More than 60 years ago, in April 1945, the war in Europe was winding down to its inevitable conclusion. Prospects for victory in the Pacific were looking brighter, but the war was far from decided. The Americans had the Japanese on the ropes and the ever-shrinking Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was now limited to the Ryukyus and the home islands of Japan. However, for the American sailors aboard the Bayfield-class attack transport USS Goodhue, the war had yet to begin.
This is the story of one eventful day in the life of the Goodhue during the Pacific War. The officers and ratings of the ship were about to participate in the last great campaign of World War II, the capture of the strategically important island of Okinawa. This sanguinary campaign cost the United States 36 ships sunk, with the loss of nearly 10,000 sailors dead or wounded. The Army lost 4,675 dead and nearly 19,000 wounded. The Marine Corps, which bore the brunt of the fighting on the island, lost almost 19,000 dead and wounded. This was the price that America paid for taking a small piece of real estate that would serve as a springboard for an invasion of the Japanese home islands. If the Japanese resistance was this intense on and around Okinawa, what would it be like in the invasion of the Japanese mainland?
Opposing Operation Iceberg: Japan’s Kamikaze Waves
Planning for the campaign that would be known as Operation Iceberg began in the fall of 1944, about the same time as the commissioning of the USS Goodhue. The Joint Chiefs of Staff had evaluated all of the plans that had been discussed to bring about the final Japanese defeat. Which plan was better: bypass the Philippines, advance in China, or occupy Formosa? The Joint Chiefs adopted a strategy involving a landing in the Philippines as well as on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Following the costly victory on Iwo Jima, and while operations in the Philippines were ongoing, U.S. forces landed on Okinawa on April 1, 1945. Thoughts of hope for the future would be on the minds of the American servicemen in the Pacific that Sunday, but the only thing that was on the minds of the Japanese was to stop the American advance at any cost. Countless thousands of Japanese sailors and airmen would die in the attempt to halt the American juggernaut.
Japanese strategists discussed the best way to defend Okinawa. It was first argued that an aggressive attack against the Americans after they landed was the best strategy. Then, the idea was put forward that it might be better to let the Americans land and then grind them down in a battle of attrition. Then there was the darker alternative: that of the massed waves of suicide planes and boats known as the kamikaze. It was the latter two options in combination that American soldiers and sailors would confront at Okinawa.
The USS Goodhue
Scattered kamikaze attacks on American warships had occurred as early as 1943. Vice Admiral Takajiro Onishi had developed the concept of the kamikaze as a desperate suicidal effort to inflict serious damage on warships of the U.S. Navy, particularly its aircraft carriers. In doing so, it was hoped that the American tide would be slowed or even stopped. Although the kamikaze were not unknown to the Americans, the fury of the massed attacks thrown at the fleet off Okinawa was something that had not been previously experienced.
Ward McDonald, a 17-year-old signalman from Seattle, Washington, described the Goodhue’s shakedown cruise off San Pedro, California, in December 1944. “One early morning we got underway for our shakedown cruise … down the coast of California. A gunnery practice at a towed target proved our ability to have a shell from the ship’s 5-inch guns get within a quarter mile of the target. We swung compass, did a few maneuvers as well as swab the decks of vomit as the boys from Nebraska would leave go of their breakfasts. What a sight. I was wondering if they would even allow us to join other ships for a wartime effort. Somehow we made a successful shakedown.”
The Goodhue had two 5-inch dual-purpose gun mounts fore and aft, two single and two twin 40mm antiaircraft guns, and 18 20mm guns with which to protect the 51 officers and 524 enlisted men aboard. The ship was able to carry all the equipment necessary for an amphibious landing, including 1,200 troops and 15 landing craft. Powering everything was one General Electric geared drive turbine that could raise 8,500 horsepower.
“A day or so later during the loading of ammunition, food stuffs, fuel and the like, I noticed large boxes of foul weather gear coming aboard,” remembered McDonald of the days immediately following the shakedown cruise. “It appeared we were headed for a cold climate.” Days later, when the Goodhue was steaming southwest instead of north, McDonald observed, “The foul weather gear had been a ploy…. The military needed to make it appear obvious that we were heading north.”
The Goodhue had loaded her cargo in California and sailed away from the West Coast on January 4, 1945. She arrived at her first destination in the Admiralty Islands on January 21, where the ship picked up more cargo and passengers. Reaching Hollandia, New Guinea, on February 4, the Goodhue received her new commander, Captain J.L. Allen. Under Allen’s command, the ship took its place as the flagship of Transport Division 51. This meant that in any action they would be encountering, the Goodhue would be at the head of the column and most vulnerable to attack.
The Goodhue sailed to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines from February 4 to 12, carrying supplies to bases in the area. The officers and men underwent vigorous amphibious training exercises until February 25. By the end of the month, the Goodhue was loading troops and supplies for the coming campaign against Okinawa. There were more practice landings, and then it was time for the real thing. The ship got underway for Okinawa on March 21, but there would be one more stop along the way.
The small islands of Kerama Retto, just south of Okinawa, were to be secured to serve as a staging area for the invasion of Okinawa itself. A mighty American armada, which included the Goodhue, put troops ashore on March 26 to secure the island group. Compared with what was in store for them, the landings at Kerama Retto were a cakewalk.
Even so, McDonald voiced the opinion of many American servicemen in the area when he said, “March 26, 1945. Hell was upon us in every fashion. From the water we had the dreaded suicide boats, from the air the deadly kamikaze and on the beaches we had the fanatics. There was not to be a breather for anyone…. We encountered 82 air attacks in the next 30 days alone, most of them kamikaze. The reason for all this attention was we were getting very close to the main Japanese strongholds…. They would throw everything they had at us.”
As the kamikaze attacks against the American fleet intensified, the sailors aboard the Goodhue improved their defenses by bringing up on deck several of the Army’s field guns that they were transporting. “They just seemed to appear out of nowhere,” said McDonald of the suicide boats, “and if you weren’t alert they would get beneath your gunnery field and … the charge would blow a sizeable hole in the side of the vessel at the waterline.”
Airborne Attack on the Convoy
The Goodhue was anchored off Kuba Shima when the main landings against Okinawa went in on April 1. More than 1,300 vessels had assembled off the island, and the landing craft had been lowered and were circling in the water while the prelanding barrage softened up the beaches beginning at 5:30 am. Sixty-four American aircraft from the nearby carrier group also attacked the island before the landing craft hit the beach. By the end of the day, a 15,000-yard beachhead was secured and thousands of troops had landed.
At 4:15 pm on April 2, the Goodhue was underway from its anchorage at Kuba Shima to deliver the 307th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 77th Division to its destination on Okinawa. Cruising in a three-column formation of transports, the Goodhue led the right column with the transports Telfair, Mountrail, Drew, and Montrose falling in behind at 1,200-yard intervals. The distance between the columns was 600 yards. The Goodhue kept pace with the guide ship Chilton, which was leading the center column, and Henrico, which led the left column. As the vessels approached the combat zone, they began to zigzag to avoid enemy submarines.
At approximately 6:30 pm, a dozen kamikazes attacked the small armada of transports and supporting destroyers. The Goodhue’s log noted, “1837 [we] commenced firing with after starboard 20 millimeter guns and 40 millimeter guns on enemy aircraft attacking the convoy from abaft the starboard beam … 1840 … Henrico seen to be hit in midship section … 1842 … Telfair seen to be grazed by suicide plane.”