September 29, 2015 - 6:37 pm
They jumped off the aircraft carrier and swam for their lives when the USS Bismarck Sea sunk 70 years ago during the battle for Iwo Jima.
On Tuesday, four of the ship’s last survivors reminisced about that kamikaze attack by two Japanese warplanes at what they said might be their final reunion.
The four — Rudy Moraga, 89, of Las Vegas; John Papadakis, 92, of Chico, Calif.; Dick Miller, 90, of Menominee, Mich.; and Mario Mendes, 89, of Ripon, Calif. — estimate they are the only ones of about 25 remaining survivors who could travel to this latest of the Bismarck Sea reunions that began in 1987.
Moraga, a flight deck crewman, scrambled to find a helmet as word spread that kamikazes were approaching.
“Boom! The first suicide hit us. It hit right below me,” he recalled during a press conference at the Plaza Hotel. “It knocked me out. I couldn’t move any more. … I didn’t know if I was bleeding bad or what.”
A shipmate led him to the bridge, where Miller applied bandages to his head wound.
When it came time to jump, Moraga, a good swimmer, persuaded another sailor to go to a side where they wouldn’t land on others in the water.
“He said, ‘No. It’s too high,’ ” Moraga said, describing how he fooled the sailor into thinking he was going to show him something, then shoved him overboard and jumped in after him.
Moraga looked for him but couldn’t find him “so I just took off. I saw him the next day. He survived.”
Moraga was in the ocean for four hours before he was rescued by a destroyer. All he could think about during that time was “survival. Try to survive. I was a lifeguard a year before and had plenty of time in the water. I had no problems at all swimming and holding my breath.”
Mendes said while he was “pedaling around there” he thought, “Gee. It would be terrible for my parents to get a telegram saying that I had perished, because I had lost my brother on the island of Saipan. He was a Marine. … I was thinking how terrible it would be if I didn’t make it.”
The four were joined by some 30 family members and widows of survivors. Walter Becker, 94, of Casper, Wyo., had planned to attend but didn’t make it Tuesday. He was one of only four who escaped the ship’s engine room.
More than 300 of their shipmates were killed when two suicide pilots crashed their planes into the carrier, sinking it on Feb. 21, 1945. Another 605 sailors from the crew of 923 were rescued by other ships after spending much of the night in heavy seas.
Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, with a martini in hand and a showgirl at his side, said he hopes this won’t be their last reunion. He offered to repeat the reception by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority’s Host Committee should they decide to return next year.
“Every year you want to come back here and celebrate the miracle which took place when you were out there by Iwo Jima on the Bismarck, you’ll be welcome,” said Goodman, Host Committee chairman.
“And if you ever need a guy to drink with you, you’ll know where to find him,” he said.
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