By Pierre Kosmidis
Research and photos by Travis Anderson
Born to Clyde and Eveline Lee on Halloween, 1924 in Sun River Montana and older brother to my grandmother, Bette Ryerson. His family had been fighting for this nation since the American Revolution, his great-grandfather had died fighting for the Union during the Civil War and his grandfather had homesteaded Montana in the 1880s.
He enlisted in the Navy, at the height of WW2, on Valentine’s day 1944. He reported for duty as a gunner aboard the battleship USS Colorado on April 23rd 1944, at the Puget Sound Naval Yard in Bremerton Washington.
On May 5th the Colorado left San Francisco for Pearl Harbor and spent the next several months participating in the battle’s of Saipan, Guam and Tinian, during the Marianas Campaign.
On July 24th, 1944 while shelling Tinian, the Colorado was struck 22 times by shore battery. 30 of her sailors were killed and over a hundred wounded. My grandmother recounts the story Bob told her while on leave, of blood litteraly running down the gallies of the ship. Uncle Bob spent his last birthday, Halloween, in Pearl Harbor. On November 21st, 1944 the Colorado entered Leyte Gulf in the Philippines to support American troops on Leyte.
On the 27th of November a Japanese Kamikaze force of about 60 planes attacked the fleet.
One of the Kamikazes got through and hit near Uncle Bob’s gun emplacement, seriously wounding him.
The destroyer, USS Whaler, transferred Bob to the hospital ship, USS Bountiful. 6 days later, at 830 AM on December 3rd 1944, Robert Edward Lee succumbed to his wounds and passed away aboard the USS Bountiful.
Reportedly from a lack of enough replacement blood.
Shipmate George E Menor described the carnage in his diary:
November 27, 1944
We arrived early in the morning. I will never forget that because I was at sky control and I was the first one to spot all the ships, battlewagons, mines and tin cans. It looked peaceful as the islands surrounded us completely, but we had an air attack and the ships, Maryland, New Mexico and us, were there.
Our task force of 6 carriers and 6 cruisers and 12 tin cans were added to the fleet. As we went around in circles, the Japs came in and all the ships opened fire. The Louisville took a hit on the turret. The planes kept coming in on us as we couldn’t tell if our radar was working the way it should because of the land. At 01:00 in the afternoon, a couple of planes came in and hit us on the port galley deck. The explosion and machine gun bullets roared as it hit.
Parts flew from the fan tail to the bow of the ship 100 feet into the air. The flash almost blinded me as it flared up all over us. I didn’t know what happened for a minute. I felt a small piece of flesh hit me in the chest and one guy in front of me complained about his knee, which was cut. I knew then that we were hit.
They said there was a fire and I hooked up the hose to the hydrant and turned the pressure on. Four or five of us put it out to some extent, and then threw the shells and powder over the side, and we could hear the wounded men holler and yell for help.
It was an awful looking mess. We expected to get blown to pieces as we threw the shells over the side. I did it because we had to save them and ourselves too. After the fire was out I helped carry the wounded out and the fellows moaned with pain and legs were lying all over.
Some fellows had their heads blown off and some burned to death.
My buddy Steve had his leg hanging by the cord.
As we put them on the stretcher, the flesh would fall off as soon as we touched them. Many fellows that came aboard “new” were blown to pieces. I sure felt terrible to see it all. I thought I could never stand to see it all. 21 men killed and 40 wounded from that one plane hit.
Nine from my division got killed and 18 wounded. The casemate and the guns 6 & 8 were completely blown to pieces. My gun, No. 4 was next to that and it was covered with shrapnel all over. Blood was coloring the water red. It sure was a place that I never want to see again.
After we moved out all the wounded and dead, we took them down for care. The doctors and corpsmen worked day and night on them but some died from wounds. After that, we went out on the galley deck to see what happened. The shield about the casemate was penetrated with machine gun holes. It knocked out a 40mm gun and one of our 5-25’s. We all looked for souvenirs and so far I got a few plane parts of the wing.
There was flesh and blood all over the guns. I saw parts of the Jap’s body. His backbone, legs, shoes and parts of his intestines. It almost made a fellow croak. The tail went through the deck into the office where we boys kept our money records. The tail was about 6 feet by 10 feet and it went completely through the deck.
We had to clean up as you know and no one liked to sweep up legs, arms and heads etc. and put them in G.I. cans. It was God that I though of as others did too. My girl came to mind and I could hear her praying the rosary as plain as the Virgin Mary. I know her prayers were heard and God saved me from it all.
We finally got it all cleaned up as good as we could. We got orders to pull out for an advanced base to get inspected of our damage. We boys thought “here’s the states!”.
Uncle Bob’s good friend, “Ski” Kutianski, wrote our family a year later with his personal account….”he joked to the last minute with me……. a man to the end…”
“I wasn’t with him after he was hit very long and I’m still in doubt about his being dead. I’m writing this to find out for certain. We had some swell times together. I was 17 years old then. In fact we got into that scrap, I mean air attack, three days before my 18th birthday, Nov 27, 1944.
We, I mean Robert and I were on opposite gun crews at that time.
Maybe some of the other fellows wrote you about that day. In case they didn’t and I know you must wonder how it happened, I’ll give you a brief account.
We left Long Beach, Calif. around the middle of Oct, arrived in Pearl Harbor latter part of Oct and left for the Philippine Islands. We patrolled the Philippine waters during the first part of Nov and around the middle part of Nov we began shelling Leyte in preparation for a landing. Our ship was very inexperienced in fighting off air attacks. Well on the 27th we found ourselves under a very heavy air attack, suicide planes at that. 60 planes came at us in 3 groups.
Our task force succeeded in downing quit a few. All the planes that attempted to crash dive us ( big ships were their main objective) were shot to pieces or missed and crashed into the sea around us. Except for this one, he was coming head on for the gun I was on and at the last minute had one wing partly shot off, which threw him off balance and he crashed head on into the gun next to the one Robert was a gun crew member of.
The gun he hit had 10 men killed outright and the one Robert was on, the men were shot up. Robert was pinched between a 8 ton gun & the gun shield. In fact there were 2 of them caught there, Robert and a fellow from Missouri.
The other guy screamed his head off & believe me when I say this, although Robert was in great pain wedged in there like that, scarcely able to breath, he never weakened a bit or showed signs of fear, a man to the end. But after he was freed from that gun he passed out.
He joked to the last minute with me. I last saw & talked to him while he was lying on a stretcher waiting to be taken off to a hospital. What happened to him after that God only knows.
I tried like everything to hold back my tears when I last talked to him but I couldn’t. We were all kids then & being out there was bad, but seeing our closest friends blown to hell was worse & never knowing who was next.
But I shouldn’t complain. We finally reached our goal, the Colorado sailed into Tokyo Bay when the war ended. Only through the sweat, courage & blood of fellows like Robert.
But he & many more will never be forgotten by guys like myself who went through hell with fellows like him. No one will ever know what it was like down there in the Pacific unless he had a share in it. I guess my share was reserved. I got mine at Okinawa. I still have a piece of shrapnel in my head. It bother me quite a bit but the doctors wont remove it. They tell me more harm than good would come of it.
I’m from Pennsylvania myself, although I haven’t seen home in 16 months. I don’t want to let mom know where I’m at because she would only worry & there’s really no reason for any of that.
I’ll probably get a medical discharge in a couple of months. I don’t know what I’ll do then. I am 20 years old now. About 5’9 ½”, brown hair & eyes, about 160ibs. Give you some idea.
Well folks here’s hoping you receive this & I’d appreciate a letter from you.
PS. He talked about his steady girl a lot and showed me pictures. She might be interested in this letter too. Maybe- ”
Just 9 months later the Colorado and her crew sailed into Tokyo Bay to take part in the ceremony of the Final Surrender of WW2.
Uncle Bob was originally interred in the South Pacific. 5 years later, he was finally returned home to his final resting place in the Sun River cemetary in Sun River, Montana.
I few years ago, I was blessed to be able to connect to Mr Kutianski’s grandchildren and return the letter to their family. Thanks, Jen and Dan!
And thank you to Duane Menor of the USS Colorado Lookout FB page for his father’s diary entry.