Mack Mileski of Englewoodk, Fla. was standing on the deck of the escort carrier USS Santee (CVE-29) during the Battle of Leyte Gulf off the Philippine coast in World War II when his carrier was attacked by a Japanese kamikaze. Minutes later the flat-top was also hit by an enemy sub’s torpedo.
Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle of the Second World War, involving a U.S. fleet of 300 ships and a Japanese fleet of 87 more. The four-day naval engagement ran from Oct. 23 to 26, 1944. When it concluded the Japanese lost 12,500 sailors, 1 fleet carrier, 3 light carriers, 3 battleships. 10 cruisers, 11 destroyers and 300 aircrafts. The U.S. sustained 3,000 casualties, 1 light carrier, 2 carrier escorts, 3 destroyers, 1 destroyer escort and 200 planes.
“When the Jap plane attacked I was standing on the deck near the bridge,” Mack recalled more than 70 years later. “As soon as he started straffing I jumped through a hatchway. Seventeen guys got killed when the plane hit the deck of the ship and blew up. They had no place to run.
“They told us our carrier was the first American ship hit by a Japanese suicide plane in the war.
“Fifteen minutes later we got hit by a torpedo. I was surprised it didn’t sink us. It blew a pretty big hole in the Santee below the waterline,” he said. “The torpedo hit one of the ship’s steel beams and it didn’t do a lot of damage. No one was killed.”
Two or three days later we sailed back to Pearl Harbor to get the ship repaired. They could only patch the ship, so we sailed home to California where the carrier was properly fixed,” the 90-year-old former sailor said.
Mack quit high school after his junior year and talked his parents into signing him into the Navy at 17. Joe, one of his older brothers, was already in the Army fighting in Europe and Bruno, the other one, was a gunner on a Navy torpedo bomber like the TBM he kept in the air.
“I took care of a Grumman Avenger Torpedo Bomber. The pilot’s name was Lt. Thayer. I would help him get in and out of the aircraft,” he recalled.
He was an aviation machinist’s mate 1st class who repaired the torpedo bomber and kept it in the air.
“I always maintained that Navy pilots were the best pilots in the world because they had to land on the postage stamp size deck of the Santee.”
His carrier had a 529-foot deck. It was 200 to 300 feet shorter than the 24 “Essex Class” carriers like the Lexington and the Yorktown that also took part in World War II.
The plane was similar to the one flown by the pilots of Navy Torpedo Squadron 8 that were all shot down during the Battle of Midway while attacking a Japanese fleet. It was also a plane like former President George H. W. Bush flew. He was also shot down, but survived after being rescued by an American submarine.
In late January 1945 the Santee left the U.S. and headed back to the war zone in the Pacific. She returned to the Philippines and then left on March 27 for Okinawa to take part in the invasion, the largest amphibious operation in the Pacific Theatre during the war.
Planes from the carrier provided air support over Okinawa for 42 days, slightly more than half the time it took American Marines and soldiers to capture the island. Then the Santee took part in carrier operations off the island, This is when one of the carrier’s planes crashed while landing, killing a sailor on the deck.
“We would sit up on the deck and watch our planes come back from a raid. Lying up under the wing of a plane in the shade behind the barriers we’d watch ‘em fly in. This one time, a plane came in and landed hard. It bounced right over the barrier and landed on a parked plane. A guy lying under the wing of the parked plane was killed.
On Aug. 15, 1945 the carrier and its crew sailed back to the Philippines after being detached on special duty.
“A few days later I remember our captain announced to the crew that the war was over. We were all really happy that we were going to get discharged and go home,” the old sailor recalled.
The Santee returned to Pearl and became part of the Navy’s “Magic Carpet” operation. Many of the carriers were turned into troop transports for Allied forces headed home after the Japanese surrender.
“We took a lot of European soldiers who had been POWs of the Japanese back to the U.S. on the first leg of their journey home. We filled the hanger-deck with collapsible Army cots for them to sleep on,” he said. “Those POWs were a happy bunch of people and we were happy to be helping get them home. I think we brought them back to San Diego.
“One thing I never understood, on the trip to the U.S. we dumped a bunch of our planes over the side of the carrier. They were perfectly good, flyable airplanes. The TBM I took care of while I was in the Navy went over the side,” he recalled.
When the carrier reached California he and many of his buddies were discharged.
“We took a slow train out of San Diego and headed home. It must have taken me a week to reach Ohio,” Mack said. “It was a good trip because I was going home—I had spent the last two-years and eight-months in the Navy and I was still only 19.”
His folks knew he was coming. Both Mack’s older brothers had already returned from the war a few days before he showed up.
“When I joined the Navy at 17 I was 5-feet, 2-inches tall—the shortest you could be and still get in. When I returned home after the war I was 5-feet, 8-inches—people didn’t recognize me.”
Mack took the G.I. Bill and went to art school in Akron, Ohio for the next four years. When he graduated he couldn’t find a job that paid anything in his chosen profession. So he went to work for one of his older brothers as a machinist. Almost three decades later he retired and he and his wife, Eleanor, moved to Englewood in 1993. They have three grown daughters: Susan, Becky and Lee.
“It was the happiest day of my life when I went in the Navy. I couldn’t wait to get out of town,” Mack said with a smile. “I wasn’t gone a day and I couldn’t wait to get home.”
Name: Michael M. Mileski
D.O.B: 4 May 1926
Hometown: Kent, Ohio
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: June 1943
Discharged: Feb. 1945
Rank: Seaman 1st Class
Unit: USS Santee CVE-29
Commendations: WWII Victory Medal
Battles/Campaigns: Battle of Leyte Gulf, Philippines, Battle of Okinawa
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Sept. 19, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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