“They thought I was a ghost.” Not many people can make that statement with a straight face. World War II veteran Lewis LaGesse was one man who definitely could, after being reported dead in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
On December 7th, 1941, Lewis LaGesse, then 19 years old, was serving aboard the USS West Virginia (BB-48) when an aerial striking force of the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an assault on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. West Virginia was one of the American battleships that sank that day, and according to the telegram sent to his mother by the US Navy, LaGesse was among the more than 100 sailors who died on board. They were nearly right. When the wounded sailor was found in the midst of the attack, he was in such bad shape that his survival was a matter of luck.
Lewis LaGesse: Pearl Harbor Survivor (Barely)
Years after the Pearl Harbor attack, LaGesse recalled the sound of the torpedoes striking his ship. In the explosion that followed, he sustained injuries that nearly killed him, leaving him unconscious and bleeding from several areas of his body. To those frantically sorting through the dead and wounded that lay strewn about the harbor, LaGesse appeared to be one of those who didn’t survive. In fact, it was among a group of corpses that he was discovered, his fluttering eyelids the only sign that he was actually alive.
The sailor who noticed that minor movement helped move the unconscious sailor to the USS Solace AH-5), a hospital ship that saw more than her share of action that fateful Sunday morning. Though he was still alive, the Navy mistakenly reported him killed in the attack, making him the first serviceman from Waco to die in the war.
A Town Grieves (Mistakenly)
The news that he was actually alive didn’t reach his hometown soon enough, and his family held a memorial service for their “fallen” relative. Within days of what turned out to be an unnecessary memorial, the Navy sent a second telegram correcting its mistake. LaGesse was officially returned to the realm of the living, but not everyone in Waco was aware of it. The local newspaper had reported his death on its front page, and even years after the attack people he had known before World War II were just finding out that he survived the attack. He really was the “Ghost of Waco.”
Lewis LaGesse did eventually pass away, at the age of 92 and after living a full and fruitful life. After leaving the Navy in 1946, having served aboard USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) in the Pacific Theater, LaGesse studied engineering in Cleveland and eventually settled down in Houston, where he lived with his wife of 58 years, Aurelia Giangrosso LaGesse.