World War II was over. The Japanese had signed the surrender aboard the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay a few weeks earlier when Shipfitter 2nd-Class Rudy Ricci of Windmill Village, Punta Gorda, Fla. stepped into the limelight. He served aboard the USS St. Mary’s off Okinawa Island during a typhoon in Buckner Bay that nearly put the transport on the beach.
“The ship was being pounded by the storm. We had two anchors out but the St. Mary’s was dragging both of them and being blown toward the beach. I was in the stern, sea water was washing over the fantail,” the 84-year-old former sailor recalled.
“I was a welder and part of the ship’s crew. One of my duties was anchor detail. Whenever they dropped or raised the anchor, and I was on watch, I was supposed to be there,” Ricci said. “It wasn’t my watch, but they were having problems and no one knew what to do. One of the anchor chains was wrapped around the other anchor. We couldn’t raise either anchor.”
In order to escape destruction the crew of the St. Mary’s had to unfoul the anchors, sail out of Buckner Bay into the open sea and escape the storm. Otherwise, their transport could end up on the beach a derelict and the crew might perish. A bunch of ships were already beached wrecks.
“I asked the officer in charge, ‘Can I get permission to cut one of the anchor chains?’
“‘How you gonna do that?’ the officer replied. I told him what I needed: I wanted a length of steel pipe, a tank of oxygen and acetylene, a cutting torch, some line and three helpers.
“They brought the equipment and the assistants up to me on deck. Meanwhile, the ship was going up and down pounding in the waves. There were a bunch of big ships already on the beach,” Ricci said. “I lashed the cutting torch to the steel pipe and put a loop of line around the trigger. Before I put the torch over the side I lit it and got two of my helpers to hold it steady near the anchor chain. When I increase the oxygen I saw a lot of sparks fly as the torch rested against the chain until it parted.”
Once the anchor chain was cut away the second anchor was freed. The crew raised one and left the second hook behind in the deep as it gained way and headed for the open sea.
The St. Mary’s was one of the lucky ships, it survived the big storm. It took part in “Operation Magic Carpet”–the transport of millions of service personnel back to the States after the war.
When the Battle of Okinawa started on April 9, 1945 the St. Mary’s had been on station off the Kerama Retto Islands, 25 miles south of Okinawa, for a week.
“This is where the reporter Ernie Pyle was killed. He was on Ie Shima Island, one of the island in the Kerama Retto Island group,” Ricci said. “A Higgins Boat pulled up beside our ship and told us Pyle had been killed. It was a sad day for all of us.
“As we started moving toward Okinawa more and more ships joined the fleet. By the time it was over 1,500 ships surrounded the Japanese-held island,” he said. “Suicide planes were everywhere. They flew low and we didn’t see them until they sounded general quarters and by then they were on top of us.
“A Betty bomber was headed right for us. It missed us but hit the five-inch gun mount on the APA right next to us. Another one hit a destroyer. I don’t remember its name.”
The St. Mary’s spent a month off the beach at Okinawa in the heat of battle. She was a lucky ship because no one aboard was injured.
When the fighting was over, Ricci returned to the Boston area, eventually saved up $10,000 and opened his own plumbing business. After a few years of doing well, a friend asked him to take an account off his hands.
The account was Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. For 30 years he was responsible for keeping the water flowing in the pipes at Fenway.
“I got to know all the ball payers from Ted Williams to Jimmy Piersall,” the old swabbie said. “Got a call one night about 11:30 to come down to the clubhouse and fix the pipes. Ted had been hassled by the fans. He got mad and pulled the water lines off the wall in the clubhouse.
”Piersall was a gem.”
Before he retired and moved to Florida, Ricci also took care of the plumbing at the stadium for the Boston Patriots football team when they first opened for business.
Thirty years ago he bought a condo on Florida’s East Coast. In 2003 he decided to come west and relocated to Windmill Village.
Name: Rudolph Valentino Ricci
D.O.B: 9 June 1926
Hometown: Portland, Maine
Current: Punta Gorda, Florida
Entered Service: 8 May 1944
Discharged: 16 May 1946
Rank: Shipfitter 1st Class
Unit: USS St. Marys
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, American Theatre Medal, Asiatic Pacific Theatre Medal with 1 star, Philippine Liberation Medal,
Battles/Campaigns: Philippines and Okinawa
Children: Bobby and Dawn
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Nov. 22, 2010 and is republished with permission.
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