Marshall B. Figari
US Navy, Communications Officer, USS Sangamon – Lieutenant
World War II (1942-1946)
American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal
(2 Battle Stars), Philippine Liberation Medal (1 Battle Star),
Letter of Commendation (Admiral Kinkaid)
Marshall “Monte” Bernard Vincent Figari was born in San Francisco, CA on December 2, 1921 and grew up in the Sunnyside district of the City. His father, Captain William “Willy” Figari, himself the son of an Italian crab fisherman immigrant, worked his entire adult life as tugboat operator and key employee of Crowley Maritime. Captain Figari was such an important figure in the early San Francisco waterfront days that he was featured in the UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library San Francisco Bay Maritime History Series oral history project. Monte’s mother, Mary “May”, whom Willy met while running tour boats at the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair (The Panama Pacific International Exposition), was daughter of Irish immigrants. Marshall’s brother, Captain William “Bill” Figari, is also a prominent waterfront figure who was the SVP of Operations at Crowley Maritime and also served for many years on the San Francisco Board of Pilot Commissioners.
It seems that Monte was destined for the sea. After attending Balboa High School, he enrolled at the University of San Francisco. However, he accelerated his graduation from USF to join the war effort and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on April 29, 1942. His first duties in the Navy were to attend midshipman’s school at Northwestern in Chicago and then communications school at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His time east went quickly with the most vivid memories being of barely escaping marriage to an “Argentinean bombshell” of a woman he met in Chicago.
After midshipman’s school, as a part of his training, Monte served on a British carrier. He was impressed with the British Navy custom of providing rum for the officers and crew, although he didn’t particularly like his drinks “neat” (without ice), as was the usual practice.
Monte was then stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii, which he disliked because he felt it was “just too hot and muggy.” He was also eager to see action, so he and a new Navy friend, Lara Hoggard, mounted a campaign to get assigned to a ship. As it turned out, both served together on the same aircraft carrier during the war.
In addition to becoming one of Monte’s lifelong friends, Dr. Lara G. Hoggard was an accomplished musician and choral conductor, who was ordered to Washington, D.C. to conduct the Navy Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in an international radio show, “The Navy Hour” and later directed Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.
After a brief stint in San Diego, Marshall and Lara were assigned to the escort aircraft carrier, USS Sangamon, one of the converted oil tankers that played such a critical role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
The USS Sangamon was a Cimarron class oiler, originally owned by Standard Oil Company, but converted to an auxiliary aircraft carrier in early 1942. Her conversion added a flight deck 502 feet (153 m) long and 81 feet (25 m) wide, elevators, a hangar deck, an aircraft catapult, sonar gear, aircraft ordnance magazines, work shops, and stowage space for aviation spares. Sangamon earned 8 battle stars during World War II and her three air groups were each awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
The USS Sangamon was redesignated as a CVE-26 (escort carrier) in mid 1943, after an overhaul at the Mare Island shipyards in Vallejo, CA, where she received more modern equipment for her flight deck and a Combat information center.
As a Communications Officer aboard the Sangamon, Marshall’s duties included passing along command messages and intercepting coded transmissions from the Japanese fleet. Marshall found the work to be tedious, interrupted only by regular air assaults on Japanese air bases. But in late 1944 the war became particularly challenging when the USS Sangamon joined the escort carrier group, TG 77.4, as a part of the Leyte invasion force.
When friends or family members were going through rough times Marshall used to love to remind everyone to “ride easy in the saddle of life.” He always liked to focus on the positive, and there was never a truer need for this attitude than in the dark of WWII.
The USS Sangamon was part of a group comprised of 18 CVEs that was split into three smaller units referred to as “Taffy 1, 2, and 3″, respectively. During the operation, they sailed to the east of Leyte Gulf: Taffy 1, including Sangamon, was off northern Mindanao, Taffy 2 off the entrance to Leyte Gulf; and Taffy 3 off Samar.
Marshall didn’t talk much about his time in WWII, but he always made it clear that he was not a fan of Admiral William “Bull” Halsey who led the South Pacific command through much of the war. Admiral Halsey mistakenly thought the main Japanese carrier group was to the north and took his main force to engage the enemy. As Marshall often recalled to his family, “That dam Bull Halsey took the bait” and left the escort carriers unprotected in Leyte Gulf.
When Japanese Vice Admiral Kurita’s Center Force emerged on the morning of October 25, 1944 from San Bernardino Strait into the Leyte Gulf there were only the CVE’s to oppose them. A desperate battle ensued. For the first time in the war, the Japanese employed suicidal kamikaze runs to attack the ships. In the fight, one escort carrier was destroyed along with several screening ships.
Marshall explained that the air was so thick with Japanese planes that “all we could do was point our guns straight up in the air” in the hopes of knocking one down. Fortunately, the resistance by the small carrier group was so stiff that Kurita thought he had run into the entire fleet and withdrew.
From his experience in the Navy, Marshall learned he could never work as an employee in a company. “No matter how high up you climb, there is always someone you have to report to,” he often remarked. So, shortly after the war, Marshall embarked upon what would become a very successful career as an independent insurance broker in the financial district of San Francisco under the name Marshall B. Figari Insurance. He met his lifelong love, Della, in the Marine Office of the Pacific insurance office, where she worked as a receptionist. The two were married in August 1949 at Old St. Hilary’s Church in Tiburon. Both were enchanted by Tiburon’s beauty and proximity to the City, so, in 1953, they bought several acres of land in Tiburon, built their own street which they called Delmar Drive (after Della and Marshall), constructed four houses, and created a fifth lot which for many years served as a horse pasture.
Marshall, who passed away in April of 2011, was a dedicated Boy Scout leader and avid hiker all over the trails of Mt. Tamalpais. For many years his favorite thing to do was ride his horse, Lucky, across the hills of Tiburon. So, indeed, Marshall did learn to ride easy in the saddle of life.
Narrative by Robert M. Figari on Oct 18, 2011.