It was Friday the 13th. The month was October, and the year was 1944.

Only 19 years old at the time, Leo Couture was manning his battle station on a anti-aircraft gun near the fantail of the heavy cruiser USS Canberra in the South Pacific, when a Japanese torpedo from a plane slammed into the cruiser, killing 23 of his shipmates. Couture still remembers what time it was – 6:33 p.m.

“He came right out of a rain squall. He was 10 feet off the water, under radar,” Couture said about the enemy pilot. “He sneaked through. I could see his face.”

“He flew right into the ship, dropped a torpedo and got away,” Couture said. “It exploded inside the ship.”

Couture, a Westbrook resident, said the torpedo ripped through the ship’s hull on the starboard side under the No. 2 gun turret. The force of the blast picked the bow of the ship up a couple of feet. About 4,500 tons of seawater flooded engine rooms.

“We layed dead – no power, everything was gone,” Couture said.

He was scared, but he was occupied doing his job. Reality of what happened set in after the attack. “I was so scared that I wet my pants. Oh, was I scared,” said Couture, who was 19.

He heard the captain give the order to abandon ship. But the order was rescinded following a report from the ship’s engineer who thought the ship could be saved. Couture said the cruiser Houston was hit the same day.

Using semaphore – signaling by waving handheld flags – the Canberra sent a message to the task force commander aboard a carrier. The Canberra was towed to an island for emergency repairs after it was first used as bait, trying to lure another Japanese attack.

Couture said the dead were removed from the ship when it was pumped out in dry dock at Ulithi. “They took them out in body bags and buried them on the island,” Couture said.

He said there was a body bag on board the ship for every sailor. The dead were buried without any memorial service. “You didn’t have the time,” he said.

Couture had enlisted in Bath, Maine, at 17. Each year on Oct. 13, he recalls the attack. “I’ll never forget it,” Couture said.

Leo Couture was a crewmember of the Uss Canberra pictured here on Oct. 10, 1944, three days before it was torpedoed by a Japanese pilot.

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