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Honoring WWII Navy heroes

Reunion recalls those in Battle of Leyte Gulf

Oct. 17, 2012

Hundreds of veterans and family members are expected to visit the city this weekend to remember a significant event during World War II. And Mayor Steve Ponto plans to welcome participants with open arms.

The U.S.S. Gambier Bay VC-10 Association is holding its 68th annual reunion at the Sheraton Hotel through Sunday.

The five-day program features a number of events, including a performance by St. John's Northwestern Military Academy's Color Guard and a commemorative ceremony remembering the 137 men who lost their lives Oct. 25, 1944, as the Navy escort carrier sank during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

For Ponto, the program hits close to home.

Ponto's father, Vernon, was a member of the U.S. Navy during World War II and served on an escort carrier, the U.S.S. St. Lo.

"This is something that's real near and dear to my heart," said Ponto, who will be delivering a proclamation with Waukesha County Executive Dan Vrakas during a memorial service Saturday.

Naval members on board the U.S.S. St. Lo also were attacked during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on the same date the U.S.S. Gambier Bay came under assault. In the case of the U.S.S. St. Lo, Japanese kamikaze fighters crashed into the ship, killing 113 of the 889 men on board.

Vernon Ponto was among the survivors of that kamikaze attack. He died last year at age 91 in Neenah.

"These were people who fought so valiantly," Ponto said. "It's really a remarkable, fascinating story."

The U.S.S. Gambier Bay and U.S.S. St. Lo were part of a 13-ship task force known as Task Force III that intercepted the Japanese Navy's center force during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Over the years, a number of naval organizations across the country have held reunions. The U.S.S. Gambier Bay VC-10 Association decided to lay roots in the Milwaukee area in 1998 for their festivities. That same year, Ponto began his civic service as an alderman.

"It really turned out to be an interesting coincidence," Ponto said. "Over the years, I've been very delighted to have the group here in Brookfield. I think it's important to keep recognizing what took place."

A permanent memorial for the U.S.S. Gambier Bay, U.S.S. St. Lo and 11 other Navy escort carriers that were part of Task Force III is on display at San Diego Harbor. The southern California city is noted for its naval base, making the memorial a fitting addition.

The display includes a presidential proclamation that outlines the acts of heroism made by the men who were on all 13 escort carriers during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

"It's an amazing memorial that explains what took place and remembers those who lost their lives," Ponto said.

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