Growing up on the family farm in Breckinridge, in the middle of landlocked Oklahoma, young Rex Campbell had the ocean on his mind.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the Navy,” he said.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II, Campbell decided to join the Navy rather than take his chances in the draft.
“I never did think I’d like to dig a foxhole,” he said, smiling. “When we got out there in the water, I kind of wished I was where I could dig one.”
He especially wished that when his ship was sunk by Japanese surface fire during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. But his story begins long before that fateful day.
In November 1942, at 20 years old, Campbell, the third of six children, joined the Navy.
He was sent to Naval Station Great Lakes for training. Since he had attended welding school and briefly worked in the aircraft industry, the Navy assigned him to aviation metalsmith’s school.
After 26 weeks of school, Aviation Metalsmith 2nd Class Campbell was assigned to the U.S.S. Gambier Bay.
The Gambier Bay was a Casablanca-class escort carrier, also known as a jeep carrier or a baby flattop, because they were smaller, less armored and cheaper to build than their larger fleet carrier counterparts. The Gambier Bay was dubbed CVE 73 (the crews of the baby flattops joked that CVE stood for Combustible, Vulnerable and Expendable). It was the 19th and last such carrier built in 1943 by the Kaiser Shipbuilding Co. in Vancouver, Wash.
Campbell boarded the Gambier Bay not long after it was commissioned in late 1943.
May 1, 1944, the ship sailed with a crew of 860 and a complement of 30 aircraft to join the 7th Fleet as part of the invasion of the Marianas.
When the Gambier Bay was launching and recovering aircraft, Campbell worked with the landing signal officer, letting him know whether the planes had their flaps, landing gear and arresting hooks down. He also worked in the aviation sheet metal shop, welding and repairing the metal skin of the ship’s airplanes.
The Gambier Bay saw a lot of action, supporting the landing of Marines on Saipan, then supported U.S. action on Tinian, Guam, Peleliu and Angaur.
Sept. 19, 1944, the ship joined an escort carrier task unit in Leyte Gulf. The task unit, dubbed Taffy 3, consisted of six escort carriers, three destroyers and four destroyer escorts, and was stationed off Samar.
When Admiral William “Bull” Halsey’s 3rd Fleet left Leyte Gulf to engage the Japanese in the Sibuyan Sea, the ships of Taffy 3 were the only ones still in the area off Samar.
But the Japanese fleet turned its attention to Leyte Gulf. On Oct. 25, 1944, four battleships, six heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and 11 destroyers steamed off the coast of Samar, bound for Leyte Gulf.
Taffy 3 was all that stood between the approaching Japanese ships and Leyte Gulf, so the task force turned to fight. U.S. planes launched from the escort carriers attacked the Japanese ships until their ammunition ran out, then flew dummy runs to slow the enemy’s advance.
The escort carriers put out smoke screens to try and cover their escape while U.S. destroyers engaged the enemy. But the carriers came under fire nonetheless and the Gambier Bay, at the rear of the formation, was pounded by Japanese surface ships.
The Japanese were using shells containing different colored dyes. When a shell hit, spotters would relay the information to the gunners, who would then adjust their aim. One such shell struck near Campbell, splashing him with red-dyed water.
“That water splashed up and got on this arm and I looked down there and saw the red and I thought it was blood,” he said. “But I didn’t have a scratch on me.”
Around 8:20 a.m. on Oct. 25, 1944, an 8-inch shell struck the Gambier Bay and flooded the forward engine room, cutting her speed in half. Before long the ship was dead in the water and was listing badly.
Campbell was battling fires near the ship’s stern when he heard the call to abandon ship.
“I looked out there and there were just guys everywhere in the water,” he said. “There just wasn’t anyplace to jump. I was darn glad I didn’t because I had my helmet on. I might have stretched my neck out.”
Campbell slid down a line hanging off the side of the listing ship and dropped into the oily water. He began to swim for all he was worth.
“I thought I could swim away from the ship,” he said. “I was really going, I thought I had gone a long ways. I looked back and there that darn ship was. I guess I was going against the tide.”
He turned and swam along the side of and away from the doomed ship. The aircraft carrier didn’t stay afloat very long. At 9:07 a.m. the U.S.S. Gambier Bay capsized and sank.
“It went under so fast when it got ready,” said Campbell. “It just rolled over and kind of come up and, boy, it was gone. I didn’t think they would go down that fast.”
Campbell swam to a floater net designed to keep sailors afloat, if not out of the water. There was a life raft as well, but it was filled with wounded men.
“We put our heads in the middle and we could rest our head on one another’s shoulder and put our feet to the outside,” Campbell said.
There were roughly 16 or 18 men on the floater net and in the raft, Campbell said.
Not long after they went into the water the men had unwelcome company — a Japanese ship. The Japanese sailors stood at the rail, watching their helpless enemy.
“They were so close you could see their teeth,” Campbell said. “We thought they were going to shoot at us. But they didn’t.”
The Americans quickly drifted away from the Japanese ship, which Campbell surmised had been damaged by U.S. fire.
Campbell’s group then had inhuman visitors — sharks. They circled ominously underneath the raft and floater net until someone suggested noise might scare the deadly fish away. So the men took knives and pounded on the floater net’s steel frame. It worked. The sharks left, never to return. Other groups of survivors weren’t so lucky, as several offered accounts of shipmates lost to sharks.
The men had no fresh water and no food, other than a few crackers. The nights weren’t bad, Campbell said, but the days were blistering. He had a cap to cover his head (“I didn’t have much hair then, either,” he joked.), but he had kicked off his shoes before swimming away from the ship and his feet quickly became badly sunburned.
As the hours wore on, some of the men became delusional.
“The first day it wasn’t very bad,” Campbell said. “But the next day there were some guys getting kind of delirious. They were seeing water fountains and women. I couldn’t see any of that stuff and actually, I thought there might be something wrong with me.”
A couple of the men tried to reach those phantom water fountains and were lost.
“That second day was bad in the daytime because it was so hot,” he said.
In all, two escort carriers, two destroyers and a destroyer escort were sunk in what is known as the Battle of Samar. But in all the time Campbell and the men he was with were in the water, they never saw another soul.
Campbell and his shipmates were in the water just short of two days, some 46 hours, before they were rescued by an American PT boat. They had drifted some 30 miles from where the Gambier Bay went down.
The PT boat’s crew offered the exhausted survivors coffee and cigarettes. Campbell neither smoked nor drank coffee, but this once he made an exception.
“I drank coffee, we were thirsty,” he said.
The rescued men then were taken to a hospital ship in Leyte Gulf. When they were strong enough they were transferred to the S.S. Lurline, a civilian ocean liner pressed into military service during the war, which took them first to Australia, then to San Francisco.
“There was a swimming pool on there,” Campbell said. “Of course, we didn’t need the swimming pool.”
As the ship sailed into San Francisco Bay, the captain told the men to stay on their side of the ship, not to crowd the rails on the side toward the Golden Gate Bridge for fear the vessel might capsize. They didn’t listen, of course.
“I was scared to death,” Campbell said. “I thought ‘Man, this thing is going to turn over,’ but it didn’t.”
After being examined by doctors, Campbell was returned to duty. He spent the rest of the war in Pensacola, Fla., and was discharged in 1946.
The crew of the Gambier Bay shared in a Presidential Unit Citation and four battle stars. The Gambier Bay had the distinction of being the only U.S. carrier sunk by enemy surface fire during World War II. Miraculously, nearly 800 of the Gambier Bay’s crew survived, while more than 130 were lost.
After leaving the Navy Campbell came home to northwest Oklahoma, where he did various jobs before returning to farming. He farmed around Pond Creek and Hunter until 1995, when he retired. Along the way he married and raised two children, then raised a grandson after his daughter died of a heart attack.
Today Campbell resides at Burgundy Place, where he enjoys rooting for the St. Louis Cardinals and Oklahoma State Cowboys.
Editor’s note: If you are a veteran, a family member or friend of a veteran, email Managing Editor Cindy Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know your story.