Les Thompson says he’s no war hero. He was just a seaman 1st class who served aboard the USS Abner Read, a destroyer sunk by a Japanese kamikaze at the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944 during the final months of World War II. The 76-year-old Englewood, Fla. man joined the Navy at 17 in 1943. He enlisted in Pontiac, Mich. where he grew up. The Abner Read was towed into the Navy yard at Bremerton, Wash. by a seagoing tug with 85 feet of its fantail blown away in ’43. It had hit a mine in the Aleutians. Eighty-two members of its crew died when the stern of the ship went to the bottom. By the time the Fletcher-class destroyer reached the West Coast shipyard, a new stern was waiting. It was welded to the end of the ship. In a few days, DD-526 was back at sea. “When I came aboard ship, the Read was headed for the South Pacific. We were to join (Gen. Douglas) Mac Arthur’s fleet,” Thompson said. Mac Arthur was the supreme Allied commander in the South Pacific. “They sent us to the Marshall Islands first. We were island-hopping with MacArthur,” he said. “The Read provided artillery support for the ground troops. We’d hit ’em at night and run. “We went all up through New Guinea and the Admiralty Islands,” Thompson remembered. “Our 5-inch 38s would pound the enemy with a 54-pound projectile. We sure weren’t the Missouri with its 2,000 pound shells. “Finally we got to the Philippines with MacArthur. He had been aboard the light cruiser USS Nashville before he waded ashore. After MacArthur went ashore they sent us out into Leyte Gulf to help protect the fleet. “Our captain said he would hold off on sending us to general quarters so we could get a little sleep. We didn’t get any sleep, but we did relax a little,” he recalled. When general quarters sounded Thompson’s battle station was on the phone. He was a talker. “I plugged in my phone and someone told me to look over my shoulder. Here came this kamikaze with both wings shot off. Our boys had already gotten it,” Thompson said. “It hit our number two sack and killed all the boys in the number three gun turret. It also killed many of the guys on the 20 and 40mm deck guns. “I was amidship, looking back toward the stern. The whole stern was on fire. The guys on the 20mm gun mounts I had just been talking to were dead. Their bodies were burning from gas that had covered them when the kamikaze hit our deck. “Part of the plane was lying on top of 10 torpedoes stacked on deck each with a 2,000 pound warhead. The stern of the ship began blowing up because some of the fuel from the Japanese plane leaked through the unclosed hatch into the handling room where the shells were stored for number three gun mount.” Though this hellfire aboard the Read, a buddy emerged. He had been a loader on one of the 20mm anti-aircraft guns hit by the kamikaze. I don’t remember his name, but he came walking out of the fire with his hair singed off and a tear in his shirt where he had been hit by something. I told him to go to sickbay,” Thompson said. “About that time, the announcement was made–‘Abandon ship!’ “I went around to the other side of the destroyer and found the chief torpedo man firing the torpedoes aboard ship to get them out of there. I looked back to the ship’s stern and saw our depth charges were being blown into the air by the catapult,” he said. “Apparently the heat from the fires aboard ship was causing the catapult to automatically fire the depth charges.” There was little more Thompson could do aboard ship, so he dived overboard. “I had no life jacket. Someone had taken mine. The first person I saw in the water was this guy who had walked out of the fire on deck I had told to go to sickbay. “Les, I ain’t gonna make it,” he said. He had no life jacket either. A few feet away I saw an empty 5-inch 38 powder can floating. I swam over and got it and swam back to my buddy and put one of his arms around the can to keep him afloat.
“Then I saw Cassidy from Montana swimming nearby without a jacket. I went and got him and put him on the other side of the floating canister. “I had to swim both of them away from our ship so when she went down we weren’t sucked under. Twenty-two minutes later the Read was history. “I kept thinking about a a shark we had seen in this same area a couple of days earlier.” As Thompson was pushing the seamen along, the flesh was coming off the arm of the guy who had walked out of the fire on the Read. A short time later the two injured sailors were taken aboard a motor whaleboat that came by. “I swam on toward the USS Claxton, another destroyer that was nearby because I wasn’t injured. She had been hit a few days earlier by a kamikaze. The Claxton could only steer with her screws because her rudders were out of commission,” he said. “As I was swimming toward the destroyer, here came the same sailor that had been injured in the fire and had climbed aboard the whaleboat. By then he was wearing a life jacket, but I never did find out how he had gotten out of the boat. “When we got to the Claxton, my buddy reached for a line that had been thrown over the side for us. As he reached up for the line the meat on his hand fell down over his arm. “I yelled for a boatswain’s chair. They hoisted him aboard in the chair. Two days later they buried him at sea. He had just turned 18.” Thompson was dropped a line and scrambled aboard uninjured. They only damage he suffered was that this shoes had been blown off during one of he explosions aboard the Read before he went over the side and his pants had split in the turmoil. From the destroyer Claxton he was transferred to the USS Pickney, a hospital ship anchored at Leyte Gulf. Thompson was taken back to New Guinea by convoy and on to the States. He spent the last few months of the war working at an ammunition dump in Bangor, Wash. “I tell everybody I couldn’t be a hero at Pearl Harbor because I was only 16. I couldn’t be a hero at Normandy, because I served in the South Pacific. And I couldn’t be a hero at Iwo Jima, because the Japanese had already sunk our destroyer,” he said with a smile.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 7, 2002 and is republished with permission.
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