These WWII veterans fought on the USS Columbia. They’re uniting here one more time

The USS Pennsylvania leads the USS Colorado, USS Louisville, USS Portland and USS Columbia in a battle line entering the Lingayan Gulf before the landing of Luzon in the Philippines in January 1945.
The USS Pennsylvania leads the USS Colorado, USS Louisville, USS Portland and USS Columbia in a battle line entering the Lingayan Gulf before the landing of Luzon in the Philippines in January 1945.

Ed Jenkins is from Nashville, Tenn. Jack Weiss lives in Ft. Myers, Fla. Harlow Thompson calls Minneapolis, Minn., home. Stanley Beckett hails from Penndel, Penn. George Henry is from Atlanta.

These five nonagenarians plan to be in Columbia this weekend to remember their lives aboard the USS Columbia during World War II. It’s been about 75 years since they opened fire on the Japanese Imperial Navy one night at Empress Augusta Bay, or scrambled to complete a mission after being hit by three kamikazes in three days, or participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history.

“The USS Columbia was a very distinguished warship, fighting in many of the major battles of the war in the Pacific,” says Joe Long, curator of education at the SC Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. “From her initial launch immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor, through her mission to accept the surrender of the Japanese island fortress of Truk, Columbia’s hard-fighting crew met every challenge.

“The ship weathered major surface battles, air attacks, close support of Marines and soldiers on shore, deadly kamikazes and even a typhoon, and won through to victory.”

Like many World War II veterans, most of the nearly 2,000 who served on the ship during its tenure in the Pacific have passed away. Some are still alive, but can’t make the trip to Columbia for the USS Columbia reunion, Oct. 3-5.

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The USS Columbia near Surigao Strait, Philippine Islands, on Jan. 3, 1945, while en route to the Lingayen Gulf landings. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the Collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command

So Jenkins, Weiss, Thompson, Beckett and Henry will be the only crew members to attend this reunion, but they’ll be joined by approximately 60 family members of other shipmates, and those who appreciate the history and accomplishments of the USS Columbia.

“It’s a good history,” says Greg Shooner, who will travel from Ohio for the reunion. Shooner’s late father, Robert, was a radio technician on the USS Columbia.

The reunions started in 1984, and Greg Shooner and his wife, Mary, began attending them in 2004. He says the reunions have been full of memories, shared stories — and friendly arguments about those stories. Past reunions have been attended by hundreds of shipmates, but obviously as the years have progressed the numbers have dwindled. Shooner knows this could be the final reunion.

“(It’s an) important final meeting of the men who represented the city of Columbia against a fanatical enemy, in a war that decided the fate of this planet, and through pain, injury and sacrifice won, for us, the freedom we seem to take for granted today,” Shooner says.

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A Japanese plane plunges into the sea ahead of the USS Columbia as the warship steams in column with other cruisers during the attack on Bougainville, Nov. 1-2, 1943. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Men like Weiss, who was from Elkhart, Indiana, and enlisted in the Navy in December 1942. He served as a machinist second class and served on the USS Columbia until 1946, a year after the war ended. “He enlisted to support his country and its values,” says his wife, Sonya Weiss. “His time on the Gem taught him the value of teamwork, with everyone doing their assigned duties to make the ship a true fighting force.”

The USS Columbia, known as “the gem of the ocean” and thus nicknamed “the Gem,” earned a record of 10 battle stars and two Navy Unit Commendations. It was a Cleveland-class light cruiser, the most numerous and fastest of the heavily armed, but lightly armored ships that fought in the Pacific during World War II. These ships were larger than destroyers but smaller than battleships and were named for American cities. The USS Columbia was so dubbed for Columbia, S.C.

Shooner and the others who have continued the reunions the past few years don’t want the USS Columbia’s history to be forgotten. “One of the things we try to do, our mission, is to preserve the memory and history of the USS Columbia.”

They get a big boost from the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, which has a five-foot replica of the USS Columbia made by a crew member, and artifacts and archive material that shares the history of the cruiser.

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A flag from the USS Columbia is housed at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. Tracy Glantz tglantz@thestate.com

“The cruiser Columbia, and the city she was named for, have had a close relationship since the mayor’s daughter (Jean Adams Paschel) flew up to christen the ship in 1941,” Long says. “The South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum has been involved in the ship’s reunions and preservation of the ship’s history for many years, and we remain proud to preserve and display the Columbia’s artifacts, to pass the brave cruiser’s story on to future generations.”

Some of the USS Columbia’s history, provided by the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, includes:

In November 1943, the USS Columbia fought in the Battle of Empress Augusta Bay.

It was a night battle. The USS Columbia and other American ships opened fire. Two eight-inch shells from Japanese heavy cruisers hit the USS Columbia, but both were minor hits. Meanwhile, the USS Columbia assisted in destroying one enemy cruiser and a destroyer in the battle.

The USS Columbia received its first Navy Unit Commendation for its role in this battle “for outstanding heroism in action against enemy Japanese combatant ships off Empress Augusta Bay.”

Go here to read copy of the letter from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal about this commendation.

In late October, 1944, the USS Columbia took part in the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Throughout its deployment, the USS Columbia lost 60 sailors and Marines, whose names are noted on the USS Columbia Memorial in Memorial Park in downtown Columbia. The flag pole at that monument is the original jack staff from the ship.

On January 9, 1945 a Japanese kamikaze attacked the USS Columbia while supporting the initial landings at Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, Philipines. It was the third kamikaze strike in three days and killed 24 (seven of which were initially designated as missing) of the men. Ninety sailors and seven officers were wounded, and several compartments in the ship had to be flooded to keep the ship from sinking.

But 33 minutes after the kamikaze attack, the USS Columbia proceeded on its mission and earned a spot in naval history.

This earned the USS Columbia its second Navy Unit Commendation. Part of the letter from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal read, “Despite her crippled condition and the increased damage resulting from a third suicide crash into the forward battery director, the Columbia stoutly continued her heavy bombardment schedule after each fanatical attack, sending her salvos into enemy gun positions and facilities until her vital mission was fulfilled. A resolute and sturdy veteran, complemented by skilled and aggressive officers and men, the Columbia has rendered distinctive service, sustaining and enhancing the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Read the entire letter here.

This week’s reunion will include a 10:30 a.m. service at Memorial Park on Friday, which will honor everyone who served on the ship.

The local unit of the U.S. Navy Sea Cadets, a youth organization dedicated to the sea services, will be at the ceremony, serving as honor guard. The unit was renamed “Columbia (CL-56) Palmetto Division” in 2010 in honor of the USS Columbia.

“We try to connect the kids to the ship’s heritage with annual visits to the monument, and lessons about the ship’s career in the war,” Long says.

It’s definitely a history worth passing down to future generations.