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Sam Stansell poses at his home on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 in Ooltewah, Tenn. Stansell served aboard the USS Saratoga during World War II.

Bio:

Name: Sam Stansell

Age: 93

Home: Ooltewah, Tenn.

Military branch and rank: U.S. Navy, first class machinist's mate

In the battle for the Pacific theater in World War II, Sam Stansell was one of thousands of Tennesseans who played crucial roles in the brutal combat.

For four years, Stansell served on the U.S.S. Saratoga, one of the United States Navy's first aircraft carriers and was involved in the battle for Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest conflicts of the war.

Before American troops set foot on the island, the Saratoga was detached from the fleet and sent toward it.

"That was before anybody ever landed on Iwo Jima and our planes were supposed to soften the beachheads so the troops could land without too many casualties," he said. "The [Japanese] were watching us, too, so they launched planes and we were under attack by suicide planes for about five hours."

Stansell, then a first class machinist's mate, worked in the engine room, ensuring fuel was continuously pumped into the engine so the ship could keep moving. He said the ventilation system ran through the area and every time the ship was hit, a "fireball" would blaze through part of the room.

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Sam Stansell points to Japan on a map showing the path of the USS Saratoga as he traces the map while posing at his home on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 in Ooltewah, Tenn. Stansell served aboard the USS Saratoga during World War II.

"They would come in waves and bomb and dive into us. We took eight bombs and five suicide planes. We didn't get any planes launched in the air before they attacked us," he said. "You couldn't hardly breathe to save your life, it was so smoky. If we stopped out there in the ocean, they would have really had us, but we kept moving all the time.

"It was one big battle that I'll never forget."

The battle raged on for five hours and by the time it ended, 300 of the ship's 3,000 crew members had been killed. He and other crew members spent several hours gathering the remains of their friends so the men could be laid to rest properly.

"We would bury them five at a time. The chaplain would give a sermon and there was a board that we'd lay the bodies on and put a 5-inch shell in each bag so the bodies would sink and not get eaten by sharks," he said. "It was hell on Earth was what it was, really."

Now, at 93, he looks back on what he and his fellow crew members did with pride and grieves for those who didn't make it home.

"I'm tremendously proud. We had some good men. We lost a lot of good men. I had some good buddies that got lost in the war.

"They say that time heals everything, but it takes a lot of time."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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