Special Report: Heroes at Sea - KiiiTV.com South Texas, Corpus Christi, Coastal Bend

Special Report: Heroes at Sea

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CORPUS CHRISTI (Kiii News) -

For the first time in 70 years, three men who came together during one of the first naval engagements of WWII have been reunited.

While they didn't know one another at the time of the Battle of the Coral Sea, all three are now Corpus Christi residents.

"We lost a great crew," Leonard Tracy said. "A lot of guys."

Tracy served as a gunners mate onboard the USS Lexington CV-2. Lying about his age, he joined the Navy as an escape from the Great Depression. He was only 16 years old, and on May 8, 1942, he was about to become a part of American history.

"You can imagine all those bombs and torpedoes bursting in the water," Tracy said. "There wasn't a shark within miles of that place."

The action took place northeast of Australia, in what became known as the Battle of the Coral Sea. Airstrikes were exchanged between the Japanese and Allied Forces, but the aircraft carrier was dealt a crippling blow. The Lady Lex was beyond help.

"She was under attack. She was hit, dead in the water," Jack Taylor said. "the skipper said abandon ship. They started getting off of there."

Taylor was serving onboard the U.S. Destroyer Morris when his ship was ordered to help rescue sailors from the sinking Lexington.

"You probably have a picture of it," Taylor said. "You can see the stern of a destroyer. That was my ship. Picked up around 700 survivors and took them to the cruiser."

Tracy was among the men taken aboard Taylor's ship. 70 years later, the men have been brought together once again with the help of two brothers, Tom and Tim Painschab.

Tom is Tracy's son-in-law, and Tim and Taylor are members of the same health club.

"Both my brother and I were in Vietnam, so we kind of have a feeling of what being shot at means," said Tim Painschab. "Then you hear what these guys went through, and your like, wow."

The reunion happened at Homewood Residence, a senior living center where Tracy now resides. It is where, by coincidence, 88-year old Ralph Wade was found. Wade is a Navy veteran who also had a front row seat on a different destroyer during the battle.

"Hard headed gunners mate," Wade said. "He can tell you about that."

"I was a trainer in a pit," Tracy said. "That barrel went right over my head. Made me not hear very good."

"These guys set the stage for us, and we are forgetting what they did," said Tim Painschab.

Step onboard the USS Lexington CV-16 museum, and you will find a section of the ship dedicated to the sailors who fought, and those who died, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Out of close to 3,000 men onboard the USS Lexington, just over 200 men were lost that day, including Tracy's best friend.

"He was where a 500-pound area bomb hit," Tracy said. "Big flash. Burned from the top of his head. Said, 'Look at me, Tracy.'"

He never returned home.

"I may speak for some of the guys," Tracy said. "I wish they could have made it."

Tracy went on to serve on battleships Texas and Nevada. Taylor stayed with the Morris until the end of WWII. His ship saw lots of action, including being hit by a kamikaze. Their years of service can be measured in campaign medals and battle stars.

Wade is now 88 years old. Tracy is 89, and Taylor is 91. All members of the greatest generation, they have came together for an interview to make sure their stories are not lost in time.

"Kids aren't learning about this stuff. Not a draft anymore. People are forgetting about the importance of military to keep this country strong," Tim Painschab said. "It's these guys that got us here."

While the Japanese sunk more ships, the battle was a strategic victory for the Allied Forces. The Japanese were forced to turn back, saving Australia and halting the Japanese advance.

It was an important moment in American history, and a battle these men were proud to be apart of.

"Something you can't forget, that's for sure," Tracy said. "It's always with you."

"If I had to do it over, I'd be glad to," Wade said.