Three World War II kamikaze survivors attended Navy recruit graduation and toured Naval Station Great Lakes (NSGL) as part of a ship reunion visit Sept. 8.
Genero Salana, Otto Husak, and Paul Gowen were all Sailors aboard the USS Zellars during the invasion of Okinawa, when Zellars came under attack and was struck by a Japanese kamikaze near the end of World War II. The three Sailors were part of a larger visit of two reunion groups, the USS Hermitage and Zellars, who were visiting Recruit Training Command and NSGL to remember where their Navy roots started.
”The graduation today was wonderful,” said Gowen. “I can see that the Navy is alive and well, and I was very pleased to see that.”
Salana, Husak, and Gowen were only 17 when they enlisted in the Navy and were a part of the original crew of Zellars, making them among the last of the Zellars plank owners still alive today. All three vividly remember their short but life-changing time aboard Zellars, where they fought off Japanese kamikazes during a critical point in the war.
“We were with a bombardment group filled with cruisers and battleships sending a pounding onto Okinawa,” said Gowen. “We got there 10 days before the invasion, and from there on, things got pretty heavy. Towards the end of the war, the Japenese were getting desperate and sending down kamikazes everyday. On April 12, we were attacked by four kamikazes. I was a gunner’s mate, and my gun mount got one of them, otherwise I would not be talking to you.”
While both Husak and Gowen were on gun mounts, Salana recalls being on the bridge during the attack and witnessing one of the kamikazes strike the ship.
“Pardon my French, but I was watching the son of a b**** come,” said Salana. “He came off about fifteen feet above the water, and he hit right under the second gun mount. I saw his face, I swear.”
After being struck, the ship made her way to California for extensive repairs. During this time, the war ended, and Gowen and Salana moved on from the Navy shortly after, while Husak stayed on for a twenty-six year career. While each went their separate way, the bond they formed during their short time together lives on with phone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings each year, and memories that they will never forget.
“These crazy bunch of gringos taught me the best lessons of my life,” said Salana. “They are beautiful people, all of them. We’ve known each other 74 years. I don’t think I have a brother I care for as much as these guys.”