CHANDLER -- The USS Gambier Bay went down in history as the only American aircraft carrier to be sunk by gunfire during World War II. She remains at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean today, a victim of an Imperial Japanese Navy attack on Oct. 25, 1944.
More than 120 of the Gambier Bay's sailors were killed in action, with another 208 wounded in battle. Still, an estimated 800 men survived -- among them, Carl "Whitey" Amundson of Chandler.
They floated for 44 hours at sea, the injured taking refuge in life rafts to avoid attracting sharks with a nose for iron-rich blood. Most of the men had donned life jackets before jumping overboard, and many sought out floater nets -- large pieces of netting with floats interspersed through them.
Amundson was among 37 men who either sat on or held onto one of the floating nets. He also wore a life jacket.
They did all they could to remain awake, to stay safe from the sharks circling in the distance and to keep each other from going crazy until a patrol ship came to their rescue in the dark of night on Oct. 27, 1944.
Their harrowing ordeal had finally ended.
Amundson's story begins in southwest Minnesota. Born a few miles south of Hadley, he grew up in Woodstock and attended one year of high school in Pipestone before dropping out to go to work on the farm. In September 1942, at the age of 17, he went to Mankato and enlisted in the Navy.
With the U.S. Navy in short supply of manpower, Amundson spent just 21 days at boot camp in Green Bay, Wis. Then, after nine days off to say his goodbyes to family and friends back at home, he boarded a train bound for Alameda Air Station in San Francisco, Calif. By Nov. 1, 1942, he had arrived at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
During his days at Pearl Harbor, Amundson worked on salvage duty, removing ammunition and anything else they could save from the ships that were heavily damaged or sunk during the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Later, he would board an amphibious patrol destroyer (APD), built in 1918 and converted into a landing craft for World War II, that delivered Jimmy Roosevelt's Raiders to the Solomon Islands on reconnaissance missions.
"We'd come back in eight or 10 days and try to pick 'em up and hope they were still alive," said Amundson. "They weren't to contact anybody if they could help it."
While on one of their missions, the APD came across the USS Helena and the USS St. Louis. The Helena had been struck by a torpedo and sunk, but the St. Louis, while badly damaged, was escorted back to San Francisco for repairs. Amundson's older brother Eddie was aboard the St. Louis at the time and, in fact, stayed with the ship during his entire military service, from 1941 through 1945.
Battle off Samar
When Amundson landed in San Francisco, he was given seven days leave before being sent to Astoria, Ore., to help put the USS Gambier Bay into commission. Their work was complete on Dec. 28, 1943, and the Gambier Bay and its men headed to the South Pacific.
Amundson was a boatswain's mate aboard the Gambier Bay. In addition to working the deck crew, he was a helmsman on the carrier -- the one who steered the ship. He also was a hot shellman, catching the powder cans from the fired rounds of the 5-inch 38 and throwing them overboard.
The Gambier Bay was built for ground support, carrying a fleet of 30 planes -- half of them fighters, the other half bombers.
"The planes would strafe or bomb -- they weren't made for combat," said Amundson.
All of them were sent into the sky on the morning of Oct. 25, 1944, as the ship floated in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Samar. In what became known as the greatest naval battle ever fought, the U.S. fleet faced off against the Japanese over control of Leyte Gulf.
The Taffy 3 task force, made up of a few escort carriers and some destroyers, paled in comparison to the Japanese fleet that had snuck into the region undetected.
"We run into the biggest Japanese fleet ever assembled -- the biggest battleship ever built -- with 18-inch guns," recalled Amundson. "They could shoot 30 miles, we could only shoot nine."
Five U.S. ships were sunk in the battle -- aircraft carriers the USS St. Lo and the USS Gambier Bay, and destroyers the USS Johnston, USS Samuel B. Roberts and the USS Hoel.
The Gambier Bay was awarded four battle stars during World War II. Also known as a CVE-73, it would eventually be referred to by its men as Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable.
Despite the damage the Japanese did to the American fleet, they sustained numerous casualties as well. That may have fueled Japanese Admiral Takeo Kurita's decision to turn his ships back toward home.
"He had already lost two battleships, a cruiser, and I don't know how many destroyers," said Amundson.
Also factoring into Admiral Kurita's decision was perhaps the perception the American fleet was larger than it really was.
"We had seven of these little carriers and a bunch of destroyers -- that's all we had," Amundson said.
The USS Gambier Bay came under fire shortly before 7 a.m., but it wasn't until the Japanese fired its 8-inch guns repeatedly on the Gambier Bay that the crew realized the ship wasn't going to survive.
When the crew was ordered to abandon ship, Amundson jumped off the fantail where he had been stationed.
"We just crawled over the life line and jumped," he said.
At 9:07 a.m., the Gambier Bay capsized and sank, leaving her men floating in life jackets, floater nets and a smattering of life rafts.
"We figured we'd get picked up real quick, but the battle was going on at Leyte, and McArthur didn't send anyone out to look for us until two days later," Amundson said.
By then, some men "went crazy" drinking salt water, and others claimed they could swim to an imaginary shoreline. Most likely, the swimmers became food for the sharks that were seen circling in the distance.
Amundson shared a floater net with 37 other men, including a black man who was their mess cook. The cook had a knife with him and every time he saw a shark getting close to the net, he would stab the knife in the water and, at the same time, "I swear up and down he turned white."
Finally, on Oct. 27, a patrol craft came to their rescue, picking up about 80 to 100 of the men, including Amundson.
"We actually thought it was a Japanese destroyer that was picking us up," he shared. "If we'd been out there much longer, we would have been on a Japanese-infested island. The current was taking us toward one."
Once they were safely on board, the first thing on their minds was getting food.
"I remember we ate everything they had on that ship," he said.
They also ran out of coffee before arriving on Leyte.
The sailors aboard the sunken ships of the Taffy 3 were taken to New Guinea and eventually on to Brisbane, Australia, where they got a ride on a former luxury ship, the Loraline. The men arrived back in San Francisco on Dec. 1, 1944, and were granted a 30-day survivor leave.
After the war
After Amundson's survivor leave to southwest Minnesota, he returned to San Francisco for his transfer to Portland, Ore. There, he was assigned to the USS Fair, though he never left port on the ship.
Instead, he was sent back to California, this time to Port Hueneme, where he was assigned to the USS Gunston Hall, an LSD-5 landing ship.
"We ran up and down the coast with that, hauling landing craft from Long Beach to Port Hueneme," said Amundson.
Nearing the end of his tour of duty, he was pulled from the ship and returned to Minnesota and honorably discharged from Wold Chamberlain Air Base on June 17, 1946, his 21st birthday.
Amundson returned to his family home at Woodstock, but days later the family loaded up a school bus and headed back to California.
Though some of his family returned to Minnesota, Amundson found work in defense plants after the war, and by 1946, had married Bernice Bladen, a native New Yorker. She had been a Rosie the Riveter, riveting wing tips on P-38's during World War II.
The couple settled in the San Fernando Valley and remained there until Bernice's death in 2002. In 2004, Amundson returned to southwest Minnesota and purchased a home in Chandler. He has a daughter living in Iona, and a son in Anchorage, Alaska, along with eight grandchildren and about a dozen great-great-grandchildren.
Amundson is among 110 World War II veterans from southwest Minnesota who will take part in the inaugural Southwest Minnesota Honor Flight on April 30-May 1.