Dear Mom and Dad:

I can now tell you all just where I was. I was in the Philippines invasion at Leyte, you have all heard so much about. ...

It was the largest naval battle in World War II, and Robert Springer rode through a typhoon to get there.

In October 1944, the seaplane tender USS San Carlos joined battleships, destroyers, cruisers and fleet and escort carriers for the Battle for Leyte Gulf.

“Our little old seaplane tender, they invited us to go in with the battle wagon,” Springer said. “And boy, that’s a show.”

The battleships circled, he said, and as they moved past the island, they bombed, cruisers following behind them. The San Carlos fueled the seaplanes, which served as spotters for the battleships. A seaplane would land on the water, and crews from the San Carlos would throw out a hose.

The seaplane tender carried 80,000 gallons of AV gas, a variety of bombs, ammunition and six torpedoes.

Springer has a book, “World War 2 Recollections of the USS San Carlos,” written by one of the ship’s radio technicians, Robert Henwood. He puts it this way: “If San Carlos had ever been hit she would have gone up like a Roman Candle.”

The book contains the specifics Springer has since forgotten. He says now that he should have written his memories down. But back then, he didn’t want to think about it anymore.

“I wasn’t interested,” he said.

What he has of his own is a letter he sent to his parents in Laramie. It ran on the front page of The Laramie Republican and Boomerang one month later: “Robert Springer Tells of Narrow Escape at Leyte.”

Springer was drafted at 18, plucked right out of Laramie High School. He was already overseas when he got his diploma a year and a half later.

He picked the Navy, just like two of his cousins.

“I liked that blue suit,” he said.

Training in Farragut, Idaho, came first, and for 16 weeks he marched, tied knots and paddled a doggone boat around the lake for training exercises.

On the USS San Carlos, Springer manned the 20mm battery on the ship’s deck and bridge. The seaplane tender arrived overseas at Green Island and tended to PBY planes whose mission it was pick up downed American pilots. Rescued pilots would come aboard the San Carlos and radio for someone to pick them up.

The seaplane tender later took care of a group of PBYs called the Black Cat Squadron, painted black for stealth night missions. The planes came in at early dawn, landing on the water. They’d anchor to a large rubber float, and San Carlos crews sent boats with ammunition and bombs out to the Black Cats and tossed down a hose to refuel.

As Springer remembers it, only two men on the San Carlos were injured during the war, burned by acid on the ship.

Once, the Japanese dropped a bomb, and it bounced several times. Springer said he could have reached out and touched it. It stopped 50 yards away from him and blew up, only destroying part of the ship’s fantail.

“God was looking after us,” Springer said. “And it wasn’t the only time.”

Springer’s best friend Thayne Smith — Smitty — served onboard with him. They held reunions with other San Carlos men for several years, and today they talk on the phone when they can.

Springer and Smitty were once assigned to scrape and paint the side of the ship. They lowered the scaffolding all the way down to the water.

“We went swimming,” Springer said.

“We had a good time, when they weren’t shooting at us.”

Springer remembers the good times, “being able to come home, and having a beer every once in a while.” Every third day, the crew went ashore and held a party.

“What a party. Just to kind of relieve ourselves, so we didn’t have to worry about a thing.”

Things like the time six men from the San Carlos were transferred to the sister ship. A Japanese kamikaze crashed into its rear.

“They died.”

Springer doesn’t know why those six men were the ones chosen to transfer; “that’s captain’s orders.” But those men he’d been serving with all that time didn’t get to go home.

On the second day of the Battle for Leyte, a twin-engine Japanese bomber flew toward the San Carlos. The crew hit battle stations and fired.

Springer wrote his parents: She never shot at us at all, because the fire power of our guns killed all of her crew. We blew off her right wing. She crashed 20 feet from the port side amidship and blew up. ...

Salvaged were wheels, pieces of the body construction, money, maps, pictures and a woman’s purse with rouge and lipstick inside.

They said that they probably had a woman radio operator in the plane.

Springer’s war was supposed to continue on. He was on his way back the U.S. to be refitted for an invasion when the crew received news.

“We were in the middle of the ocean going home and we got word that Japan surrendered,” Springer said. “Boy, break out the booze.”

After a 30-day leave, Springer returned to the Navy in California. He felt sick, and when his ship docked in San Diego, he walked straight to the hospital.

He had a 105-degree temperature. Rheumatic fever.

Springer had survived war on a ship that saw no casualties onboard. And after 16 weeks in a hospital, his body healed.

It was just as he had written his parents years before.

That’s all for now. I will write again in a few days, so for heavens’ sake don’t worry about me, I will be all right. With love. Bob.

Reach features reporter Margaret Matray at 307-266-0535 or margaret.matray@trib.com.

 

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