The U.S. Navy bore the brunt of kamikaze fury off Okinawa during the desperate battle to secure the island.
The ferocity of the fight between ships and planes that occurred off Okinawa in April and May 1945 is unparalleled in modern military history.
While a three-month battle raged on land between 100,000 troops of the Japanese Thirty-Second Army and 172,000 American GIs and Marines, the U.S. Navy remained on station to lend supply, air support and naval gunfire to the effort to secure the island as a staging area for the invasion of the Japanese homeland. All the while, these American ships and crews were exposed to an enemy of the most fearsome kind–one bent on self-destruction as well as the destruction of its foe.
Waves of kamikaze aircraft sortied against the U.S. vessels in an effort to force them back from Okinawan waters. In mass attacks known as kikusui, or “floating chrysanthemums,” Japanese pilots hurled themselves against the fleet. More than 7,000 American GIs and Marines died on Okinawa (see related story, P. 25). Offshore, the U.S. Navy lost nearly 5,000 sailors killed and 4,800 wounded. A total of 13 destroyers and one destroyer escort went to the bottom, while 13 aircraft carriers, 10 battleships and five cruisers were heavily damaged. Nearly 50 more destroyers and destroyer escorts were damaged. Ships large and small were kamikaze victims. Two of the most tragic, and at the same time heroic, stories of the naval battle off Okinawa are those of the fleet carrier Bunker Hill and the destroyer Hugh W. Hadley.
No strangers to combat, Bunker Hill’s 3,000 crewmen remembered a close call at the Battle of the Philippine Sea when a Japanese bomb had splashed perilously close by and caused slight damage to the ship. The 27,000-ton Essex-class carrier had been launched on December 7, 1942, exactly one year after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher, commander of U.S. Task Force 58, flew his flag aboard Bunker Hill on May 11, 1945. That morning, 30 planes were armed and fueled on the flight deck while 48 more were being readied on the hangar deck below. The vessel’s aviation fuel and ammunition stores had been replenished just the day before, and nearly 2 million gallons of fuel oil sloshed in her tanks.
At 10:05 a.m., a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero suicide plane came in low out of a cloud bank on the starboard beam, crashing into the parked planes on the flight deck. Less than a minute later, a second kamikaze roared from above in a near vertical dive and crashed at the base of the carrier’s island, its 550-pound bomb ripping a 40-foot gash across the deck. Instantly, Bunker Hill became an inferno. A great cloud of black smoke erupted from the ship, mixing with super-heated steam from ruptured valves. The ship’s top three decks were blazing from amidships to the fantail. Stunned sailors gathered their wits to man hoses and battle flames. Crewmen trapped aft by the fires fought for their lives.
Captain George A. Seitz made two crucial decisions that probably saved his ship. Seitz ordered the stricken carrier to be turned broadside to the wind so that the smoke and flames did not run the vessel’s full length. He also ordered an abrupt 70-degree turn, causing thousands of gallons of water that had been used to fight fires and flammable fuel to spill over Bunker Hill’s side and into the sea.
Damage control parties fought the flames with great heroism, many falling with hoses in hand when overcome by smoke. Six hours after the first kamikaze hit, the fires aboard Bunker Hill were under control. The cost was high–396 seamen dead or missing and another 264 wounded. Bunker Hill then turned away from the battle, toward the haven of Ulithi Atoll, 1,200 miles away.
USS Hugh W. Hadley had been commissioned in November 1944, a swift new destroyer equipped with the latest technology. Off Okinawa she was one of many small warships that pulled duty on the picket line in one of several defensive rings to provide early warning of incoming Japanese aircraft and protect supply lines.
On the same spring morning Bunker Hill had won its desperate struggle to survive, Hugh W. Hadley was on picket duty at Station 15. It was early when the kamikazes came. During that long, dreadful day more than 150 suicide planes assaulted Hugh W. Hadley and her sister ship USS Evans. In half an hour between 8:30 and 9:00, Hadley’s gunners knocked a dozen enemy planes from the sky.
Then, at 9:05, a Yokusuka MXY7 “Baka”–in essence, a rocket-powered flying bomb–laden with explosives hit the little destroyer squarely. Hadley then took hits from a bomb and another kamikaze in rapid succession. A third kamikaze hit then seemed to seal her fate. Her skipper, Commander Baron J. Mullaney, ordered the ship abandoned. A skeleton crew remained aboard, and in a 30-minute miracle her wounds were temporarily patched. She had lost 28 men, and 67 of her crew were wounded, but the ultimate triumph of Hugh W. Hadley was a testament to the skill of the U.S. Navy crewmen.
Michael E. Haskew, Editor, World War II