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Veteran's Day 2008 - One WWII Veteran Remembers

Sunday, Nov. 11, 2008


At the VFW Post 3208 Veteran's Day Service on Sunday, Sierra Madre resident Gordon Caldwell recalled his days on the USS Saratoga, in particular Feb. 21, 1945, when the Saratoga withstood what the Navy described as "one of the most concentrated attacks in which a carrier has survived, which might have sunk any other ship." 

A little background - The Saratoga left Ulethia for Tinian where she engaged in landing rehearsals with Marines on February 12.  Tinian is located in the North Mariana Islands, 80 miles north of Guam. It was secured after 9 days in July of 1944.  After securing the island, 15,000 Seabees and aviation engineers built the largest and busiest airfield of war on Tinian. Tinian is the same size and shape as Manhattan Island.  The Tinian North runway was 20 miles long and 425 to 500 feet wide. Some  interesting side notes, napalm was used for the first time on Tinian, the Enola Gay left from Tinian airfield to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Saratoga' carried out diversionary strikes on Tokyo on the nights of February 16 and 17, before the historic landings on Iwo Jima. The Saratoga was assigned to provide fighter cover while the remaining carriers launched the strikes on Japan.  In the process, her fighters raided two Japanese airfields.

On February 21, 1945, the Saratoga was detached with an escort of three destroyers to join the amphibious forces and carry out night patrols over Iwo Jima and night heckler missions over nearby Chi-chi Jima. (Chi-chi Jima was an island 150 miles north of Iwo Jima and 640 miles south of Tokyo, defended by 25,000 Japanese troups which served as the reinforcements for Iwo Jima.  As the Saratoga approached Iwo Jima at 5 pm on February 21st an air attack developed. Taking advantage of low cloud cover and Saratoga's insufficient escort, six Japanese planes scored five hits on the carrier in three minutes.  She received more varied types of damage all at once than any ship since Pearl Harbor. About 1-1/2 hours after the first attack, with darkness setting in, more enemy planes appeared and dropped another bomb on the carrier before crashing. Damage from the second attack, although severe, was soon brought under control, damaged aircraft and debris was jettisoned overboard and the ship was able to receive its airborne pilots who were circling the ship while their fuel supplies ran low. A gaping hole had been blown in the flight deck. The bomb had penetrated the foredecks. Saratoga's forward flight deck was wrecked.  Her starboard side was holed twice, and large fires were started in her hanger deck.  All in all, the Saratoga sustained seven direct bomb hits and 5 Kamikaze hits. 

Enough background, here's Gordon's personal story, in his own words..."I was in the shower on the port side of the ship when the general quarters alarm sounded at 5p.m. on February 21, 1945. I had to cross the hanger deck to the starboard side to my locker and grab my clothes, by this time the ship was completely locked down for battle. I was trapped in the locker area which was above the boiler room. There was an air intake for the boiler in this area, approximately the size of a door. I went up the ladder and could see out through the air intake and watched the Kamikaze planes weave through our anti-aircraft fire. I saw a direct hit on an enemy plane, which then hit the water and continued on at the same speed to penetrate the starboard side of the Saratoga below the water line. All this occurred 30-40 feet from where I stood.

I could feel the ship listing to starboard and I knew we were taking on water. I realized we could go down. I got my life jacket. I thought, if we rolled to the starboard before we sank -- I had to escape. If she rolled to port I could crawl out the air intake before she went down. By the time I got the life jacket on I felt the ship give a tremendous lurch again. Even though I did not see it, I knew they had scored another hit on the starboard side. I was still trapped, with the hanger deck and all the fueled planes above me ablaze. That was my only way out. The smell of burning fuel, planes and burning bodies was overpowering and inescapable. It was not until after the second attack 1-1/2 hours later that the fires on the hanger deck were under control, that I could open the hatch cover and escape to what was left of the hanger deck.

My assignment had been damage control. I tried to get to my battle station but the damage in that area was so bad I couldn't get there. The hatches were bent and warped from the fires and explosions they had to be cut with torches. I worked at general clean up during the twelve hours we waited before the welder was able to get to the job. It took another hour before we broke through to my general quarter's station. When we opened the hatch, we could see all eleven of my buddies sitting on the floor against the bulkhead, all dead from the pressure of the explosions. None had fallen over; they were sitting on the floor against the wall. That's where I would have been. That is the last I saw of my buddies until they joined the others to be buried at sea.

The welder had to cut into a set of airlocks doors to reach those that were on duty in boiler room No. 9. All of the Saratoga's sixteen boilers produced superheated steam to run the engines. Each boiler required a 3 man crew. When we reached boiler No. 9, the three sailors were all dead. I continued to clean up. The kamikaze who inflected this damage on boiler room No. 9 was decapitated and partially burned but still wearing the belt and padlock that had anchored him to his pilot's seat. His severed arm still held his luger clutched in his stiff hand. This I removed. We continued to clean up as we headed to Eniwetok, still able to run at 24 knots.

We buried at sea our 123 sailors who died in the attack of February 21st, in a solemn ceremony en route to Eniwetok. From Eniwetok we headed to Bremerton with one Japanese plane still lodged in the starboard side of the Saratoga, below the water line. After the Japanese surrender I continued to serve aboard the Saratoga in project Magic Carpet in which the Sara brought 29,204 Pacific war Veterans home to the United States.  Photos: Top: Gordon Caldwell addresses the audience at the Veteran's Day service held in Memorial Park.  Middle Top: Map tracing the path of the USS Saratoga (this map and the next image were kept at full size for better readability).   Middle Bottom: Same map, not as readable, but with supporting information along the side.  Bottom:  Photo of brick at the Veteran's Photo Wall that Gordon bought in memory of his buddies on the Saratoga

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