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Oral History-Battle for Okinawa, 24 March -30 June 1945
Recollections of Commander Frederick Julian Becton, USN, Commanding Officer of the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724) which, despite being struck by eight Japanese suicide (kamikaze) aircraft on 16 April 1945, did not sink.
Adapted from Frederick Julian Becton interview in box 2 of World War II Interviews, Operational Archives Branch, Naval Historical Center.
I am Commander Frederick Julian Becton, Commanding Officer of the USS Laffey. The Laffey was built in Bath, Maine and was commissioned in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Navy Yard on February 8th, 1944.
After a brief shakedown period, the ship participated in the Normandy Invasion in June 1944, after which she took part in the Cherbourg [France] bombardment on June 25th, 1944 and suffered an eight-inch [German artillery shell] hit which fortunately did not explode.
Upon returning to the States for repairs and alterations, the ship proceeded to the Pacific and joined Admiral [William F. 'Bull'] Halsey's Third Fleet in November, 1944, for strikes against the Philippine Islands during the month of November.
The ship joined the 7th Fleet under Admiral Kinkaid at Leyte Gulf [Philippines] in early December, 1944 and took part in the landing of the 77th Division of the U.S. Army at Ormoc Bay, on December 7th, 1944. This was our first experience with the Kamikaze Suicide Corps [units of Japanese aircraft turned into flying bombs intended to be crashed by their pilots into U.S. Navy ships to sink or severely damage them]. The ship and the whole convoy were under incessant attacks from about 10 o'clock in the morning until dark that evening.
The next landing the ship participated in was at Mindoro on December 15,1944.
The next landing was about two weeks later when the ship left Leyte Gulf on January 2nd, and proceeded to Lingayen Gulf [also in the Philippines] to assist with the softening up activities and bombardment prior to the Army landing on January 9th, 1945.
We remained in the Lingayen Gulf area until about the 22nd of January and then proceeded to join Admiral Mitcher's task force at Ulithi.
Participated in Tokyo Strikes.
The next operation in which the ship participated was the strikes on Tokyo in mid-February 1945, after which the carrier task groups headed south to support the Iwo Jima landing. We went back for the second strikes on Tokyo about the 24th of February, and returning from that, went into Ulithi where we remained until we were ready for the Okinawa operation.
We departed Ulithi for the Okinawa landings on the 21st of March, arrived at Okinawa the 24th of March, and performed screening duties with the battleships and cruisers [protecting them from Japanese aircraft and submarines] who were bombarding the beaches until the major landing on April 1st, 1945. Thereafter, we took up station to the north of Okinawa at radar picket station number one about 35 miles north of Okinawa [these picket stations gave advance warning of the approach of enemy aircraft or ships].
Our tour of duty on this picket station was uneventful until the morning of April 16th, when we underwent a concentrated attack by Japanese suicide planes. The attack commenced about 8:27 [a.m.] when we were attacked by four Vals [single-engine Japanese Aichi D3A naval dive bomber with a 2-man crew], which split, two heading for our bow and two swinging around to attack us from the stern. We shot down three of these and combined with a nearby LCS [support landing craft] in splashing the fourth one. Then two other planes came in from either bow, both of which were shot down by us. It was about the seventh plane that we were firing on that finally crashed into us amidships and started a huge fire. This marked us as a cripple with the flames and smoke billowing up from the ship and the Japs really went to work on us after that.
Two planes came in quick succession from astern and crashed into our after [rear of the ship] five-inch twin mount. The first one carried a bomb which exploded on deck. The second one dropped its bomb on deck before crashing into the after mount. Shortly thereafter, two more planes came in on the port quarter crashing into the deckhouse just forward of the crippled after five-inch mount. This sent a flood of gasoline into the two compartments below the after crew's head [bathroom] and with the fire that was already raging in the after crew's compartment just aft of the five-inch mount number three, we now had fires going in all of the after three living spaces, besides the big fire topside in the vicinity of the number four 40 mm [antiaircraft gun] mount.
The two planes... no, the next one was a plane from our port quarter that dropped a bomb just about our port [left] propeller and jammed our rudder [steering mechanism] when it was 26 degrees left.
Strafed by Approaching Plane.
The next plane came from the port bow, knocked off our yardarm [a horizontally-mounted spar on the radar/radio mast], and a [F4U] Corsair [single engine US fighter with a 1-man crew] chasing it, knocked off our Sugar Charlie [SC air search] radar. Then a plane came in from the port bow carrying a big bomb and was shot down close aboard [in the water near the ship's side]. A large bomb fragment from the exploding bomb knocked out the power in our number two five- inch mount which is the one just forward of the bridge. Shortly thereafter this mount, in manual control, knocked down an Oscar [single-engine Japanese Nakajima Ki-43, Army-type fighter with a 1-man crew] coming in on our starboard bow [from the right-front of the ship] when it was about 500 yards from the ship. At the same time the alert mount captain of number one five- inch mount sighted a Val diving on the ship from the starboard bow, took it under fire and knocked it down about 500 yards from the ship using Victor Tare projectiles. The next plane came yardarm as it pulled out of its dive. It was shot down by the Corsairs ahead of the ship.
The next plane came in from the starboard bow strafing [firing its machine guns] as it approached and dropped a bomb just below the bridge which wiped out our two 20 mms [antiaircraft guns] in that area and killed some of the people in the wardroom [officers' dining and social compartment] battle dressing station. This plane did not try to crash either, and was shot down, after passing over the ship, by our fighter cover.
The last plane that attacked the ship came in from the port bow, and was shot down by the combined fire of the Corsair pilots and our own machine guns, and struck the water close aboard and skidded into the side of the ship, denting the ship's side but causing no damage.
The action had lasted an hour and 20 minutes. We had been attacked by 22 planes, nine of which we had shot down unassisted, eight planes had struck the ship, seven of them with suicidal intent, two of these seven did practically no damage other than knocking off yardarms. Five of these seven did really heavy material damage and killed a lot of our personnel. We had only four of our original eleven .20 mm mounts still in commission. Eight of the original 12 barrels of our .40 mm mounts could still shoot but only in local control, all electrical power to them being gone and our after five-inch mount was completely destroyed. Our engines were still intact.
The fires were still out of control and we were slowly flooding aft. Our rudder was still jammed and remained jammed until we reached port. We tried every engine combination possible to try to make a little headway to the southward but all no avail. We had lost 33 men, killed or missing, about 60 others had been wounded and approximately 30 of these were seriously wounded.
The morning of our attack off Okinawa we had a CAP [combat air patrol] of about 10 planes over us. It was entirely inadequate for the number of attacking Jap planes. Our own radar operators said that they saw as many as 50 bogies [Japanese aircraft] approaching the ship from the north just prior to the attack. Many more planes were undoubtedly sent to our assistance and quite a large number of Jap planes were undoubtedly shot down outside of our own gun range and to the north of us that morning. When the attack was all over we had a CAP of 24 planes protecting us.
Threw live bomb over the side.
One of the highlights of the action occurred when Lieutenant T.W. Runk, [spelled] R-U-N-K, USNR, who was the Communications Officer on the Laffey at the time, went aft to try to free the rudder. He had to clear his way through debris and plane wreckage to reach the fantail [rearmost deck on the ship] and, on his way back to the steering engine room, saw an unexploded bomb on deck which he promptly tossed over the side. His example of courage and daring was one of the most inspiring ones on the Laffey that morning.
Another example of resourcefulness exhibited that morning came when two of the engineers, who were fighting fires in one of the after compartments, were finally driven by the heat of the planes [flames] into the after Diesel generator room. The heat from the burning gasoline scorched the paint on the inside of the Diesel generator room where there was no ventilation whatsoever. The acrid fumes almost suffocated these two men but they called the officer in charge of the after engine room, which was in adjacent compartment, and told him of their predicament. He immediately had one of the men beat a hole through the bulkhead with a hammer and chisel and then, with and electric drill, cut a larger hole to put an air hose through to give them sufficient air until they could be rescued. At the same time other engineering personnel had cleared away the plane wreckage on the topside and with an oxime acetylene torch cut a hole through the deck which enabled these two men to escape. Upon reaching the topside, both of them turned to fighting the fires in the after part of the ship.
The morning after the action we removed one engine from the inside of the after five-inch mount which had been completely destroyed and which had had its port side completely blown off by the explosion of the initial plane, which was carrying a bomb when it crashed into this mount. The second plane which crashed into that mount had also done great damage to it. And the next morning we pulled one engine out of the inside of the mount and another engine was sitting beside the mount with the remains of the little Jap pilot just aft of the engine. There was very little left of him, however.
We transferred our injured personnel to a smaller ship that afternoon, which took them immediately to Okinawa. We were taken in tow by a light mine-sweeper in the early afternoon, about three hours after the attack and the mine-sweeper turned the tow over a short time later to a tug, which had been sent to our rescue. Another tug came alongside us to assist in pumping out our flooded spaces and with one tug towing us and the other alongside pumping us, we reached Okinawa early the next morning.
Put soft patches on hull.
After reaching Okinawa and pumping out all our flooded spaces, we put soft patches on four small holes we found in the underwater body in the after part of the ship. It took about five days to patch the ship up sufficiently for it to start the journey back to Pearl Harbor.
After leaving Okinawa we proceeded to Saipan and thence to Eniwetok and from Eniwetok on to Pearl Harbor.
About the seventh plane that attacked us, it came in on the port bow and he was low on the water and I kept on turning with about 25 degrees left rudder towards him to try to keep him on the beam. He swung back towards our stern and then cut in directly towards our stern and then cut in directly towards the ship. I kept turning to port to try to keep him on the beam and concentrate the maximum gunfire on him and as we turned, we could see him skidding farther aft all the time. I finally saw that he wouldn't quite make [it to hit] the bridge but then I was afraid he was going to strike the hull in the vicinity of the engine room, but about a hundred yards out from the ship, he finally straightened out and went over the fantail nicking the edge of five-inch mount three and then crashed into the water beyond the ship.
Of course, many people have various ideas about how to avoid these Kamikazes but the consensus of opinion, so far as I know, to try to keep them on the beam [i.e., coming in on a 90- degree angle to the long axis of the ship, or directly from the side] as much as possible or one reason to concentrate the maximum gunfire on them as they approached. And another reason is to give them less danger space by exposing just the beam of the ship rather than the quarter of the bow for them to attack from. The danger space is much less if they come in from the beam than it would be if they came in from ahead or from astern and had the whole length of the ship to choose in which to crash into. High speed and the twin rudders, with which 2200 ton destroyers are equipped, were believed to have been vital factors in saving our ship that morning off Okinawa.
Captain Becton, were you on some other destroyer in the early part of the war?
Yes, I was in the [USS] Aaron Ward [DD-483] in the early part of the war. I was in the [USS] Gleaves [DD-423] when the war was first declared, but went to the Aaron Ward a short time after that as Chief Engineer, fleeted up [was promoted] to Exec[utive Officer - second in command] and was in there when she went through that night action off Guadalcanal the night of 12-13 November 1942. We were hit by nine shells that night, varying between 5 and 14 inches, but fortunately they were all well above the water line. We were towed into Tulagi [an island near Guadalcanal] the next day and later repaired.
Were you also on board when the Ward went down?
Yes, I was on board the Aaron Ward when she sank off Guadalcanal in April, 1943. After that I went to the squadron staff of ComDesRon [Commander, Destroyer Squadron] 21 and went through three surface actions in the [USS] Nicholas [DD-449]. The first of these was the night of 6 July, in the First Battle of Kolombangara or Kula Gulf when the [light cruiser USS] Helena [CL-50] was sunk. The Nicholas and the [destroyer USS] Radford [DD-446] stayed behind after the cruisers and other destroyers retired to pick up the Helena's survivors and fight a surface action with Jap ships that were still there in Kula Gulf.
The next surface action we were in came a week later when the same outfit of destroyers and cruisers attacked some more Jap cruisers and destroyers that were coming down from the northwest. We operated under Admiral Ainesworth that night. The destroyers were under the overall command of Captain McInerney.
After that the next surface action we were in was after the occupation of Vella Lavella, in which we took on some Jap destroyers and barges [towed craft carrying troops or cargo] to the north of Vella Lavella in a night action. The destroyers turned and ran and left their barges and we couldn't catch the destroyers. We did some damage to them, possibly destroyed some, but the major damage was done to the barges which they had left behind and many of which we sank.
Note: USS Laffey survived WWII and is now a memorial ship which can be visited at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
Source: Naval Historical Center