Harry Weis of Punta Gorda, Fla. served aboard the escort carrier USS Santee. He took part in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval engagement in World War II. It was the first time the Japanese Imperial Navy used kamikaze airplanes to attack the Allied fleet.
Weis was a Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class. While aboard the Santee he worked in weather observation.
The Santee, together with three other escort carriers: Sangamon, Suwannee and Chenango were designated Carrier Division 22. They sailed from Pearl Harbor on March 15, 1944 and headed southwest to Espiritus Santo in the New Hebrides Islands.
By the time the carrier group reached the Philippines and Leyte Gulf it was Oct. 20. Upon its arrival in the war zone gunners aboard the Santee shot down three Japanese planes.
Five days later a Japanese suicide pilot crashed his plane into the wood deck of the 559-foot-long carrier detonating his 138 pound bomb that caused extensive damage.
“The kamikaze hit us amidship and minutes later we were torpedoed,” the old salt recalled more than 65 years later. “They claim it was the first kamikaze attack on an American war ship.
“The fire caused by the Japanese plane plunging through the wooden flight deck and exploding was brought under control quickly. Damage from the torpedo was more serious,” he said.
On Oct. 20 United States forces invaded the island of Leyte. The invasion was aimed at separating the Japanese from their oil supply. With most of its remaining capital ships in the battle the emperor’s navy was facing Adm. William Halsey’s 7th Fleet and Adm. Thomas Kinkaid’s 3rd Fleet.
Weis and the Santee were part of Adm. Clifton Sprague’s Taffy 3/Task Unit 77 that saw action at Leyte Gulf.
President Franklin Roosevelt met with Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur to settle the question about landing American troops in the Philippines. The president sanctioned what MacArthur wanted, the Philippine invasion first.
In conjunction with the four sea battles off the Philippines, Gen. MacArthur’s forces invaded Leyte during which the sometimes imperial and very confident Supreme Commander in the Southwest Pacific announced to the world by shortwave radio when he reached the beach: “I have returned.”
Halsey’s carrier-based planes demolished their Japanese counterpart. When the shooting stopped the Japanese had 600 fewer carrier-based planes during a three-day shootout. The emperor lost the cream of his carrier pilots.
The Japanese strategy was to lure the American 7th Fleet commanded by Halsey away from Leyte. The bait was to be several aircraft carriers that were lacking sufficient pilots to protect them or the Japanese fleet from Allied air power.
When Halsey took the bait the Japanese sent two more enemy fleets into the Philippine Sea, to attack the Allied invasion of Leyte. What occurred was the Battle of Palawan Passage. It was a disaster for the Japanese navy.
The Imperial fleet lost 10,500 sailors together with 1 fleet carrier, 3 light carriers, 9 battleships, 14 heavy cruisers, 6 light cruisers, 35 destroyers and 300 aircrafts.
American losses at Leyte Gulf and the other three major engagements totaled: 3,000 dead, 1 light carrier, 2 escort carriers, 2 destroyers and 200 planes.
Weis and the Santee sailed for Honolulu before the decisive battles were won by the U.S. Navy off the Philippines. After receiving temporary repairs she and its crew sailed for Los Angeles Harbor where the carrier underwent an overhaul.
It was at this point Weis got leave to go home to visit his family in New York City before returning to battle.
“I was coming back to Los Angeles after being home and the train I was on derailed in Ohio. As a consequence I missed the Santee. She sailed back to the war zone in time for the Battle of Okinawa and the surrender of the Japanese,” he explained.
“They put me in an aircraft repair shop where I worked the last few months of the war. We assembled airplanes and repaired damaged aircraft in the shop,” Weis said.
The Japanese called it quits and signed the surrender declaration on the deck of the Battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.
“I was discharged from the Navy and within a year married Carmen,” Weis said. “For the next 17 years I worked in the advertising department of Smith Corona Typewriter Co. He also spent time as the manager of a motel and an apartment complex before the couple retired to this area in 1985.
They’ve been married 65 years and have five children: Gary, Diana, Linda, Laura and Luanne.
Presidential Unit Citation
For extraordinary heroism in action against enemy forces in the air, ashore and afloat. Operating in the most advanced areas, the USS SANTEE and her attached air squadrons struck with sustained fury warships, aircraft, merchant shipping and shore installations in the face of frequent and prolonged shattering explosions of a suicide plane in her flight deck and torpedo hit in her side, stoutly continued flight operations and fighting her anti-aircraft guns throughout the period of emergency and unrelieved action. She sent out her planes to cover operations and land offensives and to destroy the enemy’s vital airfields and his camouflaged areas. The SANTEE’s illustrious record of combat achievement reflects the highest credit upon the officers and men and upon the United States Naval Service.
For the President,
Secretary of the Navy
Name: Harry Weis
D.O.B: 4 Oct. 1924
Hometown: New York City
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: July 1943
Discharged: March 1946
Rank: Photographer’s Mate 3rd Class
Unit: USS Santee
Commendations: Presidential Unit Citation
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of Leyte Gulf
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Nov. 22, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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