WINCHESTER – During the last year of World War II, a battered and frayed American flag hung in the reception hall of 94 Church St., home of Capt. William Buracker, commanding officer of the USS Princeton. The flag came from the aircraft carrier, bombed and scuttled during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.
During the war, many men from Winchester found their home to be a ship on the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Often they were taxed to the utmost to defend their ships and stay afloat.
Winchester native LCDR Benjamin F. Edwards, for example, a veteran of 22 years in the Navy, was the USS Biloxi’s damage control officer while it was in battle off Okinawa in March 1945.
While on the main deck, he saw a Japanese plane about 300 feet off the ship’s port quarter headed toward the American cruiser. As the ship’s gun crew fired into the plane, it burst into flames and veered toward the fantail, crashing and exploding to the side of the ship.
Edwards rushed with his repair units to the site and observed the damage to be slight and quickly patched. However, he then discovered a 500-pound bomb in the ship’s provision storeroom, potentially set to go off anytime. One of the men was able to defuse it and help save the ship, nicknamed the “Double Lucky.”
Another witness to suicide pilots, Kenneth West, WHS Class of 1931 and Naval Academy Class of 1935, was a gunnery officer during the invasion of Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines in January 1945. According to his Silver Star citation, he “efficiently trained the anti-aircraft batteries of his ship, the U.S.S. Portland, so that when considerable numbers of enemy aircraft, including suicide planes, attacked the formation of which his ship was a unit, they were either shot down or deterred from pressing their attack upon his ship.”
LCDR Harry B. Heneberger was rescued from the water when his ship, the USS Quincy, and two other American heavy cruisers were attacked by enemy warships and sunk off the Solomon Islands in August 1942.
A career Navy officer who entered the Naval Academy in 1921 while his family lived on Myrtle Terrace, Heneberger told the story of the Quincy to reporters.
The action began about 1:45 a.m. The enemy force opened up with searchlights and with gunfire. The engagement set off a fire which engulfed the forward control station.
“We thought we all were going to be burned to death,” the Globe quoted, but the fire subsided.
The action was short, about a half hour, as the enemy warships passed by and left. But it was an intense pitched battle at close range.
“One of the most curious things to me was that I could see the enemy shells coming right on us.”
The captain was killed during an early salvo of small shells. Leadership fell upon the seventh man in the chain of command, Heneberger. He did not at first realize it, but a torpedo had delivered the Quincy a fatal blow.
“When the water was well across the gun deck, I gave orders to abandon ship.” The men acted as trained. “I didn’t realize people could be so calm.”
Following other crew members, “I jumped into the sea. I swam 50 yards, then turned and floated and saw the ship turning over with a 90-degree list. The bow slid under and the stern raised. Everything was dense as darkness, except for the illumination provided by a few fires still burning.”
While the men watched, the Quincy capsized. “Some of us saw a large hole in the bottom evidently made by a torpedo.”
The survivors helped one another onto rafts and floats. “It was darned fine to hear those people in the water. Every few minutes men would find buddies in the water and call to them.”
Destroyers came to their rescue. That night 379 lives were lost, but 650 including Heneberger survived.
Back to Buracker and the Princeton, this Winchester resident also experienced the agonies of trying to save a ship under his command, ultimately sent to the ocean floor.
A native of Virginia and graduate of the Naval Academy (class of 1920), Capt. Buracker was on Adm. Halsey’s staff during the first part of the war and took part in the original carrier raids on the Marshall Islands, Wake Island, and Marcus Islands.
In 1943, he joined Adm. Nimitz’s staff. He was given command of the aircraft carrier USS Princeton in 1944. He launched a series of raids on enemy-held islands.
During October 1944, Buracker was commanding officer of the Princeton during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of the war. On Oct. 24, more than 100 enemy planes attacked the task group. After shooting down 36, the Princeton’s air patrols began to return to be serviced and reloaded.
It was about 9 a.m. Suddenly one enemy plane started a gliding run on the ship. Despite the anti-aircraft batteries, the pilot continued on and dropped a 500-pounder which hit the flight deck.
“I wasn’t too much concerned,” the Boston Globe reported Buracker saying. “I thought it was a small bomb and we could patch up the damage quickly. But unfortunately the bomb went through the flight deck into the hangar below, where the torpedo bombers were being gassed and loaded.”
With fire-fighting controls destroyed by the explosions, fires ignited by the bomb spread. Within an hour, “the torpedoes on the hangar deck went up and the flight deck buckled.”
Fire built up quickly among the gas-loaded planes. When a destroyer came alongside and put fire-fighting lines aboard and a cruiser brought more equipment, it seemed possible to save the ship. Early in the afternoon a second cruiser came alongside for a tow. Buracker thought that, by that time, if the auxiliary bomb storage was going to go up it would have done so long before. He was wrong.
“It was as surprising as it was terrifying – that explosion. It was the worst I have ever heard in my life.”
Buracker had been scheduled for relief as commander of the ship. “I was on the flight deck with the captain who had come aboard a short time before as my relief. We were all wounded, more or less. I started forward and then looked back to see Capt. Hoskins lying on the deck, his leg hanging by a shred. I called for the doctor who was wounded himself. Capt. Hoskins found a piece of line where he had fallen and he applied his own tourniquet. Com. [Roland] Sala, our medical officer, had some morphine, sulfa, and a sheath knife and when he reached Capt. Hoskins, he severed the shred with that knife.”
Though the Princeton was rocked by three violent explosions, Buracker continued his efforts to save the ship. Survivors (including Hoskins) were evacuated. The bulk of the crew made it off. At 4:40 p.m. Buracker himself went over the side, still hoping his ship might be towed home, but the commanders decided to sink her.
“I can’t reconcile myself to the fact that it was just one bomb that caused it all – but it was.”
Following the sinking of the Princeton, Buracker received a Purple Heart. He returned home also decorated with a Silver Star and Legion of Merit. In 1947, he was awarded the Navy Cross “for extraordinary heroism” during operations in the vicinity of the Palau Islands, the Philippines, Visayas, Ryukyus, and Formosa during September to October 1944.
“By his expert, professional skill and untiring efforts,” his citation stated, he “contributed in a large measure to the infliction of extensive and costly damage on a large amount of Japanese aircraft, aircraft installations, shipping and other military objectives.”
After the war, Rear Adm. Buracker made his home in Winchester for the rest of his life.