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Memories of days on U.S.S. Intrepid

Vet was navigator on torpedo planes flown off illustrious aircraft carrier

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LAYTON, Utah — Talking with Ralph Albiston is like chatting with your neighbor. He's mild-mannered and soft-spoken, slim and fair-complexioned. He lives with his wife of 62 years, Lenna, in a small retirement community in northern Utah and likes to tinker with electronics, read and watch "Jeopardy."

He isn't quick to bring attention to himself. You'd have to get him talking to learn that this grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of 20 was once a radioman/navigator on a TBM Avenger torpedo bomber flying off the U.S.S. Intrepid during World War II. You can't see any scar on the back of his head where he was wounded onboard ship during a kamikaze attack. And he won't tell you up front he was in the battle that sank the Japanese superbattleship Yamato in the closing, desperate days of the war in the Pacific.

This he will he will tell you — without reservation: "I prayed a lot. I had a secret prayer all the time. When I saw those gun emplacements shooting at us, I thought I was going to be killed. I wondered every time (we flew off the ship), would I live to make it home."

Ralph Littlefield Albiston did make it home. Members of the Lakeland Ward, Layton Utah Hill Stake, he and his wife, whom he married in the Logan Utah Temple not long before shipping out in October 1944, reared three children. Over the years he served as a high priests group leader, stake missionary and, most recently, as an ordinance worker with Sister Albiston in the Salt Lake Temple.

But one calling he will never forget was group leader of 21 other LDS servicemen on board one of the most renowned war ships of World War II. Meeting every week under the watchful eyes of Protestant and Catholic chaplains, Brother Albiston and the others gave each other lessons from the scriptures and shared the sacrament using a handmade sacrament tray holding 20 millimeter gun casings cut in half.

Now, some six decades later, he laughs when he recalls how he felt upon finding those 21 other Latter-day Saints on board. "That's going to keep the ship afloat," he said to himself.

Born and reared in Hawkins Basin in southeastern Idaho, Brother Albiston was one of 13 children. Now 87 years old, he's the last surviving member of his family. During the early years of the war, a young Ralph Albiston worked as an electronics engineer in Seattle, Wash., for the Boeing Company helping build B-17 and B-29 bombers. But as more and more young men were being shipped overseas, he decided he wanted to avoid the draft. So he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The 24-year-old passed the Navy flying test and mastered Morse code in three weeks. After training, he was assigned as navigator/radioman for torpedo bombers and flew with the commander of the Bloody Buzzards Squadron.

He kissed his wartime bride goodbye and stepped on board the Intrepid in San Francisco. It wasn't long before he saw action. According to ship's history, the carrier conducted air strikes against the Philippines a month later. And on Nov. 25, 1944, called the "blackest day in Intrepid's history," she was hit by two kamikazes, killing 69 men on board. Brother Albiston will never forget seeing 11 of those men buried at sea.

It might have been about this time that the young navigator got permission — perhaps bypassing some protocols — to search the records of the some 3,000 men on board the ship for their religious affiliation. "I wanted to learn who else on board ship was LDS. I wanted to be acquainted with them," he recalled.

Upon learning of the 21 other men, he approached them and each one agreed to meet each week. And almost every one had scriptures. One man in particular "would take the Book of Mormon and give us the best lessons we ever had."

The influence of these men helped strengthen his resolve to stay true to his testimony. He has been active in the Church all his life.

His buddies obviously thought highly of him to elect him group leader and, after the war, elected him to keep the sacrament tray they had made while on board. Today, that sacrament tray is part of an exhibit at BYU in Provo, Utah, called "Saints at War."

Today, Brother Albiston carries many memories of those days at war. He remembers flying so low to drop the torpedoes that the propellers almost clipped the waves. He remembers dropping the torpedoes and then trying to gain altitude — sometimes flying right over the deck of the enemy ship.

In September, he came full circle. Finding out the Intrepid, which has been a floating museum in New York City, was being closed for two years for renovations, his daughter, Kathy Butt, arranged for a family trip east. Arriving on board on Sept. 28 he, his wife, children and spouses were treated like royalty and given a VIP tour. During the day they realized their tour guide, also an Intrepid veteran, had been an Avenger mechanic. He most likely serviced Brother Albiston's planes.

Brother Albiston remembers those mechanics saying, "Bring this plane back," really meaning, "Come home safe."

Six decades later, the former TBM radioman was back again, safe.

E-mail to: julied@desnews.com