Final Battle

In the summer of 1944, it was becoming clear to Imperial High Command that Japan was in danger of losing the war while the Allies island-hopped their way towards the Homeland Islands. One military historian noted that Japan had “long since lost aerial dominance due to outdated aircraft and the loss of experienced pilots. On a macroeconomic scale, Japan suffered from diminished capacity for war and a rapidly diminishing industrial capacity relative to the Allies.” In August 1944, it was announced that Takeo Tagata was training pilots in Taiwan for suicide missions. These Special Attack Units (which is the term preferred by the Japanese) were ready by late fall. They were first used in defense of the Phillipine Islands. They failed to turn back  MacArthur and he proclaimed the P.I. liberated on Dec. 26, 1944.

The naval, air, and ground battle in the Northern Pacific continued island by island throughout the winter of 1945. Eniwetok, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and then, preparations to take Okinawa as the staging ground for the invasion of Japan. USS Hilarity was traveling to its destination as the fight for Iwo Jima raged. “Americans fighting in the Pacific and the public at home were both shocked by the extraordinary losses, at Iwo, more than 24,000 Marine and Naval battle casualties.” After the island was taken, “the Allied armada of 1600 ships carrying 550,000 troops closed in on Okinawa.”

So began the Kamikaze  attacks.  Beginning in April and continuing into July (the island had been secured on 22 June) they ended when Rear Admiral Matome Ugaki, 2nd in command of the combined Japanese Fleet, directed the last official Kamikaze  raid on Okinawa on 15 August 1945, V-J Day.

Prior to that date, the USS Callaghan and three minesweepers were attacked on 29 July. President Truman had signed a secret authorization for the invasion of Japan on 18 June 1945. However, as noted previously, the successful creation of the A-Bomb in July led to the President’s decision to unleash two nuclear bombs on Japan to force unconditional surrender: Hiroshima on 6 August and Nagasaki on 9 August.

Truman’s decision has been debated fiercely for more than 70 years. The American government’s position rests on the statistics from the Last Battle of Okinawa.

  • 2800 Kamikazi attacks; 14% survived to score hits on ships;
  • 34 ships sunk;
  • 386 ships damaged;
  • 4900 naval wounded;
  • 4800 naval  dead.

No aircraft carriers, battleships or cruisers were sunk. Most of the ships lost were destroyers or smaller vessels, especially those on picket duty. The line of defense was held through the perseverance of ships like the Hilarity, “little corks floating in a bathtub.”

Suicide missions strike particular terror now, in the 21 st century. The 9/11 attacks are the most devastating to date, but suicide bombs strapped to the bodies of willing combatants have become ubiquitous. It is a particularly obscene way to carry out warfare. During WWII, the sight of swarms of aircraft emerging, first on radar,and then visible to the naked eye, brought a whole new dimension to naval warfare. The enemy had committed both machinery and manpower to self-destruction. For example, the simple propeller aircraft had non-retractable landing gear which was jettisoned once airborne, retrieved on the ground, and used again. The name kamikaze means “divine wind.” Historically, it refers to an immense typhoon that destroyed the invading armada of Kubla Khan and protected Japan from conquest. In the latter days of the Pacific War, young, poorly-trained men and boys flew these missions. Before they departed on their final mission, a ceremony was conducted. A ritual drink of sake or water was given. The pilots composed and read a death poem. They each wore a sennibare which was a belt of 1,000 stitches given to them by their mothers. Army officers carried their swords, naval pilots did not. They carried nambu, a pistol to end their lives if necessary. They pledged “I must plunge into an enemy vessel.”

The Allies developed a defensive strategy to combat these suicide missions. It was called the “big blue blanket.” Well away from the carrier force, a circle of protection and early alert was developed using combat air patrols in sync with a line of picket destroyers and escort vessels equipped with artillery. Added to this plan were intensive fighter sweeps over Japanese airfields and the bombing of Japanese runways.

  • Despite these best efforts, ships came under fire. The USS Laffey sustained 80 minutes of continuous airstrikes in 22 separate kamikaze attacks. Six of these planes crashed into the ship, leaving 31 dead and 71 wounded. The minesweeper Macomb towed the Laffey back to anchorage at Kerama Retto, Ok. The ship was repaired at Saipan and sailed for Seattle via Pearl Harbor. The war was over for those who survived.
  • The USS Langley was sunk. Her 450 survivors were picked up by the USS Pecos. This ship then sustained four hours of sequential attacks before the order to “abandon ship” was given. There was no other vessel in the vicinity but a destroyer responded to a flare. The stories of these ships and countless others recount amazing acts of heroisms by survivors. The wounded were placed on makeshift rafts by those who could swim. A surprising number of sailors could not swim!
  • A similar fate awaited the USS Princeton. Attacked by kamikaze, the USS Birmingham came to its aid. The Princeton’s stern blew up during the rescue attempt. Blast, flames, and debris swept the Birmingham. Half the crew were killed or wounded. There was only one junior medical officer available. Together with corpsmen, he treated 420 casualties. Only 8 died.
  • The USS New Mexico took a direct hit on its superstructure. It was 13 days until the 30 dead and 129 wounded were evacuated.

My father’s ship arrived in the midst of this battle. God only knows what he lived through. I never knew. Appelbaum states in Okinawa: The Last Battle that “neuropsychiatric” or “combat fatigue” cases were probably greater in number and severity in the Okinawa campaign than in any other operation.” The sea and air battle was continuous in June and July, after the island itself was under American control.

“Bill’s war” ended in time for him to cross the International Dateline on 3 Sept 1945. I am afraid that it actually ended for him in the Davis Park Veteran’s Hospital on 12 Jan 1953.

May he rest in eternal Light. 

We are awaiting the birth of his second great-grandson. Alleluia.



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