Wake of the torpedo
Las Crucen survived largest naval battle ever
By MIKE COOK
Las Cruces Bulletin
Dwight Weir was 17 years old when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1943.
During the next two years, he would serve on two battle cruises in the South Pacific, surviving enemy fire and three kamikaze attacks that killed many of his fellow sailors. And, Weir would participate in the largest naval battle in the history of the world.
The story of Weir’s service in the South Pacific during World War II is just one of “the many, many more stories out there from the men and women who served in all branches of the service,” Weir said. “All of us have experienced good and bad times that we cannot forget.”
Born on a farm just outside Wichita, Kansas, in 1927, Weir served four years in the Navy and later worked for several aircraft companies and for Naval Intelligence. He moved to Las Cruces 30 years ago.
Weir entered boot camp at Naval Station Great Lakes, Illinois in the spring of 1944. After his recruit training was cut short
SEE NAVAL, PAGE 23
The USS Columbia with an unidentified carrier in Surigao Strait, Philippines, in January 1945, less than a week before three kamikaze attacks.
CONTINUED FROM 1
because of heavy snow, Weir became part of the U.S. Seventh Fleet (referred to as “MacArthur’s Navy,”) and the military campaign to retake the Philippines from Japanese control.
He was assigned as a gunner’s mate on the U.S.S. Columbia, a 610foot, 13,100-ton light cruiser nicknamed “The Gem of the Ocean.”
Weir and the Columbia crew were among more than 200,000 American and Japanese sailors and soldiers who engaged in the Oct. 23-26, 1944, Battle of Leyte Gulf. Fought near the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar and Luzon, the U.S. Naval Institute called it “the biggest and most multifaceted naval battle in history.”
Weir remembers his ship being shelled early Oct. 23, before it had even set anchor. The Columbia was hit by three-inch shells, but continued firing on the enemy. It became part of the huge “capping the T” blockade that evening, maintaining a speed of about 15 knots to hold its position amid swift ocean currents, Weir said.
The first battle lasted less than 30 minutes.
“The sky was light with our firing and their firing,” Weir said.
At the Oct. 25 Battle of Surigao Strait, Weir remembered hundreds of Japanese sailors in the water after their ships were sunk after being attacked by machetewielding Filipinos in canoes. Many of the sailors drowned themselves, he said.
On the Columbia, a gun would be emptied in about 25 minutes of fighting, Weir said, and by that time, he and his fellow gunners would be exhausted from the anxiety and accelerated blood pressure of battle.
A decisive victory for the U.S., “the Battle of Leyte Gulf was indeed pivotal,” U.S. Navy Lt. Commander (ret.) Thomas J. Cutler said on the U.S. Naval Institute website. “It represented the last hope of the Japanese Empire and the last significant sortie of the Imperial Japanese Navy.”
In December 1944, as the Philippine Campaign continued, Weir was part of the invasion of Mindoro Island.
“We were under constant air attack,” he said.
“The Japanese knew we were coming.”
Things “went squirrely” during an air attack on the ship on Dec. 14, Weir said. Four men were killed and 13 wounded, with the dead being buried at sea the next day. Columbia’s first casualties, they would be remembered at a memorial service Weir attended more than 60 years later in Portland, Maine.
On Jan. 6, 1945, the Columbia picked up 124 survivors of the USS Ommaney Bay, which had been sunk the day before when kamikaze attacks blew it in half.
“They were in bad shape,” Weir remembered about the survivors.
Many were wounded and had oil in their lungs. Some became members of Columbia’s crew.
The Columbia itself was hit by the two kamikaze attacks on Jan. 6.
During the first attack, gunfire from the Columbia “lifted the plane over the middle of the ship,” Weir said, where it rolled over and exploded. Because of burning fuel from the suicide plane, “the whole ship was set on fire,” he said. Some gunners, firing from their gun tubs, were engulfed in burning fuel and later died, Weir said.
The second plane penetrated the main deck and its 800-kg bomb penetrated the second and third decks before exploding.
A third kamikaze attack on Jan. 9 killed 24 American sailors and wounded 97.
“Despite her crippled condition … the Colum-
SEE NAVAL, PAGE 25
The USS Columbia in May 1945 in San Pedro, California.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF DWIGHT WEIR
Dwight Weir and some of his fellow sailors aboard the USS Columbia. Weir is in the center rear. Those with green checks were killed in action.
CONTINUED FROM 23
bia stoutly continued her heavy bombardment schedule after each fanatical attack,” U.S. Navy Sec. James Forrestal said in a commendation of the Columbia’s crew, “sending her salvos into enemy gun positions and facilities with punishing effect in gallant support of our assault forces until her vital mission was fulfilled.”
“That ship was my home.”
From July 29, 1942, until Sept. 2, 1945, the crew of the Columbia was credited with destroying 27 enemy planes and six enemy ships, and participating in nine shore bombardments.
The USS Columbia was decommissioned and placed in reserve in Philadelphia in November 1946 and sold for scrap in February 1959.
After leaving the Navy, Weir didn’t want to return to the family farm in Kansas, so he went to work in the weight and balance section of Cessna Aircraft.
The CEO told him, “We think we can make a pilot out you.”
“I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a try,’” Weir said.
“I learned to fly in six hours.”
Weir worked for Cessna for three years, then 12 years for Boeing and 26 for Hughes Aircraft. In addition to being a pilot, he worked as a field engineer and taught Navy pilots how to use simulators. Later, Weir worked for Naval Intelligence.
Weir and his wife, Carolyn, have been married for 57 years. They moved to Las Cruces in 1984, where Weir sold aircraft parts for Bayjet Inc. for about 10 years before his final retirement.
Weir turned 90 Sept.
8. He’s among about 40 surviving members of the more than 1,200-member crew of the USS Columbia during its WWII service.
“That guy upstairs was looking out for me,” he said.
Weir’s Honor Flight
SEE NAVAL, PAGE 27
The USS Columbia.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DWIGHT WEIR
CONTINUED FROM 25
to Washington, D.C., in 2005 brought back a lot of memories, he said.
“I still have bad dreams at night,” Weir said. “I still have visions of the gun crew.”
Here are some of Weir’s specific memories of his service about the USS Columbia:
“While on board the ship, if we were not on watch our day would start at 5 a.m.,” Weir said.
“The compartment temp was so hot we could not stay down there at night. We would find a place topside to sleep, being careful to find a place we would not be knocked off. My spot was on a little platform under a large (five feet in diameter) searchlight. So that I would not roll off, I would lock one leg around a brace.
“At 0600, we would go to the mess hall for our breakfast. At 0700 we would fall in at our division headquarters. We would salute the officers.
That salute was good for all day. The only officers we had to come to attention and salute was the captain and the executive officer.
“We would be given special jobs. When they were finished, we would go to our battle stations, cleaning guns and ammo, making sure everything was working.”
Dec. 25, 1944
“Our ammo and fuel were getting low. I was on a landing craft going over to the ammo ship about five miles away from all ships. We needed sixinch, five-inch, 40M and 20MM ammo. We loaded the landing craft full – we couldn’t get any more in.
“We started back to our ship. At about the halfway mark, when the Japs made an air attack.
“We couldn’t go to our ship or back to the ammo ship, so we made circles while Jap planes were over us. Some were being shot down and falling near us.
“A destroyer saw us and the problem that we were in (and) came over and made a smokescreen that we were able to hide in until the battle was over.
“That was how we spent our Christmas.
“Everybody except the captain, the executive officer and the chaplain had to help in unloading the landing craft by forming lines and passing the ammo to each other.”
Kamikaze attacks “Going to the mess hall, we had the chance to meet and talk to the other men in the other divisions aboard ship. I got acquainted with Calvin Adams. He was in the sixinch gun director. When the third suicide plane hit, (it) sheared off the 17-ton director.” (Adams, 24, from Dallas, was officially listed as missing in action.) “When the second suicide (plane) hit, there were 17 men in the sixinch gun magazine that died. They were removed at Pearl Harbor. We came back to the States to get repaired (at San Pedro, California). It took five tons of welding rod and over 50 miles of electrical wire to make us seaworthy.” (The kamikaze attack had blown a hole in the side of the ship.)
“On our third cruise, (we) went to Balikpapan, Borneo, to support the Australians’ landings. We had three mine sweepers with us.
“Gen. Douglas MacArthur was with us on the U.S. S. Cleveland CL55, one of our sister ships.
Two of the mine sweepers hit mines and blew up.
The third mine sweeper took a direct hit from a shore gun.
“All the men on the three mine sweepers were killed. They brought their bodies to our ship. Our medics did the paperwork on the bodies. That night, we took their bodies farther out to sea for burying.
“We got back to Borneo about midnight and took up our shelling position.
We had been back for a short time when six Japanese torpedo aircraft attacked us. We could not fire our guns, as they might hit the other ships around us. They launched their torpedoes at us. We had one that was only 50 feet off our port side; it traveled the length of our 610-foot long (ship). It missed us.
“What was odd was the plankton in (the) sea gives off a luminous light at night when disturbed. We could see the torpedo’s wake as it went by us.
“What was a big surprise was that the Air Force had a new radar aircraft, a P61. As the Japanese pulled up, the P61 would shoot them.
They shot down five of six planes. What is really strange about this (is that) the man who was my boss turned out to be the pilot that night. He had retired as a lieutenant colonel. We had a lot of talking as (we) remembered that night.
“After the Borneo landing, we moved on to Okinawa. We were to meet up with the U.S.S. Indianapolis. The ship never came.
We found out later that it had been sunk.
“We were at Okinawa a week at Buckner’s Bay.
We were pulled out for an anti-shipping sweep – China coast in the East China Sea from Formosa Strait to latitude 28-40N.
We traveled 300 miles up the Yangtze River. The Yellow Sea was mustardcolor( ed) and had a very strong fishy smell. The Yangtze River was the same way. We were up the Yangtze when they dropped the first atomic bomb. (On Aug. 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped “Little Man” on Hiroshima, Japan.) “Our ship was made a flagship by Admiral G.D.
Murray and Brig. Gen.
Robert Blake, USMC, for the inspection of Truk Island. This island in the Marianas had never been invaded during the war. The Japanese came aboard the U.S.S. Columbia (and) laid their swords on the table and surrendered the island.
End of the war
“The U.S.S. Pennsylvania was anchored about 1,000 yards off our stern in Okinawa on Aug. 12, 1945. They had told us that the war was over.
At around 03:00 a.m. on Aug. 13, 1945, a Jap torpedo plane came in and torpedoed the Pennsylvania, killing quite a few men.”
Dwight Weir and fellow USS Columbia shipmates at a 2011 reunion. Today, only about 40 of the, 1,200-member crew during WWII still survive.
PHOTO COURTESY OF DWIGHT WEIR
Dwight Weir attended boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station, Illinois, in the spring of 1944.
Dwight and Carolyn Weir have been married for 57 years.