WWII Navy veteran Nick Korompilas of Park Ridge, Illinois, received an award for heroism during a ceremony at Great Lakes Naval Station on Friday.
He described how in the spring of 1945 as a medic in an armada of ships supporting the Allied invasion of Okinawa, the last and among the bloodiest battles of World War II, he survived a double kamikaze strike and saved a fellow soldier from drowning after the ship sank because of Japanese bombs.
The blast that hit the U.S.S. Mannert L. Abele tossed Korompilas 20 feet into a bulkhead. Dazed, but otherwise okay, 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. 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.
“The good Lord spared my life,” Korompilas said as he did the sign of the cross at Friday’s ceremony.