Floresville vets recall WWII kamikaze attack
William J. Gibbs Jr.
Wilson County News
October 8, 2014
It has been almost 70 years since Floresville resident Pedro Martinez “Pete” Devora awoke in the Pacific Ocean after being blown off the deck after a Japanese kamikaze plane struck the USS Sangamon. However, the memories of the events of May 4, 1945, still ring clear in the mind of the 89-year-old U.S. Navy veteran.
Devora, the eldest of seven children of a Kasper community farming family, was 18 when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Oct. 30, 1944. He had been helping his mother care for the family, due to his father’s ongoing illness.
“It was completely different,” Devora said. “Because I never worked in the Navy like I worked on the farm.”
After boot camp in San Diego and a brief furlough, Devora was stationed at a base in San Francisco. He and three other area residents were among a crew of more than 1,000 who were assembled to become the crew of the USS Sangamon -- a former fleet oiler that was converted and recommissioned as an escort aircraft carrier, according to navsource.org. Among those Devora served with were Rufino Gonzales of Floresville, Frank Lopez of Stockdale, John “Eddie” Gilbreth of Falls City, and Longino “Lonny” Monreal of Austin.
Devora became an assistant gunner, which also included sweeping, mopping, and painting as the vessel traveled the islands of the Pacific Ocean.
Devora and Gonzales knew each other prior to their military service. Ironically, they were drafted the same day and followed each other through the Navy. Gonzales, now 88, was one of five children born to a sharecropping family, who worked farms in areas such as Floresville and Loma Vista. But aboard the Sangamon, Gonzales was a gunner.
“I operated the guns on the side of the ship,” he said. “I was on the left side, Pete was on the right side.”
“We invaded Okinawa on April 1. It was on a Sunday, the first Sunday of the month, Easter Sunday,” Devora said.
But perhaps the most memorable event in the lives of both Devora and Gonzales would come on that fateful Friday in 1945. May 4 was a day that Gonzales said started like any other. Things changed rapidly when evening came, because their ship came under attack by Japanese kamikaze planes.
Attack in the night
“It was almost dark when the planes came through and started firing at us; you know, we fired back,” Gonzales said. “I could see the bullets coming at me, too, from the aircraft. Every fourth bullet, they had one red, the tracer.”
Gonzales said he remembers two planes going down on his side before they were able to hit the ship, and he thinks that he hit one of them.
“I was lucky that they didn’t hit me,” Gonzales said.
Devora is credited with shooting down another one of the enemy aircraft.
“When I was by the gun, I had to tell them to break me loose, because I was frozen,” he said. “I was frozen by the 20-millimeter.”
Devora continued, “(The plane) was going to hit us. We hit him before he got to us. That ship was turning left, and when we started firing on the plane, he started turning right, and he went into the water. If we wouldn’t have hit him, he would have landed right on top of us.”
As darkness closed in, the next aircraft -- a twin-engine bomber -- disappeared into the clouds and the Sangamon’s crew lost sight of the plane at approximately 7 p.m. The plane was among 20 that were headed for the carrier, but 10 were shot down by pilots from the island, with an additional seven planes being destroyed by the carrier. The crew hit a second plane.
But the bomber reappeared from the clouds and was headed straight for the flight deck. Gonzales said despite an onslaught of rounds from 40-millimeter and 5-inch guns, the determined pilot got through and was headed for the rear of the vessel.
Devora said the bomber’s pilot pulled up before making contact with the deck and struck its tail against the flight deck. This caused its payload of bombs to detonate, resulting in a tremendous explosion that tore a crater through the ship’s center and a fire that decimated most of the carrier’s supplies.
“I could hardly describe it; it was terrible,” Gonzales said. “The flames started right away. I heard all of these explosions.”
Survival at sea
The inferno grew rapidly, spreading atop the flight deck where 30 parked planes -- including Grumann TBF Avengers and F6F Hellcats -- started to catch fire. Historical accounts indicate that the Sangamon’s crew was forced to push many of the burning planes off the deck and into the ocean.
Devora could not describe the very moment when the impact occurred.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I was blown off, 85 feet from the waterline. No hat, no nothing. I didn’t have a T-shirt, just my pants, my shoes, and a lifebelt.”
He added, “I got knocked out. I woke up in the water. When I hit the water is when I woke up.”
Devora awoke in the Pacific Ocean without a scratch. However, the gunner whom he assisted was killed. Devora said accounts of the death toll vary from 35 to 85. He remembers floating in the ocean, along with other men who were blown from various points of the vessel, including one whose life was spared when Devora tied him to a plank.
“I saw death three times in about 15 minutes,” said Devora, who was plucked from the water and transported to a military hospital in Hawaii. He recovered there until his discharge in February 1946.
Gonzales, who was belted to his gun, managed to stay on deck. He and others rushed into action to jettison the ammunition to lighten the ship, which was being weighed down by the water used to fight the fire.
The USS Sangamon limped back to port at Norfolk, Va. Once the ship docked, Gonzales was taken to a military hospital, where he was treated for high blood pressure and back injuries. He was discharged from the hospital in 1945 on his birthday, Nov. 16.
Despite it being nearly 70 years since that fateful day for the USS Sangamon, it only was on July 21 of this year that Devora received military honors related to his service, thanks to a call he placed to U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s office. During a ceremony in the American Legion Post 38 Hall in Floresville, Cuellar presented Devora with the following:
•World War II Victory Medal
•American Campaign Medal
•Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, with one bronze star appurtenance
•Presidential Unit Citation Ribbon
•Combat Action ribbon
•Honorable service lapel pin with Ruptured Duck.
Devora said he also is working with Cuellar’s office to receive a duplicate of his lost Philippine Presidential Unit Citation Badge. The medal is issued only by the Philippine government.
Gonzales awaits receipt of his military honors. His brother, Fred, 77, is working to research the medals and ribbons he is due.
After the war, Devora returned to Floresville and eventually would become a well-known barber and prominent member of the community. His former Devora & Lucio Barber Shop is in its 55th year of operation. His daughter, Olga Sendejo, now owns the shop and operates it under the name “Ray & Olga’s Barber Shop.”
Including Olga, Devora and his wife, Maria, are the parents of six children.
Gonzales also returned to Floresville and worked as an auto mechanic at Sheehy Chevrolet. He later worked as an airplane mechanic at Kelly Air Force Base.
Gonzales and his wife, Sevora, were married 54 years before her death in 2009. The couple have two sons.