We left Ulithi on March 21 in a task force of 9 battleships, 9 cruisers, and 22 destroyers, and arrived at Okinawa on the 26th for a week of shore bombardment before D-Day on April 1 (April Fool’s Day and also Easter Sunday; for some reason also called L-Day). There were many Japanese airfields within a few hundred miles, so we were subject to numerous, frequent, Kamikaze attacks as we carried out the usual softening-up activities. The actual landings at Okinawa were beautifully planned and executed—a sight to behold—a “text-book” landing. There was essentially no land based opposition for the first six days because the Japanese had established themselves inland where Naval fire support would not be very effective.
The Newcomb met her Nemesis on the afternoon of April 6, while we were screening a group of mine sweepers west of Ie Shima. Due to the large number of air attacks we had been at GQ, off and on, since 3 a.m. By 4 p.m. there were many enemy planes in the area attacking the mine sweepers and the supporting vessels including the Newcomb. At one time we counted 40 enemy aircraft in sight. We were able to shoot down 2–4 planes that were diving on us, but at 6 p.m. one (although hit) got through and, coming in from the port bow, crashed amidships.
I can still see that plane coming closer, closer, through all of our AA fire. First the 5-inch guns start firing, then as it got closer the 40mm guns, and finally the 20mm guns open up at close range—a terrific din up on the flying bridge. I could see the machine guns in the planes wings winking as they fired straight at us; then I saw the plane hit with a tremendous crash, just aft of the flying bridge, at the base of #1 stack. Gasoline was sprayed around, fires were started, and there was a bomb explosion.
For the next 30 minutes or so we were under continuous attack by several planes as the enemy tried to finish us off. When we were firing at one target, it was my job to tell the fire-control officer, in the director, if another target posed a greater threat than the one we were firing at. But with all the guns firing, various explosions, and the roar of flames, it was impossible to use our phone system. So I perched myself on the rungs of the ladder, half way up the side of the director, so I could tap the fire control officer on the shoulder when necessary.
We did our best, but our best was not good enough. As far as we could tell (after the fact) a total of 5 kamikaze planes crashed the Newcomb, each of which probably carried a 500 lb. bomb plus gasoline. As best we could tell, we were hit amidships by two planes from port and two from starboard plus the fifth (from port) that hit near our fantail. In the process we lost all power, some of the guns were fired manually under local control, all of our engine spaces became just flooded rubble, we were aflame from the bridge aft to #4 gun, and the smoke was so dense and rose so high that we on the bridge could not even tell if the stern of the ship was still there. All of our torpedoes were blown away together with all of the amidships superstructure, guns, and all of the associated personnel.
There was a huge, overwhelming explosion, possibly due to the detonation of some or all of our torpedoes. When that explosion occurred, I had been standing at the after end of the flying bridge, and the next I knew I was lying on my back, at the front of the flying bridge, perhaps 15 feet from where I had been. As I looked up I could see large pieces of steel plate slowly falling back down like leaves falling in the autumn. I remember covering my face with my arms and hoping for the best. Afterwards I looked back where I had been standing, and there was our large, heavy, air search radar antenna which had fallen from the top of the mast. Clearly, if I had not been blown forward, I would have been crushed.
I clearly recall the pieces of steel floating down from the sky when I “came to” lying on my back. I also recall that I was all alone on the flying bridge. I have always wondered how the others (3–4) had gotten down off the bridge so quickly. As I write this a new idea has come to mind. I wonder if there is a simple answer; perhaps there were two (or more) huge blasts. The first that tossed me and knocked me out. Then the other men left the flying bridge, and another huge blast threw the steel plates skyward just as I “came to.” This scenario seems to fit the facts better—but I will never know.
It is interesting to see what a really strong blast can do. At GQ I wore ear-phones and a microphone hung around my neck on a heavy canvas strap. I also wore an oversized “talker’s” steel helmet that covered the ear-phones and was held in place by a strong canvas strap under my chin. I wore binoculars hung around my neck on a leather strap. And, of course, I also wore my glasses.
When I picked myself up, I found that the blast had torn off my phones (never to be seen again), had torn off my binoculars (never to be seen again), had torn off my helmet (never to be seen again), and had blown off my glasses. I found that my back really hurt but basically I was fine—no blood. Why my neck wasn’t broken as these items were torn off I’ll never know.
By this time I was alone on the flying bridge, I suppose the others had gone down to the main deck expecting to abandon ship. Fires were roaring, but our guns were silent. Many of the crew were on the main deck, crowded as far forward as they could get, away from the fires. I kept yelling (without notable success) for the gun crews to get back to their guns. We still had no idea what the status was aft. We learned later that a large number of the crew had congregated on the fantail, as far aft as they could get, and as the last kamikaze hit and slid across the deck aft, most of the men there either abandoned ship or were blown overboard.
I heard Capt. McMillian ask Commodore Smoot if he should order “abandon ship.” Smoot’s response was “It’s your ship, but I wouldn’t if she were mine.” Two other destroyers, the Leutze and the Beale came to our aid to provide water for fire fighting. While the Leutze was helping fight our fires, the fifth kamikaze plane that crashed us slid across our stern onto the Leutze killing 7 and wounding 34 of her men.
By this time many of our crew had abandoned ship and were in the water being picked up by other ships (minesweepers and destroyers) that had moved in to help us. I fetched a pair of binoculars and the portable signal lamp from the bridge and spent quite some time locating individuals in the water and signaling to the nearest ship to pick them up. That was about the only useful thing I could do.
At 1830, the destroyer Beale came alongside to port to provide water and to help fight our fires. By about 1900, the few people left on board aft had managed to put out the major fires and we were drifting, very much down by the stern, essentially awash, but still afloat. Freeboard at the bow was probably only 6 feet or less Our engine spaces were flooded, our watertight bulkheads were bulging, but they were holding! Eventually we could see that at least part of the ship’s stern was still there.
Our “sick-bay” and some of our medical personnel were simply gone; but we had many badly wounded and dying who were being treated in the wardroom by our doctor. About 2000 a boat from the destroyer Porterfield came alongside with blood plasma and other medical supplies—ours had largely been demolished. By 2100 the Navy tug Tekesta (ATF-93) had come out from Kerama Retto and taken us in tow and headed back to Kerama Retto with the destroyers Beale and Porterfield screening us. When we counted heads, about half the crew was still on board, mostly up forward, and we had no idea how many of the other half had been saved and how many had died. A very sad evening.
As we were being towed in, there were only 4–5 of us left on the bridge, when the Captain came out of his cabin with a bottle of scotch whiskey. The neck of the bottle was partially broken. Apparently he had a stash of scotch under his bunk and this bottle had been cracked. He suggested that we each find a coffee mug and he would share the bottle—we did and he did—aboard a U.S.Navy ship yet! It did help a bit. Even my father would have approved.
One of the Quartermaster’s duties was to insure that the proper flags were flown at all times. We knew by now that the after stack, where the U.S. flag was flown when at sea, had been blown away—and with it our flag. So, at about midnight, I went down to our flag locker, broke out a new U.S. flag, climbed as far up the mast as I could go, and tied it on—not very important, but it was on my own initiative and it made me feel better.
About 0100 the Beale put their Doctor aboard to help with our casualties, and at 0700 the Porterfield sent over coffee and sandwiches. The Tekesta towed us into the harbor, and at 0900 we dropped anchor in Kerama Retto. The Tekesta tied up alongside and commenced pumping of our engine spaces to keep us afloat; pumping which continued for 49 days. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were to remain in Kerama Retto for the next ten weeks until the Newcomb was sufficiently repaired to be towed back to the United States.
We were all in shock to see what had become of our “home” and were very apprehensive about the fate of our shipmates. We expected that most of the others were dead. I was particularly concerned about Roy Dockray, whose GQ station was in the after repair party, because I would have to tell his mother how he died. We were hungry, thirsty, sore, dirty, somewhat in shock, and afraid.
The only way to go aft from the bridge was on the remaining narrow outboard sections of the main deck that ran down each side of the ship. Inboard was the huge water filled hole where our engine rooms and fire rooms had been. Due to the internal explosions, the remaining deck sections were slanted toward the ocean perhaps 20–30 degrees, and all life lines were gone—it would be very easy to slide overboard.
At about 1030 the next morning we were able to take a head count and found 175 left aboard. There was no way that we could live on the ship for the next few days (no food, water, etc.) so we were sent to the Navy Transport Wayne (APA 54) for meals and temporary housing. Once on board the Wayne, you can imagine our delight in finding a lot of the missing Newcomb men already there. I was overjoyed to see Roy Dockray, as he was to see me. We would not have to tell the other’s mother about our deaths!
I don’t remember too much about the next few weeks—I suspect I was a bit in shock. I do remember that the food aboard the Wayne was far superior to what we were used to; and I recall that the troop living spaces were more spacious than aboard the Newcomb. We ate and slept on the Wayne, and spent the days working on the Newcomb. One of the worst jobs, that I was not involved in very much, was cutting through the rubble of our engine spaces to locate and remove the bodies of our shipmates; a gruesome task. They were all buried on Zamami Island in Kerama Retto.
It is interesting to look at our casualty statistics as reported on the ship’s log:
I happen to know that the Captain’s “wound” was a scratched thumb, obtained when he “hit the deck” during a Kamikaze attack; he received his Purple Heart for even less of a wound than I had!
A couple days after we were hit, one of my shipmates came up to the bridge with a pair of eye-glasses and asked if they could be mine—they were! He had found them on the main deck, 30 feet below the bridge, just aft of #1 gun—not broken, not scratched, not bent! (continued)