David M. Kay, 83, who as a young sailor in 1944 spent 30 hours in shark-infested waters after a deadly typhoon decimated the Navy's Third Fleet in one of the worst disasters in naval history, died June 9 of congestive heart failure at Brooke Grove Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Olney. He later became a salesman, selling cars to three generations of Washington area residents.
As a 23-year-old sailor on the destroyer USS Hull, Seaman Kay and his crewmates were on a refueling operation Dec. 17, 1944, about 300 miles east of Luzon in the Philippine Sea. The Third Fleet was preparing for an airstrike on Luzon as part of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's effort to take control of the Philippines from the Japanese.
But the water had become so rough that the refueling lines "snapped like toothpicks," and the work was canceled for the next day, Mr. Kay wrote recently in a journal.
By daybreak Dec. 18, the storm had worsened, and the ship could not maneuver in the trough between the waves. Hurricane-force winds blowing 150 mph and waves towering seven stories high battered the destroyer until it began breaking up and sinking. "Men were being pulled down into the water, because of the sinking ship," Mr. Kay wrote. "The wind was blowing so hard and it was raining so badly you could hardly see. I shook hands with some of my friends and ran as fast as I could to get away."
As he dived into the water, a mountainous wave crashed down on him, and he thought it was just a matter of time before he would be dead. Instead, hours passed, and he floated naked and alone in the churning waters. He recounted that sometime after dark, a group of seven sailors on a raft saw him, and he stayed with them through the night.
The next day -- skin torn from his body, arms paralyzed, almost completely blind -- a ship came by, and the crew of the USS Tabberer threw him a life ring and hoisted him aboard.
He was one of 55 sailors from the Hull and two other destroyers, the USS Spence and Monaghan, to survive the killer typhoon called Cobra, which took the lives of 790 officers and enlisted men.
The ordeal never left Mr. Kay's memory, although he didn't talk about it until two years ago. For years, he suffered from claustrophobia and didn't like going to the movies or any other place with dark rooms. He always wanted a light on at night as he slept. Through it all, he remained grateful that he was a survivor.
"He prayed a lot" during his time in the sea, said his wife, Ruth. "He continued to pray a lot throughout his life. He kept saying he was the luckiest person in the world."
A Washington native, Mr. Kay graduated from Roosevelt High School, where he lettered in tennis and was a tournament player. He spent two years studying accounting at Benjamin Franklin College in Washington. Tennis remained his passion throughout his life.
At 28, after his Navy service, he began selling cars for Ourisman Chevrolet in Marlow Heights and became one of its top salesmen -- and one of its most popular. He loved selling cars, his wife said. Over the years, he retired several times, until closing his last deal in 1999.
"After he finally retired, he was still selling cars in his sleep," she said. "He loved the people he met there."
Jack Schroeder sold cars with Mr. Kay for 25 years. "When I came there, he was already the top dog," said Schroeder, now retired. "It took me 15 years or more to get to his level."
Mr. Kay was knowledgeable and personable and a "step above everyone else," Schroeder said. He would always sell himself before he sold the product.
"He had a great memory for names," Schroeder said. "He would sell to a customer one month and then see them in the showroom two months later and call them by their name. He called them by their first name."
For his hard work, Mr. Kay earned numerous awards and received high customer satisfaction marks. His company also rewarded his service with a number of trips.
On some of those trips, the haunting memories of his terrifying days at sea surfaced. "He would never go near a boat or near the water," Schroeder recounted. "He'd never go swimming or to the beach."
Survivors include his wife of 49 years, of Silver Spring; and a son, Jeffrey Kay of Cumberland, Md.