Chief Julius Gervan of Burnt Store Isles subdivision south of Punta Gorda, Fla. was in charge of the forward engine-room aboard the destroyer USS Thatcher II (DD-514) when a kamikaze pilot crashed his plane into the the ship’s super structure and burst into flames killing 14 sailors and wounding 56 more during the Battle for Okinawa near the closing days of World War II.
The Thatcher was part of a destroyer picket line ringing Okinawa protecting the capital ships from suicide pilots who proved most affective against the Allied invasion fleet of more than 1,300 ships. The destroyer was 19 miles off the beach sailing in concert with the USS Pavlic, (APD-70) and the USS Boyd (DD-544) on May 16, 1944 when disaster struck.
“We had hardly arrived at Okinawa when we got word Jap planes were coming our way. All of a sudden four kamikazes flew toward us. One came right down the port side of our destroyer, I was told,” Gervan said. “He turned around and flew along the starboard side of the Thatcher. From what I got from our gun crews they could see the pilot clearly as they were shooting at him.”
The enemy plane dove into the boat davits amidships and erupted into a monster fire ball. It blew a six-foot by nine-foot hole in the side of the destroyer between the keel and the bilge. The radio transmitter room was demolished while the pilothouse and radio shack survived, but their occupants were forced onto the deck by the smoke.
Gervan and his engine-room crew missed all the commotion and struggle above deck.
“All we heard was a thump when the Jap plane hit the ship,” he recalled. “We kept our steam up after the attack so we were ready to go.”
Part of the crew that wasn’t injured was put to work fighting the spreading fire. The Pavlic and Boyd, that were nearby, rushed to help the Thatcher’s crew fight the blaze and remove the dead and injured from the burning destroyer.
In the midst of the chaos two enemy planes popped up on the destroyer’s radar flying toward the three bunched up ships. The Boyd opened up on both “Betty” bombers headed their way.
A thousand yards away she poured 40 millimeter anti-aircraft fire into both bombers. On they came closer and closer to their smoldering targets below. Just before striking the Thatcher, Pavlic and Boyd the bomber pilots pulled up, skimmed over the ships and disappeared over the horizon.
The Thatcher and most of its crewed survived the enemy attack, doused the fires aboard and headed slowly toward Kerama Retto island for repairs. The USS Boyd escorted the battered “tin-can” into port.
“We arrived at Okinawa after we liberated the island fortress of Corregidor. It took us three or four days to recapture the island stronghold. Gen. MacArthur returned and made a big deal out of it which didn’t go over too well with our crew,” Gervan recalled.
Another significant engagement the Thatcher was involved in during the Second World War: “The Battle of Empress Augusta Bay” off Bougainville Island in early November 1943. It was the last Japanese stronghold in the Solomons.
Capt. Arleigh Burke commanded “The Little Beavers”, squadron of destroyers during the battle off Bougainville. An American assault force comprised of Marines from the 3rd Division and some Army units went ashore in the middle of the island.The Japanese 17th Army held either end of the island.
A short time later they got word Japanese ships of the line were headed toward the invasion beach. The Japanese sent planes from their base at Rabaul and dispatched a naval force commanded by Adm. Sentari Omari the heavy cruisers Myōkō and Haguro, light cruisers Agano and Sendai, and destroyers Shigure, Samidare, Shiratsuyu, Naganami, Hatsukaze, and Wakatsuki were headed for Bougainville.
The American task force consisted of four light cruisers: Montpelier, Cleveland, Columbia and Denver plus eight destroyers: Thatcher, Charles Ausburne, Dyson, Stanley, Claxton, Spencer, Converse and Foote. Adm. Aaron “Tip” Merrill commanded the group.
The Thatcher and three other destroyers were ordered to begin a torpedo attack.They fired their torpedoes and five-inch guns at two enemy ships running at high speed in the dark. The battle continued for hours and next morning the American force discovered it had disabled Sendaiu and Myoko that collided with the destroyer Hatsukaze.
What was left of the Japanese forced returned to Rabaul without attacking the American landing force. Before the Japanese could regroup and try again an Allied aircraft carrier group bombed Rabaul sinking four heavy cruisers and forcing the Japanese to retreat to Truk.
On April 13, 1944 the Thatcher was part of the fast carrier task force that sailed to New Guinea hitting Hollandia, Wakde, Sawar and Sarmi islands. By June the Thatcher and Task Force 58 took part in the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” in which the Japanese lost 300 planes during “The Battle of the Philippine Sea.
It was about this time Gervan got word his older brother, John, had been shot down and killed in his P-51 Mustang fighter on July 4 while providing tactical air support for the D-Day Invasion troops at St. Lo, France. This is where Allied forces broke the German line along the French coast and began their march toward “The Fatherland.”
John was the commander of the 381st Fighter Squadron, 363rd Fighter Group. He was flying his 46th combat mission when he was killed over German occupied France.
What Gervan remembers most about this time was “Halsey’s Typhoon” that struck the fleet on Dec. 18, 1944 while in the Philippine Sea.
“We were being hit with 100 waves. For four days and four nights we sailed through that typhoon,” the old sailor said. “For some reason I was working in the aft engine room. in order to get there I climbed into the torpedo tubes on deck and worked my way aft to the hatch leading down into the engine-room.
“Our sister ship, DD-512, broke in half and went down with all hands. Before the typhoon was over we lost 800 men from different ships in the fleet,” Gervan added.
By the time World War II was over, Gervan had 10 battle stars on his campaign ribbon signifying 10 major battles in the Pacific he took part in.
His ship returned to the States for repairs after it was badly damaged during the Battle of Okinawa.
“I stayed with the Thatcher at the Bremerton Navy Yard from August to December 1945. I was discharged from the Navy in December 1945 at Bremerton and right after that my ship was scrapped,” he said.
Gervan returned to Nutley, got married and spent the next 35 years working as a machinist and model maker. He and his late wife, Dorothy, moved to Punta Gorda in 1992 after his daughter, Judy, and his son-in-law came to Venice.
Name: Julius J. Gervan
D.O.B: 27 May 1919
Hometown: Newark, NJ
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 29 Oct. 1942
Discharged: 1 Dec. 1945
Rank: Chief Machinist Mate
Unit: USS Thatcher II (DD-514)
Commendations: Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal with 10 Battle Stars, American Area Campaign Medal, European-African Middle East Campaign Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of Empress Bay, Battle of Okinawa, Battle of Philippine Sea
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011 and is republished with permission.
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