Itawambian Fessie Pennington served as Seamen Second Class with the USS Reno, pictured here as she comes to the aid of a sister ship, USS Princeton, on October 24, 1944, the first day of the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The USS Princeton had been hit by a kamikaze plane and suffered extensive damage. Five times the Reno pulled alongside and rescued men from the Princeton, braving heat from the fires that were raging on the ship. During one rescue attempt, the Princeton crushed one of the Reno's gun mounts.
Another light cruiser, the USS Birmingham was ordered to assist the Princeton, but efforts to save the ship were in vain as fires continued to burn and reach the cache of torpedo warheads. A huge explosion erupted just five hours after the initial hit, and 903 sailors were killed, most of them on board the Birmingham which suffered extensive damage itself. Finally, orders were given to scuttle the Princeton.
Papaw recalled the tragedy several years later in the safety of his living room. A destroyer, the USS Irwin, was called upon to torpedo the Princeton after it was determined that the ship could not be saved. The first torpedo fired by the Irwin missed the Princeton entirely. So did the second one. When the third one was fired, it ran true for several yards toward the Princeton before making a U-turn back toward the Irwin. Papaw showed us with his hands how the erratic the torpedo was and said that the Irwin had to outrun its own torpedo. His own ship and others had to manuveur violently to evade the errant torpedo.
After two more torpedoes missed their mark, the USS Reno was assigned to destroy the damaged carrier. The anti-aircraft cruiser fired two torpedoes into the Princeton, triggering a huge explosion that was set off by the carrier’s 70 tons of explosives. The USS Princeton disappeared into the sea in about 45 seconds, but it provided a lasting memory for Fessie Pennington back home in Peaceful Valley.