Surviving World War II
Growing up during the Great Depression times were tough, but that didn’t suppress a spirited young boy from dreaming about flying airplanes. Ninety-five-old Stanley Abele, a retired Navy Commander and a WWII fighter pilot has seen a lot in his life. But one fateful day in May of 1945 will never be forgotten. As a young man in his twenties, Abele stood patrol on the USS Bunker Hill between Okinawa and Japan when the unthinkable happened. Kamikazes attacked crashing into the ship narrowly missing him. Fires broke out and thick smoke led to a survival-mode mentality. While Abele and less than a couple dozen other pilots survived, he learned more than 600 were killed in the attempt to sink the ship. Abele sat down with Risen to share war stories from a piece of history that affected so many.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Coronado, California
Risen Magazine: What ignited your initial love for flying?
Stanley Abele: As a kid I liked airplanes. I made and flew model airplanes, in those days they were powered by a rubber band. I made them and sold them to neighborhood kids. I read all the airplane magazines I could find. I was hooked on aviation. I was in high school and noticed in the newspaper that this guy was giving airplane rides at the airport. So, I got on a streetcar transfer to a bus, transfer to another streetcar, transfer to another bus to get to the airport. I was determined, I wanted to go fly. The airplane was old with corrugated aluminum sides, a wreck but it was an airplane. It had three engines, completely underpowered. I didn’t know the difference, I just wanted to fly. I get in and the window didn’t open, it was a little beat up piece of junk. I paid my fifty cents, I get in the airplane and he [pilot] takes off. He makes a big wide circle and lands. That was my introduction to flying.
RM: You became a fighter pilot in the Navy during World War II, but it wasn’t as easy to fly as you thought it would be.
SA: When I joined the Navy, they sent me to CPT (Civilian Pilot Training). I wasn’t on active duty and didn’t wear a uniform, but they sent me to flying school. The war came in December and in January I went to enlist. I took all the tests and the guy asked what college I went to. I grew up during the Great Depression so I didn’t go to college, I was too poor. You had to be a college graduate to be a naval officer. He said I could be an enlisted man. I told him I wanted to be a pilot, not an enlisted man, so I left. About four months later the Navy put an item in the newspaper saying that they were having difficulty finding enough people and they were doing away with the college graduate requirement. Guess who was banging on the door at eight o’clock the next morning? I was so eager to get into the Navy.
RM: In 1945, you were on the USS Bunker Hill when it was attacked and hundreds of men were killed while you survived. Share what you remember from that day in May.
SA: I was in the ready room briefing to go fly. I leave to walk to my airplane and I’m standing next to my airplane putting on my parachute harness when I hear an airplane. I look to the side and I see an airplane coming straight towards the ship and I thought it was one of our guys flat-heading (goofing off). I turn around put another buckle on, turn back around to look again and see that the plane is getting closer and I realize that it’s a bad guy. He flew right over my head and hit the wing tips of my folding air wings, about ten feet above me, missing me. He crashes and the plane next to me blows up. So, I’m standing there wondering, “What do I do next?” I hear another airplane, I look up and see a second kamikaze. He’s about 300 hundred feet over the ship coming straight down. I see the bomb leaving the kamikaze and I’m standing there. The bomb hits the ship, it blows up and the airplane crashes to the base of the island so I’m thinking, “Now what do I do?”
The flight deck was on fire and I was downwind of the fires but wanted to get upwind so I thought to myself, I’ll go down to the hanger deck, go forward, come back to the flight deck and help fight the fires. I grabbed the plane captain, an 18-year-old sailor who didn’t know anything more than I did. I grabbed him saying, “Let’s get out of here!” We get out on the catwalk, open the hatch and nothing but smoke comes out. We walk thirty feet, open the hatch, fire and smoke. Finally, we get down to the fan tail of the ship, still fire and smoke. We couldn’t get into the ship. Now we’re at the end of the ship, we can’t go any farther, we’re stuck there. The ship is moving forward, and the fire is going towards the end of the ship, I’m stuck down in the catwalk and about 15-20 other pilots joined me, after evacuating their aircrafts.
We stayed there for a while until the smoke got so bad we couldn’t breathe anymore. The smoke is what killed most of the people. We were coughing and hacking, pulling out handkerchiefs to cover our mouths and noses. Finally, it got so bad that the airplanes close to us were beginning to burn and they were loaded with ammo, bombs, and rockets so they were going to explode soon, and they were only twenty feet away. Finally, we decided to jump, so we all jumped overboard eighty feet down to the water. I lost a shoe when we hit the water. We’re floating around, and I figured the plane guard destroyer would come along and pick us up in no time. Well the carrier and plane guard destroyer disappeared into the horizon. They weren’t stopping to pick us up at all. I don’t know if they saw us or not, but they didn’t slow down.
RM: What was going through your mind in the water?
SA: I was looking around and we were the only people in the ocean. Not a ship in sight, I thought, “Where is the ship that is going to rescue us? There isn’t one!” We stayed in a group so that we’d be more visible if someone came along. We talked about what could happen. Fortunately, we didn’t see any sharks. It was nearing sunset and I was worried that if they didn’t get rescued soon it was going to be dark. Will they search for us in the night? Will they send someone back tomorrow to look for us? If they did, would they find us? It didn’t look very pretty. Finally, right before sunset after being in the water for about 3-5 hours, we come to the top of a swell and we see the master of the destroyer, he’s coming up the wake of the ship picking up survivors.
RM: What an incredible sight that must have been to see help on the horizon?
SA: Yes! He finally gets to us, they help us climb aboard and the first thing they do is put a cup of coffee in my hand. I gave it back to them. I hate coffee, I don’t drink coffee. I didn’t realize I was cold and needed to drink it. I only had one shoe on and one of the stewards came up and gave me his shoes. And I said, “I don’t know how to thank you!” That was something very unusual. I’m sorry I didn’t get his name, I could have sent him a few bucks to buy him a new pair of shoes.
I spent the night on the destroyer, the next day we caught up to the Bunker Hill and we get back on board. The first thing I did was to find someone in the squadron to tell them that I was alive. And then I saw the ready room was blown apart. The bomb had landed one compartment over from the ready room. The blast killed everyone in the ready room, I had just left less than one minute before the bomb hit.
I was looking around and we were the only people in the ocean. Not a ship in sight, I thought, “Where is the ship that is going to rescue us? There isn’t one!”
RM: What a close call. How did surviving affect your faith?
SA: I survived because the man upstairs wanted me to. He wasn’t ready for me yet. And God’s still not ready for me, I say, Take your time. [Laughter] Surviving the kamikaze attack strengthened my faith for one thing. I survived because I believe the guardian angel was taking care of me. The guardian angel was working overtime that day because I had two misses in nearly a minute and a half. A lot of people got religion that day. I was always of the Catholic faith and practiced my faith all the time. I was just thanking God that I was still alive, that I survived without being hurt.
RM: What lasting effects, if any, do you feel from seeing first-hand the ramifications of war?
SA: I don’t have nightmares or think about it. We were too busy. On the way home, we were writing letters to the next of kin, while a formal letter was sent to each family. You see some of us had known each other for about two years and we were friends. We knew the families of a lot of the guys who were killed. We inventoried their items in a box, wrapped them up and sent them home to their next of kin. When I got back I had gotten orders to Jacksonville, I was walking down the street with two of my friends from Bunker Hill, a plane flew right over our heads and the three of us jumped into this ditch, just an automatic reflex. “Let’s get out of here!”
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