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A Young Man’s Memory of War

The shells reminded me of the Star ­Spangled Banner. But these bombs were not bursting in air; they were hitting ships.

Charles Baird survived his service in World War II to chronicle his experiences.

Underway on 12 October 1944 aboard the USS Kalinin Bay, we steamed in good weather for Leyte, Philippine Islands. With us were other escort aircraft carriers: the Fanshaw Bay, White Plains and the St. Lo. The St. Lo previously had been named Midway — [until] the Navy Department built a large carrier and named it Midway. I thought it had to be a bad omen to change the ship’s name, which it proved to be.
    At 0500 we had general quarters morning routine, secured at 0614 for breakfast, and I had just sat down to eat when general quarters sounded. The Navy still owes me that breakfast as one of the most significant battles of naval history began. The enemy task force — four battleships, six cruisers and numerous destroyers — had been sighted 20 miles from us. But as we reached battle stations — mine being on the port side forward 40mm gun — enemy ships were shelling us. It looked like the Fourth of July. The shells were high explosives in all different colors as many projectiles were loaded with dye to aid the spotting of gunfire. You could see the shells in flight. They reminded me of the Star Spangled Banner, but the bombs were not bursting in air; they were hitting ships.
    At 0706 we commenced launching aircraft, many of them not loaded with ammunition. On my gun I sat and watched, very scared. Their ships were out of our gun range so that we could do nothing. As we cussed one minute and prayed the next, we ran into every rain squall we could find, which helped but not enough to keep their shells from hitting us.
    Sometime later, about 0830, a second group of Japanese ships — a cruiser and four destroyers — approached from our starboard quarter, meaning we had enemy ships on both quarters. As we moved forward, we had the St. Lo to our port. None of the 16 hits we took exploded. Guess you could say we’re pretty damned lucky to have these thin sides.
    The battleship firing on us was the largest of the Japanese fleet, in fact, the largest in the world: the Yamato.
    The shelling stopped at 0935. But the battle continued from the starboard quarter with 15 or 20 torpedoes that passed close on both sides, all of them missing. But they kept us busy spotting them.
    We’d been at battle stations under fire for more than two hours. Exhaustion and mental strain had taken a toll. Our gun captain, who had served on the Enterprise before coming aboard this ship, had had it and said to me, “I think I’m going to die.” I helped him lie down and folded his arms under his head; he would have done the same for me. Feeling very sorry, I then took over the gun as gun captain.
    Enemy ships broke off engagement shortly after that and disappeared. We breathed easier at our gun. But not for long, because at 1045 enemy planes attacked, making suicide dives on the carriers.
    About 1100 hours, an enemy plane crashed on the aft end of our flight deck and skidded forward. It was in flames, starting several fires.
    Two more enemy planes made dives at the ship; one missed and went into the water. The next plane came in from the starboard quarter. I could not see any gun firing at it, and I told the trainer to turn our gun around where it could fire over the flight deck, not realizing I’d fire through the radar screen, which was out of order anyway. I didn’t think about the men on the bridge; all I wanted to do was shoot the plane down. I could see it over the flight deck, and I fired at it. The pilot made a forward motion.
    I was still on the gun mount when the plane hit the catwalk along the port side of the ship. I saw a ball of fire rolling up the catwalk, indescribable and unforgettable. At the end of the catwalk it hit the wind, rolled back a bit and broke up, no damage to the gun.
    Within sight to our port, a kamikaze plane hit the St. Lo, exploding. I watched in sadness and horror as the men abandoned ship. Buddies that I had joined the Navy and went through boot camp with were part of the crew of the St. Lo. They were in the water for hours before being picked up by our destroyers. I didn’t know for months after that if they were alive or not.
    Our ship took hits from the battleship and from their cruisers. We never stopped nor were out of control — although flooding in parts with a seven-degree starboard list; a badly damaged flight deck; freshwater tanks leaking; and fuel oil tanks, radar, radio and interior communications out.
    More disheartening were the 55 men wounded, mostly burned, and the five men killed.

    26 October 1944, funeral services were held for the five men who were killed. They were buried at sea as we stood at attention, many of us crying. The Burial at Sea is a very emotional service. To see your shipmates slip over the side in canvas bags is a painful experience.