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The personal experience and account of
Donald Topczewski - M division


The day began like most other days when we were in battle. We expected fight quarters in the early A.M. and it was quite similar to the way things were at Saipan and Guam and in the Palaus. I had the 4 to 8 watch and was relieved for breakfast by the man who had the 8 to 12. I don't remember which day of the week it was but it had to have been either a Wednesday or a Saturday because we had beans for breakfast. We always had beans three times a day on every Wednesday and Saturday. While at breakfast, General Quarters was sounded and at first I thought it was to be an air attack. But the word cam over the speaker that a group of Japanese ships had been sighted and we were about to be attached by a surface fleet. I had just barely started eating so I picked up my tray of chow and headed for my battle station.

My battle station was throttle man on the starboard engine. My duties were to man the throttle, answer the engine room telegraph, log all orders into the log book and communicate with the bridge by means of the talker set. The talker set is a small breastplate which held a mouthpiece and was attached by a short strap around the neck. It also included a pair of earphones. Talking can be done by depressing a button at the top of the mouthpiece and speaking into it.

All seemed well enough and we heard the gunfire except, unlike the air attacks, we did not hear the 20MM or the 40MM guns, nor could we smell the smoke from these guns. There was a lot of excited talking that could be heard on the talker earphones. When the first hit on the ship was made, I felt the impact but had little time to react because there was activity on the engine room telegraph and I was busy with the throttle and the log book entries. Then the word came from the bridge to make smoke and I could see the men in the boiler room changing the burners from regular to smoke burners. The boiler room and the engine room were side by side with no bulkhead in between. There was no panic but I felt the urgency of the situation.

Then the engine room was hit just below the waterline. The engine stood between me and the explosion, and so I was protected but the man who had the condensate watch must have been killed or badly injured because he was right there where the shell exploded. Mr. Hartin was the officer in charge of the engine room and boiler room. As soon as the shock of the explosion subsided, Lt. Hartin went to the side of the engine room that had been hit to assess the damage. When he came back to the throttle platform he grabbed the talker set from me and told the bridge his assessment of the damage. Without panic but with a great deal of urgency, he told the bridge that the starboard engine room had taken a shell below the water line and that the water was entering the engine room faster than it could be pumped out. Then he asked the bridge for permission to abandon the engine room. Within a few seconds permission was granted and all personnel were instructed to go topside and fall in with a repair party and do whatever we can to save the ship. He said for me to stop the engine and he told the water tenders to secure the boilers. I remember hearing the relief valve pop when the engine was stopped. I entered the time in the log book as Mr. Hartin was taking it from my grasp. By this time the only ones left in the engine room were Mr. Hartin and me. The water was up to the deckplates and rising fast. We headed for the ladder and I was up a few stairs when I was reminded how hot the handrails were and I was about to go back for my gloves. Mr. Hartin, who had the log book under his arm, put his shoulder to my butt and shoved me right up the ladder. He was the last man out.

There was a fire on the hanger deck and I wanted to help out with the firefighters but by that time there was no water pressure. We were told that the ship was in real danger and to take cover and wait for further orders. There was an upright piano lashed to the bulkhead of the hanger deck and I sat down on the deck under the keyboard with my knees pulled up and my head between my knees. I think that the TBMs were loaded with bombs for the support of the Army on the beach on Leyte but then they tried to unload the bombs and replace them with torpedoes. Anyway, one of the planes never made it to the flight deck because the elevator took a hit and was not operable. So there the plane sat loaded with a torpedo. I understand that the torpex (explosive) had been disarmed but, when the plane was hit with another Jap shell, the air flask blew up. The noise was deafening and for a few minutes afterward I couldn't hear a thing. It was shortly after that that the word was passed to abandon ship.

I remembered from boot camp that we were told not to panic if we have to abandon ship because it takes a relatively long time for a ship to go under if it is sinking. So when there was a rush of men for the sponson, I waited until it was almost clear. A cargo net had been lowered from the sponson but it was still a good distance from the bottom of the net to the water. I climbed down the net and saw Ensign Mallgrave who was waiting for the men in the water to swim away and, when it was clear, I said, "Go ahead, all clear Mr. Malgrave". But Mr. Mallgrave said, "You go first, Topczewski. I'll wait until you clear". I didn't argue and let go the net. When I hit the water, I swam as fast as I could. When I did look up, Mr. Mallgrave was gone too and I didn't see him again until we saw each other on the Lurline. I swam to the nearest raft I could see.


After abandoning ship, I swam to the nearest life raft I could see. There were a large number of men on this raft. Some wounded men were inside and the rest were sitting on the sides of the raft. In fact there were so many that there was no room for me to sit so I held on to one of the short ropes that were attached to the sides of the raft. Mr. Mallgrave, who abandoned ship at the same time that I did, was not on this raft. In fact, I did not recognize anybody at all. I did not have a life belt because my belt was worn through in a number of places and I discarded it before jumping overboard. One of the fellows who was sitting on the side of the raft traded places with me and we took turns, every so often, one sitting on the side of the raft and the other in the water holding on.

We could see a Japanese ship in the distance (I think it was the cruiser) but it was far away. By the afternoon of that first day it was out of sight. I remember that on that first day we, as a group, offered a prayer (The Lord's Prayer) to God to thank Him for our lives. We had no water because someone said that the bungs had become loose and sea water had crept into the casks. However, I don't remember being hungry or thirsty until some time during the second day.

The sun was very hot. Some of us cut off the lower part of the leg of our dungarees and after cutting eye holes, put the thing over our heads to protect our faces from sunburn. But this was not a very good idea because when the thing got dry it was quite abrasive from the dried sea water. So we gave up the idea and endured the sun.

The time did pass slowly after the excitement of the battle, especially during the night. By that time, I had a life belt. They told me it was from a man who had died and had no further use for it. During the night, I fell asleep in the water supported by the life belt. I must have let go of the rope and I drifted away from the raft because, the next thing I knew, I awakened with nothing in sight but sea and sky. After all these years, I can't honestly remember how I felt but I called out and someone from the raft answered. I swam toward the sound and found the raft. It was not very far. I stayed awake the rest of that night.

There was not much conversation during the second day. It seemed that everyone was occupied with their own thoughts. I don't recall being afraid that we would not be rescued because, sometime during the second day, I seem to recall that a plane flew by rather low and wagged his wings as if to say, "we know where you are." However, when it started to get dark, I along with some of the others, began to have doubts.

I don't know how much later it was but later that second night a searchlight was seen scanning the water. We didn't know if it was friend or foe but we all abandoned the raft and swam toward the light. It was the PC623. When I got to the ship, I could see that they had lowered a cargo net and men were climbing aboard. When I pulled myself out of the water, I realized how weak and tired I was. I could hardly climb up the net. Then someone from up above grabbed hold of my arms and pulled me up to the deck. From that point on, my memory fails me. I remember that the first thing I was asked was if I was hurt and when I said "no" they left me to attend the others. Someone brought me some water and I was told to sip it very slowly. The next thing I really remember is waking up and being very hungry.

Just to bring this to a conclusion, I was transferred to an LST, which took me to Hollandia and there I went aboard the Lurline. We were sent to Brisbane for supplies and from there back to the United States, nonstop.





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