Charles Usina, FN1, USN


Friends fought their way across Pacific


Posted: Monday, March 12, 2007 ; Updated: 6:00 AM on Monday, March 12, 2007

Gordon Walch

WWII veterans Gordon Walck, 89, seated, and Charlie Usina 82, pose in Walck’s St. Augustine Shores home. By DARON DEAN,

Gordon Walck, 89, and Charlie Usina, 82, both of St. Augustine, remember each other from their time more than 60 years ago on the USS San Francisco as sailors of the 9,950-ton, 588-feet-long heavy cruiser.

“We knew each other. You struck up relationships as shipmates,” said Usina. “We had a good crew of Americans.”

Walck boarded first, in time for the Pearl Harbor attack that brought the United States into World War II.

“I was scared. We didn’t have anywhere to hide,” said the former Seaman 1st class.

The ship had little ammunition on board. Though the ship was nearly defenseless, it sustained little damage.

After that attack, it went on to play key roles in the battles of Midway and Cape Esperance.

Walck worked as the repairman on board. He remembers those battles from a frightening position: a tiny windowless room. In the pump room, where Walck made sure the pumps were running and there was freshwater throughout the ship, “all you could do was look at the four walls and hope nothing comes in,” he said.

At the Battle of Guadalcanal, the USS San Francisco was not so lucky. It received extensive damage, and 77 of Walck’s shipmates were lost and 105 injured. The ship received the Presidential Unit Citation for its actions in battle.

Usina was drafted in 1944 and became a fireman first class on the ship.

Together the men fought through the Pacific.

“We were all over the Pacific,” said Usina.

All those battles blend after so many years. But the men remember little things.

The most devastating thing Usina said he saw was a Japanese POW hospital where they used Americans for medical research.

“It was just the most sickening thing,” he said.

One of the greatest things he saw was the flag raised at Iwo Jima.

The San Francisco earned 17 battlestars in the Pacific.

The men remember one battle that had nothing to do with the enemy. Starting on Dec. 17, 1944, a typhoon started rocking the ship. Then the waves grew until the men felt like they were on a toy boat in the hands of a toddler at bath time.

“The bridge of the ship was 71 feet above water,” said Usina. “The waves were breaking over the ship.”

They rode out the storm for two days, then, on Dec. 19, the crew helped search for survivors from three destroyers that sunk during the typhoon.

“It was a rough one,” said Walck.

Walck left the ship that year, but Usina stayed on until the war ended. He worked in the A division, converting sea water into potable water.

Usina was discharged on Feb. 5, 1946.

“I learned to respect the 13 stripes and the 48 stars. That’s what we were defending,” said Usina. “We would not allow Japan to destroy that flag that was American.”

Usina returned to the land his family has owned for generations in St. Johns County to farm potatoes and run a ranch.

After leaving the military, Walck went back to his home state of Pennsylvania and did sheet metal work at Bethlehem Steel. When he retired, he and his wife, Dorothy, moved to St. Augustine. She died several years ago.

At one point, five veterans from the USS San Francisco lived in the county, according to Usina, but the other three have passed away. The ship has had its reunion here twice.