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The last day on the USS Princeton

by David Fleet

October 19, 2011

The USS Princeton burns in the Leyte Gulf in the South Pacific in 1944. Brandon Township resident Jack Bucholz was a sailor on that ship. Photo provided.
Somewhere on the floor of the South Pacific in the Leyte Gulf is Jack Bucholz' wedding ring.

"I was married Dec.1, 1942," said Bucholz, a Brandon Township resident. "I had to explain to my wife why my ring was in my locker and not on me when my ship sank," he laughed. "Actually, I did not want to wear the ring while working on the ship— I was in combat. The ring might get damaged."

Bucholz' ring, along with 108 sailors, went down with the USS Princeton during a vicious World War II Pacific battle. About 1,300 sailors survived.

Born in 1921 in Detroit, Bucholz attended Cooley High School in Detroit and went to work at Ford Motor Company after graduation.

"My father John was in the Army in World War I," said Bucholz. "He told my brother Bill and I, 'Join the Navy, you take your bed, food and a place to stay with you no matter where you go. It's the only way to go.' The trouble is, Dad never said anything about getting sunk."

In 1942, Bucholz hoped to get into the Naval Air Force—but there was a long wait for enlistment.

"The recruiter told me, enlist in the Navy and the time to get into the Naval Air Force could be shortened. He lied," laughed Bucholz. "I was working at Ford in the apprentice school, my boss was a real tough guy—we called him Mr. Bryant. He was hard on everyone, except on my last day of work when he heard I was going into the Navy he went out and filled my car with real nice gifts—kind of my send-off. I never forgot that."

He reported to Great Lakes Naval Station in northern Illinois and was transferred to the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. where he spent four months studying to become an aviation ordnanceman trained to operate and handle aviation ordnance equipment. Ultimately he was responsible for the maintenance of guns, bombs, torpedoes, rockets, and missiles for a squadron of aircraft.

Bucholz was assigned to the VF-23 Squadron comprised of 24 fighter planes and 12 torpedo planes. In the spring of 1942 he was sent to Philadelphia Naval Shipyard where the 622-foot aircraft carrier USS Princeton was in dock. About 1,500 men were on board when the ship sailed south to the Panama Canal and then into the Pacific Ocean.

"The ship was new when we got on," said Bucholz. "I remember when we came to the (Panama) canal. The captain told us if we wanted to be on deck and check out the countryside we had to wear our dress whites. I put mine on and stayed on (deck) the whole way through. Some men stayed in their jeans in their rooms or played cards—but I figured what a great experience. Years later, I returned with my wife on a cruise ship and went through the canal again."

Bucholz and the Princeton arrived in Pearl Harbor in 1943.

"We could still see the damage from the attack in (Dec.7) 1942 it was only 13 months earlier," he said. "It got our attention. The lights of the Arizona were still on and there were oil slicks. I just could not go over there (to the Arizona)—I just kept thinking about the 1,000 of my buddies that are gone. We left (Pearl Harbor) heading west toward Japan."

Bucholz recalls fighting near Baker Island and the Gilbert Islands.

"We shot down our first Japanese plane there near the Gilberts—we also picked up a group of Marines and dropped them off in New Guinea out in the Pacific. It seemed we just went from island to island. At one battle our group shot down 500 planes—we called it the 'Turkey Shoot.'"

In October 1944, Marine landings were made at Dulag and San Pedro Bay, Leyte.

Bucholz said the Princeton was part of task Group 38.4, was just off the coast Luzon and sent planes against airfields to prevent Japanese land-based aircraft attacks on U.S. ships massed in Leyte Gulf.

Bucholz recalls the events of Oct. 24 at about 10 a.m.

"I was on the flight deck—there was a 500-foot ceiling, it was a gloomy day. A single Japaneese plane, a Yokosuka D4Y 'Judy' dive bomber, dropped two bombs. The first missed, but the second bomb went through to the bakery and struck us, crashing through the flight deck and hangar before exploding."

That 500-pound bomb took out the ship's fire defense sprinkler system.

"They started to put the fires out with hoses. The bomb caused other explosions on the ship. Planes that were loaded with bombs went one right after the other—I could just watch them explode."

Bucholz recalled his thoughts.

"You're scared," he said. "There's a period of time you're saying to yourself, 'Do I cry, be a coward, help someone, fight a fire?' A ship is abandoned in three phases, first, groups of people that do laundry or cook ,then come the mechanics and engine workers, followed by the firefighters."

Bucholz had a life jacket.

"I went to the side of the ship, it was about 30 feet to water," he recalled. "I kept thinking, 'What are we going to do now?' The ship was still coasting—moving on its own power. So I jumped and activated my life jacket. I did not want to be there alone, but the Japanese kept flying over shooting at us in the water. So I stayed away from the groups of men. There was a group of about 12 sailors in the water near me. The water was warm and we kept thinking about sharks. I remember hearing gunshots—someone said they were shooting at sharks. I never saw any. I was a good, strong swimmer. It's a good thing, because my life jacket was very old. I was never scared of drowning, rather more about getting shot by the Japanese. But it's hard to get a good shot at us in the water. The Japanese planes were flying in at 400 miles per hour."

Bucholz was in the water for about five hours.

"We were finally picked up by the USS Morrison. In total about 400 of us got on that ship," he said. "They threw us a line and pulled me and about ten guys up alongside. We climbed up a rope ladder. The Princeton was still floating at the time. So one of our ships shot a torpedo at it—to scuttle it so the Japanese did not get it. However, something went wrong with the gyro on the torpedo and it missed the Princeton and almost hit another ship. Finally, a shot from the USS Reno sunk it. It looked like an atom bomb. We were then transferred to the Dole— a supply ship. We did not like it there, so they moved us to the USS Birmingham, where I was a gun captain, to sail back to Pearl Harbor."

Bucholz' younger brother Bill was also in the Navy in the South Pacific.

"As the Birmingham was coming into Pearl (Harbor), the USS Montpelier was leaving. I would learn later that my brother Bill was on that ship. I saluted him, but he never learned until later that I was passing him. Later in the war they would get hit by a kamikaze, but survived."

Bucholz was assigned to the Naval Air Station in New Orleans where he discharged in October 1945.

"I did not want to go back to work for Ford, so I took a job with the Detroit Free Press and four years later worked for The Oakland Press where I retired from in 1984."

Bucholz and his wife Jeanne had six children. Jeanne died in 1999.

"She bought me a new wedding ring," he said. "I'm not going to lose this one."