Death from the Sky: This Is What It Was Like to Survive a Kamikaze Strike
August 11, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIImperial JapanOkinawaWorld War II HistoryKamikaze

Death from the Sky: This Is What It Was Like to Survive a Kamikaze Strike

On May 11, 1945, the destroyer USS Hugh W. Hadley survived a series of Kamikaze attacks off Okinawa but was shattered in the process.

By the evening of March 31, the small islands surrounding Okinawa came into view. The Hadley’s guns fired in anger for the first time, shooting down a Japanese Mitsubishi G4M Betty bomber, one of several aircraft that had been shadowing and harassing the American ships. The following morning, the Okinawa landings took place, and the Hadley was then assigned to antisubmarine duty. An escort mission to Saipan was completed by mid-April, and the destroyer was back on antisubmarine patrol off Okinawa by the 27th.

Manning the Pickets

The following day, the Hadley was ordered to radar picket duty along with the destroyer R.H. Smith. A Marine Vought F4U Corsair fighter plane was forced to ditch when its engine failed, and Hadleycrewmen plucked the pilot from the Pacific. Tense hours were spent at general quarters due to the continuing threat of Kamikaze raids. Word reached the crew that the destroyer Aaron Ward, the warship that had preceded the Hadley in construction at the Terminal Island shipyards, had been crippled and was nearly sunk by six Kamikaze hits while on picket duty south of the Hadley’s position.

As the sun climbed into the sky on May 4, smoke billowed from the destroyer Shea, struck by an Ohka just 1,000 yards off Hadley’s port quarter. Without fighter direction equipment, the Hadley took control of the nearby combat air patrol as best it could until relieved a couple of hours later. Following a brief stop at the anchorage of Kerama Retto, southwest of Okinawa, the Hadley patrolled off Hagushi Bay, a primary supply point near the mouth of the Bishi River on Okinawa and the intersection of the zones of the 1st and 6th Marine Divisions to the north and the U.S. Army’s 7th and 96th Divisions to the south.

On May 7, the Hadley came alongside the destroyer Brown, another of the few picket destroyers that had come through the gauntlet of Kamikaze attacks unscathed to date. Fighter direction equipment was transferred to the Hadley, and by the afternoon of May 10 the destroyer was in position on Radar Picket Station 15. Along with the Hadley were the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Evans, under Commander R.J. Archer, LCS 82 (Landing Craft, Support), LCS(L) 83 and LCS(L) 84 (Landing Craft Support, Large), and LSM(R) 193 (Landing Ship, Medium, Rocket). With grim humor, American sailors had begun referring to the smaller ships that accompanied the destroyers on the picket line as “pallbearers.”

“Commence Firing, Starboard Side!”

An uneasy calm settled around Radar Picket Station 15 on the morning of May 11, 1945, but everyone in the small clutch of ships knew that the Kamikaze storm would inevitably break. At 6:36 am, the combat air patrol of 12 Corsair fighters accounted for a single Japanese plane, and then at 7:45, the Hadley’s first direct contact of the day, a Japanese floatplane, was sighted.

“As I started to eat breakfast, the familiar GONG, GONG, GONG of the GQ bell sounded—again with the expected announcement, ‘General Quarters, General Quarters.’ But this announcement was different, however, as it was followed, breathlessly, by the words, ‘Commence Firing, Commence Firing, starboard side!’” remembered Doug Aitken, a young officer aboard the Hadley who years later retired from the Navy with the rank of captain.

“The intruder which called us to General Quarters was a single aircraft, a Japanese floatplane flying very low on the water directly at us,” Aitken continued. “It had escaped detection by both air and surface search radars, and also the Combat Air Patrol (CAP) of high flying Marine F4U Corsairs which we directed from our ship. Fortunately, we were alert, and our gunners shot it down close aboard. Everyone became intensely alert as we remained at GQ wondering what was next. All was quiet again for a few minutes. Then they came.”

Commander Mullaney later reported that the aircraft was “taken under fire by both ships (Hadley and Evans). Soon, this plane headed away from the Evans and came directly for the Hadley which was about one and a half miles from the Evans. This plane was shot down by the Hadley at the range of 1,200 yards.”

150 Enemy Aircraft

The single Japanese aircraft was a harbinger of the hell to come, the herald of more than 150 enemy planes, including Kamikazes, their fighter escort, conventional bombers, and the dreaded Ohkas that comprised Kikusui No. 6. For the next two hours, the seamen at Radar Picket Station 15 fought for their lives against overwhelming odds. The dozen Corsairs of the combat air patrol gamely engaged the swarms of Japanese planes, and with additional fighters that subsequently arrived, accounted for about 40 of the enemy. However, it was simply impossible to shoot them all down.

Within minutes of the first encounter, Mullaney and his officers on the bridge of the Hadley were shocked at what they saw. “At about 0755 numerous enemy planes were contacted by our instruments as coming towards the ship (and Okinawa) from the north, distance about 55 miles,” he wrote in his after action report. “One division of CAP was ordered out to intercept. Shortly thereafter, several enemy formations were detected, and the entire CAP was ordered out to intercept. Our Fighter Director Officer in CIC (combat information center) had estimated the total number of enemy planes as 156 coming in at different heights in groups as follows: Raid ONE 36, Raid TWO 50, Raid THREE 20, Raid FOUR 20 to 30, Raid FIVE 20, Total 156 planes.

“Shortly we received reports from them [CAP] that they had destroyed twelve planes,” Mullaney continued. “Then they were so busy that they could not send us reports but we intercepted their communications to learn about 40 to 50 planes were destroyed by them. CIC reported that there were no friendly planes within ten miles of this ship.”

Kamikaze Attempts Against the Hadley

Japanese suicide attacks against the Hadley and the Evans were unceasing. Attacking singly or in groups of four or more, the Kamikazes pressed their suicide runs, and the tiny ships worked in mutual support as best they could. The destroyers became separated by as much as two to three miles as they maneuvered, but they strained to concentrate their fire.

The Hadley heeled to bring as many guns as possible to bear on a Japanese Aichi D3A Val dive bomber, screaming downward. The attacker’s speed and violent maneuvering made it virtually impossible for the destroyer’s gunners to assess the range to their rapidly closing target. At about 5,000 yards the 5-inch guns barked, then the staccato of the 40mm mounts joined in, and at 2,000 yards the chatter of the 20mm cannon could be heard. A thin ribbon of smoke began to trail from the stricken Kamikaze, but still it came on. Seconds later, dark smoke and flame erupted and a wing was torn from the Val. The shredded plane nosed up and plunged into the sea a mere 100 yards away.

Swarms of Japanese planes seemed to fill the sky, and the Corsair pilots of the combat air patrol shot them down until their .50-caliber machine guns had no more ammunition. Still, the Marine pilots pursued the enemy planes, feigning attacks and even causing some Japanese aircraft into such violent maneuvering that their inexperienced pilots lost control and plunged into the Pacific.

“Obviously, the Marines could not stop them all,” wrote Lieutenant (j.g.) Thomas Dwyer of the Hadley, “and many broke through, circling the two destroyers like the Indians around the wagon train. From time to time, the Japanese would launch crudely coordinated attacks … against the embattled ships.”

The Evans is Taken Out of the Fight

During the opening minutes of the fight, the Hadley’s gunners flamed four Japanese planes that were attempting to slip through Radar Picket Station 15 and move on toward the invasion fleet closer to Okinawa’s shoreline. Kamikazes attacked the Hadley in steep dives of 45 degrees or more, and during the frantic half hour between 8:30 and 9 am, the Hadley’s gunners accounted for a dozen enemy aircraft. The Evans was assailed from virtually all points of the compass, blazing away and downing a total of 15 planes in the running duel and assisting in destroying another four.

Both little warships steered in circles, their rudders hard over to bring every available gun to bear, and churned the water at 27 knots. At 8:35 am, the Hadley’s rudder went hard over to avoid a Kamikaze dive bomber that was careening downward and only 1,000 feet above the ship. The destroyer swung away from the pilot’s aiming point, and he splashed a scant 20 feet from the Hadley’s stern. At 9 am, the two ships were three miles apart, too distant to lend mutual aid and firepower. In a flash, disaster struck the Evans.

Lieutenant James M. Smith, ship’s doctor aboard the Evans, remembered a “whirlwind of planes coming at us from every direction. Guns were firing so rapidly that reliefs had to be afforded to exhausted loaders. The ship was surrounded with smoke from our own fire, and it was difficult to spot the Japs because of the black shell bursts that mingled with them.’