A Veterans Story: Surviving a Kamikaze Attack
|Al Gray holds a model of the LSMR 188 he built as he stands in front of a wall where he also painted an image of the ship at his home in Carbonville.|
While it is obvious that one event can change a persons life, particularly when severe physical injury occurs, memories of a single incident can create a memory that one thinks of every day, regardless of how the years pass by.
That's the case for Carbon resident, Al Gray, who, as a Machinists Mate on a rocket landing ship in March of 1945, during the assault on Okinawa, found himself in the middle of a Kamikaze attack, which didn't sink the vessel he was on, but did kill a number of his shipmates and put the craft out of commission for some time.
"No one on the crew of 79 men had ever heard of a kamikaze attack prior to the time the plane hit the ship," says Gray today. "However there had been some kamikaze activity during the Leyte Gulf invasion several months earlier."
It was no wonder the sailors on LSMR 188 knew little or nothing of the then new Japanese tactic of crashing airplanes into American ships in a last stand defense against invasions that were coming ever closer to the home islands. Most of the sailors on board were recent recruits and had just been deployed from the United States to the Pacific a few months before.
The LSMR 188 was part of an original 12 LSM's (landing ship medium) that were converted in the Charleston Navy Yard in South Carolina in the fall of 1944 from regular landing ships to support rocket ships. The decks of the vessels were fitted with rockets that were in a fixed configuration and could be launched by changing the position of the ship itself. These first 12 vessels also had one five inch gun mounted on the aft deck, which made it the smallest ship (203 feet long and 35 feet wide) in the Navy to receive a gun of this size.
The ships were deployed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in early 1945 after passing through the Panama Canal and the San Diego naval base. From there they sailed with their crews to Leyte in the Philippines. Finally, after picking up troops to deploy to Okinawa, they arrived in the waters of the island and began to send rockets and gunnery into some ancillary islands that surrounded the main invasion objective.
"My battle station was near a four cylinder Buda diesel engine that provided power to the fire and flushing pump system on the ship," relates Gray. "That unit provided water for fighting fires and also kept the waste flushing system pressurized. That is where I was when the attack came."
From his station, located on a deck underneath the galley, all he knew of what was going on was relayed to him by a sound-powered telephone. (Sound-powered telephones function without batteries or other power source. The transmitter element generates the power from the incident acoustic energy.)
"I felt some kind of concussion to the ship (when the plane hit), but thought it was another ship colliding with us, as had happened a few days previously," says Gray. "The phone was dead and I waited for some time to hear some communication but none arrived. I then decided to leave my battle station and go topside to see what the problem was."
When Gray reached topside, he was stunned.
"...the devastating damage, dead bodies, the hole in the deck, and the general damage everywhere," he states as if it happened yesterday. "It was hard to comprehend what had happened because I had no information until I talked with one of the survivors."
|Al Gray in 1944.|
The official report was that a Val (the Americans gave the Japanese planes names they could understand such as Kate, Zeke, Laura, Jake, Paul, etc.) dive bomber crashed into the deck and a 500 lb. bomb dislodged from the plane upon impact and crashed through the deck into the rocket magazine, exploding there and causing the devastation.
"If that had happened I wouldn't be here today," says Gray with certainty. "The ship would have been blown out of the water."
Gray says that the bomb did not detonate and was later taken out of the magazine and thrown overboard. Gray believes the bomb was either unarmed or failed to detonate for some unknown reason. Regardless he feels lucky to have lived through the experience and to have been where he was when it happened. Of the 79 crewmen on the ship, 34, including Gray, were unharmed. Fourteen were killed instantly and three died from injuries later. One of those killed instantly was the pharmacists mate (smaller ships did not have their own full doctors) so the ship had to get doctors from other ships to help their wounded.
The LSMR 188 hadn't been hit by the first plane that attacked it, however. Four planes had strafed the ship and the crew had shot down two of them and another vessel had downed another before the Val crashed into the deck, spreading death and fire everywhere.
The LSMR 188 started to take on water right after the hit, but with the help of pumps and the shutting of valves by some of the crew, including Gray, they began to stabilize the vessel. Two American warships came directly to their rescue, the battleship Arkansas and the cruiser Indianapolis. That later ship became famous for carrying the first atomic bomb across the Pacific Ocean to a waiting B-29 called the Enola Gay. Then a few days after that historic voyage it was sunk by a Japanese submarine in one of the worst U.S. Navy ship disasters in history.
For a young man from Clarion, Pa. it was a life defining experience. Today Gray, who has lived in Carbon County for 28 years, still thinks about the things he went through that day. Time has changed his perspective and other interests such as music and instruments, mechanics and woodworking, have taken the place of being a sailor, but that incident will always be a part of him.
Since the war ended he has spent 20 years in the insurance business and then another 28 working as an MSHA mine inspector. But his interests are diverse and since retiring he has been able to pursue them even more.
"See this old piano," he says as he points to a small room inside his garage. "It's an old player piano and I have rebuilt this part of it." He points to some of the instrumentation for the unit.
He also points out a hundred year old organ which he describes as unique because it uses suction to produce music action rather than producing air which inflates the bellows.
A back bedroom of his house is peppered with photos and magazines sitting amongst old musical instruments, some converted into lamps, others being fixed.
"See that tuba," says Gray as he points to the large metallic horn set on the floor. "That was my first instrument." That is other than the piano which his mother, a music teacher, inspired him to play.
His love of woodworking is apparent. Shelves, cabinets and other creations dot his home. He pulls out a magazine advertisement that he has placed inside one of them and points out an image that looks exactly like the cabinet from which it was removed.
"I liked this when I saw it in the magazine, and so I built it," he says. The cabinet is almost an exact copy of what is in the picture.
His yard has a painted wall, with murals on it. His daughter Patty says that he is a "folk art" painter because he "paints for folks."
|The LSMR 188 shortly after the attack by a Japanese kamakaze aircraft. Almost half the crew of the ship was either killed or wounded in the attack. The ship went on to be repaired and converted to an ammunition carrier.|
His garage is adorned with souvenirs of his many interests. A Mercedes Benz hubcap converted into a clock, old electric golf cart motors he hopes someone can use some day, other parts and pieces of various kinds of devices and a five cylinder Mercedes diesel engine he rebuilt after his son overheated it on the freeway in northern Utah and it seized up.
He also owns a most unusual vehicle: a late 1970's Mercedes Benz sedan that has been converted into an "El Camino" type pickup truck.
"When I went to England in 1999 I saw a number of those conversions and I thought I might like to do that too," says Gray as he looks over the car. "It still needs some work."
But what he seems to take the most pride in is his ability to fool around with musical instruments of all kinds, particularly pianos.
"I like to think of myself as an amateur musicologist," he says as he plays a piece on the piano in his house adding a question. "Doesn't that sound like it's about half a note flat to you?"
But as much as playing an instrument he likes the mechanics and workings of musical production as well.
"I like to tune pianos, although I am no professional," he states. "I was doing one for a restaurant in Helper a few weeks ago and couldn't get it right. I found that the connection board at the back of the instrument had come loose. I have talked with a lot of people who know about pianos and no one had ever seen that happen before."
With a life that has certainly changed since that attack back in 1945, it would be easy for some to forget their shipmates. But Gray belongs to an association that meets periodically consisting of those that served on those few special LSMR's that operated between 1944 and 1970, from World War II to Vietnam. The association has over 3000 members and has also located 6000 more individuals who served on those ships during their active years. They have a camaraderie that is similar to submariners or those that served on destroyers.
As with many who were in the wars of the past he makes it to the Veterans Day ceremony at the Peace Garden as often as he can. It's not that he'll ever forget those that gave the ultimate sacrifice.
It's that he doesn't want others to forget.