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Our War: Swansea sailor survives kamikaze attack

Clarence Engle of Swansea was an 18-year-old Navy draftee tasked with refueling and maintaining the aircraft aboard the USS Ommaney Bay.
Clarence Engle of Swansea was an 18-year-old Navy draftee tasked with refueling and maintaining the aircraft aboard the USS Ommaney Bay.

A Japanese kamikaze pilot attacked the USS Ommaney Bay on Jan. 4, 1945.

Clarence Engle of Swansea was an 18-year-old Navy draftee tasked with refueling and maintaining the aircraft aboard the ship. He had just fueled up his assigned planes and was operating the elevator that moved the planes from below deck to the top deck when the suicide pilot flew in and dropped his payload.

Engle remembers the impact shaking the entire ship and the massive flames and dark smoke rising from the deck. He managed to escape burning, fully-gassed planes, explosions and ricocheting .50-caliber ammunition set off by fires only to find himself treading water for nearly an hour in shark-infested waters in the Sulu Sea.

"And through all that, I escaped without a scratch," Engle, 83, of Swansea said. "Not a single scratch. Some days you were scared, some days you weren't. You just laughed about it. I didn't think I'd ever get home alive. I certainly never dreamed I'd make it to 83 years old."

Two bombs were dropped by the Japanese suicide pilot. One went through the bridge, the other through the deck of the ship, causing the planes on the deck of the ship to explode and causing a heavy, black smoke to rise from the ship. The order was given to abandon ship and Engle leapt into the sea.

"All that fire, the planes were on fire, the whole rear of the ship was on fire and I thought it was the end of the world for all of us," he said. "Thoughts about things back home were running through my mind -- the things I did, the things I should have done, the things I shouldn't have done -- that's all I could think about."

Ninety-three men were killed in the attack and 26 were wounded. The destroyer ship, the USS Burns, sailed in to rescue the survivors and sink what remained of the Ommaney Bay with a torpedo.

Engle and the rest of his crewmates received two battle stars for "distinguished service in battle" for their time aboard the USS Ommaney Bay.

Engle didn't know about the sharks until he was safely aboard the Burns, he said. That's when he learned the Sulu Sea was loaded with sharks.

"I would have been scared if I'd known we were floating in shark-infested waters. Heck, I was scared after I found out," he said. "They told us the explosion of the bombs probably scared them out of the area and that's the only thing that saved us."

Conditions on the Burns were much more crowded than on the Ommaney Bay. And the food was nothing to write home about, either, Engle said.

"They fed us sandwiches for dinner," Engle said. "The coffee was no good, the jelly sandwiches were no good. The food was no good. We had to eat standing up. Talk about crowded. They had sailors and Marines and Army guys. They had everybody on there going back to the U.S."

He was a seaman first class. Before he was assigned to fuel and maintain the planes, he was a garbage grinder and a mess cook, he said.

"We had to weigh the garbage down before we threw it over," he said. "We had to do that or the Japs would see it floating out there and follow it to us."

For more than 60 years, Engle kept in contact with one sailor from the USS Ommaney Bay, Donald Clopper.

"Don was my buddy," Engle said. "We used to go everywhere together and we'd stick together. After our ship got sunk we were on this little ship, the Burns, then we got transferred to a little battleship together. I had a good time in the Navy and Don and I were always assigned to the same place."

Clopper died last year, Engle said.

The pair spent their shore time in San Diego, which is where Engle acquired two new tattoos -- a tradition among sailors.

"And then, after I got them, they told us that if the Japs took us prisoner they would cut off the tattoo and send it to the Navy," Engle said as he slid up a sleeve to show a faded black tattoo on his left forearm. "I had got one on each arm and thought 'uh oh!'"

One particularly memorable night in San Diego was the night when movie star Jack Carson walked into the Brown Derby Restaurant while Engle and his buddies were enjoying a few rounds of beer.

"He asked us if we'd already had dinner, and when we said we'd had, he walked up to the bartender and told him to send us all as much beer as we wanted," Engle said. "He said to put our bill on his tab."

When he returned to his hometown of East St. Louis, Engle met his future wife, Virginia. Three weeks after they met, they married.

"All in all, I was satisfied with the way things turned out," Engle said.

He talked about the war in Iraq and how different it is compared to World War II.

"All those men and women are over there fighting for this country, and it seems to me people put them down," he said. "If I could, I'd go over there right now, at 83, and fight for my country. I couldn't do much, but I'd sure do what I could."

Contact reporter Jennifer A. Bowen at jbowen@bnd.com or 239-2667.

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