Key Point: The gallant Laffey, the only surviving Sumner-class destroyer in North America, remains afloat today.
Two warships have been named in honor of Seaman Bartlett Laffey, a Civil War Medal of Honor recipient. The second Laffey was built as a Sumner-class destroyer by Bath Iron Works of Maine. Commissioned February 8, 1944, the USS Laffey (DD-724) had already amassed a proud record before her heroic stand on April 16, 1945. After participating in the June 1944 Normandy landings in France, where the crew battled German land batteries and provided gunfire support for the infantry ashore, the ship headed for duty in the Pacific.
Unlike Normandy, where the German air arm was conspicuously absent, Laffey’s crew faced an intense air war off the Philippines––at Leyte and Lingayen Gulf, and also at Iwo Jima. For the first time in these battles, Laffey’s crew faced kamikaze aircraft and, although they then escaped unharmed, the officers and young sailors, led by the gifted skipper, Arkansas-born Commander F. Julian Becton, Annapolis Class of 1931, witnessed up close the horrific damage just one suicidal pilot––never mind a whole swarm of them––could do by purposely smashing into a ship.
“All Hell Broke Loose”
The crew’s main ordeal occurred on April 16, 1945, off Okinawa, an island only 350 miles south of the Japanese home islands. While Laffey prowled the waters at Picket Station No. 1, the northernmost and thus the most dangerous of the 16 picket stations ringing Okinawa, the destroyer’s radar screen suddenly filled with blips. In the next 80 minutes, 22 kamikaze aircraft broke off from their companions to attack the ship. Laffey’s gunners, superbly trained by Becton, splashed the first eight, but as the following account depicts, the next four ravaged the ship’s aft section.
The battle’s opening quarter hour had gone well for Laffey. Commander F. Julian Becton’s skillful maneuvering and the gunners’ accuracy had dispatched the first eight kamikazes, but the agony of the afterdeck, 25 minutes of unadulterated hell, left survivors stunned with the ferocity of the attack.
In three harrowing minutes four separate enemy aircraft converged on the destroyer from four angles—two from port and two from starboard. Like a boxer absorbing a series of blows, Laffey took four punches in a remarkably brief, and deadly, stretch. “They came in thick and fast after that, beginning with the ninth plane,” said Commander Becton of the kamikazes that attacked his Laffey after the first eight had been shot down.
Fire Controlman 3/c George R. Burnett tried to describe for his parents what next occurred, and wrote that “all hell broke loose.” He added, “They all started to dive on us at once and poor little us all by ourselves out there so you can see we didn’t have much of a chance because they were coming from all directions and you just can’t shoot every way at once.”
At the bridge, teenaged Quartermaster 2/c Aristides S. “Ari” Phoutrides noticed that after the first eight kamikazes, “They came in groups of ones and twos. It almost appeared that they waited their turn. At one time we had seven Vals [Aichi D3A] circling overhead that didn’t attack us until a few others went in. They used all the tricks they could—flying low, coming in fast, and diving from the sun. In fact, many of them made bombing runs on us before attempting a suicide dive. All of them,” he added somberly, “strafed as they came in.”
In the CIC below the bridge Lieutenant Lloyd Hull, a product of the University of Pennsylvania’s Naval ROTC, supervised the men who operated the ship’s communications system, including the recently added FIDO team. Leaving control of events outside the CIC to Becton and the men on the guns, he focused on his main responsibility—to collect and relay to Becton the information he needed, such as targets spotted and the numbers of friendly aircraft in the area, if any, to arrive at the decisions he had to make with lightning speed.
As the battle swirled above, radarmen plotted surface and air targets, while radiomen and others manned the communications apparatus that linked the ship to the flagship, to other vessels, and to the outside world. Crew called “talkers” reported to Hull any updates they received over their circuits from the overtaxed lookouts on deck, and relayed information given them by Hull to Becton and other recipients.
Like Sonarman Daniel Zack in Mount 52, Hull and the others in CIC labored in a closed world, blocked from witnessing the battle raging outside. Unlike Zack, Hull and his crew could at least follow the progress from the radar screens and any communications that arrived. Hull wished he could have observed more, and knew that a kamikaze could at any moment ravage his CIC and end his run as an officer, but he concentrated on his tasks and tried to be as helpful as he could to Becton and, ultimately, to his shipmates. Maintaining a flow of information to the bridge was the prime manner in which he could best contribute to the action, for without it, Becton would be blindly skippering his ship.
As he moved from radarmen to talkers, Hull wondered how his friends on deck fared. He knew he was fortunate to work in CIC, where the bulkheads protected him and his men from the bullets and shrapnel that would undoubtedly sweep the decks with each crash, but in some ways he longed to be above, sharing the hazards with those he had commanded and those with whom he had grown close.
Long-range radar, able to discern targets up to 60 miles away, has difficulty locating low-flying planes. With his CAP still missing and his SG surface-monitoring radar already disabled, Becton leaned on the young eyes of the ship’s lookouts, most of them recent high school graduates. Until CAP arrived and imposed themselves between the kamikazes and Laffey, Becton would have to rely on his own resources.
A Fiery Impact
At 8:45 am, one of his sharp-eyed lookouts spotted a Judy [Yokosuka D4Y] coming in low on the port side. As he drew closer, the pilot banked slightly and then aimed at the ship’s mid-section, hoping to destroy the bridge area. Even though the Judy, armed with a 1,750-pound bomb, raced in at more than 300 miles per hour, men on the port side guns were surprised that the aircraft created the illusion of moving toward them in slow motion.
Lieutenant Joel C. Youngquist checked the men on his 40mm and 20mm gun crews, one level above Gunner’s Mate 2/c Lawrence H. “Ski” Delewski’s five-inch gun on the main deck, but Seaman Tom Fern and the other men had opened fire almost as soon as the kamikaze was spotted. Fern and his companions stood their ground, exposed to the bullets pinging around them, and battled the instinct to crouch below the waist-high shield as the plane bore in.
While Becton executed frequent course changes to keep the plane away from the ship’s vital mid-section, Lieutenant Frank Manson watched the kamikaze, uncertain whether it would veer toward the bridge and him or plunge directly into Youngquist’s gun. Survival at this moment relied on those portside 40mm and 20mm guns, the ship’s last line of defense, to knock down the plane. “You know he’s [the kamikaze pilot] going to die—you pray he won’t take you with him,” Manson said. “You’re up against a desperation and fanaticism that leaves you cold all over.” Manson had witnessed other suicide attacks in the Philippines, but this was “blood-chilling. They [kamikazes] have a kind of insanity that makes war more horrible than it’s ever been before.”
Seaman Fern handed four-shell clips to his gunners, who fired them as rapidly as the loader placed them in the guns. Spent casings clanged into bins on the deck, adding their noise to the pow-pow of the 40mm guns and the rapid tat-tat-tat-tat of the 20mm guns. In return, bullets from the aircraft pinged off shields and mounts, igniting sparks and cutting into human flesh and bones.
Bullets from Laffey gunners kicked up hundreds of splashes in the water as they attempted to down the low-flying plane, making it appear as if crew could traverse from ship to plane by hopping along the splashes. Tracers nicked the aircraft, and the plane shuddered as 20mm slugs pierced the fuselage and wings, but on it came, astounding gun crews who had the target directly in their sights. If they could not hit the plane in the next few seconds, Fern and everyone else would become part of a fiery eruption that would turn the aft section into their funeral pyre.
Despite the 430 rounds fired in half a minute by the 40mm and 20mm guns, the kamikaze pilot barreled through. Men near Fern instinctively put their arms up to shield their faces as the moment of impact approached. The plane passed just behind the motor whale boat resting in its cradle and rose slightly above Mount 44, barely missing Fern and the gun crew at that station.