HENRICO, Virginia – The homes along Balmoral Avenue are nearly 15,000 kilometers from the Philippine Sea, but to the man who lives in a house, the water seems so close he can almost taste it.
“It was terrible. It was terrible,” said Walter Gammon. “I didn’t get too much sleep that night. I’ll tell the world.
Gammon may be the last person cut off for marine service. The Danville native grew up working in the fields with his 14 siblings and he can’t swim.
“Sixty acres. We had a 60-acre farm, ”said the 96-year-old. “High tobacco. We had tobacco. I knew how to change a wheel on a wagon.
Yet he joined the United States Navy during World War II at the age of 19. “When I left, I was aboard the USS Hoel.”
On October 25, 1944, Gammon and his shipmates faced insurmountable difficulties. During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the USS Hoel was struck by superior Japanese forces. The destroyer sat dead in the water.
“We were doing our best,” Gammon said. His boat was sinking and men were dying all around him.
“He took the hit and the flesh of the wound fell on my shoe,” Gammon recalls.
The Virginia farm boy had a decision: stay on the crippled ship or jump into the ocean.
“I found a half life jacket. I put it on and took care of it on my own. I jumped off the bow of the ship, ”said Gammon.
The teenager, who can’t swim, takes in the air until a shipmate pulls him onto a raft.
“Less than 10 minutes after leaving the ship, the Hoel was gone. I saw him come down, ”he said. “I looked back and it was all gone.”
But Gammon’s situation is going from bad to worse.
“I felt like I had lost my home and the few friends I made,” he said. “Everything was calm.”
Survivors expect to be rescued that morning, but rescuers do not come. Sailors float on open waters – alone.
“We were there all night,” Gammon recalls. “I did all I could to help those on the raft.”
The hours turn into days with little fresh water and no food.
“When I saw this guy drink seawater, I knew he wasn’t going to make it. He was delusional. He just lost it, you know?
An injured crew member dies in Gammon’s arms.
“They had to take off his life jacket and said a few words. On the other side, he went. The sharks ate it before dark, ”Gammon said.
Finally, on the morning of the third day – salvation. American ships wrested Gammon and a few dozen beaten sailors from the sea.
“55 of us surviving on three lifeboats,” he said. “All I could think of was going home. I survived. I’m going home.”
253 members of the Hoel crew perished.
“It was remarkable that anyone was saved,” he said.
Gammon earned a Purple Heart and the crew received a Presidential Unity Citation.
“I think I was more scared than brave,” he said.
After the war, Gammon returned to Virginia, got married, and had children. He worked for the RF&P Railroad for over 30 years.
“I knew that by having faith I had a chance,” Gammon said.
Walter Gammon, 96 years old. The last known survivor of the sinking of the USS Hoel.
“I feel bad every day. But I can’t do anything. I tried to make the most of it, ”he said.
77 years later – memories of her struggle to stay alive and of this still distant ocean – wash over her.
“Every day. Every day of life. It was something you won’t forget because it was so real,” he said.
The story of the sinking of the USS Hoel is detailed in the book “The Last of the Tin Can Sailors”.
Bravery must run through Gammon’s family. His older brother Archer was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of the Bulge.
If you know of anyone who should be in my “Heroes Among Us”, email me at email@example.com