The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland Tennessee (TN) and Bradley County Tennessee (Tn).

Of Bradley County Tn.


                            The People News, a free newspaper serving Cleveland and Bradley County Tn.






The "Tin Can" That Refused To Die

Bizarre, Fascinating, and Wacky World War I & ll Secrets.

by Cecil Owen

Down out of the sun, the dive-bomber raced towards our ship at almost 300 miles per hour. The engine was whining as it came closer. It was another Japanese Imperial Navy Aichi D3A type 99 carrier dive-bomber. (However, the U.S. Military gave English names to all Japanese planes, and so this one was called "Val". It was easily identified by fixed landing gear and wheel pants. this was the only Japanese airplane with wheels that would not retract. But this was a very special plane, all armament had been stripped off, including the machine guns. For this was a flying bomb, a Japanese "Kamikaze".

The pilot was wearing his funeral shrouds, as he had already attended his own funeral. Kamikaze means: divine wind, after a typhoon that destroyed a Mongol invasion fleet in the 13th Century. This pilot was a member of the Shimpu Tokubetsu Kogekitai: (divine wind special attack force.) Vice-Admiral Takijiro Onishi founded this task force, with several squadrons. They were all volunteers, and were trained to commit suicide for the glory of the Emperor and brainwashed into believing that when they died for the Emperor, they would live forever in complete peace and harmony. After all, he was divine, a God descended from great Japanese sun Goddess Amaterasu. Because of this, Japan was destined to rule the whole world, it was their divine duty. Emperor Hirohito even served in the Imperial Palace. The typical "last meal of the Kamikaze": rice, beans, fish, and sake (Japanese liquor).

On the starboard (right) side of our ship, near the stern (rear end), the Val shot toward us. It came in fast, flying just above the water. We did not have time to maneuver enough to avoid him. On the fantail, the 20MM anti-aircraft guns began firing. Tracer bullets tore off pieces of his airplane, but he kept on coming. Then suddenly, with a terrible, wrenching, grinding crash, the Val hit. It plowed through the group of 20MM guns, sending men and gun parts flying. The impact immediately killed six sailors in the gun crew.

Cecil Owen

Next it rammed into the starboard half of the twin 5 inch gun mount number 53. Then the plane's bomb exploded, and the plane disintegrated.

The blast ripped off part of the front and side of the gun turret and blew gaping holes in the main deck and started a gasoline fire on the fantail.

The time is 8:47am Monday, April 16, 1945, and the place is Radar Picket Station number one. It is 30 miles north of the north tip of Okinawa. the American warship involved is the USS Laffey destroyer 724.

A destroyer was affectionately called a "tin can," probably because it had no armor at all. A torpedo or bomb could rip it open, just like a tin can. Our favorite battleship was the Missouri BB63, for the Japanese would sign the articles of unconditional surrender onboard, in Tokyo Harbor. This battleship had 10,000 tons of armor on three decks. Most of this armor was 12 inches thick, while me was 18 inches. But the destroyer Laffey, when fully loaded weighed only 3,515 tons. She was 376 ft. long, and 41 ft. wide, with a speed of 30 knots (almost 34 miles per hour). Speed and maneuverability also caused them to be called "greyhounds of the sea". The Laffey was very heavily armed: six 5" guns, twelve 40MM anti-aircraft guns, eleven 20MM anti-aircraft guns, double racks and y-guns for depth charges, and ten torpedo tubes. This warship also had the latest in radar and high frequency radio direction finders. That is why she was radar picket station number one. Commander F. Julian Becton, from Hot Springs, Arkansas, is the skipper of the Laffey, and one of his officers is the movie star, Lieutenant Commander Robert Montgomery.

The destroyer Laffey DD 724 is the second ship by that name. The destroyer Laffey DD459 was sunk off Guadalcanal Island on November 13, 1942. They were both named after US Navy Seaman Bartlett Laffey, who enlisted on March 17, 1862. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his gallant and determined bravery.

This was part of "Operation Iceberg" - The invasion of Okinawa. Commander F. Julian Becton was proud to sail with one of the most massive naval bombardment units to back up a troop landing during World War Two. It consisted of the flagship USS Tenesse BB43, nine other battleships, seven heavy cruisers, nine light cruisers, ninety eight destroyers, and fifty two destroyer escorts. The gun power packed by our formation was truly awesome.

Okinawa is an island 60 miles long and 15 miles wide. It is only 340 miles from the major Japanese island of Kyushi. At 70 miles from the island coast, the first picket line was started. The USS Laffey had station number one in this line. At 40 miles from shore the second line was stationed. Then 20 miles out, the third line was set up. Their duty is to guard the vital sea lanes and keep them open and to flash warning of approaching enemy, and then stop them with a wall of anti-aircraft fire. We had 15 aircraft carriers, and England had 3 aircraft carriers at Okinawa. Planes were assigned to guard each picket ship in groups of 4 to 12. (To help protect them from the fanatical Kamikaze.) Besides the Kamikaze planes, they flew jet-propelled, flying 3000 lb. bomb rockets called okas, which meant cherry blossoms. We called them bakas (idiots). Then the Kamikaze and suicide speedboats called shinyos, also packed with explosives.

Also, midget submarines called kairyus, used as living torpedoes, piloted by one or two suiciders. It was amazing that we were fighting to live, while they were fighting to die. The Val was the second Kamikaze to crash into the Laffey. Just two minutes before, a "Judy" (Yokosuka D4Y dive bomber) crashed into the gun deck, knocking out two 20MM guns, and two 40MM guns. As the plane exploded, it blew gasoline everywhere. The whole deck was aflame amidships, causing another problem. The metal sides shielding the 40MM guns were still together. Along these sides were racks filled with spare four-shell clips of 40MM ammunition. Several sailors began throwing these clips overboard, so they would not explode. But the heat was so intense that they began to explode anyway. the explosions blew holes in the deck, and flaming gasoline began to drop down into an ammunition magazine room. Of course this had to be extinguished before the whole ship blew up.

At 8:49am, two more Val Kamikaze aimed at the Laffey and began their fast, screaming dive. The first one put his hands over his face, and crashed into the after (rear) deckhouse in a ball of fire. Seconds later, the other one followed him in and hit the ship in almost the same spot. Well, at this point in time, the USS Laffey DD724 was in very serious trouble. Her rudder was jammed at 26 degrees left, so we could only move in a circle. There was a plane's engine resting in the fantail 5 inch gun turret. Another one in the washroom in the deckhouse. Several of both the 20MM guns and 40MM guns were knocked out. There was a 12 inch incendiary shell in a urinal in a head (toilet). It's cover was peeled back like a banana, exposing the very flammable phosphorus element.

Nearly half of the ship was full of holes and on fire. There was also an unexploded bomb lodged near the rear 5 inch gun turret. But the skipper, Commander Becton refused to give up and order abandon ship. He shouted from the bridge, "There will be more of these hawks of hell coming. but they are not going to get my ship. We can still steam in a circle, and we can still shoot... and we are fighting mad."

The Laffey was attacked by twenty two Kamikaze planes in just eighty minutes. It was hit by five Kamikaze and four bombs. The other seventeen were all shot down. Now her ordeal is finally over, when twenty four Marine Corsairs and Navy Wildcat fighter planes clear the sky of the Kamikaze. A total of 1,465 Kamikaze were destroyed. We had 13 destroyers and 1 destroyer escort sunk, with 61 damaged. The USS Laffey suffered with 32 dead and 71 injured. She was towed out of the danger zone by two tugs, the Pakana ATF108 and the Tawakonia ATF114. Emergency repairs were made, and then she sailed for Saipan under her own power. From there on to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and finally Seattle, Washington on May 25, 1945. Sadly though, the skipper, Commander F. Julian Becton was relieved of his command in early July 1945. He was given a desk job in Washington D.C.. He became a rear admiral in 1959, and retired July 1, 1966. His last command was the fast battleship the USS Iowa BB61.

Extensive repairs were made on the destroyer USS Laffey, but she never saw action again during World War Two. Because the repairs were not completed until four days after Japan had officially surrendered. The ship was decommissioned on March 29, 1975, and removed from the navy's list. She made her last voyage in 1981, to Patriots Point, South Carolina to become a memorial in the Mt. Pleasant Naval and Maritime Museum. A very just and proud final resting place for the destroyer USS Laffey DD724, "the tin can that refused to die."

The Ship That Would Not Die by F. Julian Becton
Suicide Squads by Richard O'Neill
Illustrated World War Two Encyclopedia Vol. 18 by H.S. Stuttman Inc.
Reader's Digest Illustrated Story of World War Two by Reader's Digest Association Inc.