Kamikaze Attacks on U.S. Flagships
USS Bunker Hill (Task Force 58 Flagship), 11 May 1945
Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., and Fifth Fleet commander Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, aboard USS New Mexico (BB-40) off Okinawa, 27 April 1945 (80-G-322429).
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.
Why did Japan lose the Battle of the Philippine Sea?
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).
USS New Mexico (Fifth Fleet Flagship), 12 May 1945
On 12 May 1945, the commander of the Fifth Fleet, Admiral Raymond Spruance, found himself in the crosshairs of kamikazes for the second time. Spruance’s first flagship, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis (CA-35), had been hit by a kamikaze in the first days of the fight for Okinawa on 31 March. Indianapolis had to return to Mare Island for repair, and Spruance transferred his flag to the older battleship New Mexico. The ship had previously been hit in the bridge by a kamikaze at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines on 6 January 1945, which had killed the commanding officer, Captain Robert Walton Fleming, and 29 other crewmen.
New Mexico had been repaired at Pearl Harbor in time to participate in the landings on Okinawa, providing naval gunfire support to Army and Marine forces ashore. As late as 11 March, her guns had destroyed eight Shinyo suicide boats found hidden along the shore. Just after sunset on 12 March, New Mexico was returning to the Hagushi anchorage area off Okinawa, having completed a day of taking on more ammunition and supplies at Kerama Retto. Spruance was noted making the comment that it was “good kamikaze weather.” Besides an eye for weather, Spruance also had warning from radio intelligence.
The U.S. Navy battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40) San Pedro, California (USA), in 1921. The Wickes-class destroyer USS Aaron Ward (DD-132) is visible in the background.
At 1856 on 12 May 1945, the destroyer Shubrick, on a radar picket station, reported two enemy aircraft at 35 nautical miles inbound to Hagushi with U.S. aircraft in pursuit. New Mexico switched on her air search radar and gained contact on the aircraft. At 1905, she gained visual contact on two Japanese aircraft with two U.S. F4U Corsair fighters on their tail. As the largest ship in the Hagushi roadstead, New Mexico became the target for these two Japanese army fighters, now under fire from numerous ships in the gathering darkness.
The first plane, a Nakajima N2K2 George fighter, kept coming through the intense antiaircraft fire and hit New Mexico with machine-gun fire and was just about to crash on the ship when a 5-inch proximity round exploded directly under it, bouncing it up high enough that it just missed the foremast before crashing off the port quarter. Making good use of the diversion caused by the first kamikaze, the second plane, a fast Ki-84 Frank, came in from the starboard side at such high speed that the 5-inch gun directors could not slew fast enough, and the 40-mm and 20-mm only had about an eight- to ten-second window to engage.
The Frank crashed into New Mexico amidships in the 20-mm gun gallery.
The New Mexico is struck by a kamikaze aircraft, 12 May 1945
The plane’s bomb exploded, perforating the funnel. The plane itself crashed at the base of the funnel, blowing a big hole that caused ready-service ammunition to fall down into a boiler room, which resulted in a massive explosion that destroyed three (of nine total) boilers. Fortunately, the draft of the funnel sucked up much of the fire (it looks like a blowtorch in photos) that might otherwise have added to the fire amidships. As it was, 54 men were killed (28 Navy dead and 3 missing, and 23 Marines killed) and 119 Navy and Marine personnel wounded. One of those killed was Radioman First Class Walter L. Rougeux, a radio intercept operator with the secretive Fifth Fleet Radio Intelligence Unit, who had provided early warning of this and numerous other attacks and was subsequently awarded a posthumous Bronze Star.
Admiral Spruance had been on the quarterdeck prior to the hit and was missing for a time. Staff members went searching for him, and the flag lieutenant finally found Spruance manning a fire hose with other crewmen. He and the damage control teams had the fires out in 21 minutes. Despite the damage and crew losses, Spruance determined that the tough old battleship was still capable of remaining in the line, and she continued firing on Japanese targets and serving as Spruance’s flagship until 28 May 1945, when Spruance turned over command of the Fifth Fleet to Admiral Halsey, who preferred the brand-new battleship Missouri (BB-63) for his flagship. New Mexico then proceeded to Leyte for repairs and rehearsals for the expected invasion of Japan. She would be in Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in September.
The ship would be sold for scrap in 1947. As she was being towed from Boston to Newark, the towline parted in heavy weather, and the ship went adrift for a day before being corralled. When she arrived at Newark, two Newark City fireboats blocked the way, as the city of Newark had embarked on a “beautification” program and did not want any more ships scrapped on the waterfront. This set up a confrontation between the Lipsett Company tugs and the Newark fireboats, with the U.S. Coast Guard caught in the middle in what the press called the “Battle of Newark Bay.” Fortunately, compromise was achieved, nobody got hurt, and the ship was scrapped.
Navy Cross citation for Admiral Spruance:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Admiral Raymond Ames Spruance, United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in line of his profession as Commander, Fifth Fleet, in action against enemy Japanese forces during the invasion and capture of Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, and Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, from January to May 1945. Responsible for the operation of a vast and complicated organization that included more than 500,000 men of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, 318 combatant vessels, and 1,139 auxiliary vessels, Admiral Spruance directed the forces in his command with daring, courage and aggressiveness. Carrier units of his force penetrated waters of the Japanese homeland and Nansei Shoto and inflicted severe damage upon hostile aircraft, shore installations and shipping. Under repeated enemy air attack during the Iwo invasion, Admiral Spruance was embarked on the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) when the starboard quarter of the vessel was crashed by a hostile plane which passed through the main deck causing many casualties. Shifting his flag to the USS New Mexico (BB-40) on 5 April, he continued covering operations for the assault on Okinawa in the face of desperate enemy resistance and despite the strain of constant alerts as Japanese kamikazes increased the fury of their attacks against our combatant and auxiliary vessels. On 12 May, another suicide plane crashed the deck of his flagship. His professional skill, brilliant combat tactics and determination in carrying the fight to the enemy reflect the highest credit upon Admiral Spruance and the United States Naval Service.
USS Enterprise (Task Force 58 Flagship), 14 May 1945
After carrier Bunker Hill was severely damaged by two kamikaze hits on 11 May 1945, Vice Admiral Mitscher shifted his flag to the venerable carrier Enterprise. At the urging of Commodore Burke and operations officer Captain Flatley (both Navy Cross recipients from earlier in the war), Mitscher directed two of his carrier task groups (TG 58.1 and TF 58.3) to proceed north on the night of 12–13 May 1945 and attack Japanese airfields on the home islands of Kyushu and Shikoku. TF 58 fighters conducted two days of offensive sweeps, while carrier bombers joined in with the fighters in attacking planes on the ground and airfield infrastructure, with the effect of delaying Kikusui No. 7 until 24 May.
Having transitioned to being the TF 58 “night carrier,” with specially equipped aircraft and night-trained aircrews, Enterprise proved a less-than-ideal flagship with flight operations all night and general quarters all day. In the predawn hours of 14 May 1945, Enterprise aircraft made a night strike on the Japanese Naval Air Station at Kanoye. Although damage was extensive, the Japanese took advantage of the close range of the U.S. carriers to launch a strike of their own.
Led by Lieutenant (j.g.) Shunsuke Tomiyasu, 26 Japanese A6M5 Zeke fighters, each armed with a bigger-than-usual 1,100-pound bomb (facilitated by the shorter range to the target) launched from Kanoye in two groups, the first 12 at 0525 and the rest at 0619. Radio intelligence and radar provided warning and U.S. combat air patrol was ready and waiting, picking off the Zekes one after another, shooting down 19 of them. Ships’ gunners accounted for six more of the Zekes.
Only one made it through the gauntlet, flown by Tomiyasu, who made effective use of cloud cover to mask his approach. Finally, with every gun in the task force that could bear shooting at him as he dove out of the clouds, and Enterprise hard over in an emergency turn, Tomiyasu executed a stunning acrobatic maneuver to finish in a high-speed, near-vertical dive into Enterprise’s flight deck a few feet aft of the forward elevator. The plane and bomb plunged right through the flight deck, creating a 12-by-20-foot hole, with the plane disintegrating in the hangar bay and the big bomb penetrating several more decks.
The force of the explosion separated the elevator structure from the decking and blew the decking 400 feet into the air. This explosion resulted in one of the more spectacular photos of the war, but did not blow the whole elevator as high as 400 feet, as most captions have it.
Captain Flatley was on the exposed bridge wing when he observed the kamikaze coming in on its terminal dive. He ducked into the flag plot and warned everyone there to hit the deck, which everyone did except Mitscher, who remained standing as the kamikaze hit his flagship for the second time in four days. As acrid smoked once again poured into the flag plot, Mitscher then had time to make a black-humor joke––that if the Japanese kept this up, it would re-grow the hair on his head––before he and the staff were forced to evacuate the flag plot.
A severe fire ignited among the aircraft in the foremost part of the hanger deck, but because Enterprise was the “night carrier,” all her aircraft had been defueled and de-armed, gasoline lines drained, and bomb magazine hatches secured. These precautions spared her from the catastrophe that overtook Bunker Hill. Enterprise’s damage control teams had the fires out in under 30 minutes. She suffered 14 dead and 68 wounded and was once again put out of action, this time for good. Enterprise would, however, gain the distinction of being the last U.S. carrier to be hit by a kamikaze.
The wounded were transferred to hospital ship Bountiful (AH-9), while Mitscher and his staff transferred to carrier Randolph (CV-15) to continue the fight. The Japanese pilot was given a burial at sea off the stern. Mitscher took time to laud the crew of Enterprise, stating, “The performance of duty of the officers and men on the Enterprise under fire and their effective damage control measures were outstanding . . . , of the highest order and the most effective that I have seen during one year’s service in TF 58. I was particularly impressed with the attitude of the ship’s company in combatting fires when under fire; your ship is indicative of the high order of efficiency that is rapidly winning the war.”
Thus ended the storied career of Enterprise, which earned a total of 20 battle stars (out of 22 that could be given, three more than any other ship and seven more than any Essex-class carrier). She suffered 13 hits or damaging near-misses on six separate occasions from Japanese bombs and kamikazes (plus two hits from “friendly fire” 5-inch rounds); luckily for her, she never took a hit from a Japanese torpedo. Her battles include the Doolittle Raid, Midway, Guadalcanal, Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa––every major carrier operation in the history of the U.S. Navy except for Coral Sea. She was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation and a Navy Unit Commendation. Her air group was credited with sinking 71 Japanese ships and vessels and damaging 192 more.
Enterprise was decommissioned in 1947. A plan to hand her over to the State of New York as a permanent memorial fell through. If any ship should have been saved, it was she, so several further attempts were made to preserve her as a memorial, including by school children who donated their pennies. In the end, the U.S. Navy decided that her scrap value was worth more than her historic significance. Her 16-foot stern nameplate survives, however, thanks to the supervisor of the commercial shipyard that scrapped her and to the Town of River Vale, New Jersey. Her bell is at the U.S. Naval Academy, rung for football victories over Army. Her commissioning plaque is in the National Museum of the United States Navy in Washington, DC, and her anchor is in Washington Navy Yard’s Luetze Park, just outside my office window.
The commanding officer of Enterprise during the last kamikaze hit, Captain Grover Budd Hartley Hall, was awarded a Navy Cross for actions that covered the 20 March hit by dive- bombers.
Navy Cross citation for Captain Hall:
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Captain Grover Budd Hartley Hall for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6) in action against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific War area on 20 March 1945. When his ship was struck and set on fire during a sustained attack by enemy dive bombers, Captain Hall skillfully directed his repair crews in carrying out prompt and effective damage control and, despite raging fires, exploding ammunition and dense smoke which surrounded the bridge structure, continued to deliver maximum effective firepower against the hostile planes. By his leadership and devotion to duty he served as an inspiration to his officers and men and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.
USS Enterprise (CV-6) burning after a kamikaze attack during the battle of Okinawa, 14 May 1945 (S-100-H.009).
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Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
Kamikaze Attacks on U.S. Flagships