We were saddened to learn of the passing of Bob DeSpain on June 30, at the age of 91. You may remember that Mr. DeSpain was the WWII Veteran who was the memorable and heartwarming highlight of our holiday luncheon just last December at the Maya. Our friend and colleague, Steve Chesser of the Marine Exchange, interviewed Mr. DeSpain, a presentation which culminated with a standing ovation for this man’s incredible story and important place in our country’s history.
Mr. DeSpain participated in the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. More than that, he fought in what is widely considered to be the most heroic action in U.S. Navy history, the Battle off Samar.
Bob grew up in Signal Hill, and was a self-described beach bum and Pike rat. As a teenager, he worked summers as a lifeguard, and dropped out of high school to enlist in the Navy at age 17. His first ship was the new destroyer, USS HOEL, which he joined in San Francisco. In October 1944, the U.S. invaded the Philippines, which the Japanese had overrun in 1942. During the Japanese counterattack, USS HOEL and two other destroyers found themselves facing 4 battleships, 8 cruisers and 11 destroyers. Bob’s ship was sunk, and he was among just 86 survivors out of a crew of 340. Their sacrifice protected the American landings and led to victory in the Pacific.
His exploits were featured in the book “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors”, which Bob signed after his remarks at the luncheon. Bob worked a variety of jobs after the War, including time as a quality control inspector at the Long Beach Ford plant. In his last years, he was an honored tour guide on the Battleship Iowa.