USS New Mexico Survives Kamikazes : 12 May 1945
As the ground campaign at Okinawa dragged on in a bloody slog against fierce Japanese resistance, Japanese kamikaze aircraft continued to hit U.S. ships around the island in a series of mass attacks of more than 100 aircraft, interspersed with smaller raids that could occur at any hour, creating immense strain on crews that had to react almost instantly to the threat.
The great majority of Japanese kamikazes were shot down by U.S. fighters and antiaircraft fire, but planes flown by pilots who intended to die proved very difficult to stop, and invariably some got through even the best defenses.
On 11 May, two kamikazes in quick succession hit the carrier Bunker Hill, Vice Admiral Mitscher’s Task Force 58 flagship, at a critical time, when the flight deck was packed with planes that were armed, fueled, manned, and about to launch.
The result was a conflagration of unspeakable horror as 396 Americans died or went missing in the flames and suffocating toxic smoke, the largest loss of life aboard a single ship due to a kamikaze attack. Even when it seemed all hope was lost, Bunker Hill’s gunners kept shooting, and her damage control teams never quit. They saved the ship, although she would never be operational as an aircraft carrier again. (Mitscher’s chief of staff, Commodore Arleigh A. Burke, was awarded a Silver Star for extricating men from a burning compartment.)
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.
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 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(below), 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. For more on Radioman Rougeux, see: Remembering RM1c Walter L. Rougeux KIA May 12, 1945 while serving onboard USS NEW MEXICO (BB 40)
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.
No sooner had Vice Admiral Mitscher transferred his TF 58 flag to Enterprise than she, too, fell victim to a kamikaze attack. On 14 May, 26 Japanese planes attacked. Only one made it through the gauntlet to put Enterprise and her 20 battle stars (the record) out of action for the rest of the war. As the “night carrier,” Enterprise had all planes de-armed and de-fueled, gasoline lines drained, and bomb magazines buttoned up, so her damage was far less severe than that of Bunker Hill. Enterprise would be the last carrier to be hit by a kamikaze.
Sadly, New Mexico 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.
Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox
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Battleships : World War 2
USS New Mexico Survives Kamikazes : 12 May 1945