Local veterans recall service aboard ships built at Kaiser in Vancouver

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter



Coming Monday

Stories from some of the people who built the carriers at Kaiser Shipyard in Vancouver, including Harry Hendricks, pictured above on his shipyard ID badge.

photoClick to enlarge

Vancouver ship played role in German sub's capture

The escort carrier USS Guadalcanal, launched in Vancouver on June 15, 1943, led a naval group that sank three German U-boats in the Atlantic in 1944.

Later, the group disabled the U-505. Rather than sink it, the Guadalcanal's skipper sent a boarding party to capture it. Before abandoning ship, the Germans had opened valves to flood the U-505 and also set explosive charges to scuttle it. But the boarding party was able to save the U-boat. "That really took guts, but they wanted the code machine and the submarine's designs," retired Navy officer Bill Wheeler said.

It was the first time the U.S. Navy captured an enemy ship on the high seas since the War of 1812. The U-505 is on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

—Tom Vogt

Did you know?

• The Vancouver-built escort carriers were named after battles and bodies of water.

• Escort carriers had CVE designations; Vancouver carriers were numbered CVE-55 through CVE-104. (Some joked that "CVE" stood for combustible, vulnerable and expendable.)

Seventy years ago, workers at Vancouver's Kaiser Shipyard watched the USS Gambier Bay take form.

Hal Berven had a different view of the aircraft carrier while treading water in the Pacific on Oct. 25, 1944. He watched it disappear.

After being ordered to abandon ship, the wounded sailor swam away from the damaged aircraft carrier, and then he looked back at his sinking ship.

"I saw it turn over," Berven said during an interview just west of his ship's launch site. "Steam came up, and the ship was gone.

"I sensed a rumbling." And then, the Vancouver veteran said, "I felt alone."

But the Gambier Bay and its crew had done their jobs in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. They were part of a task force that turned back a much larger Japanese force opposing the Allied invasion of the Philippines.

The Gambier Bay was one of 14 Vancouver-built escort carriers that fought in what's been called the biggest naval battle of World War II.

The USS St. Lo also was sunk in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, which included four different naval actions over the span of four days.

The Gambier Bay and St. Lo were among 50 carriers built during Vancouver's WWII shipyard boom.

"They were in the thick of the battle," said Bill Wheeler, professor emeritus of engineering at Clark College and retired Navy officer.

Five Vancouver-built carriers were lost due to torpedoes, kamikaze aircraft or enemy gunfire. Eleven were heavily damaged, Wheeler said, including 10 that were hit by kamikazes.

The "baby flattops" helped fill a huge gap in the U.S. arsenal. After losing four aircraft carriers early in the war, "We had three carriers left," Wheeler said.

With no air cover for convoys crossing the Atlantic, German U-boats sank ships faster than we built them, said Wheeler, who discussed the Kaiser carriers at the Clark County Historical Museum in April.

Production was hitting its stride 70 years ago along the Columbia River. In 1943, Kaiser workers launched 25 escort carriers and started work on 12 others.

Anniversary of launch

Saturday marked the 70th anniversary of the launching of the USS St. Lo, pictured on one of the murals just south of City Hall.

They were called Casablanca-class ships, after the first escort carrier built here. It was launched on April 5, 1943; first lady Eleanor Roosevelt did the honors in front of a crowd estimated at 75,000.

The baby flattops were about 500 feet long, with about 800 officers and enlisted men, and about 30 aircraft. The Yorktown-class carriers were twice as big, with three times the personnel and aircraft.

In addition to escort duty, the baby flattopstook part in anti-submarine warfare and sailed on training voyages for rookie carrier personnel.

In the Pacific, they were sea-going air bases during some historic chapters of amphibious warfare. One of the participants was La Center veteran Bob Thomas, an aviation ordnanceman on the USS Makin Island.

During island landings in the Pacific theater, the Makin Island "was subjected to almost continuous air and sea attack," Thomas said. "Our planes gave cover to American beach assaults in the Lingayen Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa."

At Iwo Jima, the flight deck of one of the big aircraft carriers — the Saratoga — was so badly damaged by kamikaze attacks and enemy shells that its pilots were unable to land.

Pull pilot, push plane

"They had no place to land except on my ship," Thomas said. "Since we only had space for our planes, we could not give space to the Saratoga planes. But we could land them, pull the pilots out, then shove the planes over the side. We did it as fast as we could move, all during intense combat."

It was a miracle that his ship came through almost unscathed, Thomas said.

"Just 14 of our crew were killed in battle," he said.

One of them was a buddy; he was killed while arming a plane for an attack, when a rocket he was holding went off.

Planes from the USS Gambier Bay also supported amphibious operations in the Pacific, including landings at Saipan and Peleliu.

Berven was an aviation machinist's mate on the Gambier Bay. He described his job as a plane captain, the crewman who made sure an FM2 Wildcat fighter was ready for its mission.

On Oct. 25, 1944, the Gambier Bay was assigned to Task Force 3 off Samar Island, in one of the four engagements that were part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. "Taffy 3," as it was nicknamed, included six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts.

Huge mismatch

It was an epic mismatch. The Japanese had four battleships, eight cruisers and 11 destroyers.

"They had the biggest battleship ever built, the Yamato. It weighed more than all of us put together," Berven said. "It was rather hopeless."

The Yamato had nine 18.1-inch main guns; each escort carrier had a 5-inch gun.

"They all could travel at 32 knots and our carriers' top speed was 18 knots. They closed in quickly."

The Gambier Bay's commander was able to avoid the shells for a while, Berven said: "Our skipper would change course and the shells would hit where we had been.

"They got close enough to fire point-blank. Armor-piercing shells were going right through us. Then they sent shells that exploded on contact.

"We got all our planes off but one, a torpedo bomber on the hangar deck that was loaded with gas and a torpedo. A shell hit that plane. It blew me into the air."

Two days in the water

He regained consciousness, and then Berven said he crawled out in time to hear the captain order the crew to abandon ship.

Berven spent two days in the water before a rescue ship arrived. He held on to the side of a life raft because there wasn't enough room in the raft. Most of the life rafts went down with the ship.

"We had no water for two days. Several men died from drinking salt water," Berven said. A couple of sailors were killed by sharks.

But Taffy 3 turned back the Japanese. Shells and torpedoes fired by the American destroyers and destroyer escorts knocked the Japanese off stride. Aircraft from Taffy 3's escort carriers were reinforced by planes from Taffy 1 and Taffy 2, damaging or sinking several Japanese cruisers.

The Japanese thought they were facing a much more formidable U.S. force and didn't press their attack.

"They could have sunk every one of our ships," Berven said. "They left. I think they were afraid of us."

In misjudging Taffy 3, the enemy commander also misjudged the baby flattops his forces had sunk, the Gambier Bay and St. Lo. The Japanese mistakenly thought they'd destroyed two of the Navy's big aircraft carriers, Wheeler said.

'Gallantry, guts'

Naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote: "In no engagement of its entire history has the United States Navy shown more gallantry, guts and gumption than in those two morning hours between 0730 and 0930 off Samar."

The St. Lo, the other Vancouver-built escort carrier lost that day, was the first major warship to be sunk by kamikaze planes.

The crew of the St. Lo included a Vancouver sailor who'd helped build the ship. According to a 1981 Columbian story about the Vancouver shipyard, Fred LeBouef was hired as a shipfitter in July 1942 and worked on several Kaiser carriers. Within a year, he was in the Navy.

LeBouef, who died in 2011, told The Columbian in 1981 that he was on the flight deck of the St. Lo when Japanese kamikazes dove at the ship.

Aboard the USS Makin Island, Bob Thomas continued to share in the good fortune of the ship nicknamed "The Lucky Lady." There was a slight hitch in his homecoming, though.

When the carrier docked in Hawaii after the war, Thomas cabled his fiancée and told Lauraine to schedule their wedding for Dec. 25, 1945, in San Diego.

'Magic Carpet' bride

"The Navy had other plans," Thomas said. His ship joined "Operation Magic Carpet," which brought more than 8 million U.S. troops back home from around the globe.

The Makin Island docked in Bremerton on Dec. 29. Thomas called his bride again and told her to meet him in his hometown, Fresno, Calif. To complete his own "Magic Carpet" homecoming, Bob hitchhiked from Bremerton to Fresno. Lauraine and her parents drove to Fresno and made the wedding arrangements.

"My father woke up a judge, who got us a marriage license on New Year's Day," Lauraine Thomas said. The judge, wanting to help out a sailor back from the war, also waived the blood tests and waiting period required in those days.

"We got a minister at a Presbyterian church to marry us," Lauraine said.

"We must have done something right," she said. "We will celebrate our 68th anniversary on Jan. 1."

View videos of Hal Berven and Bob Thomas talking about their service in World War II on The Columbian's YouTube Channel.

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; http://www.twitter.com/col_history; tom.vogt@columbian.com.