" White water no longer curls back from our Laffey's high proud bow. There are no men at her throttles or on her bridge, and her guns no longer speak. But she is alive with shades and memories of the brave deeds and the brave Americans who did them They are still with her and will be always. It is my hope that those who visit her, most especially the young, will come to know and perhaps be inspired by them."
F. Julian Becton, RADM
What's in a Name?
The USS Laffey
By RICHARD A. SHAFTER
IT MUST have given the Japs quite a jolt. Ships can't come back to life, can they? The Laffey was supposed to lie on the bottom of Ironbottom Bay off Guadalcanal, yet here she was, on the other side of the Pacific, 3,000 miles to the nor'west-ward of Sleepless Lagoon, slugging it out with land batteries and aerial artillery off Okinawa.
What had been resurrected was not the ship but the indominable spirit of the man after whom both, the Laffey of Guad, and the Laffey of Okinawa, were called. They were named after an obscure seaman, Bartlett P. Laffey, who became one of the Navy's Civil War heroes and won himself the Congressional Medal of Honor.
The first Laffy (DD 459) was a Bristol class ship, launched at the San Francisco yard of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Co. on October 30, 1941. The second Laffey, was launched more than a year later, on November 21, 1943, at the Bath Iron Works, Bath, Me.
Admiral Callaghan probably did not know what he would run into when he took his ships up The Slot that night of Nov. 13. The Japs had planned well. They had set an ingenious trap to catch that audacious little US force. They came with cruisers, battleships and destroyers.
The Laffey, skippered by Lieut. Commander W. E. Hank, of Norfolk, Va., was second in the line of Uncle Dan's 13 ships, following close in the wake of the Cushing. In the first few minutes of the battle the Laffey's guns had shot one of the Jap destroyers, leading the line, to pieces and left her burning and stationary in the water. Then she had tackled a Jap cruiser, and though the Jap hurled 8-inch shells, while the best Laffey had to offer were 5-inchers, her gunnery silenced the bigger Jap ship.
Just then the big pagoda mast of the Jap battlewagon, a Kongo or Ise class ship, loomed through the darkness, coming down on the American line at a speed of 25 knots or more.
Without a second's hesitation Hank rung "emergency full speed!" and hurled his ship at the gigantic hulk. The Laffey's crew was holding their breath. Then Hank let go a salvo of his torpedoes, and gave her a bit of right rudder and they cleared the Jap ship's bows—with not much more than ten feet to spare.
Then Hank began peppering away at the Jap with his 5-inchers. The Laffey's gunners concentrated on the Jap's bridge structure, literally pulverizing it.
But as she fought, the Laffey ran further and further ahead of the American line and found herself suddenly in the center of a ring of enemy ships. Simultaneously, the Laffey and two Jap destroyers opened fire. The nearest scored a direct hit on the Laffey that put two of her five 5-inch guns out of commission. She answered with another torpedo spread. The Jap saw them coming and maneuvered to get out of the way, but one of the tinfish ripped into her side and left her burning briskly, dead in the water.
With her three remaining 5-inchers blazing in rage, the Laffey turned on the remaining foe. She was one of the big Kagaro class "destroyer cruisers," two-thirds again as large as the Laffey, and with an armor belt protecting her most vital spots. At point-blank range the two ships dueled, circling each other in a fight to the death. Slowly they disintegrated before each other's eyes as shot after shot found its mark. Another gun of the Laffey was silenced, and yet another, until she was down to her last 5-incher. That one gun continued barking and there was a flash from the Kagaro ship. A flame shot skyward and in its light the leaf's men could see her tear asunder and sink.
Now the big Jap battlewagon some distance astern whose bridge they had taken off was now beginning to stir. Alone in the darkened sea, with her engines disabled and the fire raging beyond control, there was no escape for the Laffey from the vengeance of the Jap battleship. Commander Hank gave the order to abandon ship. The wounded men, there were many of them, were put on the life rafts. The rest of them had to trust to God and their life jackets.
There were still some wounded men in the sick bay. The medical officer went down to supervise their removal. Commander Hank and three other officers were on the forward deck, seeing to it that the life rafts got safely away. Suddenly there was a violent explosion. The Laffey reared up in the water and broke in two. She sank immediately. None of the officers and men still aboard were ever seen again. Commander Hank, too, went down with the gallant little ship.
He had already won himself the Navy Cross. Posthumously the Navy bestowed a Gold Star on him in place of a second cross, and later they named the Kearny built DD 702 after him. The Laffey's crew, those who survived, are wearing the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon on their jumpers in commemoration of that Battle of the Thirteenth.
It was a tough tradition to live up to. But Commander Fredrick Julian Becton, of Hot Springs, Ark., the skipper of the new Laffey, exclaimed when he took command, "I'll never abandon ship as long as a gun will fire."
He sincerely and definitely meant it. He didn't abandon ship even when the new Laffey was a mass of flames from stem to stern after one of the most savage air attacks to which a warship ever has been subjected, off Okinawa.
Four Vals—Aichi 99 dive-bombers— pealed off and made a run for the Laffy. Lieut. Paul B. Smith, of Clean, N. Y., the laffy's gunnery officer, did not wait until they came close enough for the smaller AA guns. He greeted them with the 5-inchers. All four of them splashed, the first of them still 10,000 yards away, the last at a distance of 3,000 yards.
Another flight was coming in. Another Val was trying a suicide run. It almost looked as if the pilot would succeed. The 40 mm gunners bagged him just before he could crash into the deck. He dropped alongside, while a sixth plane was making its run. It too was caught in the crossfire from the machine guns just before it could climb aboard. It disintegrated in mid-air so closely that one of the Laffey's men was hit and killed outright by flying debris from the plane.
Lieut. Frank Manson of Tahlequah, Okla., the Laffey's communications officer, described the next part of the action:
"A moment later a Val exploded just off the starboard quarter, injuring several men. A plane coming in from the port bow grazed the No. 3 gun-mount and exploded near enough to put the gun out of action.
"Simultaneously two others approached from the starboard beam. AA fire got one of them, the second swerved off. But another one came in low on the portside. He struck the deckhouse, but kept on going, knocking out some of our guns and starting a fire in the 40 mm magazine. Within thirty seconds of each other two planes hit the after deckhouse sealing several men to their deaths in the compartments below."
A twin-engined torpedo bomber with a 1,000-pound load dangling beneath its wings was brought down by a 5-inch shell that hit him squarely on the nose. But another Val dropped a bomb in the wardroom, where the battle dressing station was located. Men, already wounded and awaiting treatment were killed outright.
Meanwhile the Laffey had sustained serious damage. One bomb, falling just astern of her, jammed her rudder. She was out of control and running around in crazy circles. The communications system was out and the engineers down below couldn't even be told how to steer the ship with the engines. They did it anyhow, adjusting speed of each propeller by the sound arid intensity of the gunfire.
Fires had broken out forward and aft. Gasoline spread across the decks. Gunners strapped to their guns refused to leave their posts and continued serving their pieces while the flames singed the hair in the back of their neck. One of them, Coxswain Calvin W. Cloer, of Burbank, Calif., was seriously burned. Some old chief chased him away from his battle station in No. 3 gun-mount. He went to the wardroom, saw the number of men that needed first aid, and came back to his post. A minute later he was wounded by a shell fragment. He went to the wardroom to have his wound dressed. He was one of the men killed when the Jap bomb wiped out the dressing station.
Altogether five suicide planes had dropped onto the decks of the Laffey. The engines of three of the Jap planes were later recovered lying on her fantail. Seventeen others had tried to come aboard, but had been knocked out either by her own guns or the fighters from the carrier. She was burning fiercely when the ordeal finally was over. Her hull had sustained serious damage and was leaking in many places. But she still lived.
"For a while we thought we were going to sink, but a tug pumped us out and saved us," Lieut. Manson explained. While the Laffey's crew were fighting the fires aboard, two tugs came along and towed her into the American beachhead at Okinawa, where her wounded—there were sixty of them, and 31 killed—were taken off, and the worst holes in her hull patched. From there she came home to Seattle, Wash., under her own power.