Battle of Okinawa
Excerpt from Joe Hagen's book "Memories of World War II"
OKINAWA --- 22 June 1945
"At 09:20 LST-534, which was unloading on the beach in Nakagusuku Wan, was hit by a kamikaze and her bow doors and tank deck were damaged. She lost three killed and 35 wounded." ----Morison
We had completely unloaded our tank deck cargo, and were anchored in Nakagusuku bay awaiting orders. Since we had a clear tank deck we were able to set up a screen and projector to show a movie. Movies were traded between ships and we obtained a copy of Salome, Where She Danced, starring Yvonne de Carlo. This was the story of Salome dancing for the entertainment of some king who held John the Baptist prisoner. By performing the Dance of the Seven Veils, the king was so turned on that he asked Salome to name her own reward. Salome's mother had some grudge against John and urged Salome to ask the King for the head of John on a silver platter. This way the movie had all the ingredients to be a modern successful film, sex and gore.
We started watching the show about 1800 (six PM). When we reached the dance portion of the movie we were interrupted by a red alert and a call to general quarters. We manned all the guns but nothing happened and after about an hour we were secured and returned to our movie. By general consensus we started all over again to catch the dance scene only to be called to GQ again. This repeated itself about a six times without ever seeing any enemy aircraft. Each time we would start the movie from the beginning and it was well after midnight when we finally saw it to the finish. We went back to regular four on and four off watches and everybody was dragging their butts when morning came and along with it another red alert with a call to GQ. By now we were bored with the whole deal and assumed that this was another false alarm. Instead it turned out to be the real thing.
As executive officer, my battle station was on the bridge in close contact with the communications room. There were about five or six LST's in the Wan (bay) and I noticed that some were manning their stations rather slowly. Suddenly a Jap plane (red meat balls showing clearly) appeared flying low towards our group. We had orders not to fire until ordered to by our group commander. We never received an order to fire but the men manning the guns on the starboard side facing the kamikaze started firing anyway. This seemed like a good idea to the Captain and we did nothing to stop the firing and just urged the gunnery officer to make sure the fire was directed at the kamikaze. Our port side AA guns also opened fire even though the kamikaze was on our starboard side. The excitement was too much for them and they fired just because "everybody else was". We had numerous 20mm AA guns that could bear on the enemy plane but one of the problems was that in tracking a low flying enemy plane, the gunner could inadvertently fire on a friendly target. Our ship was protected from our own guns by a frame work that acted as a line of fire stop. However the ships in our group were not protected from each other. One of our gunners tracked the kamikaze until he ended up firing into the mast of another LST. This LST had been slow in going to GQ and it was a real wake-up call for them.
We got the impression (probably a false one) that when they did man their guns that they were aimed in our direction. I never knew whether we or any other ship hit the kamikaze or how it picked out it's target. The target was LST 534 which was beached with its bow on the beach and the entire ship in shallow water. The kamikaze hit the deck aft of the bow and forward of the elevator. The engine and bomb pierced the main deck, the tank deck and the bottom hull. Since it was on the beach the Jap pilot had picked the only ship around that could not be sunk. Since an LST has many water-tight compartments below the tank deck, except for the casualties to the crew, the damage would not have been major. The ship could have completed the unloading and left under it's own power. However, an accident occurred that resulted in greater damage.
The captain was anxious to clear up the mess and had their ship-fitter cut away some of the twisted metal with an acetylene torch. The ship was carrying a cargo of drums of fuel oil on the tank deck and it was not noticed that some of the drums had sprung a leak from the enemy action. The torch ignited the oil and the fire quickly spread over the entire length of the tank deck, invaded other compartments and knocked out all the power on the ship. The ship's crew responded promptly and did everything according to the book including flying the flag upside down to indicate severe distress. However they lacked power to run their fire pumps.
As soon as we saw the flames we put an LCVP in the water and manned it with a fire and rescue team complete with emergency gear. Within minutes we pulled alongside the burning ship. We carried a handy-billy which is a small gasoline driven fire pump and quickly had a water hose on the ship. Our main objective was to put as much water as possible around the magazine compartment to keep the ammunition from exploding. We were soon joined by rescue parties from other LSTs and in about two hours the flames were extinguished. When we returned to our ship, I was confronted by a very angry engineering officer. It was his duty assignment to be in the fire and rescue team. I had been in such a rush to get to the burning ship, I had left without him and failed to give orders for him to follow with a second LCVP. I felt badly about it but knew that the Captain would have authorized the second team if anyone had suggested it. As it was, I could not help but have a feeling of accomplishment in that we were the first rescue team to reach the ship.
Despite our questionable marksmanship, we joined all the other LST's in our group in claiming a kill and painting a red meatball on our super-structure. When a ship is in distress, the first duty of the communications officer is to make sure the codes and confidential memorandums do not fall into enemy hands. At high sea, these are dropped overboard in a weighted pouch. In this case it is proper to transfer them to another ship for safe keeping. This was done by the communications officer along with a supply of postage stamps. He had not recorded which ship received the stamps and the next day he went from ship to ship trying to recover them. By the time he reached us, his search had not been successful. Thus disaster can come in many forms from a kamikaze, a Captain eager to clean up the mess or an officer having the responsibility for several hundred dollars worth of postage stamps.
Okinawa.....What was once Naha
From Buckner bay our orders carried us to the other side of the island to the capital and port city of Naha. We did not have any mission here except to wait while the plans for the assault on Japan itself were formalized. Naha had been treated very roughly by the invasion. There were few buildings still standing but from the ruins we could see that it must have been a nice thriving city. It was built on rising terrain in a curve around the harbor with streets that had apparently been well planned. There had been a trolley system serving the city but only tracks and some demolished trolley cars remained. We found in the debris of one building an apothecary scale, medicine bottles and other stuff that indicated that it had been a modern drug store. With the exception of some harbor control buildings, nothing else was recognizable. In the harbor there were numerous U S ships and some small Japanese vessels that had been sunk and resting on the bottom. In some cases the superstructure was above water.
One slightly damaged Japanese vessel was beached and we had a chance to examine it. It was an open personnel carrier, about 25 feet long and was powered by a straight six Chevy engine. The engine was probably made in Japan but if it was, they must have made the castings by making molds from an original Chevrolet engine. The Chevy insignia was clearly visible. What made this boat particularly interesting was the fact that it had become the Jap "suicide boat", a sea going version of the kamikaze. The Japanese would load it up with explosives and their coxs'n would attempt to drive it up against one of our ships. I do not know if any of their attempts were successful but the knowledge of this tactic kept us extra alert on the night watches. It was also said that this type of boat was used to approach our ships at anchor. Sometimes they would attach an explosive charge to the hull and other times would send men climbing up the anchor chain and board the ship. If not detected they would then slit the throats of the men (preferably officers) while they slept. Sometimes frogmen would be sent on the same mission. Since our rooms did not have the luxury of doors, I started sleeping with my 45 next to me.
Although the island had now been declared secure, it was not difficult for individual Japanese soldiers to hide out. As mentioned before there were Japanese ammunition dumps around and mostly unguarded. The Japanese who had refused to surrender were well armed. The defense which we employed was the same as we had used in Algiers - at unevenly spaced intervals, charges of high explosives would be detonated in the harbor. The concussion would be enough to kill any swimmer. I am not sure how successful this technique was, but every morning there would be the corpses of Japanese soldiers floating in the bay. They could have been killed in an earlier action and just now were rising to the surface. It was not a pretty sight and I was glad it was not my assignment to drag them out of the water and cart them off for burial.
A couple of us made a short excursion into the country hoping to see the Shuri castle. We did not get as far as the castle but came across several U S military occupation areas.
In one Army camp they had a detachment guarding an orphanage for the Okinawa children that had lost their parents. An attractive Japanese nurse was in charge and we asked if we could take her picture. She agreed but first changed from the shorts she was wearing to baggy trousers and an oversized military jacket. As you look at the picture, you will have to take my word for the part about her being attractive.
Back in the harbor we waited for orders. Nothing was happening around us but we felt some sharp concussions and in the distance we could see smoke from one of our large ammunition dumps. It had been hit by either a kamikaze or an infiltrator. We never did find out which and fortunately, because the fighting was mostly over, the ammunition was not missed. We did not see any more kamikazes but word reached us that one had sunk a capital ship in shallow water. It was said to be the battleship Pennsylvania but Morison does not even list it as being involved in this operation. Recently I came across another source, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships by James J. Mooney confirming that on 12 August 1945 while in Buckner Bay the Pennsylvania (BB 38) was hit by a torpedo launched by a Japanese aircraft.
Finally our orders did come and they were to get the hell out of Naha and put to the open sea. This time we were running away from an enemy that all sea faring men dread, a typhoon!
Earlier in the war three destroyers with almost all of the crews had been lost in a typhoon in the China Sea. This time we were better prepared. The typhoon was plotted by radar and our course was set to avoid it. The sea was very rough and this was the only time that I got sea sick during my Pacific tour. We stayed well outside of the eye and did not suffer any damage at all. The harbor of Naha was not as lucky and some of the installations and ships there took a real beating. We had detached four of our LCVPs with their crews there but never did hear of their experience. As I write this, I recall the name of the small boat officer. It is Lt. Maher. Taking some liberty with pronunciation, we called him Maha of Naha.
Our supplementary orders directed our group to return to Guam. We reached there without incident. I do not know if we were lucky or if an LST was not a worthy target for the few Japanese submarines still on patrol. That they were still operating was tragically demonstrated a month later when one of them sunk the heavy cruiser, Indianapolis. The Indianapolis was the cruiser that had transported the atomic bomb to the island where it was loaded on the aircraft to bomb Hiroshima. The tragedy of the loss of this ship was compounded by the fact that the war was over and the Naval Headquarters had not kept in contact with the ship and did not know that it had been sunk until it was too late it send rescue ships and planes.
When we reached Guam we found out that not all of the US Navy had fared as well in the typhoon as we had. Earlier it had been mentioned that Admiral Halsey had blasted a few salvos at the escarpment in Okinawa and then took his task force to the north. His mission was to start shelling and bombing southern Kyushu to soften it up for the time when we were to invade Japan proper. His task force was a very large one divided into three groups each under the command of an Admiral. Each group included fleet aircraft carriers, battleships, heavy cruisers and destroyers. They received word of the typhoon and with shipboard radar plotted the position, direction and speed of travel. How Admiral Halsey and the group commanders analyzed and acted on this information is not part of this story or of my personal experience. Suffice it to say that Admiral Halsey was very gutsy and not afraid to attack anything including a typhoon. He made the decision to out run it and probably figured that even if they encountered it, his task force could withstand the heavy seas. He was wrong! His task force ran into gale force winds and forty foot high waves. At least one of the aircraft carriers had its flight deck folded back like the top of a sardine can. This carrier was back at Pearl Harbor at the time of our return so I have first hand knowledge of the damage.
The heavy cruiser, Pittsburgh lost one hundred and ten feet of its bow section. The crew had recognized the possibility of this event and had vacated the bow section and dogged down all the watertight doors. When the break occurred they were ready and avoided any loss of life. Both sections remained afloat and the ship managed to run in the astern direction all the way to a repair station. After the storm, another ship found the "suburb of Pittsburgh" and towed it to Guam. Eventually both sections were united at a west coast shipyard and returned to service. Many years later I meet the engineering officer of the Pittsburgh. His name is John Wallace and he was president of a company I represented. In retelling this harrowing experience, I noticed he had been more concerned about keeping the engines running than in the possible sinking of the ship. Of course, this may have amounted to the same thing.
According to Morison the typhoon hit on June 5, 1945. One hundred forty four ships including six LST's were sunk or badly damaged. This was not only in Admiral Halsey's task force but in the whole theater of operations.
Copyright 2002, Joe Hagen
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