It was late in 1943 - when the United States began taking the initiative in the Pacific, and the Allies were flexing their muscles in the Second World War - that I received my memorable letter from President Roosevelt.
I was lucky; instead of the usual five days after taking my physical, we were given 10 days before reporting for permanent duty. Christmas was in that 10 days. We were the first contingent with children to be drafted from Fort Worth.
In boot camp, I was fortunate enough to secure a third-class petty officer rating. I did not realize what a boost that was until I saw what other less fortunate men had to do. After a couple of weeks on Ford Island, I was assigned to a carrier aircraft service unit at Kaneobe Bay on the island of Oahu, across from Honolulu.
On returning from liberty at Honolulu one evening in November, I was met at the barracks by my chief, who said: "The lieutenant wants to see you - he has shipping papers for you to report to the carrier Shangri-La, I think."
My heart hit the deck with a thud. The condolences of my buddies didn't help much. With considerable misgivings, I reported to the lieutenant. He was very understanding, but explained that the "big push" was on, and it was just a matter of time until the entire unit would be moved. He also told me the ship was not the Shangri-La, of which we had heard a great deal, but the USS Steamer Bay CVE 87, one of the 50 Kaiser-built escort carriers commonly called a "kaiser kofin." As it turned out, it was the luckiest break I could have had.
At the supply office, we were welcomed with open arms and a sigh of relief. It seems the Steamer Bay had been used in ferry service to take surplus planes out to the forward area for other carriers. Now she was to get her own squadron and join the fleet as an operating unit. We were part of the crew necessary to keep the squadron flying. I had recently been made a second-class petty officer, and with this transfer was the highest aviation storekeeper rate on ship. I was given charge of all aviation stores. In addition, we rated a first class, and at the end of four months in rate, I received my first-class rate. This was the lucky break I mentioned previously, which only happens during wartime.
We had some of the finest supply officers possible. I still write to my immediate superior officer. Edwards, the ship's original crew aviation storekeeper third class, was a young boy from South Carolina. He had only book learning about his job, but he knew his way around the ship. What an asset that was. Within minutes he had us secured in the aviation storeroom with cots and lockers, where it was reasonably cool. And in a matter of hours we were initiated to that great Navy game "Kumshaw": to get things done, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.
Before leaving Hawaii, there was much speculation as to where we were going. Having a squadron aboard, we knew we were bound for action. MacArthur had landed at Leyte in the Philippines, and a task force of Jeep carriers similar to ours was almost annihilated by the Japanese Fleet at Leyte Gulf making its last big splurge. The gallant stands of these almost defenseless jeep carriers were largely responsible for the Japanese turning tail and running when they almost had victory in their hands. From sitting ducks, the jeeps became Wasps, shooting their pea shooters and launching squadron after squadron into the attack. The planes expended all their bombs and ammunition then made dry runs over the Jap ships to harass them. Out of gas, and no carrier on which to land, many splashed into the sea to be rescued later by destroyers.
Shortly after leaving Pearl Harbor, and into our cruising zig-zag pattern, the captain announced over the ship's speaker system that we were headed for Manus Island in the Admiralties, about 100 miles north of New Guinea. Manus Island and surrounding areas had been secured, but had been the scene of intense fighting some months back. The struggle for New Guinea was still going on. It seemed we were headed right into the tiger's mouth.
The two weeks it took us to get to Manus were busy ones. We had one G.Q. submarine alarm, which could have been a whale. The destroyers hovered over their contact for several hours after dropping depth charges. If it was a sub, it could not be confirmed, but it gave us our first taste of the possibility of an enemy. We were not just playacting.
By Christmas day, the entire task force had gathered: 12 jeep carriers, six older battleships, such as the Colorado and Texas, innumerable destroyers, destroyer escorts and other ships necessary to make up Task Force No 7. Every attempt was made to have a jovial Christmas, with Santa Claus, a Christmas tree and all the trimmings, but thoughts of the morrow hung over us. My own thoughts were of my wife and boy and whether I would get to see them again. It was with a heavy heart that we went to bed. Lights out came early that night as we were to leave at dawn the next morning.
On January 1, 1945, we left the Papaus. Shortly after clearing the harbor, the captain announced that we were the bombardment group, three days in advance of a landing to be made on Lygayan Gulf on the northern tip of the island of Luzon, Philippines. This meant that to get there we had go through the Philippine Islands, held on both sides by the Japs. We were going to have some action!
At dawn on January 3rd we sighted the Philippines. We had considerable consternation in our hearts. Next day, gun watches were put on a four-hour on, four-off basis, with the balance of the ship's crew going about normal operations.
I went to evening chow early, as did most of the rest of the crew. I don't think anyone intended to be late for G.Q. this sunset. I know I felt safer up on the flight deck than down below. I was almost through eating when the loud speakers blared out "All flight-deck personnel report to the flight deck on the double ¬repeat - all flight-deck personnel report to the flight deck on the double." I hurriedly finished eating then started up the ladder to my gun station when, Waaooo! Waaooo! Waaooo! - that blood¬chilling G.Q. horn blasted out.
Emerging upon the passageway along the flight deck, I looked out across the sea and stopped, dumfounded. There was the Ominay Bay, completely on fire, with smoke and flames jumping hundreds of feet in the air.
A Japanese suicide plane with a Kamikaze pilot had dived right out of the sun into the Ominay Bay. The ship was hit without warning, apparently unprepared - its radar had failed to pick up the Jap plane in time. For the Japs it was a perfect hit, right at the conning tower and forward elevator. Their bomb exploded and scattered burning gasoline over the flight deck, down onto the hangar deck, then down to the aviation gasoline tanks. In a matter of minutes, the whole front half of the ship was a blazing inferno.
We stood helpless 1,000 yards away - the Ominay Bay was burning in the position where less than two hours before we had been stationed.
As our formation turned to get out of the area, we passed very close to the doomed ship. Men were running everywhere; some were jumping overboard. The flames were getting higher, and ammunition began to explode. Destroyers and destroyer escorts edged up to help, but it was hopeless. Soon the order was given to abandon ship. It is hard to imagine the confusion that must have occurred aboard her. To us, standing there spellbound and helpless, it was a sad sight, frustrating to the point of anger.
More men were jumping overboard and climbing upon life rafts. The flames shot higher, but still the gallant ship showed no signs of sinking - just a flaming raft of fire, smoke and explosions. We watched long past dark. G.Q. was secured, but we talked only in whispers. I did not have the heart to watch after the order was given to sink the ship with torpedoes. I went to my storeroom and waited as did a great many others. A buddy told me when the torpedo struck, a huge ball of fire rose up into the sky, then darkness as the ship sank below the water, the most awesome thing he had ever seen.
This chronicle cannot be concluded without the highest praise for my ship, the Steamer Bay, and all her sister ships. Admiral Gallery, in his book Eight Bells, expressed his sentimental feeling for his ship CVE USS Guadalcanal and its exploits in the Atlantic. His words, as fine as they are, were just a prologue to the honor that should be given these gallant ships and their crews.
I have often wondered what has happened to these unsung heroes, the CVEs. I hope that somewhere one has been anchored as a monument, so that I may take my grand kids to see her and say, "That is a real hero." Somewhere up in that heaven for ships, I know the old Steamer Bay is looking down with a wink in her eye saying, "See, I knew 1'd get you back, the bogies will always be 'just over the horizon.'"
Nat H. Neville
Submitted by Rubye Neville
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.