12. Essex Takes a Kamikaze

"A suicide bomber flew thru heavy flak into the ship."

STRIKE ABLE had just returned to the USS Essex following a strike on Luzon when several Japanese planes began attacking the task force. A suicide bomber flew through heavy flak into the ship, hitting the forward part of the flight deck. A quote from my journal follows: (1)

"Afternoon, November 25, 1944. Aboard the USS Essex: Second attack group prepared to take off. Several Jap planes began attacking task force. Suicide bomber hit us on forward part of flight deck. Killed 14 men and injured many others. I was in wardroom and only got shook up. Fire put out and flight deck temporarily repaired. Second attack group took off. VT carried torpedoes (third division) and hit two ships off San Bernardino Point. Scored four torpedo hits out of nine. VB lost Lt (jg) Binder, another photo pilot, leaving six out of the nine of us that went to Harrisburg to photo school."

Three other aircraft carriers were hit by kamikazes on the same day--the USS Intrepid, Hancock, and Cabot. Some historians say that, if the Japanese had known the extent of damage to the American fleet by these suicide planes, they might have followed up with a different strategy during this critical period in the Pacific war. The Navy was so concerned about these attacks that they issued orders to all personnel returning to the States even as late as the summer of 1945 (when Torpedo Four was transferred stateside) to refrain from any mention of the word "kamikaze."

The origin of the word kamikaze goes back to 1570, when a Mongol Emperor, attempting to conquer Japan with a fleet of ships, was met with a typhoon which dispersed his invasion fleet. The Japanese were convinced that the typhoon had been called up by the gods, and they named it Kamikaze, or "Divine Wind." (2)

Periodic reports of Japanese "Devil Divers" or suicide planes, relentlessly flying through flak to reach their targets (with bombs attached) started showing up as early as September 1944. Historian John Toland, in his book, The Rising Sun, states: (2)

"But it was not until Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi arrived in Luzon--just before the American landing at Leyte--to take command of Fifth Base Air Force and learned he had fewer than a hundred operable planes that the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps was officially organized."
"'In my opinion,' he told his commanders, 'there is only one way of channeling our meager strength into maximum efficiency, and that is to organize suicide attack units composed of Zero fighters equipped with 250-kilogram bombs, with each plane to crash-dive into an enemy carrier.'"
"Onishi's proposal was explained to the pilots. 'Their eyes shone feverishly in the dimly lit room,' reported one commander named Tamai. 'Each must have been thinking of this as a chance to avenge comrades who had fallen recently in the fierce Marianas fighting, and at Palau and Yap. Theirs was an enthusiasm that flames naturally in the hearts of youthful men.'"
"Onishi's kamikaze group was created specifically to support Kurita's raid on Leyte Gulf, and the first attack had come earlier that morning. Six suicide planes and four escorts took off from Mindanao at 6:30 a.m. and went north. While Taffy 3 was fighting off Kurita, the Special Attack planes came upon Taffy 1. One Zero crashed into Santee and another into Suwanee, but both of these jeep carriers were soon back in action. Nevertheless, all those who had seen the Japanese boring in with such fatalism were still shaken by the experience. It was a preview of things to come."

The kamikaze hit the Essex after I returned from the first strike on Santa Cruz. I took off my flight gear in the Ready Room and went to the ship's wardroom with the other returning pilots for a late noon meal. I was eating my dessert and listening to the periodic antiaircraft fire laid on by our ship. It was easy to separate by sound the 5-inchers from the 40-mms and 20-mms. The firing intensified just before the high explosion as the Japanese Zero hit.

The impact of the kamikaze was so severe that I could see the paint bounce off the bulkheads in the wardroom before smoke filled the room. My immediate thought was, "We have been hit by a torpedo or a bomb!" I looked around the room and noticed that nearly everyone else had ducked under the wardroom tables. I thought, "That seems kind of silly since the explosion is over." Then I thought about delayed-action fuses. "They are expecting a second explosion!" So, I got under a table, too.

The ship's crew secured the hatches almost immediately after the kamikaze hit. Those of us in the wardroom were confined to the area until orders were given to open the hatches and to make the room available for emergency aid to the wounded.

There were varying reactions from the pilots and crews in the loaded planes on the flight deck as the suicide plane pressed home his dive toward the ship. Some of the turret gunners charged their guns and started firing, others were without power as the pilots switched off the engines and scrambled out of their planes.

"All I could think of as the Jap bore in was 'I'm sitting on top of this 2000-pound torpedo. Let's get the hell out of here!' So I cut the gun, climbed out of the cockpit, and ran forward on the flight deck. I slid under an F6F. When the smoke cleared, I raised my head and bumped against a 1000-pound bomb loaded on the Hellcat. If that bomb had shaken loose I would have been a goner--even if the bomb didn't explode." (3)

This comment from Souza reflected the excitement and confusion topside on the Essex.

Andy Marge was in the crew's Ready Room. "When that plane hit, a flash came into that Ready Room. I slammed that hatch and ran out the other way and hit the deck." (4)

Don Gress was standing on the catwalk. He stated: (5)

"I saw all the 20-mm and 40-mm guns shooting at it… it seemed like it was coming in very slow… It was smoking but no one could shoot it down. I jumped back into the Ready Room as it hit. After the explosion, I ventured back on the flight deck--and I wish I hadn't--all those people killed--most burned to death!"

Another crewman reported "I rushed over to help get a man out of a 20-mm gun mount. I tried to pull him out of the fire but part of his arm came off… I got sick." (6)

J. F. Ballard had a similar experience. "I ducked into the Ready Room, grabbed my survival kit, and ran onto the flight deck. I seen these fellers with short sleeves, the flesh hanging. I grabbed a big tube of Ungentine and tried to rub it on one guy's arms. The skin came off in my hands." (7)

My division leader, Page Stephens, had completed his meal and gone to his quarters. "I was getting ready to crawl into the sack where any up-and-coming naval aviator should be. I remember Trexler saying, 'Well, they can blow that thing (General Quarters) all afternoon, they're not going to get me out of here.' Then there was that terrific concussion because it hit not too far over our room so Trex said, 'I've just changed my mind!' We headed for the wardroom and everyone was under the tables." (8)

The official records of the Essex shows that 15 men were killed and 44 were wounded. "Skillful fire-fighting and superb damage control localized the damage." (9) The ship's log merely states:

"1256 - Essex hit on port edge of the flight deck at frames 69 - 70 by a Japanese suicide torpedo aircraft (Judy)."
"1326 - Flight operations were resumed."

Fear of those suicide attacks spread throughout the fleet. In fact, some of the ship's crew had become so nervous and trigger-happy that our pilots worried about being shot down by our own gunners as we approached the task force on our return from a mission.

On one occasion, after we were hit by the kamikaze, I saw some of our ship's gunners actually fire at late-returning planes. As a precaution against this, the admiral started deploying a destroyer about 50 miles from the task force, with the requirement that our planes returning from a strike made an identification circle around the deployed destroyer before approaching our own carriers. This change in flight policy was instituted as a result of the following confidential recommendation from Lt Col Millington after he took over as commander of Air Group Four: (10)

"As a result of friendly aircraft being fired on during the enemy airborne attack against the fleet on 21 January, this group feels the need of a general plan which could be effective for all returning strikes to follow when the fleet is under attack. As a suggestion, the following plan is submitted:"
"All returning sweep and strike leaders, on reporting their ETA and upon receiving word to stand clear of the disposition due to enemy attack, should take station with their flights at the nearest TOM CAT or PICKET, circling to the right and remaining below 2000 feet. The leaders should then report to that TOM CAT or PICKET the CAP calls of their flights and the state of their ammunition and fuel. Thus, the DD concerned becomes the controlling base for all flights stationed there and can advise the Force Fighter Director. All flights remain there until the all-clear signal, or in the event traffic becomes congested they can be vectored by the controlling DD and the fighters can be utilized as CAP if conditions so dictate. Such a general plan might relieve excess radio transmissions between all flights and their bases under such emergency, since they would stand by for orders from the DD, relayed from Force Fighter Director. Moreover, those planes particularly low on gas would be vectored by the DD direct to the carrier indicated by the Force Fighter Control as being available for emergency landings."

This new directive was fairly effective but it did not stop all of the problems with gunners who confused our own low-flying planes with potential kamikazes. The risk of improper identification continued as the kamikazes increased. By the end of the Pacific war records show that: (11)

Photo: Close-up of Kamikaze Attacking USS Essex.

Photo: Kamikaze Crashes on USS Essex.

(1) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(2) Toland, John. 1971. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. Bantam Books.
(3) Taped Interview with W. S. Souza, VT-4 Pilot.
(4) Taped Interview with Andy Marge, VT-4 Crewman.
(5) Taped Interview with Don Gress, VT-4 Crewman.
(6) Taped Interview with Tony Schiesz, VT-4 Crewman.
(7) Taped Interview with J. F. Ballard, VT-4 Crewman.
(8) Taped Interview with Page Stephens, VT-4 Pilot.
(9) The USS Essex: CV-9, U.S. Navy Publication.
(10) Combat Reports, AG-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(11) Goralski, Robert. 1981. World War II Almanac, 1931 - 1945. Perigee Books.

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Torpedo Squadron Four: A Cockpit View of World War II
Copyright © 1990-2000 by Gerald W. Thomas