5 August, 1922 - 10 February, 2017
Born in in 1922, Norman Loats joined the US Navy in July 1942 and was assigned as storekeeper to the aircraft carrier USS Gambier Bay in 1944. The Gambier Bay sailed to join Carrier Support Group 2, which was staging in the Marshalls to support the invasion of the Marianas.
The Gambier Bay supported the landings at Saipan in June, and then Guam in August and at Southern Palaus in September before joining the Escort Carrier Task Unit off Leyte in the Phillipines on the 19th of September.
After increasingly fierce fighting with Japanese air and navy in October, the Gambier Bay took part in the Battle of Leyte, a series of engagements with the main concentration of enemy forces between 23-26 October. The battle of Leyte was probably the largest naval battle in history, with over 200,000 naval personnel involved, and was also the first battle in which the Japanese air force carried out organised Kamikaze attacks.
After severely damaging the Japanese Centre Force on the 24th of October, Admiral Halsey believed he had removed them as a serious threat and split his fleet, leaving only six escort carriers, three destroyers and four escorts guarding Samar. It was here they were found by the remnant of the Centre Force – 23 ships including four main battleships and six heavy cruisers on October 25th. Admiral Kurita of the Centre Force sent to headquarters: “By heaven-sent opportunity, like a gift from the Gods, we are dashing to attack the enemy carriers. Our first objective is to destroy the flight decks and then the task force.”
At the same time, US Naval patrols radioed: “Enemy surface force – four battleships, 8 cruisers and 11 destroyers…closing in at 30 knots. The largest red meatball flag flying over the largest battleship I have ever seen.”
Japanese gunners found the range of the Gambier Bay a little after 0800 and shells quickly set fire to the flight deck before destroying the forward engine room. By 0850 the order to abandon ship was given, and the Gambier Bay had completely sunk by 0900.
Dr. Loats later wrote: “The spot where the Gambier Bay was sunk, the ocean is about seven miles deep. The water is warm, but after dark it is cold enough to give you hypothermia. The badly wounded were placed on rafts and/ or floater nets along with some officers. The rest floated in their Mae West Kapoks and CO2 life belts…
The sinking of the USS Gambier Bay
We had no food or water…by mid-afternoon the sharks had made their appearance. Thank God they never attacked the group at large. As night began to fall we started to shiver and some began to pray…
“As night deepened, optimism of a quick rescue was turning into discouragement. But there was still hope and to keep our spirits up we sang some songs – Depp in the Heart of Texas, I’ve been working on the railroad, etc. But much suffering had been endured and the singing didn’t last very long…the random strikes by the sharks terrified us through the night, Exhaustion was taking its toll. Men would fall asleep, drift off, never to be seen again. The night seemed to last forever.”
During the second day, hope faded further. Desperate men drank sea water and became delirious, often swimming away never to be seen again. Sharks ate stragglers, and despite rescue planes being seen, the planes did not see the survivors.
“By the second night it was every man for himself. The conversation and prayers died away. Many men didn’t look like men any more. They were raw with sunburn, their lips grotesquely swollen and blistered, and their eyes bloodshot, dead and haunted.
Many had given up hope of rescue. Those in my group, the floaters, tied ourselves together with our shirttails so we didn’t drift away because if you did you were gone and became shark bait.
And then October 27, early morning, a miracle occurred…”
The survivors had been found. Of her crew of 860, 800 had survived. The Gambier Bay marked the first and only time a US Carrier had been sunk by enemy surface fire.
Dr Norman LOATS US Navy for the Battle of LEYTE GULF.
Norman Loats was born in 1922 and, as one of the survivors, represents one key aspect and the partly providential delaying loss for the invasion forces in that Battle of Leyte Gulf, 23rd to 26th October 1945, his service on board and the sinking by the Japanese Navy of USS Gambier Bay carrier CVE-73. The GAMBIER BAY was a ‘jeep carrier’ or ‘baby flattop’, a CVE with a single composite VC-10 Squadron of CORSAIRr F-4U, WILDCAT FM-2 and HELLCAT F-6F fighter aircraft and TBM AVENGER torpedo bombers, the heaviest WW2 single engined aircraft, commanded by Lt Cdr Edward J Huxtable.
Fuller details of this event and Dr Loats’ role in arranging it can be found here.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was triggered by the 20th October strategic landings on Leyte in the Philippines, itself the key to neutralising Japanese naval power. Leyte Gulf, at times referred to as ‘the world’s greatest sea battle’, was really four major Battle actions fought over both a massive area and in both its numbers of ships and men. These battles were firstly Sibuyan Sea between the Japanese main force and Task Force 38, Surigao Strait, the biggest surface action since Jutland in 1916, history’s last battle-line action at sea between battleships, Cape Engano, the final sea action of Japanese aircraft carriers and their destruction by the US Third Fleet, and the BATTLE off SAMAR, the engagement of the small escort carrier unit and its protecting destroyers against the Japanese main force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers.
Norman, after a year in the US Navy V-7 program training over a year from July, 1943, enlisted in the regular navy in July, 1943. After his training in the Supply School in Ohio, he reported to the USS Gambier Bay in San Diego in Spring, 1944 and saw its first major engagements in mid June in the First BATTLE of the PHILIPPINE SEA and the Marianas at SAIPAN, TINIAN and GUAM where their VC-10 Squadron, as later on against PELELIU, carried out air support, reconnaissance and attack missions. The ship’s guns destroyed four Jap aircraft and supported those landings before their final Battles of Samar and Leyte Gulf. After the San Bernardino Strait was left unguarded, the striking force of Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita (1889-1977) came through during the night of 24/25th October, with Admiral Halsey taking his whole force northwards, mistakenly believing Kurita no longer represented a threat. Between Kurita’s battle fleet and the transports in Leyte Gulf there were now only some widely separated escort carriers and destroyers, partly helped from decimation by a convenient rain squall. Kurita in turn falsely overestimated the escort carriers in USN Rear Admiral Sprague’s “Taffy 3” as being bigger and thought they were Halsey’s main fleet carriers and so did not press home to gun range against the vulnerable transports, withdrawing after two and a half hours of action. At this unexpected development, with Kurita turning away when only 45 miles from the US invasion force, Sprague, dumbfounded then, would later say this was due ‘to the divine partiality of God’,. Gambier Bay’s very presence thus, despite its loss as those of US destroyers too, played an important part in shielding the landing force, after avoiding the kamikaze attacks, one of which would sink the escort carrier USS St Lo CVE-63, one of the five others in Sprague’s group.
119 crewmen in the Gambier Bay and 19 members of its composite squadron would be lost in or after the action. In Norman’s own words “We took our first hit about ten minutes after 8 and it hit the forward engine room, which put us dead in the water so to speak, as we could only do 8-10 knots – top speed was only 17 knots at best – and they could do twice that – so they were really closing up on us. We were lagging behind – we were sitting ducks – there was nothing we could do about that. When we fired the last salvo, they were over a mile away. We took 27 hits – that’s a lot. My General Quarters assignment was as one of the 20mm gunners and, when you are facing an 18” or 16” charge, you can’t do anything about it – you are powerless . . . . We were the only aircraft carrier in the history of the US Navy to be sunk by enemy gunfire. After the sinking the water was warm – the first day we started getting ourselves organised and made sure that the severely wounded were on the rafts with the rest of us. We started getting thirsty and then we found we had no water of any kind. Of course we did have a few shark attacks – we probably lost 35-40 men through shark attacks (or drowning) – the main thing is that on the first night a lot of people started drifting away and you would not see them again – they were drinking salt water and went insane – so the second night those of us that were together floating tied ourselves with our shirt tails and then one guy tied to the raft so that none of us would float away to danger . . . . we probably lost over a hundred at the actual sinking and then, in the water, I would say around another 30-35 later. At one point we were very close to a Jap cruiser whose crew could have easily killed us all but only threw garbage at us and laughed. One of our group was in the water for 5 days and only one survivor from that group of 19, only the one, made it. The first group was picked up in the morning, around 2 to 3 and the last group at 10 o’clock that morning. We saw three sunrises. After survivors’ leave I was assigned to USS Paget Sound CVE-113 in the spring of 1945.”
Combat Action, Presidential Unit Citation with Gold Star, Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Medal with Silver Star and 3 Bronze Stars, Victory Medal, WWII Occupation Medal and Philippine Liberation Medal with Bronze Star.
As Wikipedia tells us, after trials and fitting out in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, USS Puget Sound steamed south on 6 July 1945 for its shakedown out of San Diego, where we embarked Marine Air Group 6. We departed San Diego on 8 September for brief training in the Hawaiian Islands before proceeding to support the occupation of Japan. Puget Sound entered Tokyo Bay on 14 October 1945. Her aircraft joined in the show of strength and conducted anti-mining patrols in support of the landings of the 10th Army at Matsuyama and Nagoya. Thence tactical training took her to the Philippines, Hong Kong, and the Marianas. Loading surplus aircraft in Apra Harbor, Guam, she put to sea on 6 January 1946 en route to Pearl Harbor, where she offloaded the surplus aircraft. At San Diego on 23 January, Marine Air Group 6 was detached and Puget Sound prepared to serve as a “Magic Carpet” home for Pacific war veterans. From February-May 1946, Puget Sound made two “Magic Carpet” runs between San Diego and Pearl Harbor and one between Alameda, California and Okinawa, transporting 1,200 troops and surplus aircraft. She steamed north on 24 May 1946 to prepare for inactivation, entering Puget Sound Naval Shipyard on 1 June. Decommissioning there on 18 October, the carrier entered the Pacific Reserve Fleet at Tacoma. Dr Loats left the navy in April, 1946, obtaining his doctorate at the University of Denver and was in education for 42 years. The carrier’s full story is told in Edwin P. Hoyt’s “The Men of Gambier Bay” (published Paul Eriksson Vermont 1978)