“I looked out toward the city as she disappeared on the horizon, and I remember I couldn’t shake the feeling that nagged at me,” he said. “I felt that I wouldn’t be coming back.”
He had no way of knowing at the time, but he was headed smack for the middle of the largest naval battle ever fought on the face of the earth: the Battle of Leyte Gulf, fought Oct. 23-26, 1944, between the U.S. 3rd, 5th and 7th fleets and three fleets of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The Japanese fleets included the Yamoto, the huge battleship with the biggest gun afloat.
The Natoma Bay was an escort carrier manned by just over 1,000 men. On its deck were two to three dozen fighter planes and a dozen or so torpedo planes. Its job was not to battle ships, except for attacks by the torpedo planes, but to shell and soften up beachheads and provide air support for troop landings until air bases could be built and land-based planes brought in.
U.S. soldiers and Marines had invaded the island of Leyte on Oct. 20. Among other historic events taking place, Gen. Douglas MacArthur had waded ashore Tacloban, about five hours after the first landings, to fulfill his promise to the Filipinos of, “I shall return,” uttered when he was forced by the Japanese to “relocate” from the Philippines by torpedo boat to Melbourne, Australia, in March 1942.
The reality and horror of war hit home quickly for Webb. Word came to him that one of his friends, Johnny Riddle of South Shore, a Marine on one of the landing craft in the task force that included the Natoma Bay, was killed as he made his way up the beach. Webb’s brother, Carl, also a Marine in the attack force, was just about 100 yards behind Riddle when he went down.
One of Webb’s shipmates was Harold Adams of Lucasville. He was a 21-year-old aviation machinist mate whose battle station was on the flight deck, where he loaded torpedoes on the Avengers. His World War II experience was told earlier in the Daily Times by reporter Deborah Daniels.
Webb did mostly office work as a yeoman, but during the battle with the Japanese fleet, Oct. 24 and 25, he spent more than 36 hours in General Quarters, manning the 40 mm anti-aircraft guns at his battle station. There were times, he said, thinking of his thoughts on leaving San Diego, when he wondered in just what fashion he would be taken out.
The ships in the Natoma Bay fleet shot down or destroyed 76 Japanese planes in three days.
The Natoma Bay, the only U.S. ship to go through the entire operations of Iwo Jima, the Philippines and Okinawa from the beginning until all secure, was one of the most decorated ships in World War II, wining 11 battle stars.
Operations she took part in included the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, Western New Guinea campaign, Battle of Leyte Gulf, Battle of Mindoro, Invasion of Iwo Jima, Operation Magic Carpet, Subic Bay, Battle of Okinawa and the battle of Sakishima.
Webb said there were at least three times when his premonition of his death came close to being fulfilled.
One involved the kamikaze attack. The Battle of Leyte Gulf is also notable as the first battle in which Japanese aircraft carried out organized kamikaze attacks. The tradition of suicide instead of the shame of defeat was deeply entrenched in the Japanese military culture.
The one that struck Webb’s ship came later in the war, during the Battle of Okinawa. The peak in kamikaze attacks came during this battle, in April through June 1945, when 1,465 suicide planes sunk or put out of action 30 U.S. warships.
“No one saw it coming until it was right on us,” Webb said. “Not a shot was fired at it. Three of us were on a plane watch on the open bridge. I was the messenger. We saw the kamikaze nosing down toward the end of the flight deck. We all three hugged the deck. We were maybe 60 feet from where it hit. It went through the flight deck and exploded on the deck below. One man down there was killed.”
The propeller was about the only part salvageable from the plane. Horseshoe-shaped hat-pins were later made from the metal and presented to each of the crew members.
The U.S. had three groups of escort carriers, six in each group. The main Japanese fleet attacked at dawn on Oct. 25. It shelled the northern group and the southern group was under attack from round after round of kamikazes. The Natoma Bay was the only carrier able to launch planes. Its planes had exhausted the whole supply of bombs by noon. It was attacked by 40 Japanese planes but its guns repulsed the attack, shooting down 17 of them. Kamikaze attacks sunk the St. Lo, one of the other U.S. escort carriers in the task force. After that, more than 2,000 Japanese planes made such attacks.
At the end of the day, Webb’s escort carrier group had accomplished a task that only a large carrier task force should be expected to undertake. In spite of Adm. William F. Halsey’s Third Fleet chasing a Japanese decoy group north, leaving the San Bernardino Strait unguarded, the Japanese main fleet was turned back.
At the end of the battle on Oct. 26, Japan had lost three battleships, four carriers, 10 cruisers and nine destroyers, almost an entire fleet.
On the 26th, Natoma Bay’s planes continued to pound the enemy and assisted in sinking a light cruiser and her accompanying destroyer. Then, after replenishment of bombs, fuel and food, she resumed support of the ground forces on Leyte.
“They called those escort carriers like he was on the ‘Little Giants,’” said Webb’s wife, Virginia, as she listened in on the interview of her husband in their Sand Hill, South Shore, Ky., home last week.
“He’s never shared much of this story with me or the kids,” she said.
By mid-February, 1945, Natoma Bay’s planes flew 123 sorties to prepare the way for the assault by Marines on Iwo Jima.
It was June 7, 1945, just after the Natoma Bay had escaped the clutches of a killer typhoon, that the “Zero” blasted a 12-by- 20-foot hole in the flight deck.
“We were off the northern coast of the Philippines when the storm hit,” Webb said. “We lost one destroyer that rolled over. At one point, we took a 38-degree roll to the port side. If it had rolled that steeply to the starboard side, where the flight tower and superstructure were located, they said we would have gone on over and sunk.”
Three times crew members on the Natoma Bay heard Tokyo Rose announce their “obituary.”
“She put out a lot of propaganda designed to lower our morale. Three times she came over the radio announcing that the Natoma Bay had been sunk. They played it over the ship’s loudspeakers so we could all hear it,” Webb said.
Webb was discharged as a Yeoman Second Class on May 21, 1946, exactly two years after leaving home for the Navy. He came home and married Virginia, who was then Virginia Vanhoose, his high school sweetheart. They celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary on Aug. 29.
They have two sons, Randy and Steve; two daughters, Mary James and Frances Webb; and nine grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
His brother, Paul, also made it safely home. He married Jean Phillips.
Webb participated in six of the Natoma Bay’s battles that she won battle stars in. His individual awards include the American Campaign Medal, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, the Philippine Liberation Medal, the National Defense Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
Webb, 83, worked five years for the N&W Railroad, now Norfolk Southern, and then finished his working career at the Didier-Taylor Refractories plant, now North American Refractories, where he retired as a shipping foreman.
On Sept. 1, 1959, the Natoma Bay suffered an inglorious ending to her brave three-year Pacific duty. She was sold for scrap iron to Japan.
But, about a mile off the coast of Japan, the good ship’s towline broke.
She rolled over and sank to the bottom of the sea.
“But Tokyo Rose wasn’t around to report it,” Webb said.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236.