33. More Kamikazes at Ulithi

"…an examination of the wreckage… showed the pilot… [was] shankled to his cockpit."

The USS Essex headed for Ulithi Lagoon on March 2, 1945, with target practice en route. My pilot's log shows a 4.4-hour flight on March 4, 1945, as the last Pacific entry. This brought my total flight time to date at 1050.1 hours with 90 carrier landings.

The latest scuttlebutt that spread throughout the Essex was that Air Group Four would finally be sent back home. We could not believe this good news until orders were cut and placed in our hands. There was now jubilation to spare!

Air Group 83 was to take our place on the Essex. We did not have any opportunity to interact with the new pilots--to tell them what we had earned about minimizing losses to Japanese planes or how to avoid antiaircraft fire. However, Commander F. K. Upham, CAG-4, and Lt Col W. A. Millington, Skipper of the Marine squadrons, prepared summary reports for use by Air Group 83 or the higher levels of Command.

Cdr Upham submitted several recommendations on the makeup and organization of strike groups: (1)

"A fighter sweep followed by a large strike group is a most effective type of attack."
"A strike group composed of all VB and VT available in a Task Group with bomb-loaded VF escort can deliver an effective and destructive blow to any target…. The large number of planes not only adds to the protection against enemy aircraft but spreads antiaircraft fire over the larger group."

Upham added a comment about operational training between strikes; "It is believed that one day of Group Gropes is sufficient after leaving port for an operation." The term "Group Grope" was widely used for these practice coordinated attacks and the appropriate remark as we landed back aboard, frequently with lost or damaged planes--was "another SNAFU!"

The last several strikes certainly bore out Upham's next recommendation.

"The advisability of sending strikes against, or bombing airfields where no extensive facilities are located is questionable…. Results seldom seem to warrant the effort expended or the risks involved…. Pilot morale is greatly lowered by only a few losses in attacks against this type of target."

I remember vividly the disgust I felt on the Naha airfield run as Scott Vogt's plane exploded, and I looked down at the airfield to see only dummy or damaged aircraft to decoy us from spotting the nearby gun emplacements. This strike was far from a morale booster--it was a trap!

Both Upham and Millington (2) commented on engineering and mechanical failure--freeze-ups of machine guns at high altitudes; altimeter and air-speed indicator problems with freezing weather; bomb hangups; poorly mixed napalm; "window" damage to tail assemblies; and the need for better radar jamming devices. CAG-4 also stated that "Intelligence material available for Tokyo area was far superior in quality and quantity than that for Luzon-Formosa area."

I was surprised to learn that our Air Group Commander added a final comment about our trusty Avenger. He recommended that "The TBM-TBF be discarded when the SB2C with a similar bomb and torpedo capacity is available." This statement would shock most torpedo pilots as well as cause concern on the part of the VB-4 pilots who labeled the SB2C a "pilot killer." Granted, our TBMs were slow, but they were far more reliable than the SB2C.

At any rate, I was no longer concerned about these "important decisions" for the fleet. As "Material Officer" in Torpedo Four, my primary assignment as we prepared to transfer off the Essex was to try to account for the various items of squadron and Navy-issued personnel gear that should remain for the next VT squadron.

Fortunately, our regulations could be loosely interpreted during wartime. I signed for most new items coming to the Squadron without too much hassle. However, new aircraft required a theoretical transfer of funds. Each new plane had a unit price of $1.00. Each new engine also required the $1.00 unit cost. Items such as wrist-watches, pistols and flight gear, including the traditional aviators' silk scarf, could stay with the pilots and crew, with a notation in their flight log book. We did not know what to do with the various war souvenirs each person had accumulated. For example, I had traded a fifth of Schenleys whiskey to a Marine on Saipan for an M-1 carbine. We were told that these items would be confiscated when we reached the States, but inspections by that time were nonexistent.

Shortly after we had transferred all AG-4 personnel to the USS Long Island for the trip to Pearl Harbor, I recorded the following account of a kamikaze attack. The date shown in my journal was March 11, 1945. (3)

"Torpedo Four was finally headed for stateside--after three tours of duty; one in the Atlantic on the Ranger with the British Home Fleet; one on the Bunker Hill in the Pacific (starting with strikes on the Philippines); and a third on the Essex (ending with the invasion of Okinawa). Now we were in Ulithi Lagoon, transferred to the baby flat-top Long Island for the trip back home."
"It was after dark. 'Mak' Makibbin and I were up on the flight deck watching the crew load damaged planes for the trip back. The flight deck of the Long Island was lit up like a Christmas tree. As a matter of fact, most of the ships in Ulithi were well lighted. After all, the war was nearly over (perhaps), Ulithi was well secured and a long, long way from the Japs--except for Yap Island, which was still occupied but essentially neutralized by the 'practice' bombing every week by Marines and Navy planes."
"At any rate, 'Mak' and I were talking about the trip home when we heard planes overhead--two, at least. These planes sounded different from any we were used to hearing so we speculated out loud on the kind of plane making this new sound. Both of us finally decided the strange sound was probably the new Curtiss float plane--recently introduced for cruiser duty. Neither of us had heard this plane, but we had seen ID pictures in ward room training sessions. About the time we reached this conclusion, there was a huge explosion on the Randolph anchored next to us. Fire followed the explosion. 'Mak' and I immediately ran around the flight deck of the Long Island trying to kick out the lights--anything to prevent a further attack by what obviously was a kamikaze."

A few minutes after the first plane dived into the flight deck of the Randolph, a second plane flew into the ground on Mog Mog Island--probably mistaking the lights for an aircraft carrier. We learned later that the second plane didn't do much damage but did make a sizable hole in the ground.

The Randolph was burning, more explosions followed the hit, sirens started, and GQ sounded. Fortunately, most of the crew of the Randolph were up forward watching a movie on the hangar deck when the Kamikaze hit. Pawloski described the events this way. (4)

"Weary sailors were searching for good seats at the movie…. Suddenly, at 8:07, a Kamikaze took precedence over the entertainment by crashing into the starboard side of the ship, below the flight deck. The twin-engine Japanese bomber exploded, instantly erupting fires everywhere."
"Fire fighters leaped into action impulsively while damage control parties applied their valuable training. The flames were under control at midnight and completely extinguished by 6:00 A.M."
"Twenty-five men had been killed and 106 wounded from the Kamikaze visit. The sultry yet annoying voice of Tokyo Rose poured out loud and clear over the ship's radio. Japan's lady broadcaster announced that the prearranged attack had been planned for the USS Yorktown CV-10 and added: 'Think you're nice and safe at Ulithi don't you? Well, we're fixing a little surprise for Yorktown.'"

Navy records show that the USS Randolph was repaired and returned to duty in less than three weeks. Later research indicated that the kamikaze was a Japanese "Frances," a twin-engine bomber. W. E. Reynolds (5) reports that:

"…the Japs sent two dozen of these suiciders all the way from Minami Daito Shima, 800 miles to the north. Apparently, only two or three of their pilots had known how to navigate. And an examination of the wreckage of the one on the Randolph showed the pilot to have been shankled [sic] to his cockpit!"

(1) Upham, F. K. Action Reports CAG-4. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(2) Millington, W. A. Operations Report VMF 124 and 213. U.S. Navy Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
(3) Thomas, Gerald W., VT-4 Pilot. Personal Journal.
(4) Pawlowski, Gareth L. 1971. Flat Tops and Fledgings: A History of American Aircraft Carriers. Castle Books, New York.
(5) Reynolds, Clark G. 1976. The Fighting Lady: The New Yorktown in the Pacific War. Pictorial Histories Publishing Co., Missoula, Montana.

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