Princeton man, now 93, survived kamikaze attack in WWII

When World War II began, Princeton resident Evertt Snetsinger was just a regular Minnesota boy. He was the eldest of three boys, born in 1925 in Minneapolis. He spent several summers with his uncle Fred Hamman’s family near Upsala, near where his grandparents lived.

Evertt Snetsinger, of Princeton, holds a piece of a kamikaze plane that crashed into the USS Sangamon on May 4, 1945. Photo by Jennie Zeitler

“I remember milking a cow, Nancy,” Evertt recalled. “I learned to drive a pair of mules. I plowed half an acre of corn one day before I learned to say ‘gee’ and ‘haw’! The meals on the farm were really good. My aunt was a good cook.”

Evertt, now 93 years old, recalled that his favorite high school class was metalworking, in part because there were only three or four students in the class. After he quit school halfway through his senior year, he started working in the metal industry as a tool and die maker.

In September 1943, Evertt was drafted into the Navy and left for basic training near Chicago. That was a rough time for him. First, he was given the wrong size shoes, which caused blisters on his heel. Then on the obstacle course as he was climbing a rope to go over a wall, the guy behind him grabbed his foot, and Evertt’s ankle and knee were sprained. Then it turned out that Evertt is color blind and needed glasses.

“I was put into an outgoing unit, and we had lots of free time,” he said. “Then I was sent to the farm campus of the university in Minneapolis to learn to be a machinist’s mate. We learned to use shears, punch presses and lathes.”

After six months’ training, Evertt shipped out in spring 1944 for San Diego, to wait for a ship to the South Pacific. He soon received notice that he was leaving the following morning. One of the clearest memories of the trip was crossing the International Date Line.

“It was quite a ritual to become a golden dragon. We crossed the equator at the International Date Line and there was a line-crossing ceremony. I can’t prove it, though, because the card I was given disappeared when my wallet was stolen,” he said.

At his destination, Evertt was assigned to the USS Sangamon, a “baby flattop,” small aircraft carrier. His station was the pump room, in the back of the ship below the water line. He operated a 20 mm machine gun. He remembers that someone stepped on his glasses, and he needed to get new ones. They were especially important to help see incoming planes, when they flew in low with the sun behind them.

The Sangamon saw some action in summer of 1944. She spent two months in Bremerton, Washington, for a shipyard overhaul and returned to the South Pacific in early 1945.

On May 4, she was taking on ammunition and supplies all day, not getting underway until early evening. Japanese attack planes had been interrupting work throughout the day, and now out to sea, they focused on the Sangamon. Supporting fighter planes kept the kamikazes (suicide bombers) from hitting the ship. Most were stopped in the air and never got close. One plane nearly reached the ship, but was shot down in time. However, at 7:33 p.m., a successful kamikaze dropped his bomb on the ship and headed straight into the deck.

“Part of his wings had been blown off, but that didn’t stop him,” Evertt remembered.

Wreckage of the USS Sangamon after being struck by a kamikaze bomber. Contributed file photo

The blast that rocked the ship was so powerful that the two huge aircraft elevators that brought planes from the hangar deck up to the flight deck were blown into the air and crashed back down, causing extensive damage to the ship.

He was at his battle station when the whole ship shuddered. He found out that the ship was on fire, mainly the hangar deck. Since the water lines were on the hangar deck, there was no water to fight fires. Ships pulled up on either side of the Sangamon and fought the fires for five hours. Eventually, all fires were extinguished.

“The ship’s planes were loaded with thermite, plus they carried more than 2,000 pounds of bombs. They couldn’t be put out with water. We needed foam to smother the fire, but we didn’t have that,” said Evertt. “The fires burned through one deck after another until it hit the bottom of the ship. It went out there because it couldn’t get enough oxygen.”

As Evertt fought the fires, he was carrying fire hose past some small arms ammunition that hadn’t been put away. It was going off from the heat of the fires, and his shins were sprayed with shell casings.

“My adrenaline was so high, I didn’t really notice,” he said. “I saw a corpsman who cleaned and bandaged my legs.”

During this time, there was no communication between the front end of the ship and the back end.

“There was only one plane that survived the attack and the fires, and the only working radio on the entire ship was in it,” said Evertt.

In the confusion after the incident, Evertt was never awarded the Purple Heart, despite his injuries.

As a result of the battle, there were 11 dead, 25 missing and 21 seriously wounded. Evertt felt extremely grateful for having survived a frightening experience.

“God didn’t want me yet,” he said. “It’s like he was telling me, ‘You got stuff to do yet.’”

After the battle, the ship made its way to Pearl Harbor using only auxiliary rudder control. The ship made it all the way back through the Panama Canal and to Norfolk, Virginia, that way.

“She was put in mothballs and was later bought for scrap,” Evertt said.

After docking at Norfolk, Evertt’s girlfriend, Helen, travelled from Minnesota to Virginia, where they were married Aug. 9, 1945 in Portsmouth. For two months, they lived in a trailer park, before Helen had to return to Minnesota.

By this time, Evertt had reached the grand age of 20. He was assigned to a new ship, the Midway, and was part of exercises in the Bermuda Triangle. He was discharged in January 1946.

Flight deck of the USS Sangamon after the kamikaze attack. Contributed photo

Back in Minnesota, Evertt worked in filling stations for a while before spending 11 years with the railroad. In 1958, he began a 25-year career with Hoffman Engineering in Anoka.

“At Hoffman Engineering, I invented a part and helped the boss invent another one. It made so much money that we saved the company,” he said.

He was definitely ready to retire as he approached age 65, after standing on cement while working for so many years.

Evertt and Helen raised their family of four children: Karen, Gordon, Lynette and Kristie. During their early retirement years, they went to Arizona during winters for nearly 30 years. For many years, they built and renovated their houses and garages.

For a number of years now, they have lived north of the Twin Cities in a quiet area. At the age of 93, Evertt reflected on a long life. He talked of growing up in the era of Model T automobiles. Helen is now the longest-lived person in her entire family. No one had ever reached their 90s before.

As he thinks back on what he experienced as a teenager and young adult, the years in between dissolve. He recalled a recent conversation with a younger friend. The friend commented on the “kids” fighting in Iraq and looked at Evertt, saying “Can you imagine…?”

“I looked at him and said, ‘Who do you think fought World War II…?!’” Evertt said.

He experienced the same thing from a father’s perspective when his young son Gordon worked on diesel engine generators near Da Nang in Vietnam in 1968-1969.

When it comes to special events and commemorations such as Memorial Day, Evertt especially remembers all of his friends who did not survive the war. Their sacrifice remains in his heart and in the heart of every man who was on board the Sangamon that fateful day – and in many countless battles through the years in war zones all over the world.