As another Memorial Day rolls around, it becomes even more meaningful as more participants of World War II–the event that shaped them, their descendants, and the globe arguably more than any other–pass on.
These battle-harden veterans exchanged their uniforms for civilian dress and became the cornerstone of Black communities across America; paving the way for Civil Rights triumphs later in the century. Freeman Gamble Sr. was one of those men.
A native of Greenville, S.C., the newly married Gamble had already shipped out to Hawaii as a mess attendant or cook, the only “rating” or job classification that African Americans could hold with the U.S. Navy, before war broke out. In the Pacific, he was given a ring side seat from the deck of the cruiser U.S.S. Helena, doing double duty as an anti-aircraft gunner as the Japanese bombed the Ford Island air base at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Gamble had the distinction of being a crew member on key ships at historical events, during the course of the war. He and his mates survived the Helena attack, but were knocked overboard during the battle, enduring sharks, hypothermia and other hazards of the open sea before their rescue four days later.
In January 1943, Gamble once again found himself on a ship’s roster, this time the U.S.S. Hornet as it took part in the campaign for the Solomon Islands before it was sunk at the Battle of Santa Cruz.
In short order after that fight (July 1943), he found himself back on board the newly repaired Helena in time for the Battle of Kula Gulf, where it too was sunk by Japanese torpedoes. During the act of abandoning the ship, sailors manning its diesel engines down in the boils of the ship found their way to the surface and safety foiled by a jammed escape hatch. Gamble and several of his mates delayed their own exit from the vessel to wrench open the hatch from the other side.
Although he never was acknowledged for his efforts, years later Gamble received a personal thanks from one of the trapped White sailors, Machinist Mate William Henderson, at a ship’s reunion in 1980.
Gamble’s next duty assignment in 1945 was a cruiser, the U.S.S. Indianapolis, notable because it transported components of the atomic bomb (which would effectively end the war) to the air base that launched the strike. Shortly after this delivery, the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine, resulting in one of the worst disasters in naval history. Most of the ship’s roster of 1,196 men died. Freeman Gamble was one of the 316 survivors.
Gamble’s war-time ordeal was still not over, because his next duty station was the battleship U.S.S. Missouri, the “Big Mo,” as it bombarded industrial targets off the Japanese coast in 1945, before steaming into Tokyo Bay for the ceremony of surrender and termination of hostilities of the Second World War.
The man who started the war being strafed by aircraft gunfire on the deck of the U.S.S. Helena, and then survived three ships being sunk from under him, was able to witness the surrender of America’s long-time enemy on the teak decks of Big Mo.
Gamble endured these war-time dangers along with the racism that was endemic to the time without receiving the medals and military courtesies that were his due. The character that enabled him to survive facilitated his raising a family of four including the current principal at Westchester High and a score of grandchildren. Over the years, he provided for his brood by working in jobs including the Goodyear Tire Company, Los Angeles Unified School District, and a number of other employers, while serving as a faithful member and deacon at the Apostolic Faith Home Assembly until his death in March 2008.