There’s not much Nick Gassera remembers about serving as a seaman aboard the destroyer USS Collett, DD-730, during World War II. But three images still vividly stick out in his mind about World War II after more than six decades—Okinawa, the typhoon and being aboard the first American ship to sail into Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered.
For the record, the Collett saw action in other battles the 83-year-old former Port Charlotte sailor is fuzzy about. Places like: Luzon, Iwo Jima, Taiwan and China.
“In 1944 we sailed for the Hawaiian Islands and Adm. “Bull” Halsey’s fleet. Our destroyer became part of his fleet and took part in the attack on Okinawa,” he said. “We were part of the picket line that circled the carriers and protected them from the kamikazes. We shot down most of the enemy planes before they reached our flat-tops.
“I was a loader on the Collett’s second 5-inch gun in the front of the destroyer. After a while we were told to stop firing at the enemy and come out on deck and take a look. Lots of kamikazes were going down in flames. It looked like a shooting gallery in the movies,” Gassera recalled.
“One Kamikaze almost hit the Collett. A twin-engine Japanese Betty was headed right for our destroyer. One of our 20 millimeter gunners was doing everything he could to stop it from reaching us,” he said. “Fifty yards off the ship’s port bow the gunner hit the right spot and the Betty blew up. Fiery debris hit the side of the destroyer and rained down on us, but the ship wasn’t damaged by the bombers near hit and no one was injured aboard the Collett.”
In the middle of the mêlée with the Japanese suicide pilots, their destroyer was on station, when on April 18, 1945, it encountered a Japanese submarine lurking in the depths off shore. The Collett sent I-56, the enemy sub, to the bottom with all hands with depth charges.
“We knew we got the submarine when debris—bodies, life preservers and other junk floated to the surface. There were no survivors,” he added.
At the conclusion of the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, Halsey took the fleet and headed for the main islands of Japan. The Collett traveled with hundreds of American ships toward the enemy’s home islands.
“We were headed toward Japan when we sailed into a typhoon. It went on for several days and the fleet lost two destroyers in the storm,” Gassera said. “I was on watch on the bridge and 100-foot waves were breaking over top of us. The wind was terrible, too.
“The admiral took the fleet into the center of the storm. When we got to its center the water was just like a piece of glass. Halsey sailed the fleet along with the eye of the typhoon until it blew itself out,” he said.
For several days the fleet set 50 miles off the coast of Japan waiting. They knew nothing about the Atomic Bomb or what was happening with the enemy ashore. Gassera and thousands of other sailors waited for something to happen.
“Then it came over the speakers aboard ship that Japan was unconditionally surrendering. We didn’t know at that time that two bombs had been dropped,” he added.
“We were the first American ship to sail into Tokyo Bay to make sure Japan was really surrendering. We were concerned about more attacks from Kamikazes because they didn’t want to surrender,” Gassera explained.
“Our captain told us he had been advised the Japanese would drape white sheets over the barrels of their shore batteries located on the hills at the entrance to Tokyo Bay to indicate they wouldn’t fire on us,” he said. “We weren’t to shoot at them if they were covered, but if they weren’t we were to fire on the single uncovered cannon. All the Japanese guns were covered,” he said.
With the assistance of a Japanese harbor pilot the Collett sailed slowly and cautiously into heavily mined Tokyo Bay. In the distance along the shore they could see what was left of that Japanese Imperial Navy—battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers—riding peacefully at anchor.
“We sailed around the harbor past the enemy fleet and back out to the entrance. Adm. Halsey was waiting aboard the battle ship Missouri for us to complete the inspection tour that took us four or five hours,” Gassera said. “Then the Missouri led the fleet into the harbor and dropped anchor. We weren’t in the harbor for the surrender ceremony.”
The Collett stayed off shore and waited for the signing that officially ended World War II.
“About a week later our crew was given liberty and went ashore in Tokyo. The Japanese civilians seemed sort of afraid of us, but we had no problems with them,” he said. “I didn’t want anything to do with them because I had been fighting them all these months. I went back to the Collett and stayed aboard ship until we sailed.”
A couple of weeks later the Collett hoisted its anchor and headed for Honolulu. After that the 300-man crew headed for San Diego, Calif.
After a 30 days leave to see his folks and get acquainted with the USA again, Gassera returned to the Collett, which was about to sail for China, but he didn’t go. He was injured in a freak accident aboard ship and spent the next 18 months recovering in a Navy hospital in San Diego.
After he was discharged Gassera returned to Elizabeth, N.J. where he had grown up and went to work as a machinist. He held the position until he suffered a heart attack and had to retire.
Gassera and his wife, Agnes, moved to Port Charlotte in 1993. They have two sons and two daughters: Nick Jr., Joseph, Patty and Joanne. They also have 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Name: Nicholas L. Gassera
D.O.B: 26 October 1926
Hometown: Elizabeth, NJ
Currently: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Entered Service: 1943
Discharged: 14 June 1946
Rank: Seaman 2nd Class
Unit: USS Collett
Commendations: Bronze Star
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Taiwan, Luzon and China
This story was first printed in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, September 20, 2010 and is republished with permission.
Click here to view Gassera’s Collection in the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.
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