Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gordon Sams * Okinawa * Typhoon of Steel

Gordon Sams was nineteen when he volunteered for the Navy in April of 1943. He completed boot camp and gunnery training at Bainbridge, Maryland. The Navy assigned him to the USS Charger, an escort carrier stationed at Chesapeake Bay. Escort carriers were small aircraft carriers constructed on the hulls of merchant vessels. The Charger was used for training American and British pilots to land on carrier decks. That was nerve-racking duty because about two out of every ten pilots damaged their planes or went into the sea. The flight deck was less than 500 feet long.

USS Chipola in June of 1968. Thanks to NavSource for
providing the image.

His next assignment was the Pacific Fleet. The USS Chipola was an oiler carrying 8,000,000 gallons of high octane gasoline and fuel oil.  Her job was assisting 3rd Fleet commanded by Admiral Halsey, and 5th Fleet commanded by Admiral Spruance.

February, 1945 Gordon was serving as a
gunners’ mate when the Battle of Iwo Jima commenced. Seventy-four days of preliminary bombing and three days of naval bombardment proved inadequate. The Japanese were dug in underground with eleven miles of interconnecting concrete bunkers, some two and three stories deep.  The Japs weren’t on the island. They were in it.
Sams: gunner's mate, second class, off Iwo Jima,
aboard the USS Chipola

The Navy lost almost 400 sailors at Iwo Jima with 500 wounded. No quarter was given by either side during the thirty six days of savage fighting on the black volcanic sand. Marine dead numbered 6,821 and 19,217 wounded. The Japanese suffered 21,500 deaths with 216 taken prisoner.  This is where a Navy Corpsman and five Marines raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi. 

“How we made it through Okinawa was a miracle. It was just pure hell.” Gordon told me.

USS Chipola in 1964.

April 1 – June 22, 1945 saw the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War. Gordon was square in the middle of it facing the most terrifying weapon the Japanese had, Kamikaze. Just as frightening, he was sitting on millions of gallons of explosive diesel oil and aviation gasoline. 1,300 allied ships surrounded the island, including 40 aircraft carriers and 18 battleships.

“Day and night they came, smashing into one ship after another.”

Over 2,000 Kamikazes got through to the combined fleet of American, British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand warships and merchant vessels.  

“Ever body was scared. Man, I prayed. You can’t imagine how terrible it was. Ships were being hit all around us, Jap planes crashing in the water. A tanker a couple of miles from us took a hit. She blew up like an atomic bomb. I don’t think any of them survived. The ocean was on fire.”

Sams aboard the USS Chipola.
Awarded 3 battle stars for:
Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and
Japanese homefront bombardments.
The carnage lasted eighty-two days. Forty-seven US ships were sunk, mostly heavy landing craft and destroyers. 368 ships were damaged. The Army and the Marines lost nearly 8,000 men with more than 38,000 wounded. Navy casualties were just under 5,000 with as many sailors injured.  Over 100,000 Japanese soldiers were killed. It’s estimated that 140,000 Okinawans caught between the two combatants lost their lives.  

Japan lost 16 warships including the mighty battleship Yamato. Imperial Japan sacrificed 7,800 bombers and fighters against the island and surrounding sea battle, 4,600 of them kamikazes. Most were shot down before they reached Okinawa. Uncle Sam lost 763 aircraft. Both opposing generals were killed, General Buckner by enemy artillery fire and General Mitsuru by his own hand. Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent, was killed by a machinegun on the nearby island of Ie Shima.  

Sams across the mote from the Imperial
Palace, Tokyo, December 1945.
“Larry Henry has captured the essence of the experience of millions of ordinary young men accomplishing extraordinary feats during hellish war. As the characters in his books, I shared similar honors as they did, theirs fighting on the ground; mine, as a Navy gunners’ mate at nineteen in WW2, trying to kill other nineteen year olds who were trying to kill me. I served at Iwo Jima and Okinawa where 5,000 sailors died, mostly from kamikaze attacks.”

Gordon Sams watched from the Chipola as General McArthur accepted the Japanese surrender onboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Sams was discharged on his 21st birthday. My cousin and dear friend just turned 89.