Surviving a sinking ship—WWII vet, daughter share personal story

By Kristina Miller, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

Ernie Schramm is a Sailor and a shipyard retiree—that’s common in this area—but his story is uncommon for two reasons. First, he’s a World War II veteran—the firsthand wartime accounts from the men and women of the greatest generation are rarer to find these days. But Schramm is uncommon in a second way—the gunner’s mate is a survivor of the Battle of Leyte Gulf and, more uniquely, of a ship that sank during the battle.

 

Schramm’s story beginsSchramm Sailor portrait_gunner's mate

Schramm grew up in South Dakota, but shortly after his 16th birthday the U.S. entered World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor. On June 15, 1943, just two days before his 18th birthday, Schramm did what many from those days did.

“In a heartbeat, they all signed up,” said daughter Peggy Gillard about men and women joining the military during the war.

As Gillard, a Code 2340 administrative assistant, shared her father’s story, she emanated an almost palpable sense of pride in not only his service, but who he is as a role model.

Schram with daughter and grandson Apprentice Graduation

Schram with daughter and grandson

“My dad is strong, he’s stubborn, he’s German, and he’s very much a family man,” said Gillard. 

Stories of Schramm as a dedicated and hard worker were peppered with those of his family dedication and qualities as a gentleman.

“Even as a child, I can remember that if he and I were walking down the street, he was always on the street side,” said Gillard. “He would always tell me ‘This is what a man does because if a car goes by and splashes, it will get me and not you.’”

Leyte Gulf and Sailor superstition

“I served a while on USS St. Lo,” Schramm said. “It was commissioned the Midway, but then they changed the name.”

Gunners Mate Schramm firing a gun

Gunner’s Mate Schramm firing naval gun

The name change to USS St. Lo (CVE 63) took place Oct. 10, 1944—a change made to free the name Midway for a new giant attack carrier. It would also allow the Navy to commemorate an important victory of American troops in St. Lo, France, on July 18, 1944. This was an important point to Schramm’s story because he also shared that there was an old Sailor superstition that it was bad luck to change the name of a ship.

“Everything happened so fast,” Schramm recalled. “There was a general quarters station, and we didn’t know what happened until later.”

The general quarters was sounded because a kamikaze pilot hit USS St. Lo.

“I came up on the flight deck,” he said and this plane was sticking in the flight deck. We knew something drastic had happened.”

 

USS St Lo explosion after kamikaze attack

USS St. Lo explosion after kamikaze attack

“We pulled it back on the ship because there were people all down on the foc’sle of the ship,” he said.Schramm was among 434 survivors from the St. Lo—121 of his shipmates were lost.

“I knew some of them but I didn’t know them all,” said Schramm. “We served together and what can I say but that they were great guys. They were shipmates.”

Within about two hours, USS Dennis (DE 405) had picked up the survivors.

Letter to Schramm from President Truman

Letter to Schramm from President Harry Truman

Following that fateful day, Schramm went back to Pearl Harbor, then had 30 days of survivor leave. His wartime service wasn’t over yet, though. He next reported to the destroyer USS Sumner (DD 692), which was in for repairs at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in California. When done, the ship headed for Pearl Harbor and by the time they arrived the first atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. Sumner was dispatched to Japan and while they were in route, the second bomb was dropped.

“At the end of the war, all the free world sent a ship to Tokyo Bay—so there was a ship from every free nation,” he said.

Schramm’s second career begins

On Feb. 21, 1946, Schramm was discharged, but his service to the Navy wasn’t done. Schramm started working at the Shipyard and learned the marine machinist trade through the apprentice program.

While his full career included many memories like his last job in purchasing, what Schramm mostly talked about was the camaraderie, especially with so many who had also served on active duty.

“It was a lot of fun,” said Schramm. “We could talk shop.”

Schram at a previous NBK Battle of Midway ceremony

Schram at a previous NBK Battle of Midway ceremony

Schramm’s career at the Shipyard overlapped with Gillard’s his last two years. Even before that period, Gillard had a role model of work dedication.

“I never heard him complain,” said Gillard. “That was your job, and that’s what you came in and did, and you did it to the best of your ability, and you were always grateful you had it.”

Whether it was from his work ethic or his active Navy service, Schramm has remained a humble man. He also never wanted the limelight. Gillard recounted a time when her family took Schramm to a Battle of Midway ceremony.

She said, “The [military members] were saluting him as we drove there and he looked at me and said ‘why are they saluting me?’ I said “Because, dad, in their minds you’re a hero” and he said, ‘well, I’m not a hero. The heroes are the ones who didn’t make it home.’”

See a video featuring Schramm below:

 

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