It’s been almost 70 years since the USS Princeton sank in the Pacific Ocean Oct. 24, 1944.
But World War II veteran Larry Morgan, now 90, thinks about it every day, and the 341 men who lost their lives on the aircraft carrier and a cruiser that came to its aid.
Morgan, of Washington, was a 20-year-old Navy airplane mechanic aboard the Princeton when a Japanese airplane dropped a 550-pound bomb onto the deck of the ship shortly before 10 a.m., killing 108 sailors aboard the Princeton. Another 233 from the USS Birmingham were killed while trying to assist their comrades on the Princeton.
Morgan, who was helping a pilot out of an airplane when the attack occurred, was blown across the flight deck and narrowly escaped being hit by an elevator, large enough to transport an airplane, that had been blasted into the air.
“There were people killed and wounded around me, but I didn’t get hurt. I barely got a scratch,” said Morgan.
After their efforts to extinguish the fires that broke out failed, Morgan and the remaining crew members followed orders to abandon ship. Morgan spent four hours in rough seas, kept afloat by a life belt until he was picked up by the USS Irwin.
Physically, Morgan suffered a cut knee. But emotionally, he was, he said, in very bad shape, and what he went through became too much for him to bear.
“All of those guys who died got to me,” said Morgan, who received a medical discharge from the U.S. Navy on April 7, 1945. “I was fighting with everybody and drinking heavy. I prayed to God to help me. And he sent me an angel.”
The angel was Kay Morgan, who he met in July 1945 and married three months later.
The couple has been married for 68 years and raised seven children.
Morgan, who worked as a brakeman for Conrail, rarely talked about the ill-fated Princeton when the children were little, but the events of that day – glimpsing the airplane approaching the ship, grabbing a fire hose to battle the blazes, being plucked out of the water, finding out his best friend had been killed – crossed his mind often.
“He really did not talk about it in front of us. I knew he had floated in the ocean for several hours when the ship sank, but he never went into any detail about what happened,” said Susan Smith, one of Morgan’s daughters. “You would know if he was thinking about it though, and there were times when we knew he was sad.”
In the 1970s, Morgan organized a reunion for survivors of the USS Princeton, which drew more than 40 former shipmates. It was the first of dozens of reunions held across the country over the decades and Morgan looked forward to getting together to talk about their exploits on the ship, the attack, the sailors’ survival and their lives since then. The reunions have dwindled, though, because many of those left are in their late 80s and early 90s, and several are in poor health including Morgan, who suffered a stroke and recently broke several ribs in a fall.
“They all had a a lot of good times at the reunions. It was a joy to see him around all of those guys and to hear them tell their stories about the times they shared on the ship,” said Kay.
Morgan wears a USS Princeton ballcap with nine stars, one for each major operation he fought in, and his home is decorated with patriotic plaques and flags, a U.S. Navy blanket draped over a chair.
“I loved the Navy and I love this country,” said Morgan.
Five of Morgan’s grandsons served in Iraq or Afghanistan, and he said he thanks God that they all returned safely.
Morgan’s account of the Japanese attack on the USS Princeton is detailed in the book “Carrier Down: The Story of the Sinking of the USS Princeton,” by Thomas Bradshaw, who served aboard the ship with Morgan. He has kept a National Geographic article on the sinking of the USS Princeton written in the 1940s, and he has several photos of the Princeton and the Birmingham after the attack, smoke billowing into the sky.
Smith said reading the book – in which Morgan talks about thinking about his mother when he was in the ocean, frightened that he would die – helped her understand her father better.
“I bought a copy of the book when it was written, but had never read it. But when he had the stroke, I decided it was time because if there was something I wanted to ask him about what he’d gone through. I didn’t want to wait until it was too late. Now that I’m older and have children who are 17 – that’s how old my dad was when he left home and went to war – I realize how young he was and I can’t imagine at his age how terrified he would have been. I can’t even imagine going through that traumatic event. It’s life-changing,” said Smith.
A writer for World War II magazine once referred to the USS Princeton as the most unlucky ship to participate in the war, a description that Morgan dismisses.
“We didn’t think we were unlucky,” said Morgan. “We just got hit by a bomb.”