Mike Stata was a “hot shell man” on a 5-inch gun aboard the destroyer USS Harding 1500 yards off Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 during the Normandy Invasion. He also served aboard the Harding off Okinawa on April 16, 1945 when his ship was hit by a kamikaze and 22 sailors aboard the destroyer were killed.
“It was my job to drop the hot shells from the Number 1 main gun down a chute into the ship as they came out of the forward gun mount,” the 84-year-old Venice, Fla. resident explained. “I wore asbestos gloves that covered my hands and arms and went all the way up to my neck.
“We sailed out of Weymouth, England the day before the invasion. The Harding was one of the destroyers leading the invasion force. We sailed 2,000 yards in front of the USS Ancon, the command ship,” he said.
“When we arrived off the coast of France at 7 a.m. the water was very rough. It was a cloudy, damp and cold morning,” Stata recalled. “We were told to go closer to shore and fire on designated targets. We got so close to the beach I thought pretty soon we were gonna shake hands with the enemy.”
The Harding’s Action Report of the engagement at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 notes in part:
“1050: Opened fire on a (German) pill box.
“1143: Received four men aboard from PA-76 which was in sinking condition and it sank five minutes later.
“1413: Opened fire on Vierville Church and demolished same after 40 rounds.
“2027: Lying off Point Et Raz De La Perce
“2320: Intermittent AA fire from ships in landing area. No enemy planes observed.”
The following day the Harding was sent to support the Rangers who were in the process of capturing Pointe du Hoc. This was the 100-foot high point that towered over the invasion beach. Allied commanders thought the point bristled with German heavy artillery capable of sinking part of the invasion fleet.
The big guns had been pulled from the cliff, to protect them from Allied bombers, and hidden in a grove of trees inland. Even so, enemy resistance was substantial at the cliff. It was the Harding’s job to destroy the German defenses.
“When we went in, fighting aboard the ship got pretty intense. The Rangers told us later, ‘If it hadn’t been for your destroyer we wouldn’t have made it up the cliff.’ The Germans were machine-gunning the Rangers as they climbed the ladders to the top,” Stata said.
“What happened to us was we were firing at enemy targets on the beach and our captain wanted to get a little closer so he could do a better job,” he said. “That worked fine until we ran aground and got stuck. There we were near the base of the point aground like a sitting duck.”
The crew of the Harding knew if they didn’t extract themselves quickly enemy artillery would sink them. A diver was sent over the side to check for damage and discovered both their propellers were damaged.
“It wasn’t long after that we were able to back off into deeper water. All of a sudden a huge enemy shell hit right where we had been,” Stata said. They escaped.
By then the crew of the Harding had spent 86 continuous hours at their battle stations. After that they returned to England for repairs and reassignment.
“We went back to Normandy and the harbor at Cherbourg. The Harding and another destroyer were to accompany a group of minesweepers into the harbor to clear it of German mines,” he said. “At the end of the harbor was a German battery of high velocity guns. Our captain wanted to duke it out with these big guns with our 5-inchers.”
When the admiral commanding the invasion fleet saw that the Harding was about to become a fatality because of the enemy shore battery he ordered the destroyers to make smoke and get out. A short while later the German gun emplacement was bombed by American heavy bomber to no avail. It took the infantry to finally take out the big German gun emplacement.
The Harding was also involved in the invasion of Southern France.
“We were on anti-submarine patrol off the coast in the second invasion of France. One night we’re out there and saw this big ball of fire hit the water out a ways from us. We sent a whale boat out to investigate. A German bomber had been shot down by Allied night fighters,” Strata recalled.
“While they were out searching for survivors our skipper picked up some little dots on the radar that were in the water moving fast toward us. He turned a searchlight on and discovered four German E-boats (like our PT-Boats) were coming after us. Our first 5-inch salvo hit one of them and it exploded into tiny pieces. The second E-boat was hit by our destroyer, it cut the E-boat in half and we picked up the survivors. The other two boats escaped,” he said.
Following the Normandy Invasion the Harding returned to the States, was converted to a minesweeper and sent to the Pacific just in time for the Battle of Okinawa.
On April 16, 1945 hundreds of kamikaze suicide planes were sent against the Allied fleet of 1,200 ships that ringed the 60-mile long island a few hundred miles off the Japanese main islands.
“It was 9 a.m. when a kamikaze attacked the Harding off the port bow. The plane was on fire as it came at us,” Stata said. “The nose of the Japanese fighter hit us at the water line and exploded our forward magazines aboard ship. I was in the forward gun mount serving as a trainer on the gun when 22 guys were killed right underneath my feet.
“We were going at full speed when the kamikaze hit and knocked a gaping hole in the side of our ship that caused the bow to almost submerge. When I stepped out of the gun mount with my buddy the captain was yelling from the bridge, ‘Don’t jump!’ If we had gone over the side we’d have both been killed,” he said.
“Our ship was dead in the water but we managed to keep the Harding upright,” Stata said. “Since our engine room was still operating we backed her all the way to a staging island off the southern tip of Okinawa.”
For the men of the USS Harding World War II was over. They would spend the next several months on the atoll waiting for their destroyer to be made sea worthy. Then the crew sailed their battered ship back to Norfolk, Va. where the destroyer was decommissioned shortly after war’s end.
Stata would become a lineman for a power company outside Chicago, a position he held until his retirement. In 1989 he and his wife, Dorothy, moved to Venice Isles when they came south. They will celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary this month.
Name: Mike Stata
Current: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: February 13, 1943
Rank: GM 3rd Class
Unit: USS Harding
Commendations: The European Theater Ribbon with two battle stars, The Pacific Theater Ribbon with one battle star, Good Conduct Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon and the World War II Victory Medal.
Battles/Campaigns: Omaha Beach, Okinawa
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 17, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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