By John B. Penfold
The following article originally appeared in Our Navy, 1 January 1946

The USS Newcomb, a 2,100-ton destroyer attacked by seven Jap suicide planes near Ie Shima in the Ryukyus within a two hour period on April 6, 1945, absorbed four hits, shot down three Kamikazes and through superhuman firefighting efforts by her crew and men from another destroyer, the USS Leutze, was kept afloat and towed to an advanced repair base. Grim reminders of the heroic roles tin cans played in the Okinawa battle, the Newcomb and the Leutze, which was also damaged when the seventh plane skidded across the disemboweled Newcomb and crashed head on into her stern together suffered a total of 175 casualties. Seventeen enlisted men were killed aboard the Newcomb, 20 enlisted men are reported as missing in action and seven officers and 47 enlisted men were wounded. The Leutze lost two enlisted men, 14 are missing and one officer and 67 enlisted men wounded.

Seasoned veteran of Pacific war from the Marshalls through Iwo, the Newcomb is today afloat because her heroic crew, many with their hair aflame and clothes burned off, refused to give her up even when all power and communication was lost and more than half the ship was enveloped in flames. At Mindoro, Lingayen Gulf, and earlier at Okinawa, her men had outshot and outguessed suicide Jap pilots. Assigned to fire support and protection of heavy units of the fleet in the Ie Shima-Okinawa area the Newcomb was alerted for probable heavy air attack late in the afternoon April 6; for several days previously she had operated with a task force assigned to support off Okinawa and her gunners were well aware of the meaning of the alert. Earlier in the day she had fired at one plane and seen another snooper which was out of range.

At 1600 a very large formation of enemy planes was reported to the north. The Newcomb was then a few miles south of Ie Shima; before the “bogies” were visible, news came that friendlies from the combat air patrol had intercepted the main group of Japs, but in the ensuing dogfights some of the enemy were slipping through. As the fighting drew nearer, Lt. (jg) H.B.M. Harris-Warren, gunnery officer, saw at least 40 enemy planes in the area and at one time, 21 of them were counted in the water. The first enemy plane to detach itself from the formation began a dive on the Newcomb at 1625. Flak gunners were ready, scored continuous hits on the plane, a “Val” which flamed, went out of control and crashed about 20 feet away on the starboard side without damage to the tin can. Almost immediately another suicider took up the attack. Cmdr. Ira E. McMillian stood close by his controls on the bridge and watched as his guns scored several hits on the attacker. At the last minute, he gave orders for a sharp turn; the combination of accurate and distracting gunfire and timely maneuvering was successful and the plane sent up a huge geyser as it crashed in the Newcomb’s wake.

The pilot of the third Jap plane made a low level attack; he came in on the port side just atop the waves aiming amidships. Five inch, 40 and 20 mm guns sprayed a heavy curtain of steel directly in his path, some of the fusillade churning the water so violently that the target was momentarily lost. Once it appeared the plane had crashed but suddenly he again burst into view still on course. With bullets pounding him down to a range of two inches, the suicider caromed off a gun mount into the after stack. The Newcomb was in the motion of dodging and she rolled heavily to one side, shivered from the impact and then lost speed as smoke and flames enveloped the stricken area. Gasoline from the plane, steam from a boiler, and flying metal from the superstructure and the plane combined with the roaring fire to make the amidship section a seething inferno. Many men were flung into the sea; others were thrown against lifeline and superstructure with their clothes afire; some were unable to move.

Suicider #4 peeled off and started in anxious for an easy kill after seeing his #3 score a hit. But the vets of nine campaigns aboard the Newcomb were not caught off guard. Gunners who had been bodily thrown away from their battle stations got back as best they could. Other crew members replaced those who had fallen. The pilot of #4 had hardly begun his run when the Newcomb’s batteries trained on him and let go; one of the first salvos hit him squarely, broke off a wing, and he splashed several hundred yards away off the starboard bow. Two more planes began simultaneous attacks. Cmdr. McMillian made every effort to effect a fast change of course but radical maneuvering was impossible due to partial loss of power from the first hit. One plane under fire and believed damaged delivered another body blow to Newcomb, gouging deeper amidships near the workshop; a terrific explosion accompanied the crash indicating that the aircraft’s bomb load also had detonated.

All electrical and steam power was lost aboard the wounded ship. Engine rooms were a mass of rubble; ammunition magazines were afire, gun handling rooms blazing. The after stack torpedo mounts were blown over the side. Smoke and flames soared as high as 1,000 yards, some eyewitnesses declared.

Kamikaze #6 roared in on the port beam with the obvious intent of polishing off this seemingly doomed little tincan; although slugged and punch drunk, the Jap wobbled onto the forward stack spraying fresh supplies of gasoline across the melting mass of metal amidships and the scorched backs of the fighting men.

By this time the USS Leutze was almost alongside, her fire fighting gear rigged and lines ready to secure. Despite heavy seas driven by strong winds and a more than probable chance that the Newcomb’s magazines would blow up, Lt. Leon Grabowsky, skipper of the Leutze, skillfully maneuvered his ship at high speed. Before the scraping and crunching of steel against steel had stopped as the two ships came together, line and hose sailed over to the decks of the stricken ship to be followed immediately by firefighters, doctors and hospital corpsmen.

The Newcomb was littered with debris and a tangled mess of jagged steel; burned and wounded men lined her decks; wounded men caring for those wounded more than themselves. Amidships firefighters were trying to use portable pumps to extinguish fire billowing from the deep cavity where the firerooms had been. Yet, when the Leutze pulled alongside she was greeted with cheers and waving hands. Nearly 100 men on the fantail of the Newcomb were forced to take to the water by the searing heat; firefighting and rescue work continued in the forward part of the ship even though the men there thought the stern of the ship was gone—so thick was the flaming blanket between.

At this moment the pilot of the pilot of seventh and final plane decided to crash dive both ships and set his course directly for the Newcomb’s bridge. At the start of his run, both destroyers opened fire, the Leutze firing across the Newcomb; view of the plane was obscured and the Leutze ceased after a few rounds. The Newcomb continued with her forward five incher; with Lt. (jg) Harris-Warren shouting ranges and bearings and with Theodore H. Agidius, GM1c; Paul H. Edwardson, Jr., BM1c; gun captains of the forward five inch guns, loading and directing their crews, the Newcomb again pulled the all but impossible. The left wing of #7 was hit, tilting the plane until it swerved away from the bridge, lost altitude, skidded across the deck and rammed into the stern of the Leutze. Hard hit, the ship began to drift away as her crew turned to fight their own fires and to assist the wounded. All lines were cast off and very shortly another tin can came alongside the Newcomb; within 30 minutes all fires on the ship had been put out and men who were physically able turned to inspecting for hull damage and damage control.

Even the men who saved her could hardly believe the ship could remain afloat when the smoke cleared; engine rooms and living spaces were flooded with oil and water. The strength of one athwartship bulkhead—aft of the fireroom—undoubtedly saved the ship. Leaks in this barrier between the men and the sea were plugged with mattresses and it was shored for greater strength. In less than an hour the Newcomb was in tow for an advanced repair base.

The Leutze, too, had a battle on its hands to keep the ship on top. At one time her fantail was two feet under water and a nearby ship reported her as in danger of sinking. Lt. (jg) John G. Grelis, who took charge of repair and damage control parties after he recovered from being blown across the fantail into the lifelines was credited with saving the Leutze. Lt. Grelis descended into four and a half feet of oil and water to direct pumping and shoring operations which plugged holes bored in the ship’s hull by the seventh plane. Following successful temporary repairs on the scene of action the Leutze was towed within five miles of her anchorage, released the tow and proceeded under her own power to a base where she received additional repairs.

Lt. Grabowsky, who was spoken of earlier, is, at 27, one of the youngest destroyer captains in the Navy; he assumed command of the Leutze at Iwo.

Concerning various individuals of the Newcomb, the ship received reports on many of her men who had been forced or blown into the water; at least 70 of them clinging to debris, rafts and powder cans, were rescued by nearby ships. While in tow through the bright moonlit night, the meager crew attempted to put as many things in order as it could despite almost continuous reports of enemy aircraft in the vicinity; the amazing calm of the men under such pressure brought these words from Cmdr. McMillian, “I am very proud of the heroic and unselfish manner in which the officers and crew labored to save our ship, bring it to port to fight again one day. Tremendous explosions and raging fires damaged the ship to the most dangerous degree, but there was never any hint that she would be abandoned. Enemy planes were continuously in the vicinity during the tow in bright moonlight. Continued threat was met by the remainder of the crew with a calm and firm resolve to fight to the end … despite shock, the presence of dead and dying throughout the ship and cries of those suffering from severe burn and shrapnel wounds.”

Lt. Arlie G. Capps, executive officer, remained at his battle station in the combat information center until lights and power failed; he then proceeded to the forward guns and helped direct manual control fire. En route to the guns one of the Kamikazes crashed near him, knocked him down; other personnel pulled him out from beneath the plane’s tail. Despite injuries he later took control of firefighting parties and has been named “directly responsible for cool, effective results by topside personnel in extinguishing fires throughout amidships.”

Lt. Harris-Warren, in addition to his duties as gunnery officer had a major part in the forward fire fighting and assisted with damage control measures which saved the ship.

Lt. (jg) C.H. Gedge directed the firing of the 40 and 20 mm machine guns until the action was over and then supervised the jettisoning of depth charges; he was assisted by William P. Footill, S1c.

Donald J. Keeler, MM2c, was the center of a fire fighting crew which probably did more toward saving the ship than any one other group. Keeler, whose battle station was in after steering, put controls in manual when power was lost and then joined the men on the stern. He located a portable pump somewhere in the smoke and managed to get it started. Fires were threatening to engulf two after handling rooms and magazines. Keeler, Lt. (jg) David W. Owens, Donald A. Newcomer, WT1c, Malcolm H. Jiles, MM2c, formed a group which extinguished magazine fires, and removed burning powder cans. Lt. Owens has been commended for leading “his after repair party in heroic and courageous fight against almost overwhelming odds and by personal direction and fearless leadership put out a magazine fire and brought all fires under control.”

Ens. W.T. Ziegler went to the stern after forward fires were under control, assisted “greatly in completing the fighting in a magazine, taking out burning powder and throwing it over the side and then assisted in damage control work of stopping flooding in after compartments.”

Lt. (jg) A.L. Walker, first lieutenant, was in overall charge of all fire fighting and damage control., and personally assisted in fire fighting in the forward area.

Earl E. Sayre, CPhm, and Glenn D. Kniffen, Y2c, are credited with saving the life of Donald E. Jennings, Y2c, whose jugular vein had been severed. Sayre was in charge of all after casualties, rendered first aid for many men until they could be taken to the wardroom for further treatment; Kniffen held Jennings’ throat with his hand and remained with him until surgical treatment could be given even though one of the suiciders crashed nearby.

Jesse C. Fitzgerald, SM1c, risked his life to go to the aid of Clarence A. Overholtzer, F1c, and ship’s photographer, who was wounded and lying on a searchlight platform. Despite raging fires and another plane crash, Fitzgerald dragged Overholtzer to safety; the photographer would have been killed by a later plane.

While the galley and firerooms were a jumble of molten metal several men formed a firefighting party in that area; among them were Percy L. Frazier, MoMM1c, and Chester L. Huffman, MM2c, both of whom were killed while fighting fires when the second plane crashed. Richard C. Tacey, MM1c, member of a repair party was killed when he attempted to reach some engineering personnel trapped by the flames. Peter Kizilski, MM2c, was killed near the forward stack while trying to secure additional equipment. Kizilski had fought fires forward during the earlier hit. Iverson A. Carter, GM3c, remained at his amidships gun throughout the first plane crash and was firing at the second when it hit. Carter is listed as missing in action; another man who is missing is Bert A. Elliott, FC3c, directed the fire of his 40 mm gun despite raging fires nearby until an explosion threw his platform over the side.

Patrick F. Rocks, GM3c, gun captain of an after five inch delivered “effective fire” until his gun was put out of action; he then ordered the gun crew to leave for another station. Shortly after the crew left the gun, it was demolished by an explosion.

Lt. J.J. McNeil, Medical Corps, rescued several wounded men and took them to a place of safety. He took charge of all casualties and performed surgical work on a table in the ward room Francis Bernhart, CGM, saved Charles R. Keely, CMM, who was badly burned and helpless in the water; Bernhart, who had been blown over the side, was assisted by Lawrence A. DiEmidio, SF3c. Other men who have been commended for outstanding leadership and resourcefulness under fire include: Melvin C. Farnsworth, CGM; Russel P. Coleman, PhMc; Roger L. Birch, PhM3c; Lt. (jg) R.H. Steele, William D. Sweigart, GM2c; Sylvester A. Miller, GM1c; and John E. Dooley, SK3c.

Aboard the Leutze, John R. Stuck, among many others, was commended for helping two men escape from a flooded magazine; at risk of his own safety, after having already once escaped from the magazine himself, Stuck reentered, dragging out two shipmates who were stunned and suffering from shock. Three others in the magazine are reported as missing. Stuck is a veteran of Palau, Leyte, Luzon, Iwo and Surigao Straits.

Named for the late Commodore Frank H. Newcomb, the Coast Guard hero of the Civil and Spanish-American wars, the USS Newcomb was commissioned at Boston Navy Yard on November 10, 1943. After shakedown and recheck she left for the Pacific, escorting a large carrier to the Panama Canal and a cruiser from Frisco to Pearl Harbor. Early in 1944 she was in the Marshalls. She then returned to Pearl Harbor in time to join forces which eventually covered the invasions of Saipan, Guam and Tinian. On June 21, while screening reinforcement transports at Saipan she intercepted and sank a Jap sub; Cmdr. L.B. Cook, then skipper, received the Bronze Star for the action. In September 1944, the Newcomb took part in both the Peleliu and Anguar landing operations, remaining in that area until the end of organized resistance. She was the first Navy destroyer to enter Leyte Gulf; in the night action against the Jap fleet in Surigao Straits in October, she fired her fish at medium range as the leading destroyer of one attack squadron and is believed to have scored hits on the Yamashiro, a Jap battlewagon which later sank. The destroyer emerged from that action undamaged, and Cmdr. Cook received the Navy Cross for his night’s work. The ship then repelled numerous air attacks in the Sulu Sea during the Ormoc and Mindoro invasions and again put her flak to work in Lingayen Gulf where she shot down two Jap planes and received credit for assists on two others. She conducted sustained anti-sub and fire support operations around Iwo Jima during the invasion there. On March 29, while screening heavy units around Okinawa, she shot down a Jap “Betty.” Since November 1944, the ship has been skippered by Cmdr. McMillian.