World War II veteran, Pearl Harbor survivor honored on 99th birthday
By CHERYL SCHWEIZER | Columbia Basin Herald | Published: July 22, 2020
MOSES LAKE, Wash. — Geb Galle didn’t see it himself — he was two decks below at his battle station — but most of the eyewitnesses said it seemed like every Japanese plane over Pearl Harbor drew a bead on the USS Nevada.
It was about 8:45 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941.
Galle, veteran of the Pearl Harbor attack, whose second ship was sunk off the waters of Guadalcanal, who fought in nearly every major engagement in the Pacific in World War II, turned 99 years old Monday. Family and friends came up with a surprise for his birthday that made him tear up.
Dec. 7 was just another Sunday morning, Galle said, and he was waiting belowdecks for the launch that would take sailors to shore for church services. All of a sudden some of his shipmates came running in, saying something was going on — there were explosions and unfamiliar planes over the harbor.
Galle stuck his head out the porthole to see what was up, he said. He saw planes overhead but he couldn’t see their insignia. But what was happening became clear all too soon.
Nevada was at one end of the line of battleships moored off Ford Island, known as Battleship Row. She was tied up directly in front of the USS Arizona. Alone of all the vessels on Battleship Row, Nevada had power and nothing in her way. Her crew was not about to just sit there.
Galle was in the engineering section, and at his battle station it was hard to know what was going on outside, he said. “Of course, we felt a couple jolts, and that’s when we got hit with the torpedo, and we had a few bomb hits.”
As Nevada headed across the harbor the attackers went right for her. Somebody eventually counted all the hits she took — one torpedo and at least six bombs. Her crew was ordered to beach her near the harbor entrance, and they reluctantly complied.
The spot where the Nevada came to rest is memorialized with a plaque on a nearby rock, installed during the 75th anniversary commemoration of the attack. “I had the honor of placing that plaque on that rock,” Galle said.
Only later, when he was released from his battle station, did Galle really get a chance to look at the harbor. “After we were beached and everything, and we got up to topside, then we saw all the mess that took place.”
He remembered the sight of USS Oklahoma, which had capsized, and the remains of the Arizona, which had blown up. “A pretty sad lookout,” he said.
Nevada required extensive repairs and wouldn’t need a full crew for a while. Her sailors were needed for other jobs, however.
“They took a lot of the guys off the battleships and distributed them among the other ships,” Galle said. “A week or so later I was transferred to a heavy cruiser, the Northampton.”
The USS Northampton was an escort, traveling with the aircraft carriers. Galle was in the task force when James Dolittle and his raiders launched their attack on Japan.
Like most ships in the Pacific fleet, the Northampton was sucked into the battles that swirled around the island of Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942. It was there that the Northampton met her end, and Galle made a choice that, he said, could’ve gotten him court-martialed and shot.
The Northampton was torpedoed during the Battle of Tassafaronga and began taking on water. As the ship struggled, Galle said he heard somebody pounding on a hatch.
“That was the after-steering. You went down there, and then they closed the hatch, and they dogged it down on top of you. You couldn’t get out of there unless somebody opened it up from the top. I had to stand watch down there, and I knew that was an eerie feeling, to be trapped down there and not being able to escape.”
The Northampton was in trouble, and one of the officers told Galle not to open that hatch — it was watertight, and seawater was already flooding into other parts of the ship. Galle waited until the officer had gone up on the deck.
“I went back down there, and I opened up the hatch, and I told those four guys, ‘Come on, get out of there. That equipment can run without you.’ Then I closed that hatch back down again, and that made it watertight,” Galle said.
It was a big risk. “I disobeyed orders, I could’ve been shot,” he said, but as far as he was concerned it was the right thing to do.
It was part of his philosophy during his Navy service, he said, to do what needed to be done to the best of his ability. “I was asked to give my ultimate. And I gave it,” he said. He did it without flinching. “We jumped in and did it,” he said.
He never knew what happened to the four men, but he was certain they survived, he said.
As far as abandoning ship in a battle zone in the middle of the night goes, the end of the Northampton was pretty orderly. Destroyers picked up most of the survivors, but some men, including Galle, had to spend the rest of the night and part of the next morning on a life raft.
“It happened to be a moonlit night that night,” he remembered. “You could see the sharks swimming alongside you.” In fact, “we could reach them and pet them,” he said.
When dawn came the survivors were picked up by PT boats, small wooden boats that were designed to launch torpedoes.
Eventually Galle was reassigned to a new ship, the light cruiser USS Macon. From its commissioning in 1943, the Macon fought its way across the Pacific as part of various escort groups. From Pearl Harbor to the war’s end in 1945, Galle said he was in 19 major engagements.
He was discharged in 1946, married and had five children, eventually moving to the Pacific Northwest. He was a resident of Stevenson, in the Columbia Gorge, before moving to Moses Lake to live with family.
A family friend also had moved from Stevenson to Moses Lake, and that friend, Megan Cox, thought Galle deserved a celebration for his 99th birthday.
Her dad Dave Cox suggested a drive-by parade of first responder vehicles. “I just started making phone calls,” Megan Cox said. The parade was scheduled for July 19.
The Moses Lake Fire Department, Grant County Fire District No. 5, the Washington State Patrol and the Grant County Sheriff’s Office provided vehicles. The parade was escorted by members of the Patriot Guard Riders, volunteers from throughout eastern Washington who work with the American Legion to support veterans.
Galle’s family didn’t tell him the parade was coming. He was talking with visitors Sunday afternoon when his daughter Lynda Palmer told him to turn around and look up the street.
The Patriot Guard Riders led the fire trucks and law enforcement vehicles up the street, sirens wailing. At first, Galle couldn’t believe they were for him.
But they were, and the Patriot Guard parked their bikes, stood at attention and saluted him. Firefighters and sheriff’s deputies thanked him for his service.
Galle took off his hat to acknowledge the salute given to him and was moved to tears.
“This is beautiful,” he said.