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Eyewitness to action.

Aboard the U.S.S. Maryland, in the Leyte Gulf, Philippines, on November 29, 1944, we were snatched away from our comfortable surroundings to the sinister excitement of battle.

My battle station was up in the chart house. It was a small compartment, and the confinement drove me crazy, for there was nothing to do. I had to sit, read, or--best of all--walk five feet or so and watch the outside action. If only I'd had a camera to catch part of our personal history and record the crew in battle.

I was in charge of an old-fashioned direction finder that was totally useless in battle. The chart house was on the port side of the ship next to the flag "signal" bridge.

I stood outside looking aft at the 20-and 40-mm gun crews. Suddenly, far astern, a single-engine fighter plane came gliding like a falling leaf out of a cluster of low-hanging rain clouds, He must have been a seasoned pilot, for he had to make a split-second decision. He immediately recognized that because of his altitude and speed he had less than a 50/50 chance of hitting our ship. At that instant, you could hear the distant roar of full throttle as he almost stood the fighter on its tail and climbed vertically back into the clouds above.

You could hear the low drone of his engine regaining altitude and slowly overtaking our position. I kept thinking, Why don't we take evasive action? Turn, turn! He's no fool--he'll soon be on top of us!

His engine became louder and louder. This was a maddened and desperate pilot whose last few minutes in life were to achieve a fanatical desire to be a true kamikaze--to sink our ship or knock it out of action and take with him as many men as possible.

I looked around and began to feel a little ridiculous and stupid standing out in the open. What if he begins to strafe on the way down? Everyone else was wearing helmets and life jackets. Even the 20mm had a shield on it.

All eyes were glued to the sky. Suddenly, on port side, the plane reemerged from a cloud. The aircraft was on its side so the pilot could have a clearer view of what was below.

A tremendous volume of deafening antiaircraft fire pierced the air. Tracers flew in every direction. I wanted to join in the firing, but I had no weapon. I felt helpless.

It looked like he was headed right for me. The pilot house was directly above me. Instinctively, I turned and ran for cover, passing the chart house and ending up in the radar plot beside a large table.

As several shipmates looked up at me, they must have read my expression of impending doom. We all just stood there with blank expressions, waiting, staring at one another. I had seen before what happens when a plane hits a ship. If parts of debris or a bomb doesn't kill you, the fireball will.

Then, at that moment, we all felt a gigantic shudder. I slowly looked at my hands. I'm still alive!

After most of the acrid smoke had cleared away, I finally was able to make my way back to the port side of the signal bridge. The crew was still in a state of shock. I stood transfixed, stunned by the sight below. In shorter order, the damage-control parties and other heroic volunteers had the situation under control.

I was amazed at the small amount of damage topside. I kept looking for a large hole in the deck. Not until later did I learn that an armor-piercing bomb had exploded two decks below, blowing men to bits and choking them with fumes. Solid-steel deck and compartments had buckled like paper.

I was one of many nonessential battle-station personnel ordered to assist below. Upon arriving in the area of the laundry, I was shocked into the reality of war. Lined up side by side were close to a dozen bodies covered with sheets. I couldn't understand where all the bodies were coming from. I learned a bomb had penetrated the ship down to the armor deck and had exploded between turrets one and two.

The laundry room looked like a makeshift sick bay, for men were sitting and lying on benches. I was told to hold a strong-smelling cloth close to the nose of a crew member who was almost in a semiconscious state. Many of the crew were suffering from smoke inhalation.

A short time later, a chief petty officer took some of us to another compartment, where we each received a battle lantern. Although the firefighting and damage-control parties had put out the fire and secured the area, a haze was beginning to build up.

My first sight of the main blast area was almost indescribable. The air was still pungent with the smell of high explosives and sickly with the smell of unburied dead. It seemed so unreal--everything colored in black.

My lantern's light fell on several bodies. This was a battle station location for a small damage-control party and other crew members who were unable to make it to their battle stations.

So began the dreaded task of removing the deceased crew. Almost all of them had to be transported in wire-mesh stretchers, blankets, sheets, and even hammocks.

It began to "get" to me, that appallingly sweet stench of burned flesh. I was glad to leave when plenty of help arrived.

We were told to go up and get some fresh air. It was so good to be topside. I gave thanks to the antiaircraft crew, for I learned the plane would have hit the superstructure had it not been for a wing's being shot off at the last moment.

I made my way forward to where the plane had hit. In viewing the hole made by the armor-piercing bomb, I thought the pilot had to have had full throttle, for it was hard to believe a bomb could have gone through so much steel before exploding. Thank God he didn't strafe on the way down, or I doubt I would be here today.

Thirty-one enlisted men were killed on the November 29 attack on our ship. One officer and 29 enlisted men were seriously injured.

I could go on about the many battles I viewed from topside. I am very fortunate, for I was always able to be above deck to see most of the action.

At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I was still in boot camp in San Diego. In January 1942, I went aboard the U.S.S. Maryland in Bremerton, Wash., was assigned to the L Division for a while, and later was transferred to the C.R. Division.

The thrill of a lifetime was to witness the firing of a broadside in the night action in Leyte Gulf, Philippines, although I did miss a major event when a kamikaze hit turret three in Okinawa.

A week or so after this action, we left the forward area for Guam, went on to Pearl Harbor, and then to the Navy yard at Bremerton. We timed it just right, for when we arrived, the war in Europe had ended.

Along with a 30-day leave, I received orders to report to Alameda Naval Air Station, Calif. A few months later, Japan surrendered, ending the war. I was on the list for another rating; now I wish I had re-enlisted. Instead, I was caught up in the tide to get back into civilian life. High on the point system, I was one of the first groups to be discharged. I had participated in seven major battles aboard the U.S.S. Maryland--six topside and one below deck--earning seven battle stars.

War is a nasty thing that has always proved disastrous for one side or the other--many times, both. I hope we never have another major war, because with today's sophisticated weapons, we could obliterate ourselves.

This marks a rather significant event in our personal history--a record of historical outward facts that are precious, as well as a mirror of ourselves aboard the U.S.S. Maryland and an extension of a person's self.

The vigilant; the active; the brave.

Harry Gabrielson is a California PVA member. He served aboard the U.S.S. Maryland from 1942 to 1945.
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Title Annotation:We remember ...
Author:Gabrielson, Harry
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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