That was the situation I found myself in on the night of 3 May 1945 aboard the United States Ship Macomb (DMS23), circling somewhere in the vicinity of Radar Picket Station Nine and guarding our island-hopping campaign which, had it not been for the atom bomb, undoubtedly would have culminated in the invasion and physical conquest of Japan.
The man suffering most in the wardroom was Seaman First Class George Wanchick. He had been in number three turret when a Japanese Kamikaze “Tony” had ploughed into the mount, igniting powder and spreading a sea of blazing gasoline in every direction. Some way, somehow, Wanchick had come out of that mount and fallen off the after deck house into the fantail, but he was burned to a crisp. Actually, the only place the doctor could find to administer needed plasma to George was the small area of his feet that had been protected from burns by heavy shoes. Now, with other wounded, he lay in the Macomb’s wardroom, which had been improvised into a sick bay, and prayed for the merciful death which might have released him from intolerable suffering.
I wasn’t feeling too good myself. I stood it for a while. After that, burns, or no burns, I went on deck. I simply couldn’t take any more. George died early that morning.
Why I didn’t accompany George Wanchick into the “Valley of the Shadow of Death” I’ll never know!. When the Kamikaze hit us, my mind went momentarily blank. My clothing was afire and I was stretched out, not only insensible on the fantail of the Macomb, but trapped there by the furious flames which spread from number three mount when the Kamikaze hit and blazing gasoline enveloped everything aft. As luck had it, however, our captain, Lieutenant Commander Alton L. C. Waldron, called for flank speed just about that moment. As the Macomb charged through the night her fantail settled; she took small seas aboard aft, and this water was enough to extinguish my flaming clothes. Revived and once more on my feet, I had a couple of shots of morphine. After that, I hardly knew I was burned, and when Chief Bo’sun’s Mate John Reagan called for volunteers to sew up our dead and prepare them for burial. I was so far from realizing my own condition that I volunteered!
Slowly and painfully, as the stricken Macomb plunged through the night, a small party of us made our way to a little shack amidships. There the dead were laid out. Also, there was stout twine, triangular-shanked and curving sail needles; leather palms for pushing the needle points through tough canvas and a supply of used fireproof mattress covers, to serve as shrouds. Silently we fell to work. Stitch! Stitch! Stitch! We handled the bodies of our mates with reverence. It was a somber experience. After we had finished the job, I happened to meet the ship’s Chief Pharmacist’s Mate in the gangway. He took one look at me—and that was that!
“OK, Bazzel, come with me!” he ordered. I followed him to the wardroom where they dressed the burns on my hands and arms. That was the second time that night I saw Wanchick. As I say, I saw him come out of the aft five-inch gun mount, seemingly burned to a crisp, seconds after the “Tony” had hit us. Now he was lying in the wardroom praying to die, and, as I have said, I just couldn’t take it for more than a short time. After that I went on deck and stayed there until death effected Wanchick’s merciful release from what must have been intolerable pain.
The Macomb, affectionately known as the “Dipsy Doodle,” was in many ways a lucky ship. She was in action at Okinawa, Kerama Retto, and took part in several of the European invasions prior to going to the Asiatic theater. We saw ships mortally hit and sunk within less than a couple of shots of cable from us. We swept mines, cut their cables, and destroyed them with machine gun fire. We bombarded beaches, and actually took mortar fire over us without suffering casualties. We watched destroyer O’Brien and the DMS Dorsey suffer heavy casualties, but miraculously managed to stay out of serious trouble ourselves. We were screening off Ie Shima when the celebrated correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed, and when the Laffey took it at one of the picket stations, I personally stood aft aboard the Macomb and watched the survivors of the Laffey throw body after body of their buddies off the fantail! I think that’s the sickest I’ve ever been in my life! And then, of course, with the law of averages running heavily against us, we got our all at one time and in a very neat package indeed!
Although the ship had seen plenty of action, I suppose this story really should start at the moment shortly after dusk on 1 April 1945, when Captain Waldron, on the bridge, grasped the lever of the ships PA system, closed the circuit, and told us: “This is the Captain speaking! Now hear this! We have been proceeding under sealed orders. In compliance with instructions, I have just learned the contents of those orders. We are to perform sweep operations and later on we are to participate in the invasion of Okinawa. We are out in front of the Third Fleet. From here on out we should be joining up with additional vessels all the time. I want to caution every man to be doubly alert during the days and nights ahead, and I’m sure that no man aboard the Macomb will fail of his duty. God be with you all!”
We were at Ulithi at the time. Ulithi had been secured, and the harbor was filled with our ships as far as the eye could see. However, the enemy was aware of our presence and while waiting to shove off on the Okinawa strike, we performed refueling operations and replenished our ammo and supplies under almost constant Japanese air attack. In addition to air attacks, we had to deal with the nuisance value of “Midnight Charlies” and stand to general quarters at sunset and dawn. As a land base for the Japanese, Ulithi was secured, the attacks on us were from the air.
The Third Fleet was cleaning up Iwo and the Philippines, and as their campaign went well, ships were released to come forward and join us. The result was that one morning I came on deck, looked around, and saw that there had arrived during the night as impressive an armada a I ever hope to see. There were BBs, cruisers, DDs, AKAs, APSs, and just about every other naval type at that time. You simply couldn’t stand on the deck of a navy ship, watch that power, feel in your heart the determination of the men who were manning those ships, and not be proud of both the United States Navy and the United States itself.
We rode more or less peacefully at anchor at Ulithi while the boys behind us cleaned up and secured Iwo. Then, one night, we shoved off for the big adventure—the tackling of Okinawa. We shoved off nearly a week ahead of the invasion force, sweeping ahead. Our real mission was twofold: both to prepare the way for the big scale invasion of Okinawa and to interdict either the withdrawal of personnel on Okinawa or its reinforcement. Our position and intention were well known to the enemy and in addition to isolated bogeys, we were pounded with Japanese air squadron attacks daily. The sea was rough; the weather good; visibility good, and it was during this transit that the O’Brien and Dorsey became casualties.
Arriving off Okinawa, we were ordered to perform a comprehensive mission: To sweep day and night around the island. When the time came for the all-out assault, American strategy called for two fleet operations against Okinawa. One was to be the real thing—“The fleet that was to stay.” The other, equally formidable, was to be a diversionary attack. Once arriving, the “fleet to stay” was to wheel to the right, pound the island, and prepare for the marine invasion. The other fleet was to wheel to the left and conduct itself in every way as a major attack force.
On the morning of the actual storming of Okinawa, we not only had every American ship of war which could be spared in the area but the types were so diversified that only an expert in ship recognition could have identified them. The BBs and cruisers lay off and gave the island such a pounding that we honestly thought they’d sink it. The Macomb and her sister ships, screening smaller sweeps, bore in close to the beach. In addition to streaming our gear we cut loose with everything we had by way of guns on deck. It was a real pleasure to watch ammo and gasoline dumps going up ashore from this fire, although we took plenty of fire in return. However, on this sweep, we cut plenty of contact mines from their moorings, and detonated them at a safe distance with machine gun fire. We had an acoustic hammer built in the hull, and this was operating constantly. Also, on deck, we had a secondary acoustic hammer which could be lowered overside to a level below the keel. It was one of the jobs of my division to check the efficient functioning of this equipment, and I can’t say that we enjoyed it!
A curious accident of war was reflected in the Okinawa invasion: Prior to tackling Okinawa, we had cleaned up the outlying small island of Kerama Retto. Here we had found, at least to the surprise of the ship’s personnel, if not Intelligence, a sizable Japanese “suicide fleet.” These were little fifteen-foot boats with plywood hulls. Most of them had Ford or Chevrolet engines with appropriate marine reduction gears. They were capable of high speed and each was loaded chock-a-block with TNT. Really, they were little more than surface torpedoes with men to direct them to appropriate targets. When our invading forces landed on Kerama Retto they found whole flocks of these “suicide boats” ready for action. The “suicide fleet” was berthed deep in estuaries penetrating inland from the coast of the island, and the sides of these long, narrow channels were fitted with machine shops and all else necessary to keep the “suicide fleet” operational.
What happened to that peculiar and most characteristic Japanese weapon, I am not sure. Our men went ashore. About dark there was a tremendous explosion, and seemingly, the whole side of the mountain on the side where the “suicide fleet” was berthed rose into the air and collapsed, either destroying the boats themselves or effectively sealing the estuaries through which they may have made their way to sea. Whether this tremendous “blow” was the result of a lucky hit by one of our ships on a Jap ammo dump, or whether our shore party mined the whole system and simply blew it into oblivion, I’ll never know. But, one thing I am dead certain of: The Japanese “suicide fleet” which was created to interdict the American invasion of Okinawa never had a chance to get into action!
Several nights later, anchored in Kerama Retto harbor; I stood a four-hour telephone watch on the fantail of the Macomb; and it turned out to be one of the most crawly experiences I “enjoyed” during the war. This time the Japs had taken recourse to “suicide swimmers.” These men, swimming silently and for the most part under water, shoved off from the beach and picked our vessels for their targets. They carried primitive-but-effective weapons—knives, grenades, demolition charges and things of that sort. Silently they would board a United States warship, frequently climbing up the anchor chain. Moving like shadows, they were frequently successful in cutting the throat of any sentry who happened to be on duty. Then they would make their way aft, toss grenades down into the living spaces of the ship, and then dive overboard. Other Japanese “suicide swimming individuals and teams” worked more subtly: instead of boarding the vessel, they would swim to her after end and affix explosive charges to her screws or shafts. The next morning, when the screws started to turn over, the charges would be detonated and the vessel crippled if, indeed, her whole bottom was not ripped out.
While I was on watch, an LST moored just ahead of us suffered a “Japanese suicide swimmer” attack. The silent little yellow figures swarmed aboard, slaughtered the sentries, and then placed heavy demolition charges in the living quarters of the vessel. Naturally, in the circumstances, I was as alert as I could be, but that didn’t help too much. It happened to be the darkest night they ever built in this world. There were three of us on the fantail and we weren’t more than ten feet apart, but we could see neither each other, nor anything else. My party was armed with BARs, Thompson subs, and we had a box of grenades lying open where we could get at them. For me it was a split watch—eight to ten, and twelve to two. During the latter portion of the watch, I thought I heard a noise overside in the vicinity of the port screw guard. We immediately turned a powerful battle lantern on the area and saw what looked like an empty wooden box floating very near the stern. Naturally, the Japs didn’t overlook the trick of employing seeming refuse and debris of this type to cover their heads, so we cut loose at the box at once. As it chanced, the thing ended on a rather amused note: I had never fired a BAR before, and I didn’t realize that the weapon must be fired in bursts. The result was, I gave it the business in one long stream of lead and steel. I was aiming at the box when I first pulled the trigger, but when I finished firing, my tracers were going all but directly overhead. I had to hold still for a good bit of ingenious kidding in the days which followed.
Our invasion of Okinawa was bloody, but successful, and after the objective was secured we were ordered back on radar picket station. It was during this duty, on the night of 7 April and while we were manning Station Roger Peter Two, that we received “Flash Red–Control Yellow”—then “Flash Red–Control Green.” Almost simultaneously, at about 1900, we picked up a message from the DD USS Gregory on Roger Peter Three: “Am under attack by three “Vals.” The Gregory managed to splash two of the attackers, but the third one got through, causing a tremendous explosion and flooding of the Gregory’s fire rooms. We were some forty or fifty miles away, but we immediately headed to relieve the Gregory, arriving during the night and standing by until 0700 the next morning when she was able to get under way and limp toward a safe berth. I was unusually interested in the fate of the Gregory because my brother, Earl, was on board her. She experienced casualties, but before the two ships parted in the morning, my captain was able to get word that Earl was not among the casualties.
It was at 1830 on 3 May that the Macomb got it. There were many bogeys on our radar screen and I believe every man aboard sensed that we were in for the fight of our life. The first enemy aircraft to show up was a Kamikaze “Val” off our starboard bow. Director was on target, all guns were in automatic and the gunnery officer gave orders to commence firing. Ahead of us was the USS Bache and simultaneously with our fire she opened with her five-inch mounts. The Jap seemed intent on getting the Bache but, as he approached, he was streaming flame and smoke, and wobbling in the air. His final attempt at a suicide crash-landed him in the ocean between our two ships.
What happened next, may best be told by the officers and men of the Macomb herself: “Our director began spinning on its axis. Another plane, low-flying, approached on our starboard beam. Before our guns could be trained on the target it was upon us. The aircraft bore directly down for the bridge superstructure. Seemingly nothing could stop it; our luck had finally run out. In a flash, the plane (identified as a “Tony”) banked sharply and crashed into number three gun mount. A terrific jar went through the ship. The whole after deckhouse was a blazing inferno.”
That’s when I was knocked, by concussion, to the deck. Many men, more or less fortunate, were blown overside. Curiously enough, the path of the Japanese bomb through the ship savored of the miraculous: The bomb did not detonate on board but in its smashing, rending flight, demolished the hot water heater for the crew’s showers and covered the washroom and number three ammunition handling room with scalding water and steel fragments. One of the men in the shower spaces was killed instantly.
The suddenness and power of the attack was stupefying. I was standing near the after deckhouse when the “Tony” hit and I started to run toward the fantail at that precise split second. There were eight or ten men on the fantail, but I honestly believe that I would have run right off the after end of the ship had not Bos’un’s Mate Stremski grabbed me and slapped me hard back into some semblance of normal thinking. There was, in all truth, some reason for my panic: not only were my clothes afire, but blazing hunks of rubber from the self-sealing gas tanks of the “Tony” had lodged in my hair where they burned away merrily. As a matter of fact, the ship’s doctor had to cut the stuff out of my head the next day.
As I have indicated, there were perhaps a dozen of us hopelessly trapped on the fantail. The deckhouse forward of us was burning, and a tremendous curtain of flame bridged the ship from rail to rail in the area of number three gun mount. There was nothing we could do; there was nowhere we could run; there was nowhere we could hide.
In the circumstances, Lieutenant (J.G.) Arve A. Saarnijoki, USNR, from Boston, took charge of what was left of the gun crew and formed a fire and damage control party to work at the forward face of the fire. Heartened by the knowledge that our shipmates forward were doing their best to rescue us, we checked the magazine of number three mount and the living compartments to which we could gain access.
Finally the firefighting party brought the blaze under control. We immediately checked the deckhouse, and were sickened to find the youngest kid in the ship lying dead inside. Meanwhile, despite our own distress, the skipper had received an urgent call for aid from the destroyer Aaron Ward, which had been hit by five Kamikaze planes. In our condition we could not respond to the Ward‘s appeal for aid, so we recovered our own casualties overside with the aid of supporting small patrol craft and finally got underway for Okinawa. Meanwhile, a chap named Rogers and I managed to get a stretcher from forward, and we were able to get Wanchick down to the wardroom. As previously recounted, I subsequently joined him there, after helping to prepare a half dozen or so of my shipmates for burial.
All in all, it had been a lively night on station Roger Peter Nine!