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September 7, 2008

Our War: Belleville sailor survived kamikaze attacks

Belleville resident Edward Bauer, 82, dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot as he finished his senior year at Cathedral High School. He joined the Navy two days after graduation in the spring of 1944. They told him his eyes just weren't quite good enough to make the cut. The next thing he knew, he was a mechanic in the engine room of the USS Horace A. Bass.

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Belleville resident Edward Bauer, 82, dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot as he finished his senior year at Cathedral High School.

He joined the Navy two days after graduation in the spring of 1944. They told him his eyes just weren't quite good enough to make the cut.

The next thing he knew, he was a mechanic in the engine room of the USS Horace A. Bass -- a ship named after a Navy fighter pilot who won the Navy Cross at the battle of Midway before being shot down in August 1942. The brand new vessel was originally to be a destroyer escort, but during construction was reconfigured as a high-speed transport ship to support South Pacific island hopping.

"We picked that ship up brand new in Quincy, Mass., and I was on it the whole time," Bauer said. "That's how I knew I logged 80,000 miles during the war, because that's how many miles there were on that ship when it was over."

The Bass could haul six quarter-ton trucks, two 1-ton trucks, four ammunition carts, four howitzers and more than 160 troops and all of their supplies.

Bauer worked in the hot and claustrophobic engine room in the belly of the ship most of the time. But when attacks came, he was pressed into duty on the deck.

"When general quarters was sounded I was a loader for one of the twin 40 mm anti-aircraft guns on the bow," Bauer said. "The shells came in clips of four, and I would pick them up and give them to the gunner."

He did plenty of lifting on April 6, 1945, when the ship was off the coast of Okinawa just as the Japanese launched a huge air assault on American forces trying two wrest control of the strategic island.

His ship was credited with splashing at least one enemy plane.

"We were right there on the bow, and we had the best shot at it," Bauer said. "We had a good gunner. He kept the barrel aimed where it needed to be. I think it was us that got him."

Hundreds of Japanese planes came in wave after wave of attacks that day.

"Everywhere you looked, something was falling out of the sky," Bauer said.

A couple of weeks later after helping to fend off an air raid, the crew of the Bass proved it could be deadly to attackers beneath the waves as well.

On April 25, 1945, the ship is credited with sinking a Japanese submarine with a depth charge south of Okinawa.

Bauer said he was never scared in battle. It was the time in between fights that gave him time to think.

"I figured I probably wasn't going to make it home," Bauer said. "But I wasn't really scared. I didn't have a wife or family that depended on me back then. So you just did what you were supposed to do and didn't worry about it too much."

On July 30, 1945, Bauer and many of the other men were in their bunks at midnight when an explosion rocked the ship. A kamikaze had crashed into the ship's side.

Bauer was uninjured. The guy sleeping one bunk down was decapitated.

"I don't know why I walked away without a scratch and he was killed," Bauer said. "I'll never forget that sight."

Bauer made his way through the passages of the ship to safety, still in shock from the attack. Containers of Foamite fire retardant were ruptured by pieces of the suicide plane and they leaked into the hallways. Under the red lights that lit the walkways the floor looked like it was covered inches deep in blood.

He found his way to a crewman. Bauer tried to explain what happened.

"I opened my mouth to talk and nothing would come out," Bauer said. "I couldn't say anything for about an hour."

During the cleanup, Bauer found a couple pieces of the skin of the airplane, both painted red, indicating they came from the section of the wing where the Japanese rising sun emblem was painted. He still has the painted cloth.

Bauer said the Bass almost was hit by a kamikaze another time. He was in the engine room with another crewman wearing sonar headphones when the other sailor pulled the headphones off in reaction to a loud humming noise that hurt his ears.

As soon as he could say, "What the hell was that?" an explosion rang out.

"It was a suicide plane that was lined up to hit us," Bauer said. "He pulled up at the last second, flew over us and hit a hospital ship instead. He flew right into the big, red cross painted on the side."

By mid-August 1945, the war was coming to an end. When word came that the Japanese were going to surrender, the Bass was sent to the Yokusuka naval base where the crew of the tiny ship sailed up alongside of the giant battleship Nagato, accepted its surrender and occupied the ship that still had working heavy guns.

Bauer said the Bass was led into the harbor by a Japanese seaman who showed the Americans how to navigate the mined waters outside of the harbor.

The target of suicide bombers and suicide submarines, the Bass crew was wary of the Japanese sailor's trustworthiness. They wondered if he would lead the American ship to its doom.

"That crossed my mind," Bauer said when asked if worried about the trustworthiness of the captured sailor. But in the upcoming days, the tension of war gave way to the jubilation of the new peace.

Bass crew members found that the Nagato was brimming with barrels of sake. Bauer said guards with rifles were told to shoot anyone who tried to steal the booze.

"We heard a couple of shots," Bauer said. "But we knew the guards were probably shooting into the air. They weren't going to shoot at their own guys."

The lax work of the sake guard, and of crews assigned to guard American beer, led to drunken celebrations.

"There was a guy who could play piano and he convinced a Japanese guy to let him come over to his house to play his piano," Bauer said. "Then he convinced the Japanese guy to let him borrow the piano so he could play a concert on the ship. They put it in a boat and took it out to the ship. It ended up in the hold alongside of a Jeep. I have no idea how the Jeep got there."

A pair of the Bass crew members took over a geisha house on shore. When word came in the spring of 1946 that the ship was heading for home, they decided to stay.

"They told them they had to come with us and brought them back to the ship," Bauer said. "But they stole a little boat at night and went back to land."

After the entrepreneurial sailors were found and brought back to the ship a second time, they were locked in the brig to make sure they didn't jump ship again.

Bauer had no desire to stay.

"One of the officers told me he thought that I should go for (machinist) second class," Bauer said. "But I told him I wished he would bust me down to fireman. Then I would have enough points to go home."

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