NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — Almost seven decades after the largest naval battle in American history, a handful of aging veterans of the Battle of Leyte Gulf gathered Monday recalling the sinking of their destroyers and the harrowing 52 hours they spent in shark-infested waters without food or water, praying for rescue.
Five survivors are attending this week's reunion of the USS Johnston-Hoel Association. There are among eight remaining survivors from the two destroyers lost when they attacked a far stronger Japanese force in October 1944 to help cover the escape of six American escort carriers in the Philippines.
The destroyers took on a Japanese task force of 23 vessels, including four battleships.
John Oracz, 86, of Grand Rapids, Mich., who served on the Hoel, said started it all started unexpectedly. He was going to breakfast when a star shell landed behind the ship.
"I said 'Where the hell did that come from?" The next thing I realized there were salvos all around us. I couldn't see any battleship or anything. They were 22 miles away over the horizon," he recalled.
When the order came for the crew of the sinking Johnston to abandon ship, Dusty Rhodes, 87, of Winfield Kan., recalled helping get a float net over the side. The large net helped those who abandoned ship stay afloat until they could be rescued.
It wasn't until years later, at a reunion, that he finally met the sailor who helped him get the net down. Without that net, Rhodes doubts he would have survived.
The Hoel lost 252 crewmen while 89 survived the battle and ensuing ordeal. A total of 152 from the Johnston were lost while 144 survived.
"It never really occurred to me that we wouldn't be picked up," said 86-year-old Larry Morris of Harrodsburg, Ky., who was aboard the Hoel. "But in spite of that feeling, later when it developed we were picked up by accident, then I got scared."
There was no immediate search for American survivors because of worries that Japanese vessels still controlled the waters in the area.
"What made it bad was when a man would die there was nothing you could do to help him," said Glenn Parkin, 89, as he fought back tears. "You would take off their dog tags and they would float 3 or maybe 5 feet and then the sharks would get to them," said Parkin, of North Salt Lake City, Utah.
George Miller, of Taylorsville, N.C., said the group he was with would let the dead go at night to spare the agony of seeking sharks take their comrades.
"What was in our minds most of the time was that could be me," Morris said.
But none of the five survivors said they ever gave up hope they would be rescued.
"I had a rosary in my pocket and I was keeping up with that all the time," Oracz said.
The association plans to keep meeting, despite its dwindling numbers. The group is already planning a 2012 reunion in the Midwest. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that an average of 737 World War II vets die each day.
On Tuesday, the survivors and about 35 family members and friends attended a memorial service at the chapel of The Citadel military academy. Later in the day they planned to visit the Civil War submarine Hunley, the first in history to sink an enemy warship.