In 1944, Val Gerald was a petty officer second class serving aboard the USS Randolph, an Essex Class aircraft carrier in World War II. Today the 89-year-old former Navy man is a resident, along with his wife Olga, of The Courtyard, an assisted living facility in Port Charlotte. Fla.
Gerald was aboard the carrier when it sailed under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge on Jan. 20, 1944 heading for Ulithi Island to fight the final 17 months of WWII in the Pacific. He had been a printer before the war. They made him a printer aboard the Randolph.
Shortly after arriving at Ulithi, the Randolph and Task Force 58 launched a fighter sweep of airfields around Tokyo in early February 1945. On its return to the Ulithi, a P-38 Lightning twin-engine American fighter got tangled up in the landing pattern with the carrier’s aircraft.
“My friend and I had just gotten off duty. I went below deck to take a nap. My friend told me, ‘I’m going to take it easy in the shade under the wing of one of the planes on deck,'” he said.
“I had just come out of the head and was sitting on my bunk when the P-38 skidded across our deck into a dozen or more planes. When the planes exploded the whole ship shuddered,” Gerald said.
“I ran topside and pulled two sailors out of the fire on the deck. When I got up on deck, this sailor who had been handling the fire hose was knocked down and killed in one of the explosions,” he said.
“I grabbed the hose and started fighting the fire. I have a picture of me with the hose over my shoulder on the deck of the carrier. I was so close to the fire, all the hair on my arm was burning.”
In 45 minutes, the ship’s crew had extinguished the blaze. But it was too late for Gerald’s friend and dozens of other sailors who died.
“We sailed back to Ulithi. They repaired the carrier in three days. The Randolph sailed for Iwo Jima and the historic battle that began Feb. 19, 1945,” he said. “We were there from the beginning to the end and escaped without a scratch.”
The Randolph and its crew returned to Ulithi and dropped anchor following the epic battle of Iwo.
“After we anchored, the word got around that the smoking lamp was lit and we were going to have a movie,” he said. “After the movie, my buddy Whittaker and another friend and I decided to go back to the fantail and have a smoke. I didn’t smoke, but I told them I’d walk back with them anyway.
“The three of us started walking toward the fantail. I don’t think we’d gone 100 feet when a big blast at the carrier’s bow threw me against a bulkhead. I was stunned and my eye was all bloody. I crawled toward a corpsman working on another injured sailor. The corpsman wiped the blood out of my eye and put a patch on it.”
Gerald was lucky – he wasn’t seriously injured.
“Whittaker was hit in the head by a piece of shrapnel and killed. My other buddy was hit in the leg with shrapnel, but survived,” he said.
It was March 11, 1945, when a twin-engine Japanese kamikaze bomber scored a direct hit on the Randolph’s bow. The plane struck the carrier right where “CV-15” was painted in white on the deck. Besides the gaping hole it left in the ship’s flight deck, 25 sailors had been killed in the attack and another 106 injured in the blast.
Shortly after the kamikaze attack on the Randolph, a ship full of iron workers arrived at Ulithi and began working on the badly damaged carriers. Three weeks later it was ready for sea just in time for the biggest battle in the Pacific — Okinawa.
When the Randolph arrived off Okinawa on April 7, 1945, its fighters began pounding the enemy-held island together with Ie Shima and Kakeroma islands. During May, carrier-based planes off the Randolph’s deck struck southern Japan before returning to the Philippines.
On its final war cruise, the Randolph, in conjunction with Adm. “Bull” Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, conducted a series of airstrikes against airfields in the Tokyo area. The carrier’s planes continued to fly sorties until the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945.
“I was sitting on the bridge when the carrier anchored in Tokyo Bay after the surrender,” Gerald recalled. “I watched the Battleship Missouri come into the bay, what a ton of lead. She pulled up right beside us and anchored. All of a sudden they started pulling out flags and bunting aboard the Missouri for the surrender ceremony.”
Gerald and the Randolph didn’t stay for the ceremony. Their carrier was ordered stateside and the 3,448 members of the crew were ecstatic. The carrier was scheduled to steam into New York Harbor, his home town, a few days later. It didn’t happen, the ship was diverted to Baltimore.
“When we docked in Baltimore, there was not one single person waiting for us, not a soul. Then all of a sudden almost everybody aboard ship ran to its side to check out two women who had stepped out onto the dock from the dispatcher’s office,” he said. “I decided to take a look, too. Who the hell do you think it was?
“It was my wife Olga and a girlfriend. Somehow they got word the ship wasn’t going to New York, it was coming to Baltimore. I jumped in my blues, grabbed some money and yelled to my friend, Fruka, whose wife was on the dock with Olga to come on,” Gerald said with tears in his eyes 60 years later. “We went to see the officer of the deck, a lieutenant.
“‘What’s on your mind?’ he asked.
“‘We’d like permission to leave the ship,’ I said.
“‘For what?’ he demanded.
“‘Sir, those are our wives on the dock.’
“Give me five minutes to type up the orders and I’ll let you go.’
“When he gave us the orders, I slid all the way down to the dock on the railing. It was a long way,” Gerald said.
“My wife was there and so was Fruka’s wife. We stood on the dock and kissed them and hugged them and lifted them off their feet,” he said all choked up.
For two men who had been at sea for months in the thick of the battle just weeks before, WWII was finally over. Life was good once more.
Val Gerald died Feb. 17, 2007. Olga died Nov. 14, 2007. No published obituaries were found.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Nov. 5, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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