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The personal experience and account of
Marshall L. Mitchell

This account was provided by Steve Mitchell, cousin of Marshall L. Mitchell, Y2c, USNR. What you are about to read was written in letters Marshall wrote to family.

Marshall passed away in the 1960's of cancer in Yuma, Arizona.  He had a brother, Leland who was killed in France during World War II and a sister, Oleta Bonarden.

The Life and Death of the United States Ship Gambier Bay

As seen by: M. L. Mitchell, Y2c, U.S.N.R.


Referred to as an "Escort", "Jeep", or "Baby" Flat-top (sometimes called a "Kaiser Coffin") the Aircraft Carrier, the U.S.S. GAMBIER BAY (CVE-73), was built in Vancouver, Washington, one of a class of carriers mass-produced by the Henry J. Kaiser Shipyards, numbering from 55 to 104. She was commissioned in Astoria, Oregon, December 28, 1943, and sunk less than a year later on October 25, 1944, and although her career was brief, it nevertheless was such as to reflect great credit to the officers and crew who sailed her, to the men who built her, and to the flag which she flew so proudly.

It was said of the personnel of the Gambier Bay that 80% were seasick the first time she had blue water under her keel, yet just a few short months she had completed her shakedown cruise, the training of personnel had been completed and she was ready for combat duty.

In April, when I first met the ship which was to become my home for a short while, she had just returned from the Marshall Islands on her trial run and the next time she left the States it was to go on the prowl for those little yellow devils, the Japs.

In her brief career she covered almost 100,000 miles, visiting such ports and such waters as Vancouver, Washington; Astoria, Oregon; Bremerton and Seattle, Washington; San Francisco, California; San Diego, California; Pearl Harbor (Honolulu), T.H.; Eniwetok and Toi, Marshall Islands; The Marianas Islands (Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam); Esperitu, Santo, New Hebrides Islands; Tulagi Harbor (Guadalcanal and Florida Islands); Palau (Pelilieu and Angaur Islands); Ulithi Atoll - on the way our planes flew over Yap on reconnaissance and photographic flights; Hollandia, New Guinea; Manus - sometimes referred to as the Admiralty Islands - for our first brief rest; then to the final destination, the invasion of Leyte in the Central Philippine Islands.

The Gambier Bay built up quite a proud record for herself in her brief career - four enemy planes were credited to the ship's guns, three of them of the two-motored bomber type. Her embarked Squadron, VC-TEN, had credit for eleven sure kills and six probable enemy planes with many "sitting ducks", that is enemy planes destroyed while on the ground, and one "possible" enemy submarine. Hundreds of combat missions had been flown Her TBM's had delivered many tons of bombs free of charge to the Japs as well as thousands of rounds of fifty and thirty caliber ammunition. No doubt the Nips did not appreciate these little gifts. The strafing and bombing attacks of the Gambier Bay planes killed thousands of Japs and destroyed much enemy material.

In the Marianas Campaign the Gambier Bay and other Baby Carriers brought particular distinction to themselves when the large fast carriers of Task Force 58 had to pull out to meet the threat or the ill-fated Jap Fleet that apparently had the intention of driving the Yank forces from the Marianas. The savage and complete defeat of this Japanese Fleet made headlines, but behind the scene it was the planes from the "Jeep" carriers that continued giving support to the lands forces, spotting for the artillery, bombing and strafing, and providing anti-submarine and combat air patrol. During this period the Gambier Bay was under Jap aerial attack for three consecutive days, being separately attacked by dive bombers, torpedo bombers and high level bombers, all the two-motored variety, yet they fought off all attacks and defeated them utterly, both with ships guns and by comtab air patrol planes; and in the very teeth of these vicious attacks continued all necessary operations.

The Palau Campaign was much a repetition of the Marianas Campaign except that our Planes seized such complete control of the air as to entirely prevent any attacks whatsoever on our ships. We went to Ulithi with a strong force, expecting another bitter fight such as in the Marianas and a Palau, but evidently the Japs had had enough for like the Arabs, they had folded their tents and silently stolen away prior to our arrival.

When I reported aboard the U.S. S. Gambier Bay, April 26, 1944, she was in San Diego, California making preparations to take a load of planes to Pearl Harbor. As most landlubbers are when they make their first acquaintance with Her Majesty, the sea, I was soon very seasick after we left San Diego on the first day of May 1944. It was with no small amount of regrets that I watched Point Loma fade over the horizon for there was a home I had grown to love and a girl who was more than life to me. Very well I knew that many months might pass before I would see them again. I made a vow that I would be back and I knew in my heart that I would keep it. With the help of God, I am now on my way back.

By the time of the Philippines invasion we had a well-trained combat wise ship's crew and our air department had proven their ability to take on odds and emerge victorious. We cockily felt that we were ready for anything, and we were, almost anything, but certainly did not reckon on being cornered by the huge Japanese task force that proved our undoing.

The initial phases of the Philippines campaign went well. The invasion schedule worked like clockwork and all initial objectives were secured - then again the Japs decided to risk their fleet in combat -several large enemy task forces were spotted and destinations calculated - traps were set - none of the Jap ships were to escape this time - but the Japs proved again that they were not to be counted out entirely in the Pacific War - the largest Jap Task Force temporarily eluded the Yankee Traps and headed straight for Leyte Gulf with a force powerful enough to sink or destroy the overwhelmed merchant and non-combatant ships then occupying the harbor - only the small American Task Force of which the Gambier Bay was a unit, stood in their way and this task force, although aware of the fact that the Japs were in the vicinity, understood that the situation was well in hand and so, at the time of contact with the enemy were preparing to launch the daily air support for our land troops. Speaking frankly, we were caught with our pants down, and only partially prepared beyond the extent of the preparations that were normal while operating in enemy waters. Two of our planes had been loaded with torpedoes in the hope that Task Force 58, might permit us to lend a hand.

The morning of October 25th, 1944, started out much as any other morning at sea with regular General Quarters at about 4:30 in the morning. We were cruising just off Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands – six escort carriers with screen of three destroyers and four destroyer escorts.

During General Quarters it was announced over the loud speaking system that it was known that a large Japanese Task Force was within one hundred miles, and that no doubt we would attack them. We presumed naturally that the situation was well in hand. We had had in sight near the horizon almost the entire previous day a large powerful task force of our own and figured that they were still in the vicinity.

General Quarters lasted quite a little longer than usual and we did not secure until about 7:00. I went below and had gotten into the chow line for breakfast when they announced that the enemy task force was nineteen miles astern and coming up at about 26 to 30 knots. General Quarters sounded again and I went hastily to my general quarters station in the Communication Office. There I manned my phones, which were connected to all radio control rooms and the radio direction finder station. I sent in my report of all stations in communication department manned and ready to bridge via the Captain's command communication system. I then turned my phones over to a seaman and inquired as to what was known of the enemy task force. I learned that the Jap force consisted of four battleships, ten heavy cruisers and about fourteen destroyers. They were 39,000 yards astern and were closing fast. We in Communication Office felt that this was it.

We were not nervous nor afraid, but we were a little scared and not afraid to admit it because we knew that we had no chance to get away.Our top speed was a little under 20 knots, compared to their 30; we had, as our largest guns, 5 inchers where they had 14 inch guns on their battle-wagons and 8 inchers on their cruisers. We knew that if we came out alive it would be with the help of God, and I know I was not alone in the little prayer I said.

We tried to joke and had a little success but mostly the atmosphere was one of tenseness. I buckled on a 45 automatic with the idea of taking it with me if we had to abandon ship. I then walked out to the catwalk on the port side to see what I could. The scene around me was one of well-ordered confusion. Every plane on the flight deck was being readied for launching as quickly as possible. Those that were ready were taking off without the usual preliminaries.

There was a slight fog with low hanging rain squall clouds. The Japs had now sighted us definitely and were plainly visible to me, although just specks covering a large area of the horizon astern of us.Smoke screens were being laid and the carriers and destroyers looked almost ghostly as they slipped through the fog and smoke screen.

Soon enemy shells began to fall around us as the mighty Jap Armada opened fire on us at extreme range. The first shells sent up great white geysers just ahead of a carrier near us. Then since we were on the outside of the screen and closest to the nearest large group of Jap warships they gradually shifted their sights to our ship and the white geysers of shell hits were flying up all around us, first to port and then to starboard as our ship was maneuvered frantically trying to keep from being hit.

Looking astern I could now see the huge Jap Task Force quite plainly with the naked eye. The range was shortening rapidly and the shell bursts were hitting much more closely. I then went back to the Communication Office to see what was happening there.

The Captain had ordered that as soon as any Jap units came within range of our one five inch gun on the fantail it was to open fire. By contrast with the powerful guns confronting us it seemed almost useless to open fire with our little "pop gun", but it was comforting at least to know that we were at least trying to do something other than just run.

At about 8:15 we took our first hit which shook the ship from stem to stern.After that we were receiving hits all over the ship.Our five-inch opened up and got three hits on a Jap cruiser before it was knocked out with a hit in the vicinity of the fantail. A shell came through the office next to the Communications Office and then one through the passageway just outside; wounding two of the radio-men. We sent one of them on a stretcher to the emergency dressing station and bandaged the other one up ourselves with the equipment in a first-aid box nearby. Then we suffered a most serious hit – the forward engine room was knocked out, flooded then abandoned. Over half our speed was lost and the Japs gained even more rapidly now and we were getting hit so often and so hard that the repair parties were not even bothering to notify the bridge of each individual hit.

Word came in and was passed over the loud speaker system that three American cruisers were coming in from the port-bow, and even in the midst of the hell we were catching, a cheer went up from all hands to think that the Japs were now going to catch some of the same sort of hell that they were dishing out. Then when they came closer we could tell that they were Jap cruisers who had flanked us. They opened up as soon as they were in range and at that time there were four battleships on one side of us and six cruisers on the other, both groups firing on us. Some of the armor-piercing shells they were slinging at us came in one side of the ship and out the other. Water was rising rapidly in all parts of the ship - the after engine room was struck and knocked out; we were dead in the water.

The Captain sent word for us to destroy the decoding machines and to throw parts of them over the side. I helped in doing this and carried part of them over to the starboard side of the ship to throw over the side. After I had thrown my load over the side I looked forward along the catwalk and saw that the forward forty-millimeter clipping room was afire. The officer in charge of the gun mount was calling for someone to break out a fire hose and try to put the fire out so I went forward to see what I could do to help. Smoke was pouring out of the clipping room and I ran through that onto the gun platform to find the fire hose stretched out along the cat-walk, blown full of holes. All the men on the mount were laying around dead. I saw that there was nothing I could do so I went back and reported what I had seen to the officer on the gun mount. He then took off his helmet and phones and we started aft to the bridge. At this time the ship was listing badly to port and the Captain ordered "All hands abandon ship."

I walked along the catwalk at the base of the bridge to where there was a crowd of people going down a manila line that reached the water. One of my buddies, J.V. Hammond, Ylc, was standing there and he stuck out his hand and said, "I'll see you out there, kid, and good luck." I wished him the same in return and we moved over to the rail to wait for the crowd to thin out away from the line before going down.

Some of the men were jumping the forty feet from the catwalk to the water but I did not think much of the idea because people were too thick in the water below me. I threw my helmet as far over the side as I could fling it. I decided I did not want to attempt to swim with the heavy 45 automatic around my waist so I took it off and asked Ham if he wanted it. At first he said no and then he took it and started forward. I asked him where he was going and he turned around and started back and said that he did not know. I then climbed over the rail and down the empty line. I stopped about four feet from the water and inflated my life belt. About that time a shell hit the catwalk just aft of the bridge. Most of the Jap ships had decided that they had us and had turned their attention to the other ships in our task force. One cruiser remained nearby at a distance of about 2,000 yards. I dropped the remaining distance to the water and swam over to a floater net that was up against the ship's side. There were four more men around it and we all grabbed onto it with one arm and swam aft with our other arm and our legs. We knew that we had to get away from the ship or we would be dragged under by the suction when she went down. The wind and ground swells were constantly shoving us up against the ship's side. Just as we came around the stern I saw a salvo of shells hit right in the center of a circle of four life rafts. When the smoke cleared away there were no more life rafts to be seen. It was clear that the Jap cruiser had plainly sought to hit the rafts instead of the ship because they were within pointblank rage.

When we had reached a fair distance away from the ship we paused to rest. The Gambier Bay settled rapidly, developing more and more of a port list. The water reached the edge of the flight deck on the port side. Flames were breaking through the flight deck in many places and minor explosions sent geysers of sparks high in the air. I could see what appeared to be a few bodies sprawled on the flight deck at peace in the midst of the inferno. The ship rolled even more then settled with a rush till only the tip of the mast was exposed. A vagrant breeze whipped Old Glory momentarily then all that was left was the screws as they slowly went under. Then she was gone; gone like a lady. All that was left was the floating debris.

There were many men and life rafts stretched out in a line away from the position the ship had been in. We pulled over to where there was another floater net and a life raft. There were four wounded men on these; some of them badly wounded. Lt. Comdr. Gellhorn, our Navigator, was on one of the nets and I will never forget a remark he said to one of the boys. He said, "Well, Barry, I have had everything but child-birth happen to me now." We all laughed and that eased the strain somewhat. Looking around the horizon there were none of our ships visible but not so very far away, about three to four thousand yards, a heavy Japanese Cruiser lay dead in the water and we were careful not to attract their attention. Soon a Jap Destroyer pulled up near the Cruiser and we watched them with some concern, as tales of Jap brutality to survivors had reached our ears many times. Some of our planes appeared and attacked the two ships vigorously but we were unable to tell with what result for the ships still seemed to be in good shape when they departed.

We drifted along faster than the Jap cruiser and were soon a much safer distance away. From below the water we kept feeling small explosions sometimes very faint, at other times much more obvious as deep down below us in Davey Jones Locker the depth charges of the Gambier Bay exploded. Some P.T. boats appeared and made an attack on the Jap cruiser, apparently without success. The Jap Destroyer had left the vicinity at this time.

We could hardly tell there was an attack going on except for the fact that quite a lot of shell fire fell nearby giving us the momentary impression that we were being strafed in the water. This all seemed like some horrible nightmare from which I would soon awaken, but I knew that it was not true. I knew what had happened but I could hardly believe that it had really happened to me.

We had some medical Supplies, bandages and morphine, and we fixed up the wounded as best we could. Soon some more of our planes appeared and pressed home a beautiful attack on the Jap Cruiser. Dive Bombers came in from high level, fighters strafed from medium level, and torpedo bombers came in from almost the level of the water. It was a powerful attack and the din of anti-aircraft was terrific, clearly audible to even at the distance we now were from the cruiser. We cheered when the geysers from falling bombs shot high in the air and the sound of the falling bombs was a satisfying sound, but when the planes left, that damn cruiser was still afloat although we could tell that it now had a decided list.

Soon the Jap Destroyer appeared again and hovered around the cruiser for some time but was so distant that we could not tell just what was happening. It was nearly sundown and the destroyer and cruiser were winking their signal lights at each other very much like American ships. By this time we had joined with several life rafts and altogether there were about 140 men, including our captain and executive officer with us. We had three floater nets, about seven rafts, and two small rubber life rafts. We had a few containers of rations but no water. All of us were getting pretty cold and our teeth were chattering. The warm Pacific waters could have been a little warmer. The moon came out brightly. We could still see the Jap cruiser and destroyer in the distance. We came to the conclusion that they were taking their men off the cruiser with the destroyer.

Practically none of us slept for the entire night. I was almost completely submerged in the water and was so chill that sleep would not come. I spent the biggest portion of the night talking to one of the boys I knew. During the early part of the night four of the badly wounded men died and we buried them at sea. The Captain led us in the Lord's Prayer for each of them.Later that night the Japs scuttled the cruiser and we watched with relief when the Destroyer disappeared in the distance.

In the gray of the dawn everyone started stirring around a little more than they had during the night and scanning the horizon hopefully for possible rescue. We saw several of our planes flying over that day but could not attract their attention. We did not touch any of our rations that day because we did not know just how long it would be before we were picked up. We did eat several malted milk tablets each and that seemed to keep us from getting thirsty. We saw sharks in the water all the time that we were in the water but when they came too close we would beat the water with paddles and they seemed to scare away easily. I found out later that sharks had killed a man in one of the other groups of rafts. I thought quite often of my loved ones in the states and of close buddies from the ship, only one of them being with me. I wondered what had happened to them and if they had gotten off. I know that if we were picked up that we were all supposed to get a thirty-day leave and I thought about what I was going to do while I was on leave. Thinking about that kept my mind partially off what had happened and I think that helped keep me from going out of my head as so many men do and as some of our men did. Fortunately, none of the 140 men with our group lost his head.

During the second day I could feel my face, hands and feet blistering in the hot sun. I had taken my shoes off before leaving the ship to enable me to swim better. My face, hands and feet were about all I was able to keep out of the water. I had a raw place on my left ankle, which I had not noticed before. It did not bother me at all and I do not know where I got it or when. Evidently a small fragment of shrapnel struck there and took part of the hide.

About 12:00 of the second night we saw lights flashing from about four ships nearby. We fired a very rocket in hopes they were American ships. We were a little doubtful as to whether they were American or Jap ships. We kept firing rockets every so often and soon a British P.C. boat came along side and took four of our badly wounded men aboard. They stood by until an American LCI came alongside and picked us up. At that time it was about 4:00 and we had been in the water approximately 44 hours. I did not realize until then just how weak I was. I caught hold of the anchor and was going to climb up it. I just couldn't quite make it but kind hands grasped me and helped me from above and I was pulled dripping onto the deck. I took a couple of steps and staggered and almost fell. By taking steps about six inches apart I managed to walk to the scuttle-butt and there I drank a tea-cup of water. I honestly don't believe that any drink that I ever had in my whole life or ever will have, tasted any better. I was then shown where to go to get my wet clothes off and get some sleep. I went down a ladder and into a compartment. There some of the crew of the LCI stripped my clothes off and dried me with a towel. Someone gave me a cigarette and it tasted wonderful. After a while I was given another cigarette and a cup of coffee. It sort of gave me a little life and I felt a lot better. They then showed me a bunk and told me to get in it and get some sleep. I was very glad of the chance and dropped off almost at once into a deep sleep. Someone woke me about 8 hours later and gave me some tomato juice and some more water. My legs were swelled up pretty badly and the place on my left ankle was raw and aching. The pharmacist's mate came around and dressed my ankle and put some mineral oil on my sunburned feet. Then I got up and hobbled around the deck inquiring about missing buddies, just as many others were also doing.

I did not get any information about buddies. I was amazed to learn that we had drifted about eighty miles and were picked up ten miles from the island of Samar. Late that night, October 27, we pulled into Leyte Harbor and we were transferred from the LCI (G) 61 to the PCER 81, (Patrol Craft, Evacuation Rescue). I had my leg dressed again and then dropped off to sleep. The next afternoon several of us were transferred to the hospital ship, U.S.S. COMFORT.

The Comfort is a Navy ship with Army hospital personnel. I would like to say that I now have a respect for the Army Nurse Corp and the Women of the Red Cross that I have never had before. They did all that was possible to make us comfortable and the Red Cross Women brought us Candy, cigarettes, cokes and ice cream, all of which we greatly appreciated. I have never met a nicer bunch of people than the crew of the Comfort.

I got a bath pretty soon after going aboard and it was a relief as I was pretty much in need of a good scrubbing. The Doc. would not let me get out of my bed for about four days. Infection had started in the place on my left ankle and the sunburn on my feet made it pretty painful to stand up. The blood would rush to my feet and throb.

We left Leyte Harbor on the evening of October 29, 1944 for Hollandia, New Guinea and arrived there November 3. We were transferred to the U.S. Naval Base Hospital #17, where we stayed until Nov. 9. We learned that our Captain was in the harbor and was trying to arrange transportation back to the States for us. We received word that we were fortunate enough to get to go back on the S.S. LURLINE, a peacetime luxury liner noted for its speed, but must wait until they were ready to receive us.

Finally, after much worrying over the matter, we were transferred to the Lurline. There I located all my buddies, whom I had done quite a bit of worrying about. I saw Ham there and he told me that he had fired two clips of ammunition at the Jap cruiser with the 45 automatic I had given him.

The Lurline still showed marks of its peacetime splendor even though tarnished by the passage of many troops. We have made one stop in Brisbane, Australia and are now three days out of San Francisco. I will be glad when I get my feet back in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the most wonderful place in this big world. We have been assured that we will receive thirty days leave. The future and present seems wonderful until we think of the buddies that were killed. Some of my friends are in the sick bay and visiting them and seeing other buddies with big holes in them, with and arm or a leg missing, that too, is enough to make one feel sad, but we all have so much to be grateful for, the wounded, the sick and those that are well.






USS Gambier Bay CVE 73 - VC10.com