Modesto man reflects on WWII kamikaze attacks

Editor's Note: This story and the accompanying video posted online contain graphic details of wartime victims.

Bob Mueller of Modesto was 17 years old and living in Southern California when he signed up to serve in the Navy in the spring of 1943, quitting school just a couple of months before graduation.

"I was working in a gas station, changing the oil, changing the tires, putting the cars up on the grease lift," said Mueller, now 84. "The reason I joined the Navy was because I didn't have any money, and you need some money to get by."

About six months after he enlisted, he shipped out on the USS Suwannee, an aircraft carrier that mainly provided anti-submarine attacks and combat air patrols in fighting across the South Pacific.

The ship's worst casualties came on Oct. 25-26, 1944. The Suwannee had traveled to the Philippines to provide air support for the Army landings at Leyte Gulf. At 7:45 a.m., in the first kamikaze attacks of the war, the Suwannee and a sister ship, the Santee, were hit by suicidal Japanese pilots.

Mueller was on the bridge.

"I was standby helmsman," he said. "I ran around the back, on a catwalk that went outside of the bridge. I saw this guy coming in. I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, he's going to hit the bridge.'

"But one of our gunners hit his wing. That caused him to flip over and hit the flight deck instead," Mueller said. "He went through the flight deck into the hangar deck. His 500-pound bomb blew up on the hangar deck. We had probably 100 guys killed in there."

Amazingly, crew members were able to repair the ship's flight deck within a couple of hours. The dead, Mueller said, were tossed overboard, without being put into canvas bags.

"We didn't have any refrigeration to keep the bodies in," Mueller explained. One Web site said the bodies -- about 169 sailors were killed that day -- were thrown overboard at night to keep the Japanese from seeing how many people the ship lost in the attack.

Desperately tired

The next day, shortly after noon, Mueller was in his bunk on a four-hour break. He had been awake for almost 72 hours.

"I was dead tired," he said. "All of a sudden, I heard the guns shooting, which woke me up. The empty shell casings came down a chute right near my bunk. I started to get up. The (second kamikaze) plane hit the forward elevator and knocked it down."

This time, the incoming plane collided with a torpedo bomber. Both planes erupted and the fire spread to nine other planes on the flight deck. Mueller was trapped below deck until the fires were put out. He said he was continuously checking the three ways out from his bunk area.

"You never give up hope," he said. "Pretty soon, they got the fire out on the bow, so I could get out that hatch. There were a bunch of guys in the water, waiting to be picked up by a destroyer following us. I had one leg over the rail, but someone told me it wasn't that bad, that I didn't have to go over yet.

"Then two guys came out. I don't know how they could walk. Their clothes were burned off. Their hair was burned off. They were both burned from head to foot. An officer told me to put life jackets on them and throw them overboard. I thought, that's stupid. They would never have survived going into the saltwater. So I made a bed for them out of life jackets."

The grim realities of war surrounded him that day, when 58 more shipmates died. One "very brave man," Mueller said, went to fetch a hospital corpsman. But he ended up clinging to a rope with one leg blown off when something exploded near him. Then the ship rolled and he became a human torch as fiery fuel spilled on him.

"He screamed and dropped into the water," Mueller said. "That's just one of the sights I saw."

Another was later in the day, when those who had died were taken to a makeshift morgue in the torpedo storage room. Mueller said officers asked surviving crew members, if they were willing, to go and identify anyone they recognized.

"There was one fellow there with his head missing," Mueller said. "I recognized him as one of my buddies."

Another man, who survived the attack, had glass fragments from a porthole "take out his eyes," Mueller said. "They were just gone."

Tough sights for a guy who recently had turned 19. He relates the details in a matter-of-fact way, but said it's because he learned to tell the stories instead of keeping them inside, as many veterans do to cope with the horrors of war.

Ship limps to port

The second kamikaze attack damaged the ship's steering mechanism. The ship limped back to Pearl Harbor on its way to Bremerton, Wash., where engineers already had designed a replacement elevator. It was sitting on the dock when the ship arrived, Mueller said.

After a week's furlough to see his family, Mueller ended up in a naval hospital with pneumonia. He was still there when his ship left at the end of January 1945, headed back to the Pacific.

Mueller ended his naval career on a small ship in the Pacific before he was released from duty in October 1945.

"I was so excited to see the lights of the Farallon Islands (west of San Francisco)," Mueller said.

But going home was challenging in some ways, he said.

"I was feeling a lot older than I was," he said. "When I came home, all my friends who hadn't been in the service seemed so young. I mostly served with older men."

Mueller spent most of his postwar career working for IBM, and moved to Modesto in 2000 with his wife, Dorothy, to be near their daughter, Dianne Kelly. Dorothy died in April 2008. Dianne, a former teacher, works in Yosemite National Park and accompanies her dad to Suwannee group reunions.

"I learned that war is a terrible thing," Mueller said, but added, "I feel like it's a necessary evil. Sometimes something has to be done."

He knows, too, that many veterans don't like to talk about their war experiences. Who would, when they saw such gruesome, unsettling things?

"I could always talk about it," he said. "I recently broke my hip and was at English Oaks (convalescent center) for recovery. A young man was visiting his mom, and we got to talking. I told him my story. He said, 'I wish you'd talk to my dad. He'll never talk about his story.'

"I saw his dad one day and started talking to him. He told me his story, and I told him mine. It seemed to help. His son later came and thanked me. He said his dad had started talking about his war years."

Mueller believes God protected him during his time at sea.

"That first plane was heading right for the bridge where I was," he said. "If that gunner hadn't hit its wing, it would have hit the bridge. And if they had sounded general quarters before the second plane hit, I would have been standing right where another man was standing; he was killed.

"I don't know why some people died and others lived, but I'm sure God protected me."

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at 578-2012 or

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