ORANGE PARK, Fla. - A U.S. Navy veteran shared with News4Jax how he survived a World War II battle 74 years ago -- a battle that killed 108 others.
"This hat was a hat I got after the ship was sunk," Donald Scheer said at his Moosehaven home in Orange Park.
The hat bears the name USS Princeton, and it's one of Scheer's most precious possessions.
"It's got nine stars, which is nine battles. My ship," Scheer said and then paused with emotion. "We lost 108 men that one day."
That day was Oct. 24, 1944, when 108 lives were lost in the Pacific Ocean in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Scheer explained how the Japanese bombed the Princeton, which tore the deck apart and prompted more explosions below deck.
The captain said, 'Abandon ship, abandon ship,' twice. I said, 'I'll never see home again,'" he said tearfully.
Scheer said he jumped into the water and just started swimming. He didn't think he would survive, and he prayed.
"I still had this in my pocket," he said, showing us his Bible.
Amazingly, that Bible -- a sign of his faith -- survived along with him. It was a brand new Bible, too. He only had it one day when he was forced to jump into the ocean in fear for his life.
"It was in my pocket right up here," he said, emotionally, while showing us where the Bible was in his shirt pocket. "It was wet. I was wet."
Scheer said he treaded water for about two hours before he was plucked out of the ocean and placed on the deck of another ship, the USS Birmingham.
He remembers a sailor looking at him and noticing his Bible was soaking wet.
"He said, 'You know that's the greatest book there is?' I said, 'I know that,'" Scheer recalled.
The next thing Scheer knew, he was below deck and surrounded by nine fellow sailors.
"And I said, 'Man, I'm not the only man that believes in God," he said. "They were praying. They were all praying -- praying in a circle."
Scheer's friend, Violet Tamplin, understands the power of his faith.
"The Bible alone that he has is a miracle, in my opinion," Tamplin said as we stood in Moosehaven's chapel. "He told me the story, and I was like, 'Don, that's a part of history.'"
Tamplin wanted to help Scheer tell his story and get a shadow box so he could safely keep his treasured Bible and USS Princeton hat. Along with that, Scheer told Tamplin he also wanted an article to go into the box -- an article that can be read to the American Legion.
"He wrote down his story, and I typed it up for him. And then two weeks ago he said, 'Do you care if I send this (article) to Channel 4?' I was like, 'No, not at all," Tamplin said. "When he was telling it, we both sat there and cried through the whole story. I was like, that needs to be told. There's so much we don't know about what they went through, what they survived, what their life was like."
"They need to know that we love them and we appreciate them," she added. "And learn from them, too, because I mean, really, our country wouldn't be what it is today without their knowledge and wisdom."
Scheer shared with us a letter sent from his ship to Birmingham after its crew risked everything to save him and his fellow Princeton shipmates. Here is that full letter:
THANK YOU for reaching into the powder keg to save us.
As we struggled to survive this battle disaster, you came to our aid. Coming along-side, your fire hoses were trained on us as your guns were trained on the enemy above. You moved in, not thinking about your own safety. You stood on your open decks to spray water over burning bombs that blew us apart; with fire spreading from one bomb to another. With your hoses you cooled our fires of battle and reached out with gentle hands, plucking us from the deep.
During this act of mercy you were repaid with an exploding hell. Seeing brave fire-fighters swept away into a blazing inferno of black smoke and flying steel was painfully tragic. This hell was created by a storage of bombs and torpedoes that discharged into one massive detonation. This explosion turned three thousand tons of steel instantly into small fragments of shrapnel that raked every inch of the Birmingham's forward decks and starboard side. Those friendly helpful hands were pulled back; beaten and bloody. It was very painful knowing that in trying to save us you suffered far greater losses than we.
No thanks could be great enough to erase the loss and those that were lost will never hear our thanks."
-- U.S.S. Princeton CVL-23 and crew (AS ONE)
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