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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.

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.’

“After one hour, 13 minutes of splashing all attacking planes,” Smith continued, “a Kamikaze artist maneuvered through the barrage and winged over on the port bow. A hole at the waterline resulting from this hit flooded one living compartment. In quick succession, hits two, three, and four occurred. The second and third resulted in critical damage to the Evans. An Oscar [Japanese Army Nakajima Ki-43 fighter] struck at the waterline on the port side. The flaming plane hurtled onto the fantail. Its bomb exploded under the after engineering spaces, flooding them immediately.”

The Evans lost all power and went dead in the water. Her executive officer was blown over the ship’s side, and an alert seaman jumped in to rescue him. Outstanding work by damage control parties kept the Evans from sinking, but the ship was out of the fight. In the afternoon, the stricken destroyer was taken in tow by the fleet tug USS Cree and reached temporary drydock at Kerama Retto. After makeshift repairs, the Evans was towed to Saipan, Pearl Harbor, and then Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco. Thirty-two members of the Evans’ crew were killed in action on May 11, and 27 wounded—but the indomitable ship survived.

Fighting Singlehandedly

The Hadley fought on. Her tiny consorts did their best in support. Gunners aboard LSM(R) 193 fired their single 5-inch gun as rapidly as possible. With each discharge, the recoil shook the small vessel like a rag doll. Corsairs swooped and jigged, braving the friendly fire from below to ward off the Kamikazes. The Hadley put up a wall of steel.

Shortly after the Evans was hit, an overwhelming attack finally penetrated the defenses and literally mauled the gallant Hadley. Lookouts spotted 10 Kamikazes closing on the destroyer.

Commander Mullaney reported later, “For 20 minutes, the Hadley fought off the enemy singlehanded being separated from the Evans, which was out of action, by three miles and the four small support ships by two miles. Finally, at 0920, ten which had surrounded the Hadley, four on the starboard bow under fire by the main battery and machine guns, four on the port bow under fire by the forward machine guns, and two astern under fire by the aft machine guns, attacked the ship simultaneously. All ten planes were destroyed in a remarkable fight and each plane was definitely accounted for…”

Three Kamikaze Hits on the Hadley

 

The Hadley, however, was grievously wounded. Eyewitness accounts vary; however, it is generally accepted that in approximately four minutes of furious action the destroyer was hit by three Kamikazes and a single 550-pound bomb.

Dwyer remembered, “Hadley took her first Kamikaze hit on the after port quad 40mm mount (Mount 44). Mount Captain Nicholas’s last words were, ‘We’ll get the S.O.B.’ as the aircraft dove right down the barrels of the gun mount, killing the gun crew on the spot. Almost simultaneously several bombs penetrated the ship and detonated under the keel, lifting the ship out of the water. Shortly thereafter, another aircraft struck the starboard side amidships at the waterline. The fuselage pierced the hull and caused heavy loss of life and severe flooding in the engine and fire rooms. Yet another Kamikaze dove on the ship and passed between the foremast and the after stack, clipping some wires as it fell harmlessly into the sea.”

 

Aitken remembered, “USS Hadley suffered three hits: one was not serious; the second and third proved fatal. The second, at the waterline, opened up virtually all engineering spaces to the sea. A 550 lb. bomb carried by that Kamikaze exploded directly under the ship humping the bottom nearly five feet as would a depth charge explosion. Moments later, the third Kamikaze crashed the after deck house quad 40mm gun area with disastrous results.”

A third account asserts that the initial Kamikaze to strike the Hadley was an Ohka, released by a Japanese bomber at 9:05 am, followed by a crash on the aft deck that destroyed several guns, and the last Kamikaze hit at the waterline.

Commander Mullaney’s report stated bluntly, “As a result of this attack, the Hadley was: (1) Hit by a bomb aft (2) By a BAKA seen to be released from a low flying BETTY (3) Was struck by a suicide plane aft (4) Hit by a suicide plane in rigging.”

The damage was devastating. The destroyer billowed smoke and flame. Scores of sailors were dead or wounded. Yet another Kamikaze came screaming down at the Hadley, but the few guns still operational sent it crashing into the ocean. Then, there were no more. The Kikusui had dissipated as rapidly as it appeared.

Keeping the Hadley Above Water

Now, Commander Mullaney and his crew were desperately trying to keep their stricken ship afloat. The Hadley listed to starboard, her fantail was awash, and the ship went dead in the water. It appeared that she could capsize at any moment. Explosive Torpex dripped from the warheads of rapidly heating torpedoes that threatened to cook off and blow the ship to pieces.

Mullaney ordered nearby crewmen to hoist all U.S. flags and any other colors available up the halyards, shouting, “If this ship is going down, she’s going with all flags flying.”

The captain later reported, “The ship was badly holed and immediately both engine rooms and one fireroom were flooded and the ship settled down and listed rapidly. All five-inch guns were out of action, a fire was raging aft of number two stack, ammunition was exploding, and the entire ship was engulfed in a thick black smoke which forced the crew to seek safety, some by jumping over the side, others by crowding forward and awaiting orders. The ship was helpless to defend herself and at this time the situation appeared hopeless. The Commanding Officer received reports from the Chief Engineer and the Damage Control Officer which indicated that the main spaces were flooded….”

“The engineers were securing the forward boilers to prevent them from blowing up,” Mullaney continued. “The order to ‘prepare to abandon Ship’ was given and life rafts and floats were put over the side. A party of about fifty men and officers were being organized to make a last fight to save the ship and the remainder of the crew and the wounded were put over into the water.”

As those in the water were picked up by other vessels, the drama of the 50 bold men aboard the Hadley unfolded. Torpedoes and unexploded ammunition were rolled and thrown over the side. Hoses were played on the flames for 15 minutes. Weight was shifted from starboard to port to help counteract the list. The fire was brought under control, and the flooding stopped. A single fireroom bulkhead held.

The fast transport USS Barber, auxiliary fleet tug ATR-114, and destroyer USS Wadsworth came up to render assistance, the Wadsworth’s lookouts searching the sky for any renewed Japanese threat. While LCS 82 and LCS(L) 84 had their hands full with the heavily damaged Evans, LSM(R) 193 and LCS(L) 83 began towing the Hadley about noon to the nearest relative safety, the temporary anchorage at Ie Shima, a small island northwest of Okinawa.

23 Aircraft Shot Down

Credited with shooting down 23 Japanese planes during the May 11 fight on the picket line, the USS Hadley established a U.S. Navy record for enemy aircraft destroyed in a single engagement. Her guns fired 801 rounds of 5-inch ammunition, 8,950 rounds of 40mm, 5,990 rounds of 20mm, and 801 charges of smokeless gunpowder. Miraculously, the Hadley had survived her epic struggle. Twenty-eight of her crew were killed in action. Two more died of their injuries later, and 68 were wounded.