- Associated Press - Monday, June 6, 2016

SPRING GREEN, Wis. (AP) - Clete Ring can tell most of his story with relative calm.

It was October 1944 and the then-18-year-old, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy 17 months earlier when he was a junior at St. Luke’s High School in Plain, was deep in the bowels of the USS Gambier Bay, the Wisconsin State Journal (https://bit.ly/1TP33tw ) reported.

The aircraft carrier, named after a bay near Admiralty Island in southeast Alaska, was in the throes of the Battle of Leyte Gulf near the island of Samar in the Philippine Sea. The 7,900-ton, 512-foot-long, Casablanca-class escort carrier was being pummeled by shells from the attacking Japanese fleet, taking on water and beginning to list.

Wounded by shrapnel, Ring somehow found his way to daylight. He jumped into the sea and began to swim, something he had learned as a child in Honey Creek, a trout stream about a half-mile from his home in southern Sauk County.

Ring and more than 800 others spent more than two days clinging to floating nets, life rafts and anything else that would keep them above water before they were rescued. The vast majority of the Gambier Bay’s crew survived, but 147 died in the attack. And for Ring, it is this part of the story where his voice cracks, his eyes become moist and the realities of that day hit home.

Even 72 years isn’t enough to make remembering the chaos, devastation and lost lives any easier.

“It’s the guys I couldn’t help, seeing them laying there all tore up,” said Ring, 90, as he sat in a recliner in his apartment at Greenway Terrace Assisted Living in Spring Green. “Even by telling the story, the people really don’t know what it really is.”

Time has claimed all but a handful of the ship’s crew.

Ring, who has attended Gambier Bay reunions over the years, believes there are only six to eight men who have not “crossed the bar,” a term from a poem by Lord Alfred Tennyson who used the extended metaphor to represent traveling from life through death.

Ring was not the lone Wisconsinite aboard the ship.

They included Harold Devine of Antigo, who was killed in the battle, and whose name is on a memorial at Fort Rosecrans in San Diego. John Lemirande of Green Bay died in 2007. He was born in Oconto Falls and after the war started a family, was married for 59 years, had two children and ran his own heating company, according to his obituary.

George Legath, 91, was in the aft engine room when the ship was attacked. He knows of Walter Kalbe of Milwaukee who was killed in the attack and of Donald Topczewski, who was born and married in Milwaukee but died in 2010 in Colorado at the age of 86.

Legath, a Milwaukee native, was aboard the Gambier Bay in December 1943 when it was commissioned in Astoria, Oregon, took part in war campaigns in the Mariana and Palau Islands and barely got off the ship due to multiple injuries during the attack 10 months later.

Riddled with shrapnel, Legath began to work his way to an opening but was thwarted by exploding shells and the angle of the ship, which sunk just over an hour after the attack began.

Legath, who spoke by phone from his home just west of General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, said he finally exited at the waterline but from an area of the ship that should have been 30 feet above the water.

“I knew I had to get off of there, somehow. Survival mode had set in,” Legath recalled. “I didn’t think I would get off. I thought I was dead.”

When he reached the water, his inflatable life belt was torn and useless but he found two boards about a foot wide and 6 feet long, entered the water, hugged the boards and began to kick. A short time later he reached a one-man yellow life raft that had two or three other sailors clinging to its side.

“It was about as far as I could go because I was starting to black out because I was bleeding pretty bad,” Legath said. “They saw that I was wounded and they pushed me into that raft.”

Legath, who said he had 18 holes in him, spent eight months in a hospital.

When he returned home, he married and started working in the tool room of a now-defunct Milwaukee company that made parts for locomotives.

He spent 41 years with the firm and eventually was the plant manager.

Clete Ring barely made it off the ship as well.

After the initial attack, he began making his way to the top of the badly damaged ship and was aided by another sailor who guided Ring through the dark corridors to a ladder that led to the hanger deck above.

They had only taken a few steps when an incoming shell exploded nearby.

“You could hear the shell coming. They whistle like a son of a bitch,” Ring said. “There was one plane sitting on the forward elevator and that shell hit that plane and that’s the last I remember. I was out for a long time and when I come to, I never did see the guy that was with me. I don’t know who he was but he was my guardian angel.”

The explosion left Ring injured in three places and shredded his clothes. He found a spot to jump from the ship but the attacking Yamato, then the largest battleship in the world, was less than 200 feet away.

“I thought I had no chance at all but I jumped in anyway,” Ring said. “With our ship going down, taking on all that water, and the Yamato, with those big propellers, it was just like jumping into a washing machine.”

Ring spent 54 hours in the water and three months recovering from his injuries in San Francisco. He was granted a 30-day leave to go home via train and then returned to the West Coast, where he worked in an Oakland, California, supply depot.

After his discharge in 1946, Ring worked for six months in an auto parts plant in Detroit but tired of the monotony. He returned home and drove truck for Kraemer Brothers Construction in Plain, did some plumbing, worked as a steam fitter at the Badger Army Ammunition Plant near Baraboo and then, for nearly 30 years, ran his own service station in Plain.

Ring wears a Purple Heart ring on his right hand, which still bears scars from the battle, and his apartment is filled with medals, books and baseball caps related to the Gambier Bay.

The disabled veterans license plate on his 2012 GMC pickup is framed by a USS Gambier Bay “survivor” chrome license plate holder. A bumper sticker notes he served in WWII and the trailer hitch cover says, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere.” And yes, Ring still drives.

Two to three times a week, he spends his morning at the Ring Brothers car restoration shop founded by two of his sons, Jim and Mike.

Last week, Ring, who walks with a cane, sat in a motorized chair watching Jim Ring work on the front of a Navy blue 1965 Ford Mustang.

“Early on he never really said anything to us kids about it,” Jim Ring said. “But as he got older I wanted to hear what took place. It’s some crazy stuff.”

Back in Clete Ring’s one-bedroom apartment, a model of the Gambier Bay sits in a clear case on the sill of the large window in his living room, while a painting of the stricken ship is framed above his couch. Family photos fill his shelves and some of the apartment’s walls. Ring’s survival led to the marriage of his high school sweetheart, and seven children, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

One of his granddaughters, Jamie Ring, who will be a 19-year-old sophomore at Edgewood College in Madison this fall, can barely fathom being away from home for three years like her grandfather, much less going through a battle at sea thousands of miles from home.

“We rely on our parents a lot more than we used to,” said Jamie Ring, who later became emotional as she heard her grandfather retell his story. “I couldn’t even spend a couple of months away from my mom in college.”

For Clete Ring, whose wife of 68 years, Anne, died in November, he knows his life has been blessed by God. His experiences with the Gambier Bay, however, remain vivid and won’t fade until he crosses the bar.

“It’s a lot of memories,” Ring said. “There’s a lot of good ones and a lot of bad ones that you’d like to forget, but they keep coming back.”

___

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, https://www.madison.com/wsj


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