Living to tell the tale

A former sailor talks about surviving ship’s sinking in WWII

Just before 7 a.m. on Oct. 25, 1944, the radio came to life on the U.S.S. Gambier Bay that a very large Japanese fleet was headed their way. The Gambier Bay was one of a group of carriers and destroyers that engaged the Japanese task force off Samar Island in the Philippines. Raymond Di Pietro, 19, of Bayonne, didn’t hear the broadcast. He worked below deck of the small aircraft carrier. But spotters high up in the ship’s towers saw the enemy fleet on the horizon—11 destroyers, 7 cruisers, and the Yamato, the largest battleship at that point in history.
But when the Yamato started firing from 17 miles away, Di Pietro knew about it, partly because the ship’s chaplain would give blow-by-blow descriptions of the battle.
“He would say, `that was a close one,’” Di Pietro said.
Some came even closer. His ship was pierced by 19 enemy shells below the waterline, but overall suffered nearly 30 direct hits.
The U.S. fleet was not prepared for an engagement of this kind. The Gambier Bay was an escort carrier, not meant for open warfare with other ships. These small carriers had planes meant to support missions for troops landing on shore.
The U.S. fleet of small ships thought it could survive by hiding in the cover provided by a small nearby squall. But the fleet changed course, heading straight at the Japanese and found itself engaged in one of the most lopsided battles in history, later called the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
“We had six small carriers and one five-inch gun on the fantail of each,” Di Pietro recalled during a recent visit to the Bayonne Sicilian Club. “What are you going to do with one five-inch gun? We had antiaircraft guns. But the Japanese ships just started firing away and we were getting whacked.”
Di Pietro was born and raised in Bayonne, a graduate of Bayonne Technical High School before joining the U.S. Navy.
“I was down below in the repair part at my battle station with another fellow when the lights went out,” he said. “We decided we should get out of there. So we went up a ladder, and the ship started to list. There was no abandoned-ship call because the sound was out.”
When they got up to the flight deck, a plane exploded, they fell on their faces, then rose, and headed toward the side.
“I had this little life belt—a balloon that goes around my belly. That was my life preserver. All you had to do was pull a little cord and a little CO2 bottle would inflate the life preserver. And I pulled the cord; nothing happened,” he said. “The thing had a little rubber tube on it. You turned the little knob and blow into it. There I am going through one little open door that’s on the side of the ship and blowing the hell out of this tube, and inflating. I’m thinking if I jump into the Pacific Ocean, and I don’t care how good a swimmer I am, I’m not going to last long. So thank God, the thing blew up. I tightened it, put the little tube back, and went over the side of the ship.”
In the water were life rafts. These were squares of cork holding up cargo nets for a floor. Usually the raft is equipped with malted milk tablets, biscuits, and a couple of water jugs. But when this raft came off the ship, the supplies broke away. He spent three days and nights in the raft with no food or water.
“We just sat there, cold as all hell at night and baking in the heat by day,” he said.
While he never saw any sharks, he knew they were in shark-infested waters. Others reported men being lost to sharks.
So desperate for something to drink, some of the men drank the salt water, and in the heat, went out of their minds.
“The next morning, they weren’t even around,” he said. “One night about 2 o’clock in the morning, we see this light skimming the water. We didn’t know if it was the Japanese or the Americans. The Japanese were still in the general area.”
It turned out to be a couple of beach landing craft with ladders on the sides.
“I remember trying to get up on the cargo net just to get on the deck, but I was so weak from just sitting there in the water, I almost fell over.”
But eventually he got out of the water.
“I’m fortunate to be here,” he said. “But it was so long ago, it seems like it never happened. I’m lucky. There were a lot of other guys who passed on.”
The final report said that 23 were known dead, 99 were missing, and 260 were rescued.
This year, Di Pietro noticed that around Memorial Day many people he met or who met other veterans seemed grateful.
“People kept saying, `Thanks for serving.’ In past years you didn’t hear too much. I think people are becoming more aware,” he said.
As a professional musician, he frequently plays Taps at public events, sometimes at the funeral for a friend.
“That’s my closure,” he said.

Became a professional musician later

After the war, Di Pietro went to work for the Tide Water Company in Bayonne as a messenger.
“Everybody in Bayonne was connected to that company somehow,” he said. “In those days, if you got a job with Standard Oil or Tide Water, you figured you had it made.”
Di Pietro’s father, Michael Di Pietro, also served in the U.S. Military. He came from Italy early in the century, and then went back as a U.S. serviceman in World War I.
“He lied about his age,” Di Pietro said. “He was 17 years old. He was a bugler, and that’s why I became a bugler, too.”
Actually, he became a trumpet player, and it was his father who taught Di Pietro how to play.
“My father was a trumpet player. I must have been 12 or 13 years old and he said in his broken English, “you want to play trumpet?’ I’m very proud of my father. So I said, ‘okay, let’s go.’ So we started,” Di Pietro recalled.
He said his father was a member of the Hudson County American Legion Band, from after World War I.
“They had great musicians and that was a very well-known band,” he said. “They went throughout the country.”
His father had close ties with one of the neighboring families who were also musicians, and even after all these years, Di Pietro laughs about some of the rivalries, and how he teamed up with two of the sons from the other family to form his own band.
“These guys could make their instruments jump through hoops,” he said.
He remembered playing a gig on the waterfront in Weehawken honoring writer and columnist Charles Osgood. These two men joined him. Later, these and several other Bayonne boys were members of the band featured in the wedding scene of the film, The Godfather.
“It was my honor to play with them,” he said. “Jack and Jimmy were great musicians.”
After the war, Di Pietro frequently performed at the Sicilian Club’s dinner dances where his father Mike had once served as president.
He remembered playing religious feasts, similar to the St. Anne’s Festival still held in Hoboken, how he and others would accompany the statue for the procession and then have to wait hours until night to play on the bandstand—long hours for very little money.
“We got a hot $14 for 12 hours,” he said with a laugh. “But in those days, you could buy a car cheap.”

Al Sullivan may be reached at

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