To those who witnessed its peculiar approach, barely above the water and bobbing up and down, the missile’s flight resembled that of a bird — a bird with 2,600 pounds of explosives packed into its nose.
But medic Nick Korompilas saw none of that, as he made the sign of the cross and waited in a makeshift sick bay on board the U.S.S. Mannert L. Abele for the wounded that — with Japanese kamikaze aircraft closing in — would surely come.
“The doctor and I looked at each other. We shook our heads. I did my little Greek Orthodox cross, and then we got whacked,” said Korompilas, now 94 and living in Park Ridge.
Seventy-four years to the day after that double kamikaze strike off the island of Okinawa, Korompilas is set to be formally honored Friday for his bravery during the three minutes it took for the Abele’s hull to break in two and sink — and for the hours after, as he helped pull the dying and wounded from shark-infested waters.
“He’s been a great dad. He’s my favorite war hero,” said the veteran’s son, John Korompilas, 63, who lives in Folsom, California, and who helped arrange for his dad’s ceremony at Naval Station Great Lakes. The elder Korompilas got his Naval heroism medal decades ago — in the mail. But his family decided they wanted something more official for the nonagenarian.
Korompilas wears two hearing aids, and some of the names of sailors on board the Abele have drifted from his mind like smoke from the naval destroyer’s deafening 5-inch guns.
“That’s why I’m a little deaf,” joked Korompilas, who has a shock of white hair and a booming voice. “Maybe old age too.”
In the spring of 1945, he was part of an armada of ships supporting the Allied invasion of Okinawa, the last and among the bloodiest battles of World War II. Most days, Korompilas, a Lincolnwood native, worked in the cramped sick bay, tending to sailors’ cuts and scrapes and handing out aspirin.
“A lot of the fellas had athlete’s foot because the deck was hot, and I put calamine lotion on their feet,” Korompilas said.
Encased in steel and with no view of the outside world, Korompilas, then 20, and the ship’s doctor, John E. Hertner, listened for the sound of the guns — from the boom-boom-boom of the 5-inch, long-range guns to the tu-tu-tu-tu of the machine guns.
“The guns told us what was happening,” Korompilas said. “They talked to us.”
And on the afternoon of April 12, 1945, the big guns blasted, then the 20 mm guns, then the close-range machine guns. A moment later, a Japanese suicide fighter slammed into the starboard side of the ship, just above the water line, engulfing it in flames, according to “Three Minutes off Okinawa,” a book about the incident. Behind it came something even more deadly — a rocket-propelled bomb with a pilot squeezed into a tiny cockpit. When the bomb hit, Korompilas and the doctor were in the officers’ quarters, which had been converted into a larger sick bay. The blast tossed Korompilas 20 feet into a bulkhead.
Dazed, but otherwise OK, he got to his feet and prepared to abandon the 2,200-ton ship. With its hull cracked in two, seawater poured in. But Korompilas remembered his buddy, the chief commissary steward. He found the man lying on the floor of the galley, drenched in scalding soup.
“I grabbed him by the life jacket, and I half dragged him and half carried him out,” Korompilas said.
The medic shoved the steward into the water and jumped in after him. The 369-foot-long ship buckled, its bow and stern rising out of the water. Within a minute, the entire ship sank, leaving the survivors bobbing in a sea of sticky, black engine oil. Eighty-four men perished, many trapped inside the ship as it went down.
“They were in the compartments and they couldn’t get out. The whole ship was out of sight in three minutes,” Korompilas said.
He spent the next few hours treading water, and hauling the injured and dying to another American naval ship. Those who did not survive were zipped into a canvas body bag, along with a 5-inch shell. Prayers were said, and the bodies were tipped into the ocean.
Korompilas, who was given 30 days survivor leave in the United States, spent the remainder of the war working at a naval hospital in Philadelphia. He got married, had a son, and spent the rest of his working life as a commercial real estate agent.
That day 74 years ago remains the most thrilling, terrible moment of his life. As he sat on his living room sofa this week, with a wooden cross-section of the Abele hanging in a frame on the wall behind him, he said he’s thought about those who died every day since the disaster.
“I feel sorry,” he said, a lump in his throat halting his words. “I feel sorry for the men who went down. They are in my prayers every night. All in their 20s. May they rest in peace.”