The map that hangs above the desk in Bill Bondanza’s Hilton Head Island bedroom serves as a reminder of the time he spent on a destroyer in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
Not that he needs one.
Seven decades removed from his service, the memories of the dates and missions Bondanza lived through as a teenager aboard the USS McCoy Reynolds are still vivid.
Bondanza, now 90, can remember the exact dates the destroyer escort he served on sunk Japanese submarines and entered port in Okinawa as the war reached its end.
Bondanza, a sonarman on the McCoy Reynolds who recorded and transmitted the estimated distance of an enemy submarine, was part of invasion fleets that took Palau, the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, and Okinawa in 1944 and 1945.
He was a standout athlete at Forest Hills High School in Corona, N.Y., when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy a few months after graduation in 1943 – and a few months after a tryout with the New York Yankees. A letter from the ball club is another memento that adorns his bedroom at the Brookdale Senior Living facility on Main Street.
After three months in a New York bootcamp, he headed to Key West, Fla., to complete sonar school.
In early 1944, he joined the crew of the newly-completed USS McCoy Reynolds, named after a Marine killed defending Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in 1942.
CALLING OUT CONTACTS
The crew’s first shakedown cruise on Long Island Sound was beautiful, Bondanza remembers.
The second shakedown, to Bermuda, was less so.
He, and many of his shipmates on the destroyer escort, had never been in rough seas. Many of them were seasick. Eating was out of the question for several days.
“I had never been out to sea before,” he said with a chuckle. “Once I got seasick, I thought I was going to die.”
The McCoy Reynolds spent most of the early summer patrolling the Caribbean in search of German submarines.
At one point, the ship rescued 22 people from a PBY Catalina that crashed into the water after engine trouble.
The Germans managed to elude the Americans.
Sonar was relatively new so it was hard to tell if the ship actually came close to finding a sub, Bondanza said.
“We called out a lot of contacts, but I can’t say for sure if they were submarines,” he said. “I mean, if we saw a school of fish, we were calling contacts.”
Bondanza’s ship then headed to the Pacific Ocean, serving as an escort for the aircraft carrier USS Ranger as it traveled to Pearl Harbor from Norfolk, Va. The four-week journey included a trip through the Panama Canal.
Once the McCoy Reynolds reached Pearl Harbor, it linked up with Admiral William Halsey’s Third Fleet, as the battle group was preparing to take back several key islands. The ship accompanied Halsey’s fleet to the Admiralty Islands, again serving as an escort for ships moving in the area.
During the invasion of Palau, on Sept. 26, 1944, the McCoy Reynolds sank its first submarine.
Bondanza was on duty, recording the distance and relaying it through a brass tube to the anti-submarine officer responsible for releasing the depth charges that targeted the enemy.
Two months later, on Nov. 19, 1944, while patrolling at a Navy base near Palau, the McCoy Reynolds sank its second submarine.
Bondanza and his shipmates did not know the identity of the submarines they sank until years later, when a shipmate found a copy of a book written by the commander of the Japanese submarine fleet.
The second submarine – I-37 – was one of Japan’s most important, Bondanza said.
In addition to being one of the largest submarines in Japan’s fleet, it also carried four Kaitens – manned torpedoes that were to be steered at battleships and aircraft carriers, he said.
KAMIKAZES AND A TYPHOON
Their work and the war was nearly over but the danger wasn’t.
Bondanza and the McCoy Reynolds were in the fleet that took Okinawa on Easter Sunday in 1945. A photo in his living room shows him giving candy to Japanese children soon after the U.S. occupied the island.
From April 1945 until the end of the war a few months later, the ship was on a radar picket line that traveled back and forth between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland.
The radar picket, meant to protect from surprise Japanese attacks from kamikaze pilots, also meant the McCoy Reynolds was in danger at all times. The crew of the ship were almost always on high alert, he said.
One of the stories Bondanza and his surviving shipmates consistently talk about is their brush with a kamikaze pilot on the radar picket. The pilot dropped a torpedo that narrowly missed the McCoy Reynolds before it crashed into the ship nearest to them, Bondanza said.
Bondanza said the most harrowing experience was when the McCoy Reynolds was battered by a typhoon for several days in 1944. He can still remember the ship “rocking and rolling,” pummeled by high waves and devastating winds.
After the storm, Bondanza and the ship were part of the occupation force outside Nagasaki 15 days after the second atomic bomb was dropped, ending World War II.
In late October, the ship and its crew left Japan to head back to the United States.
It picked up 75 wounded Marines in Saipan. Many of the ship’s crew – Bondanza among the – gave up their bunks and slept on the ship’s deck so the Marines could rest comfortably.
The destroyer reached San Diego a few weeks later.
The ship mothballed as part of the 19th Reserve Fleet.
Bondanza was honorably discharged in 1946.
WRITING THE STORY
He never saw his ship again.
It was recommissioned in 1951 at the start of the Korean War and sold to Portugal in 1957, rechristened the Corte Real. The ship was scrapped in 1980, and a shipmate told Bondanza the five-inch gun from the destroyer is now a monument in a park somewhere in Portugal.
Bondanza returned to New York and spent 43 years as a school teacher, administrator and stockbroker before retiring to Hilton Head in 1991.
The crew of the McCoy Reynolds didn’t meet again until the late 1970s.
There, a shipmate sold copies of a map he’d created that traced the destroyer escort’s travels through the Pacific Ocean.
Of the 200 sailors who made up the crew of the McCoy Reynolds, only three are still alive.
Bondanza said he and the other two men – one in Tennessee and one in Pennsylvania – talk about once a month.
Sometimes the conversation is about their experiences 70 years ago but mostly, Bondanza joked, they talk about their shock at getting old.
Through the years, Bondanza rarely talked about his service. If he did, it was to answer general questions his daughters had for school projects.
About two years ago, inspired by his trip to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. with his surviving shipmates a few years before, Bondanza wrote a narrative to accompany the map of the ship’s travels. It took almost four months to complete.
The map and completed narrative hangs in a frame above his desk, along with photos of Bondanza from World War II and mementos of the ship he served on.
“It’s been said that we never talked about the war when we came home,” he said. “It was never a topic of conversation But I wanted to write a story about our missions, so I did it.”
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.