By S/Sgt. R. Price
Being aboard a ship that a suicide plane chooses for a target is as dangerous as being surrounded by a forest fire. The fanatical fool in the diving plane has le ship in his sights, and usually the fire from hundreds of guns follows him until there is almost horizontal fire. The odds are in favor of the ship loaded with high explosives or gasoline, or both. If the kamikaze pilot cores a hit he has fulfilled his mission As the Jap High Command puts it, the beautiful soldier has fallen like the cherry blossoms in the spring" - a touching thought, but not likely to make the men on the ship feel any better.
Eight aviation engineers who started out from Okinawa on what they thought would be a humdrum assignment discovered they had actually drawn a Purple Heart detail, in the shape of a storm of kamikaze raids* The one Lieutenant and seven enlisted Men were to go to another island to unload some of the battalion's sup-lies and heavy equipment from a ship. They had to get the gear ashore, reload t on landing craft and bring it back to the outfit. That they hadn't bargained or was four days of unremitting suicide attacks and bombings; they hadn't expected to see friends killed and maimed, a square block of tents leveled by explosives, or a field hospital full of patients blasted by a Baka bomb. When they got back o their outfit, one of the men summed it up with an unanswerable question: "The sonofabitch dives, and what are you going to do about it?"
Kamikaze, Japan's brand new weapon gets its name from a tradition dating back a thousand years. That was the name of the divine tempest that blew and wrecked ships of the Mongol invaders'; now the Jap witch doctors have pulled kamikaze out of their bag of tricks and planted the name on their special attack r suicide corps. The windboys are sealed into the cockpit of their plane or baka bomb, and swathed in ceremonial robes for-their last ride. They've had , whale of a binge before they started, their funerals have already been held, "he only thing they have to comfort them is the thought that their orders came straight from the Emperor, and the assurance that it isn't just anybody who can be a kamikaze. Anyhow, that's what they're told. Their crest is the cherry blossom, Jap symbol of patriotism, and they're expected to drop, as mentioned, like cherry blossom leaves in the spring.
The eight aviation engineers who had the rough introduction to the kamikaze corps started out as almost every Okinawa detail does with bad weather. Three of the men stayed ashore to receive equipment, and the rest boarded the ship to help get the dozers, concrete mixers, rations and vehicles out of the hold and onto the landing craft. The first night out the overcast cleared enough to make it fairly good bombing weather; the Japs thought it good enough to stage one of their biggest kamikaze attacks. The alert sounded at 2000 and lasted until 0530 the next morning. Men on the ships in the anchorage and those ashore spent a completely sleepless night. Ashore, T/3 Tommy Pruitt, S/Sgt Henry Specht, and T/5 Richard Young were at points along the beach in shallow foxholes. About dark, Jap planes bombed and strafed the airfield and every hour a wave of three or four would come over, flying high. There was the rat-a-tat of 20 and 30 mm, HA and the bigger boom of the 90's. The planes would disappear behind the screen as sparks from the ack-ack and the fingers of the searchlights stabbing the cloudy sky. Then, as soon as the men had settled down for some kind of rest, the guns would start popping again, and the bombs would start rumbling.
About midnight, Young says, "We were hit^ on the beach. What turned out to be a Baka bomb zoomed out of the sky. We could see the bomb and the guns were firing at it thinking it was a plane falling. We heard it whistle and just as I was praying it wouldn't hit, it burst on a Navy hospital. After the explosion there were men shouting and the wounded were screaming. I never want to hear anything like that again."
Farther up on the beach, Sgts Pruitt and Specht were only 50 yards away from where the bomb burst. Thin, red-headed Pruitt remembers, "I was crouched under a truck when it hit clean in the middle of the temporary hospital where they had dengue patients and men wounded during other raids. It was set up in dugouts and tents on a sandy bluff overlooking the beach. The tents were set afire, and there were slivers of aluminum flying around. I climbed up the bluff to help dig out the dead and wounded. We dug out one shelter where there were still five men alive. They were a pretty hysterical bunch by the time we got to them, I guess we worked an hour there before the mess was cleared away I've had quite a bit of first-aid experience, so I knew just about what to do The Japs kept flying over all the time."
Sgt Specht had tried to get up to the hospital too, but was told there were already enough men working. He says, "The thing I remember most about the beach happened before the hospital was hit. There was a man on the beach who thought his brother was on a ship .that had been hit. They had a terrible time with him, had to give him morphine to quiet him down, and then they took him up to the hospital. He was killed in the raid. Altogether that bomb killed 23 men."
Out on the ship that night there had been a General Quarters and all night they were blacked out with a stifling smoke screen Most of the men went to bed on deck, with S/Sgt Charles Manchester staying awake to rouse them if the ack-ack got too bad. The all-clear sounded at 0530. The men got up, cleaned up a little, and went below for breakfast. Just as they were coming up the hatch from the galley there was another alert, and before the gunners could even man their guns they were getting a dose of kamikaze, Lt Melvin Chewning, officer in charge of the engineers, describes it: "You can't do anything. You just stand there. If you think it's going to hit your side of the ship you might get up enough gumption to run over to the other side."
One of the raiders, a Zero, banked as if it were going to turn away, and then went into its dive before anyone had a chance to do anything more than look up to see where it was headed. Fire from other ships hit it, and when it was about 100 feet from our ship it burst into flames. It missed the booms and stern kingpost by not more than four feet and plunged into the ocean about 75 feet to the port side. Sgt. Alex Vacchio remembers his reaction to the kamikaze Zero: "Some guys were hollering to duck, but I just froze where I was standing and watched the thing hit the water. It wasn't until it was all over that my knees got wobbly," Pfc. Richard McFarland says, "It sure gets you, and there isn't any place to go or anything to do about it. You haven't time to even jump overboard. You just stand there and feel like a clay pigeon." Another man who just stood there and watched the plane crash was Cpl. James McDonald. In a few minutes he saw the dead Jap pilot bob to the surface with his parachute strapped to his back. McDonald simply remarked philosophically, "Well, there goes another one of the bastards."
SSgt Sidney Uhr was standing by a hatch with a Negro soldier when the plane struck. After the crash the sailor cracked, "You sure don't need any physics on this boat." Later, he and Uhr went down into the engine room. The sailor looked wistfully at the hold and asked the chief engineer, "Don't they make those boats no deeper?" Uhr says, "That's the best remedy for these kamikaze attacks - a sense of humor. If it weren't for that, it would be easy to go stark, raving mad."
McFarland sums up his first experience with though suicide attacks this way, "During a kamikaze show you just try to keep out of the way. The ack-ack follow the planes in, and sometimes when the guns are depressed enough you have to duck fire from your own side. There's too much of this horizontal fire for comfort. But if the ack-ack hasn't got the kamikaze before he goes into his dive, the low-level fire usually does swerve him from his course. Most of the pilots are sieved with holes before they ever get close enough to make their crash landings."
After this three-ring blitzkrieg was over, the men went back to the detail they had come on in the first place - unloading their gear. They worked through the afternoon and into the next day. By this time the stuff was coming ashore, at a good rate, so the whole detail, except Pruitt, went ashore to handle the materiel as it hit the beach. There were more alerts and light bombings, but the men tried to hope they had seen the last of suicide tactics. They were still bucking the rainy weather, there was enough work to keep twice as many men busy, and when they did get a chance to sleep it was in their trucks or foxholes. The air raids, the wet arid the long hours were making them jumpy. Young says wearily, "After so Ions a time, there just isn't anything very humorous about jumping into a muddy foxhole."
Next morning the fireworks started again, A Betty swept over the island, heading for the shipping out in the anchorage. The men on the beach had got the alarm, and they ducked under a 20-ton trailer. As soon as the Betty had flown over their position, they stood up to watch. Sgt. Manchester says, "We saw the Betty swoop out of the clouds, chased by five Corsairs.-o" Sven though we were control green, all the guns were firing. The Betty lost four of the Corsairs in the clouds and the one that stayed on her tail had to turn -back because of the fire. The Jap headed straight for our ship"
On the ship, Pruitt was having a different view of the kamikaze plane - he was seeing it coming at him head on. He says, "I fell flat on my face on the deck. The plane hit the aft mast, and her two '500-pound bombs exploded in the air. The only thing I saw was the body of one of the men from the five-inch gun crew overhead fly through the air and hit the deck. A little later there was a gas explosion. The two guys on either side of me were wounded; I can't imagine what saved me. My mother sure must have been praying for me."
While the flak was still flying and the firefighters were trying to put out the fire of the blazing Betty, Pruitt climbed up into the gun tub to see if he could help. The man who had been thrown clear of the tub had been strapped to his gun, and all that was left there were the stumps of his legs. The other two men were both wounded. One of them was riddled with holes, and some of his wounds were as big as a man's fist. Pruitt sent the other man to the bridge for sulfa powder and started dressing the wounds. Another suicide plane tried to come in, and a wounded gunner manned the 20 mm. gun from the tub where Pruitt worked. Below on deck, where the wreckage of the Betty was smoking and steaming, the dead and wounded were being placed on stretchers. Pruitt helped get his patient down to the deck, where the Navy doctor congratulated him on a job well done.
The men on shore watched the whole show. As soon as they could get a ride, Lt. Chewing and Sgt Uhr went out to the ship. They had to say they were doctors, that being the best way to get around during an air raid. When they came alongside the ship they saw Pruitt standing by the rail, smoking a cigarette. He was waiting to help get the wounded ashore. The two men went aboard to look over the damage, most of which was amidships and aft. The mast had fallen on the deck. All but one of the booms had been destroyed, and some 'of them were cluttering the deck. The deck itself was chewed with shrapnel, stoves in the galley were smashed, and hatches were blocked. One large chunk of shrapnel had gone through the top of one of the battalion's prime movers and was lodged in the motor block.
The three engineers stayed aboard to help clear the wreckage. All of their own equipment that had been left on the ship was damaged beyond repair. That afternoon they went ashore and started moving what equipment they had on shore back to the outfit. By this time they were ready for the peace and quiet of 12 hour shifts, lots of rain, and the occasional air raids which were the schedule back at the battalion.
Now they are back on their regular job. They don't want anymore of kamikaze but it's something they will never forget.
Here's on of the vivid memories Pruitt will always carry with him: "the fellow I saw blown of out of the gun tub was one of the friendliest men you'd ever want to meet. The day before it happened he had received 22 letters from his wife; he was always talking about her. One night he cracked open a bottle of whiskey and gave us all a drink, and you know how tough it is to get liquor out here. When you think of guy like that, you just can't explain those crazy Japs."