to comprehend the deadly conflict underway. It had to be an enormous loss of life for our Marines and the Japanese.

The Pringle sailed from Iwo Jima before the island was secured and went to Ulitihi Island to await the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. It seemed that every invasion was bigger as the war moved closer to Japan and the South Pacific planning charts showed why. The massive US force would be needed because the next assault after Okinawa was the island of Formosa, off the China coast. The invasion of Okinawa began with routine anti-submarine patrol, then providing anti-aircraft defense as Japanese air raids started to intensify. The Japanese came in waves and sent everything at us. All attacks were now Kamikaze's and every type of aircraft was used, some barely able to fly. What a waste of human life as we shot them down. Once the airfield on Okinawa was secured, our Marine pilots began using it, but had a difficult time because everybody was so trigger happy from the constant Japanese attacks. The air raids were endless and our nerves became frayed and stomach churned at the thought of being killed in a horrible blast or gasoline fire. This was absolute total unforgiving war and everyone was scared! The only way to stop a Kamikaze plane was to kill the pilot before he crashed into you. There was no surrender, no mercy given or expected. You had to kill to live!

The Pringle's final day was on April 14,1945 when she sailed to Krama Relto to refuel and rearm before returning to picket duty off Okinawa. The anchorage was a graveyard of shot up "tin cans" from the picket stations around Okinawa. Some had the stacks shot off, sinking by the stem [bow], beached to avoid sinking or burned black with bomb holes. They were kept afloat by constantly running bilge pumps. Some of ships were so badly damaged we wondered how anyone survived or how many were killed trying to defend the ship or save it from sinking. Every evening "Tokyo Rose" [Iva Ikuko Toguri d'Aquino, a Japanese-American woman, who along with other women made English-language propaganda radio broadcasts for the Japanese Broadcasting Company. D'Aquino was pardoned by President Gerald Ford in 1977.] would report on the Jap radio frequency the growing number of US casualties and how more thousands would die in very horrible ways. The US destroyer picket stations around Okinawa numbered about 26 ships positioned about 75 to 100 miles off the island. They were the "eyes" of the early warning system and the Japanese attacked them prior to every raid.

The Pringle was assigned to Radar Picket Station #26 about 75 miles North by Northwest of Okinawa with the destroyer USSHobson (DD-464) and two landing craft. The Hobson had better radio equipment and acted as the lead ship. No one knew why the landing craft were along because they had very limited air defense capability and very slow, but we found out the purpose was to pick up survivors after a ship was sunk.

The first several days of picket duty were quiet, but on April 15, 1945 after being at Battle Stations for almost 24 hours the Japanese attacked in great strength. They knew we had been awake all night fighting off small frequent air attacks and were exhausted. The main attack lasted all day and finally about dawn on April 16, 1945 the Pringle was attacked by a horde of Japanese planes. Some were shot down, but one "Zeke" [single-engine fighter produced by Mitsubishi; also known as the "Zero"] got through our air defenses and crashed near #1 stack, aft of the Bridge and Chart House where I was stationed as a telephone talker during General Quarters. The plane flew over the Starboard bow and passed 10-15 feet above where I was standing and crashed in a huge ball of fire.

When the two 500 lb. bombs on the plane exploded it seemed like the world ended as the Chart House rumbled and years of dust crashed down from the overheads. I sensed the Pringle was severely damaged and tried to get off the Bridge through the Starboard door, but the door was jammed and access ladder was blown away. I managed to bend the door from the top and slide out onto the open bridge area. I looked toward the stem and the ship was a burning hulk with men stumbling dazed and bleeding from the flying debris, smoke and flames. I looked forward and saw men going over the side. Just then someone yelled "ABANDON SHIP" and I saw a 40-mm [antiaircraft] ammo [ammunition] magazine under the bridge on fire so I went to the Starboard side of the bridge and worked my way down to the main deck. The Bridge Splash Shield was blown away so I climbed down to the gun deck where I took off my shoes and hat and laid them neatly against the bulkhead as if I was coming back! People can do strange things when in a stressful circumstance. I put on my life jacket, the type that inflates with a rubber tube and prepared to go over the side. But when crawling off the Bridge I forgot my tin helmet so went back to the Chart House to get it. While searching for my helmet I saw more men going overboard and without thinking dove into the water and swam away from the ship as fast as I could. I don't know how far I swam, but it seemed like several hundred yards before stopping to look back and see the Pringle engulfed in flames, broken in half sinking amidships. The bow and stem were pointed sharply upward and I heard screams as she slipped under the water and disappeared. It all happened in less than 5 minutes after the Japanese plane hit and Pringle disappeared.

When the ship sank I rolled onto my back and floated high in case a depth charge went off, but there was no explosion, only the cries of wounded men and the continuing battle. I watched helplessly as the Pringle sank and could do nothing to save her. The Japanese planes circled overhead like a swarm of angry hornets to make sure Pringle was dead. I was in the water for only a short time when one of the Stewards [attendants for the officers' wardroom], a large Filipino cried for help. I didn't know the man, but swam to him to offer assistance. The man's muscles had cramped and he couldn't swim and had no life jacket so I gave him mine since I was a fairly good swimmer. I grabbed a piece of wreckage drifting by and remained in the water floating near the Hobsonhoping she would pick me up, but the strong current swept me around the ship's stem and away from her. I watched the Hobsonput up a intense blanket of anti-aircraft fire as the Japanese tried to strafe us in the water. They drove the Jap planes off and fired several 20-mm [antiaircraft] rounds into the water to chase off any sharks. When the attack finally ended the landing craft moved in and picked us up. I had been in the water about 7-8 hours after the Pringle sank and the water was rough most of the time. To keep up my spirits and stay alert, I prayed, sang and did anything to survive. Finally the landing craft crew threw a line to a raft holding our wounded, the line fell short so I swam for it and brought the line back to the raft. We were pulled alongside the landing craft and a cargo net lowered to the raft so the wounded men could be brought aboard.

The landing craft's crew opened their hearts with compassion, clothing and food. I was given 32" waist pants which fit, but onPringle just a few hours before I wore a 36" waist. A bottle of whisky was passed around and everyone took a big gulp. My hands shook as I drank and thought of my shipmates, sharks, fire and terror of the last few hours. The sight of Pringle going under was still vivid in my mind.

The landing craft took us to a hospital ship at Okinawa for medical treatment and then transfer to the [transport USS] Starlight [AP-175], a troop ship bound for San Francisco.

The casualties suffered by Pringle on April 16, 1945 were sixty-nine men killed and seventy wounded (some later died) from the Japanese attack. I felt lucky the ship sank quickly as more casualties could have resulted if the ship remained afloat to be a lingering target. To this day I still remember the shipmates who didn't survive and can see Pringle's final moment as a burning, broken hulk slipping beneath the water. The sight will never leave my mind or forget the faces of friends killed.

Postscript: Sonarman 1st Class Jack "Gibby" Gebhardt passed away at 0545 hours on 20 July 1995 in Avon Lake, Ohio. He seldom spoke of the South Pacific or sinking of the Pringle and never mentioned giving his life jacket to a shipmate. He struggled with postcombat stress and nervous reaction to sudden noises and low flying aircraft his entire life.

16 February 2001

Published: Tue Sep 22 08:55:10 EDT 2015