The USS St. Lo was commissioned the USS Midway. However, the USN was ordered to give the name Midway to a larger ship and to rename CVE-63 the USS St. Lo. If you have ever served in the navy, you understand that when a ship is renamed it spells doom for her. To follow with tradition, fifteen days after being renamed CVE-63 was sunk. The uniqueness of her sinking is what makes her special. The St. Lo was fighting in the battle of Leyte Gulf, off Samar, when a Japanese plane, that was gravely wounded, nosed dived into the ship. The plane crashed into the ship causing explosions and fires and eventually crippling the ship. On October 25, 1944 CVE-63 the USS St. Lo was sunk. It was the first ship ever to be sunk by the newest Japanese weapon, the Kamikaze. The following is an account of one of the survivors of that ship and the war.
In 1945, Bill Marsh was an eighteen-year-old gunner on a navy plane. He had signed up for duty a year earlier. He was stationed on CVE-63, the USS St. Lo. He describes a typical day in which the squadron (VC-65) was to fly:
3:30 (am) Wake up
4:00 Morning chow
4:20 Pre-flight brief
4:45 Airborne for morning assignment
9:00 Landed; debriefed; chow
10:30 Airborne again
Afternoon After four to six hours of flight: landed, debriefed, chow
Evening Airborne Again for a few more hours
When all was said and done, he would be up in the air for anywhere from 10-13 hours. His day was over by 9:00 pm and then it was time to sleep, for 3:30 comes early in the morning. The longest streak of consecutive days flying was 13.
The morning of October 25, 1944 was not the same for Marsh. VC-10 had 14 aircrews, yet only 13 aircraft. On this morning, though, one ship was being fixed, and was not launched with the morning launches. So Marsh and his crew, piloted by Donald Marsh (no relation), were still aboard the St. Lo. Along with one more crew. Part way through the action of the day, the last plane was finished being repaired and was ready for flight. However, there were two crews, both of equal rank, wanting to take the plane. So, the two crews flipped a coin to see who would take the last plane. Marsh lost. Marsh and his crew would stay aboard the St. Lo that tragic day.
Marsh woke up that morning to the squawk box yelling, “set radar condition one.” Not knowing what that was woke up his bunkmate and asked him. His bunkmate, without answering him jumped out of bed and quickly dressed and ran out of the room. So Marsh did the same. When he arrived at the aircrew’s ready room, so of the other guys took him outside into the gun tub (where the AA guns are) and said look at the distance what do u see? Marsh replied I see a battleship. Look again they said. Marsh realized it was a Japanese battleship and it was only a few miles away. The battleship he saw that day was the IJN battleship Yamato, equipped with 18’’ guns. The St. Lo, a small escort carrier (“baby flattop”) was going top speed, 18 knots, but still much to slow. Marsh went below decks to get his life jacket. He was about to reach the flight deck when and explosion happened and the whole ship started to vibrate. He thought the ship had been hit by a torpedo, however when he made it to the top deck he realized a Japanese plane had crashed into the ship (the Japanese company which built the engine was Mitsubishi) and exploded her bombs. The explosion started fires, which reached the fuel lines, which exploded, which spread the fire to the ships armament, which exploded. The fires were too much to put out, especially with the ships power out. Marsh knew he was going to have to jump ship. Marsh took off his shoes and socks and jumped into the water. Marsh had a Mae West on, however, he and another shipmate (Bill Cleveland) took them off and put it on a man who was badly burned. Marsh had jumped off about 20 minutes after the kamikaze hit. The ship went down about 35 minutes after the kamikaze hit. It was about 11:00 am. While he was in the water, with no life jacket, the ship began to sink. The depth charges on the ship would be going off when they got to 50 feet. He swan as far away as possible and then prepared his body for a shock. When the charges went off a huge wave of water rose 150 feet into the air. Marsh looked and saw that a man was on top of the wave. (In a later reunion, Marsh would meet the man who was thrown up on the wave. He was not hurt at all, the water padded him the whole way down.) Marsh “never saw a fish” that day and he said the water was not that cold. The reports vary, but Marsh believes he was in the water about three hours. The USS Raymond was the ship that picked up Marsh. When the rescue boat, off of the Raymond, spotted Marsh they noticed he was in decent shape, as far as the survivors went. Therefore, they asked him to swim to a few guys around and help pull them to the boat. He did this and he helped five guys onto the rescue boat. As they was loading his fifth rescue, Marsh’s body gave out (remember, he has been swimming and treading water for anywhere from two and a half to four hours). He began to sink. The men aboard the rescue boat had to grab him and put him in the boat. Marsh was taken aboard the Raymond, and the next day they had a funeral, burial at sea, for six men who they had pulled out of the water but had died later. Marsh recalls the entire ship was crying; even the captain of the ship while the eulogy was being given.
Around 800 people were rescued that day, Marsh included. Sadly, 126 lost their lives. Marsh was taken to Pearl Harbor, then to San Diego. While he was in San Diego, him and eight others were taken into the vice admirals office and awarded their purple hearts. They were given some new dungarees, since all there personal items were lost at sea. Then they were given liberty, with a personal note to each of them signed by the vice admiral, saying something to this affect:
Be advised that Bill Marsh (or other name) is a survivor of a naval
disaster at sea. Extend to him all courtesies and considerations
Marsh and the other men went out that night. He remembers people buying him drinks and treating him as if he were a king. Marsh carried around that note from the vice admiral in his pocket for years. It eventually faded and shredded away.
In 1985 the first reunion of the survivors of the USS St. Lo took place. Every October since then, remaining survivors gather, in different cities, to honor those lost.
The majority of the information above was received through a personal one on one interview I had with Bill Marsh on April 21, 2001.