Did The Bunker Hill Sink?
What happened to the USS Bunker Hill?
As destroyers Hugh W. Hadley (DD-774) and Evans (DD-552) were engaged in their epic fight for survival at Radar Picket Station No. 1 on the morning of 11 May 1945, several Japanese aircraft of mass kamikaze attack Kikusui No. 6 made for the U.S. fast carriers of Task Force 58, which had been spotted by Japanese scouts the previous night operating east of Okinawa. Japanese planes trailed TF 58 aircraft returning from Okinawa missions and would get lost in the broken, low clouds and in the radar clutter of numerous U.S. aircraft. The kamikazes’ target turned out to be Vice Admiral Mitscher’s TF-58 flagship, Bunker Hill.
An Essex-class fleet carrier, Bunker Hill had been commissioned on 25 May 1943 and had been in 11 major battles (including Okinawa), beginning with the U.S. carrier strike on the Japanese stronghold of Rabaul on 11 November 1943. She had suffered minor damage from a bomb during the Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19 June 1944, but, for the most part, punishment had been pretty much one-sided. Bunker Hill’s gunners had shot down about 20 Japanese aircraft, while her own air group claimed destroying 230 Japanese aircraft on the ground and another 474 in the air (including 169 in the Okinawa campaign), sinking 162,000 tons of shipping, and making a major contribution to the damage that sank the super-battleship Yamato on 7 April 1945. On the negative side, the commander of Bunker Hill’s air group (CVG-84) had disappeared in his F4U Corsair near Okinawa on 25 March 1945 (his Navy Cross, awarded for leading the seven-carrier strike on Kure Naval Base on 19 March 1945, was posthumous).
At about 1000 on 11 May 1945, on Bunker Hill’s 59th consecutive day of operations, about 25 of her aircraft were aloft, mostly from Marine F4U Corsair squadron VMF-221. Many of these aircraft needed to recover, but had to wait until the launch of 34 fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers that were spotted on Bunker Hill’s flight deck, all armed, fueled, and manned, with the engines turning. At 1002, the flag duty officer summoned Vice Admiral Mitscher and his chief of staff, Commodore Burke, into the flag plot as the combat information center reported indications that Japanese aircraft might be mixed in with U.S. aircraft returning from close-air support missions over Okinawa, which was true. At 1004, Marine Major James E. Swett (who had become an ace and been awarded a Medal of Honor following his first combat mission, at Guadalcanal in 1943), flying one of the returning VMF-221 aircraft, observed a Japanese aircraft diving out of the low clouds at Bunker Hill. Swett made a radio warning call, but it was already too late. For most of Bunker Hill’s crew on the flight deck, the only warning they had was some of the 20-mm guns opening up a few seconds before impact.
The Japanese A6M Zeke fighter dove out of the clouds from the starboard quarter and aimed for the flight deck packed with planes, strafing as it came in. In a shallow dive, Ensign Yasunori Seizo released his 550-pound bomb a fraction of a second before his plane bounced off the flight deck and then slid through the parked aircraft, setting numerous planes aflame. The bomb penetrated the flight deck just abaft the No. 3 (aft) elevator, passing through the flight deck and gallery deck, into the hangar bay, and out the port side, detonating 20 feet outside the ship. The effect was horrific. Fragments from the bomb sprayed the gun sponsons, catwalks, flight deck and hangar bay, inflicting numerous casualties. Many of the planes in the hangar bay were also fueled, resulting in raging fires.
About 30 seconds later, a second Zeke, piloted by Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa, popped out of the clouds, flew past the ship, then made a steep, climbing turn before assuming a high-angle dive. This time, the plane was met by a storm of fire from every gun on Bunker Hill and her escorts that could bear, but despite being hit multiple times, the plane kept coming, and the pilot released his bomb a moment before impacting at the base of the island. The bomb penetrated the flight deck and exploded in the gallery deck in a ready room packed with pilots. Fighter squadron VF-84 lost 19 officers and three enlisted men, and other squadrons also suffered heavy casualties.
Missing Mitscher and Burke by a matter of yards, one of the plane’s wings and the motor crashed into the flag office, killing Captain Raymond W. Hege (the newly arrived staff flight surgeon, a by-name request from Mitscher), Lieutenant Commander Charles Steel (the flag secretary), Lieutenant Commander Frank Quady (assistant to the staff operations officer, Captain James Flatley), and 11 enlisted men of Mitscher’s staff. Thick toxic smoke quickly forced Burke to order everyone out of the flag plot. Burke would be awarded a Silver Star for going into a burning compartment to bring out wounded men. Mitscher watched the ensuing efforts to save the ship. With Bunker Hill crippled, Mitscher temporarily relinquished command of TF 58 to Rear Admiral Frederick “Ted” Sherman (TG 58.3) embarked on Essex (CV-9). Mitscher’s flag cabin was burned, along with his uniforms, personal papers, and possessions.
At this point, a third kamikaze came out of the clouds, identified as a Judy dive-bomber. Despite the raging flight deck and hangar bay fires, gunners on Bunker Hill continued to man their weapons and fire on the kamikaze, assisted by gunfire from escorts. They knocked the plane down at close range without additional damage to the ship.
As huge fires burned out of control on the flight deck and the hanger bay, Captain George Seitz, Bunker Hill’s commanding officer, put the ship into a hard 70-degree turn, which caused much of the flaming gasoline on the flight deck to go overboard, significantly aiding efforts to control the fires there. The fires in the hangar proved harder to put out. At one point, the fires were so bad that Captain Seitz gave an order for those aft to abandon ship, which resulted in considerable confusion as some obeyed, others refused (those who weren’t immediately threatened by the fire), and many others did not hear the order.
Bunker Hill’s chief engineer, Lieutenant Commander Joseph R. Carmichael, Jr., ordered his men to remain at their posts despite the influx of suffocating smoke. This action kept the boilers going, which kept up the water pressure to the fire mains and probably saved the ship, though at a heavy cost of 125 of the 500 men manning the engineering spaces. Both Lieutenant Commander Carmichael and Commander Shane H. King, the damage control officer, would be awarded the Navy Cross for leading the efforts to save the ship. The executive officer, Commander Howell J. Dyson, who was seriously wounded in the first impacts, was also awarded a Navy Cross for leading firefighting parties until he collapsed.
The light cruiser Wilkes-Barre (CL-103) was commanded by Captain Robert L. Porter, Jr., who brought his ship hard alongside Bunker Hill’s starboard quarter to fight the fires on the hangar deck and evacuate the wounded, as Bunker Hill’s sick bay was badly damaged. (This maneuver was bold, given what had happened to Birmingham [CL-62] alongside Princeton [CVL-23] at Leyte Gulf.) Wilkes-Barre also passed firefighting and emergency breathing gear and handy-billy pumps, while also serving as a refuge for Bunker Hill Sailors trapped by the flames aft. Several destroyers also came alongside to help fight the fires. By about 1500, the combined efforts had the fires under control to the extent that Wilkes-Barre cast off, and destroyer English (DD-696) was able to come alongside to transfer Mitscher and his staff off Bunker Hill at 1620 via highline and thence to carrier Enterprise. Captain Porter would be awarded a Legion of Merit for his command of Wilkes-Barre.
Including 43 missing, who would never be found, and 13 Bunker Hill wounded who died on Wilkes-Barre, the total death toll was 396, making this the single most deadly kamikaze attack of the war. The wounded numbered over 260, many grievously burned. The burial-at-sea ceremony the next day would take eight hours and would be longest such ceremony in U.S. Navy history. Among the many dead were at least two pilots from Torpedo Squadron VT-84, Lieutenant Bernard Berry and Lieutenant Philip Nicklin Wainwright, who had not yet been awarded their Navy Crosses for their role in sinking the battleship Yamato. In an example of the fluke fortunes of war, a group of Avenger replacement pilots and aircrewmen had just flown in and were killed. However, one of the pilots had developed an ear infection and had not launched from Saipan, so he and his radioman-gunner Paul Newman were spared. (Paul Newman had enlisted in the Navy to become a pilot, but could not assume the position once it was discovered he was color-blind; he would go on to a distinguished Hollywood career.)
Bunker Hill made her way to Ulithi Atoll under her own power and then via Pearl Harbor to Puget Sound shipyard in Bremerton, where her repairs were completed just as the war ended, whereupon she served in Operation Magic Carpet, the repatriation of thousands of American servicemen. Decommissioned in January 1947, she remained in reserve, but was never reactivated or modernized. She would be used in shock testing in the 1960s before being sold for scrap in 1973. In 1986, her bell was transferred to the Aegis-class cruiser Bunker Hill (CG-52).
Bunker Hill Navy Cross citations:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Commander Howell Jesse Dyson, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as executive officer of the Aircraft Carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Okinawa on 11 May 1945. Receiving serious wounds when his ship was struck twice during determined enemy air attacks, Commander Dyson organized and led firefighting parties in combating a raging fire on board and continued his efforts until he collapsed from his wounds. His determination, courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Commander Shane Hastings King, United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession while serving at First Lieutenant and damage control officer on board Aircraft Carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Okinawa on 11 May 1945. When his ship was struck twice during determined enemy air attacks, which resulted in extensive damage and raging fires on board, Commander King organized and led the firefighting and damage control parties in effecting repairs and controlling the fires, thereby contributing materially to the saving of the ship. His professional skill, courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant Commander Joseph Rix Carmichael, Jr., United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Chief Engineer aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), in action against enemy Japanese forces in the vicinity of Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, on 11 May 1945. When his ship was struck twice during determined enemy air attacks, Lieutenant Commander Carmichael led his force in combating fires and repairing damage, thereby maintaining the ship’s maneuverability and fire-main pressure. By his professional skill, courage and devotion to duty, Lieutenant Commander Carmichael contributed materially to the saving of his ship and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
Silver Star citation for Commodore Burke:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to Commodore Arleigh Albert Burke, United States Navy, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Chief of Staff to Commander, First Carrier Task Force, in action against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific War Area on 11 May 1945. When the Flagship on which he was embarked was hit by two enemy suicide dive-bombers, Commodore Burke proceeded to a compartment in which personnel were trapped by fire and heavy smoke and succeeded in evacuating all hands. When the Flagship to which he had removed his staff was in turn hit by a suicide plane on 14 May, he again arranged for the transfer of his command to a new ship. In spite of all the difficulties, Commodore Burke maintained tactical control of the Task Force throughout, thereby contributing materially to the success of the operations. His skill, courage and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
(Burke had previously been awarded a Navy Cross in command of Destroyer Squadron 23 “Little Beavers” in the Solomon Islands campaign in October–November 1943.)
USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) burning after being hit by a kamikaze off Okinawa, 11 May 1945. Photographed from USS Bataan (CVL-29) (80-G-274261).
Written By US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
Did The Bunker Hill Sink?