Tuesday, May 5, 2020

In the Waters off Okinawa, "No Athiests on Target Ships"

Although the Second World War was striking its last notes in Europe during the first week of May, 1945, it was reaching a crescendo off Okinawa.  A salvo of rockets streaks from a U.S. Navy Landing Ship Medium (Rocket) (LSM (R)) toward distant targets on Okinawa, Japan, in April 1945, in a still from the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard film, The Fleet That Came to Stay. (U.S. Navy Photograph/ National Archives and Records Administration photo 80-G-49878 via NHHC Photo Curator Flickr).

By Elijah Palmer
HRNM Deputy Director of Education
And Sebastian Rio
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

The Battle of Okinawa required a massive naval effort, with the largest American invasion armada assembled during the war. The Japanese were fighting a battle of attrition, trying to make American advances as costly as possible. This was true both on land, with savage fighting against the Marines and Army, as well as at sea with aerial attacks against the American fleet. The experience of ships at Radar Picket Station 1 on May 4, 1945, illustrate a glimpse of the protracted dangers the Navy faced during the 81-day battle.
Locations of radar picket stations in the vicinity of Okinawa during the invasion (Naval History and Heritage Command)
The Navy established a total of fifteen radar picket stations around Okinawa to serve as early warning for any Japanese aerial attacks. The ships’ radar could be used to vector American aircraft to intercept any enemy assault. These stations were very hazardous as they were isolated and were prime targets due to the valuable intelligence they provided for the American fleet.
USS Ingraham (DD 694) leaves New York headed for sea trials at Norfolk, Virginia, in March 1944. (National Archives and Records Administration)
On the morning of May 4, six U.S. Navy ships were on alert at Radar Picket Station 1. Two destroyers USS Morrison (DD 560), and USS Ingraham (DD 694), led a group of smaller vessels including a Landing Ship Medium (Rocket) ship, LSM(R) 194, and three Landing Craft Support (Large) boats, LCS(L) 21, 23, and 31. Crews were at general quarters, while overhead a dozen planes from various U.S. Navy and Marine squadrons provided Close Air Protection (CAP).  The Japanese launched their attack in several waves, starting around 07:15, with both naval and army “special attack” squadrons participating. USS Morrison was targeted first, as it was the largest ship to the north, so it drew the most attention. A “Val” type Japanese bomber was splashed down about 20 feet from the destroyer at 07:25, after taking fire from both the ship’s anti-aircraft guns and four F4U Corsairs.
Japanese Navy Type 99 carrier bomber, an Aichi D3A “VAL,” shot down on December 7 1941 over Pearl Harbor. (National Archives and Records Administration photo 80-G-32952 via NHHC Photo Curator/ Flickr)
 USS Morrison sent urgent messages requesting more friendly planes for CAP due to the large number of Japanese planes coming in for attack. Twenty four more American planes were vectored to the area to reinforce the original 12 American planes to intercept the dozens of incoming Japanese planes. With so many planes in the air, the Sailors on the ships below had a hard time distinguishing who was friendly and who was enemy, both by sight as well as on radar. The after-action report from Morrison states that four more planes attempted to hit the ship over the next hour, with three grazing parts of the ship, but not causing much damage.
USS Morrison (DD 560) as seen from USS Gambier Bay (CVE 73) in July, 1944. Arrows left to right show kamikaze hits which sank the destroyer in less than 20 minutes–1 and 2 by “Zekes,” and 3 and 4 by biplane floatplanes. At least two of the planes were armed with bombs. (Official U.S. Navy Photo, USN 243852)
However, the destroyer’s luck was about to run out. At around 0830, the first of two Japanese Zero “Zeke” planes, although on fire, managed to crash into the base of the Morrison’s forward stack. This caused catastrophic damage in forward section of the ship, exploding a boiler, causing power outages, and rupturing the hull. At 0832, the second Zeke crashed into the third 5-inch gun mount and smashed into the main deck, causing cutting power back aft, and flooding compartments. 

In this incredible sequence (above and below), a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” or "Zeke" ends an unsuccessful run on the aircraft carrier USS Essex (CV-9) somewhere in the Pacific on May 14, 1945.  Although most attempts by Special Attack Corps pilots failed due to overwhelming antiaircraft fire, those who did get through killed thousands of American Sailors off Okinawa. (Official U.S. Navy Photographs, National Archives and Records Administration photos 80-G-324120 and 80-G-324121 via NHHC Photo Curator/ Flickr)

Seven old biplane float planes were then spotted heading towards the ship at low altitude. One crashed into Morrison at 08:34, hitting near where the second Zeke had impacted. This ignited the upper powder room for gun mount 3, causing a massive fireball. Immediately afterward, a second biplane was forced to land in the wake of the ship by Navy planes, and then got airborne again, and skimmed over the fantail before crashing into gun mount 4, causing another explosion. These explosions aft wreaked havoc below deck as bulkheads collapsed and compartments flooded quickly. Word was passed to abandon ship. The ship sank rapidly by the stern, disappearing under the water by 08:40. The rapidity of the kamikaze attacks and the sinking doomed most sailors below deck. Out of 331 men, only 71 were uninjured, and 108 wounded men were picked up. One hundred fifty-two men went down with the ship, over 45% of the ship’s crew.
One of those lost aboard USS Morrison was Electrician’s Mate Second Class Walter E. Wolf, Jr., a plankowner of the destroyer. He was one of over 4,900 American Sailors killed during the battle of Okinawa.
As USS Morrison was under onslaught, other ships at Radar Picket Station 1 were also under attack. In the minutes after Morrison went down, the enemy planes selected other targets. A Japanese Kawaski Ki-61 “Tony” fighter attacked LSMR 194, which even with limited AA defenses hit the plane, making it swerve. Unfortunately, it still was able to crash dive into the vessel at 8:38, causing fires and massive damage. LSMR 194 sank quickly with a loss of 13 killed and 23 wounded of a crew of 83, a 42% casualty rate.  Later reports would question the wisdom of putting these vessels on picket duty as besides their scant defenses, their rocket magazines were a disaster waiting to happen in the face of kamikazes.
LSMR 194, a powerful naval gunfire support platform, but a poor anti-aircraft platform. (Navsource)
Aviators of the 60th Shinbu Special Attack Squadron who attacked Radar Picket Station 1 on May 4. The squadron commander, 2nd Lt. Yoshiro Hirayanagi (third from right, back row) and Cpl. Osamu Tanaka (third from right, front row) likely were two of the kamikazes that hit USS Morrison. Cpl. Kanichi Horimoto (first on left front row) hit USS Ingraham. (Photo from Alvin Shelly, information from kamikazeimages.net)
Japanese planes came from different altitudes and different directions challenging the American CAP and ship AA gunners. After several enemy planes were shot down by gunners aboard USS Ingraham, a Hayate Type 4 “Frank” slipped through the ship’s defensive screen. The plane hit the destroyer near the waterline on the port side, coming in on the mess deck. A 500-lb bomb exploded in the forward diesel room down below, killing 15, and wounding 36 (of a crew of 336). The cockpit was found intact, with a letter addressed to Corporal Kanichi Horimoto (see picture above) found with the pilot’s body. The damage forced Ingraham to a dead stop, with the bow very low in the water. However the ship survived and would return to serve in the Navy for many years to come.  One sailor aboard USS Ingraham, Alvin Shelly, gathered materials and provided many of the sources for this blog post.

USS Ingraham (DD 694) in rough seas, oil on canvas by John Landry, 1969. (Navy Art Collection)
The morning’s events illustrated that the Japanese were fighting a battle of attrition both on land and sea. Even though the kamikaze strategy was costly, it had a harrowing effect on those who had to fight against it. As Wellington Scranton, a crew member on the Ingraham, recalled later, “If it was true that there were no atheists in foxholes, it was also true that there were no atheists on target ships.” In total, the Japanese tactic killed nearly 5,000 American Sailors during the Battle of Okinawa.
Alvin Shelly in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1943. Shelly returned to Hampton Roads for USS Ingraham’s sea trials the following year, before the destroyer headed to the Pacific. The photo studio background portends the experiences Shelly would undergo in May 1945. (Courtesy of Alvin Shelly)

Editor's Note: Sebastian Rio, World War II Navy veteran and longtime HRNM volunteer, passed away in April 2020. This was one of the last projects he assisted with. He will be greatly missed.