The Journey of John Gurley: Submerged Salvation
Born October 24, 1925 in Creek County, Oklahoma, in a little house belonging to the oil company, whom his father worked for, John Gurley was welcomed into a world which would shortly explode into a war before he graduated from high school. Three days after graduating, John enlisted into the Navy in May of 1943 at the age of 17 with his father’s permission. Describing his inspiration to serve in the armed forces, John stated, “That was just part of living that’s what we were taught…we had to fight to defend our country; it was just a natural thing. We weren’t being necessarily brave; we were just doing what needed to be done because of who we were and what we were.” John’s enlistment followed in the footsteps of his two older brothers, who enlisted the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and were already serving. One brother enlisted in the Navy and was part of the Pacific Fleet, and the other became a paratrooper jumping into Northern France on DDay and was wounded in the fight to liberate France.
After reading a recruiting flyer, John chose to volunteer for the submarine core after naval boot camp and went through the required, rigorous training to qualify to serve on a US Submarine. John headed to Pearl Harbor and was assigned as a second yeoman to the USS Sennet; an experienced warfare sub which had been on two patrols in the Pacific prior to John joining the crew. With the war almost won, John’s first patrol with the USS Sennet was “boring”. The sub traveled all over the Pacific going after various ships and providing support when needed, including surfacing to support fallen pilots. John trained with the head yeoman learning the ropes in 4x4 office space which, “you had to go out of to turn around”. His bed was right next to a torpedo which he would find himself curled up with at night.
Returning from the patrol, John still could not understand why the submarine needed a second yeoman. He found out quickly. During the summer of 1945, the USS Sennet was being fitted for cables to ward off submerged mines for its last patrol. The crew was more intensely trained and put through different experiences than they were used to. Alarmingly, the head yeoman and captain transferred, leaving John as the yeoman and the USS Sennet leader-less. Seeing these odd changes, John realized this patrol would be dangerously different and attempted to find a way to be dismissed from that patrol. He was turned down.
In July 1945, with the war almost won and the Navy mopping up the Pacific, John and the USS Sennet headed out for their final patrol to the Sea of Japan. John was literally submerged into an experience which would change the course of his life.
On the way, John was on watch in the control room and spotted an airplane through the periscope of the surfaced sub. Quickly reported the sighting, the officer on duty responded, “You didn’t see an airplane.” Knowing what he saw but respectful of officers, John kept his mouth shut and did not argue. Later, this same officer ordered John to load a 5 inch surface gun by himself. As John attempted to load the heavy shell, the alarm went off signaling that the sub was preparing to submerge. John dropped the shell and dove into the door of the already submerging submarine barely making it back inside. The airplane that “wasn’t there” had riddled the sub with bullets; thankfully, the USS Sennet and crew escaped undamaged.
The USS Sennet entered the Sea of Japan in late July of 1945 and became a part of the last Naval Sea Battle of WWII. Submerged for 22 hours with mines all around; the agony of the mission was heavy on all the men, especially John. “You could hear the mine chains scraping on the cables of the submarine. I prayed so hard and said if you can get me through this I’ll do anything you want.” The mine cables on the USS Sennet warded the mines off, and the sub went on to successfully sink four ships. The last naval battle in WWII ended as the USS Sennet exited North through the La Ferous Strait; finally submerging after 22 hours of combat. As the submerged sub exited enemy territory, members of Japanese merchant vessels waved at the men of the USS Sennet who mistakenly thought it was one of their own submarines.
The USS Sennet was in Guam when the atomic bombs were dropped and Japan surrendered. John stated that he was very thankful to hear that the war was over, “…grateful to be alive because it was very frightening the things we had to go through”. After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, John returned to work at Safeway Stores for a year. Remembering his promise to God, John used the GI Bill to complete his BA in record time and then moved on to seminary school. “The experience of going through the minefield for 22 hours changes everything; everything in your thinking, in your posture, in your looking forward to the future. What you want to do if you can do it pleading that it be possible. It is difficult to describe.”
John became a Baptist preacher, making good on the promise he made to God while submerged in a minefield in the Sea of Japan. John served his community in several ways including the medical field as a chaplain taking phone calls at all hours of the night to comfort others in their time of need, resolving conflicts in times of tragedy, restoring 14 cemeteries donating his own time and money. One could say John’s life was spared as a submariner; as a result, he has spent his entire life committed to earning the gift of life by sacrificing his heath, time, and money to fulfill the promise he made as a young submariner in a most fearful time.
Throughout his life’s work, it is clear John has had an overwhelming desire to earn his right to live. As a testament of his established commitment to his promise, John retired from the ministry at the age of 90. Through all aspects of John’s post WWII Journey, he has breathed life into people and places who are desperately in need of restoration. And he has done well. Well Done, John. Thank you for your service in WWII and in your lifetime. You truly are a man of The Greatest Generation.
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