THE BATTLE OF OKINAWA
I doubt the need to remind you, today is April 7th, 19 hundred and 95. Again the earth is renewing itself. The sights, the sounds and the fragrances of Spring surround us. Aren't you glad to be alive.
Well, fifty years and seven days ago there also lived another 75,257 young American men in the prime of their lives. They were husbands. They were fathers. They were sons. They were brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins, grandsons, boy-friends and just boys next door. They too loved and were loved. Yet, 87 days later 20,195 of them were lifeless, 55,162 lay in hospitals dismembered, paralyzed, or otherwise ravished in body and soul. Except for better than average good fortune, I may have been among them. That is why I feel privileged this afternoon to share with Mrs. Shields an opportunity to pay them homage. (The numbers I have used are from the New York Times Atlas of World War II". Sunday's Enquirer set the death toll at 13,241.)
I would like to tell you about the Battle of Okinawa as I saw it. In perspective, the battle Mrs. Shields has told you about covered 400 square miles of land and 4,000 square miles of the East China Sea. It is a composite as seen by millions of eyes. The battle I will tell you about is one seen by a single pair of eyes confined to a 3 mile radius or about 28 square miles. I have written it as best I can recall. I hope you find it of interest. For those of you who like your stories to have happy endings, I assure you, now, my story has a very happy ending.
I had drawn a high draft number and it was not until 1944 that I received notice to report for induction. The company, by whom I was employed, applied for deferment but it was denied. My three brothers were already in the Navy and I rushed down to the Navy recruiting office and applied for an officer’s commission. On April 17, 1944, I was commissioned as a Lt. J.G. (Junior Grade). USNR.
I was sent to Indoctrination School in Hollywood, Florida, for 8 weeks and then received orders to the Amphibious Training Base at Coronado, California for 10 weeks of training. Obviously, neither the Marines nor the Army can drive an enemy from an island until someone puts them and their equipment ashore. That was the task of the Navy's Amphibious Fleet, of
which I was now a part. I'll need to tell you the basics of how it was done. The main components were two types of ships. The APA's and the AKA's. Those letters stood for "Auxiliary Personnel Attack" and "Auxiliary Cargo Attack", respectively. Many of you have read the book, seen the play or the movie titled "Mr. Roberts". It was the story of a Lieutenant aboard an AKA in the South Pacific.
An APA, of the type I was later assigned to, had a complement of 16 LCVP boats and 2 LCM' s. LCVP was short for "Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel", "LCM" for "Landing Craft Machines". The LCVP's were swung 8 on each side of the ship from 3 davits for putting them into the water. The LCM's were carried on the cover of the forward hold and were swung into the water by huge cranes. Each LCVP could carry more than 100 men and their equipment including a jeep or two. The LCM’s s could carry a couple of tanks and their crews. The LCVP's had 750 hP, the LCM's 1000 hp to push these clumsy boats at speeds of 10 knots.
After the boats were put in the water, they assembled off the stern of the Mother ship. Those on the starboard quarter circled clockwise, those on the port, counter clockwise. There were three loading stations on each side of the ship where huge nets were hung from the deck. On signal, the first three boats peeled out of the circle and took stations under the nets. The troops came down the nets into the boats. The loaded boats then returned to the circle, until all nine were loaded. At the appointed time and signal, the boats headed for shore forming a huge V about a half mile wide at its rear.
The boats hit the beach at full throttle driving themselves as high onto the sand as possible. The ramp, actually the entire front end of the boat, was dropped and the troops charged ashore. Once unloaded, the boat crew winched the ramp back into running position. The propeller remained in the water and, lightened of its load, could pull the boat back off the beach. Then came the tricky part, if there was surf, the boat had to back squarely into it, otherwise the surf would swing the boat sideways and roll it onto the beach. It could be retrieved only by one of the other boats, safely out to sea, shooting it a line and towing the swamped boat through the surf. That could be hazardous to your health if the beach was being defended.
The boats returned to the ship to take in other equipment and supplies, but not until it had been requested by an officer called the "Beach Master". If these materials were brought in willy-nilly, they would clog the beach and no one would know where anything was, and there was enough confusion at best.
Many APA’s, including ours, were also Auxiliary Hospital Ships. They had a complement of about a dozen doctors plus corpsmen. As soon as the troops were unloaded, the Medical Corp set up their operating tables and beds to care for the wounded. The LCVP boats evacuated the wounded and returned them to the ship for surgical and medical care.
Arriving at the Amphibious Training Base, we were formed into a "boat group" consisting of 125 seamen and three officers. Lt. Conover was in command, I was first assistant and my friend, Ed Damson, was second assistant. Lt. Conover remained aboard ship in an invasion. I had the 8 LCVP's and 1 LCM on the starboard side, Ed the boats on the port side.
After 10 weeks, our boat group received orders to report aboard APA 199, the USS Magoffin, at Astoria, Oregon. It got its strange name from Magoffin County, tucked away in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. There were 3 sizes of APA's. Ours was the medium size, but the newest and the fastest. It had an overall length of 455 feet and was 62 feet wide at the beam. That means that, if you started at the end of the West Corridor on the first floor, walked straight across the Atrium and down the east corridor to the next to last apartment, you would have walked the equivalent from its stern to bow. As you passed over the Atrium, the Atrium would be about 10 feet wider than the ship. The water-line was 26 feet below deck level. It was powered by two steam turbines, developing 8500 hp, geared to a single propeller shaft. It could reach a top speed of 17.7 knots, about 20 m.p.h., and cruise comfortably at 15 knots. It had a complement of 536 officers and men, including our boat group. It displaced 7970 tons of water when afloat. We could transport 2400 troops and feed all 2936 men aboard 3 square meals a day for 6 weeks or more. I'm sure no ship in the fleet fed better than -the Magoffin. Cabins were provided for all of the ship's officers, as well as for the troops' top officers. Conover, Ed and I shared a very comfortable cabin. We had a ship • s store where all could purchase, tax-free and at cost, cigarettes, candy bars, ice cream bars and sundry personal needs.
As I have indicated, our boat crew was incorporated into the ship's crew. Our men were assigned to the deck division, the kitchen, the laundry, the engine room, etc. Lt. Conover and Ed became officers of the deck and I became the Assistant Communication Officer under Lt. Brodeur. Our Communication Division was comprised of a Chief Radioman and about 20 Radio Operators, a Chief Signalman and about 10 Signalmen and Ensign Anderson, with 4 or 5 Technicians who kept the radios, the radar and sonar gear in repair. Radio communication was by Morse Code and telegraph key. Transmissions were encoded and in groups of 5 letters rather than words. It was Lt. Brodeur’s and my duty to decode this jumble of letters and deliver the messages. Ninety percent of messages were encoded by "ECM", i.e. "Electrical Coding Machine". It was a typewriter with 5 wheels above the keyboard each having 26 electrical contacts on their perimeters. Determining the order of placing the wheels into the machine on any given day, was the key to coding. We simply typed in the hodge podge of letters and magically they were transcribed into English. We encoded our messages in the same manner for transmission.
At midnight the Navy transmitted a half hour or so of news from Pearl Harbor. Depending on what time zone we were in, it usually reached us sometime before 6:00 a.m. It was not encoded but one of us had to assemble a news letter from it and make 550 copies.
Being a Communication Officer had one "perk" that I enjoyed very much. Only Captain Graybill, Lt. Brodeur or myself were authorized to pick up the ship's mail or any secret or top secret messages. Being mailboy was beneath the Captain's dignity, and Lt. Brodeur hated boats so the job almost always fell to me. My boat crew and I got to set foot and, do a bit of quick sight seeing, on many islands that the rest of the crew saw only from an anchorage a mile or so off shore. While we, other than the Captain and Navigator, generally didn't know where we were headed, the fleet Post Office knew and always directed our mail to the proper base. However, one time we were diverted enroute and missed our mail. At our next stop I got a letter from my wife mentioning that she had gone to the funeral. She didn’t say whose, since she had told me in the previous letter. It was over a month before the missing letter caught up with me and I learned who had died.
We were also assigned battle stations in case of attack. I was assigned as the ship's "R.O.", i.e. "Recognitior Officer". That entailed early recognition as to whether approaching aircraft or ships were friendly or enemy. My grades from Indoctrination School indicated I had achieved a better than average proficiency. As such I was stationed on the signalman’s platform two decks above the bridge. No one had a better view or a more precarious perch.
Boarding the Magoffin, the next two months were spent in so-called "shake-down". We went to Bremerton, Washington for a series of tests: to San Francisco to load our landing craft, Long Beach for other equipment, back to Coronado to practice landings with our own equipment and then to Pearl Harbor. It was said that we were to have formed up there for Iwo Jima but we had missed the dead-line and they had gone without us. We loaded miscellaneous supplies and sailed to Noumea, New Caledonia, off the east coast of Australia. From there to Guadalcanal. We arrived there to learn that our sister ship, AKA 199, had blown up the night before just after loading ammunition. There were only 6 survivors--a boat crew of 4, who were taking base personnel back to the island at the time, and two men who were in the forward peek tank which was blown clear and floated. They were still unconscious when we left a few days later.
For the next several weeks we ran a kind of inter island ferry through the Solomon Islands, the Admiralties, the Carolines and Marianas. These areas had now been secured and many bases were growing their own· vegetables. In February, we received orders to return to Pearl Harbor, arriving late in the month. Experts checked our guns, radios, radars, engines and other vital parts. They filled our fuel tanks and stuffed our food lockers to capacity. With everything reported "GO" we loaded 2400 Marines and sailed for Eniwetok. The Atoll was full to capacity with almost every type of ship except Battleships and Carriers.
We had not been at anchor long, when the bullhorn sounded, "Lt. Clemens, lay down to the port gangway". There was my brother, Melbert, a Chief Electrician in the Seabees. He was being transferred from the Island of Espiritu Santo to the Island of Yap to construct a new base and had seen the Magoffin come to anchor. In less than an hour one of the signalmen came to me with a message that I should send my brother back to his ship immediately as they were getting underway. Shortly thereafter, a convoy of about a dozen ships headed west. More ships arrived and a few days later we too headed west, a convoy of some two dozen APA’s & AKA’s following a cruiser and flanked by a dozen Destroyers or Destroyer Escorts. In 8 or 9 days we arrived at Ulithi Atoll, a coral reef enclosing a lagoon about 19 x 10 miles across and located ten degrees North of the Equator and 163 degrees East of Greenwich. It was so full of ships, we were assigned an anchorage just a mile or so inside the entrance. A short time later the Carrier, USS Franklin, limped in with its deck shattered by Kamikazes, and anchored next to us. Next day it headed back to Pearl Harbor.
About March 24th, the ships, including Battleships and Carriers, 1457 so I’m told, formed up in convoy and headed Northwest. The officers were each provided with an envelope of information. We were headed for Okinawa, Gunto, an island 65 miles from North to South and generally· 5 to 8 miles wide. It was located at 26 degrees N - 128 degrees E. We received information as to its topography, its climate, its flora and fauna, inhabitants, etc. About the 30th of March we received another packet with detailed information as to where the ship was to be stationed on the sector named "Brown Beach". We were to land our troops at 8:30 a.m., Sunday morning April 1st. Inland from our beach was the town of Sobi and just behind that was Yontan airport, expected to be vigorously defended. Landing on Brown Beach was critical because a coral reef extended out about a half mile and only at high tide would we be able to cross it to it's wide sandy beach. You should be able to find that on the map that Mrs. Shields has provided. If you care to refer to it, the top arrow, pointing to Yontan Airfield, is precisely the point assigned to APA 199. We reached our assigned position in the East China Sea some 8 miles off shore sometime after midnight and dropped anchor. With the dawn we began to make out the island. What a beautiful Easter Sunday. Could it be possible that we were going into battle on such a pretty day. I couldn't help wondering if the sunset would be as beautiful and if I'd still be alive to see it.
I went to the ward room for breakfast and took a seat beside a Marine Lieutenant, obviously a survivor of previous invasions. He sat staring at his untouched food. I didn’t intrude into his thoughts. Be sat another few minutes, pushed back his chair and said “It's no use, the butterflies in my stomach are just not hungry.” I ate every bit of my breakfast. I was pretty certain that for the rest of the day and, maybe for several more, I would be eating canned sea rations and they would be even less palatable to my butterflies.
Then the inevitable, the bullhorn blared, “Now hear this, boat crews man your boats” Soon all boats were in the water and doing their circles. Then my boat and 2 others were ordered along side to the loading stations. Soon all boats were loaded and had returned to the circle. “Boats Away” blared the bullhorn. I stood in the front of my boat and swung my arm shoreward. The Coxswain opened the throttle, the engine roared and the boat lurched forward--the die was cast. As we came abreast of the bow, there was Ed on my port quarter. As far as the eye could see there were other groups departing their Mother ships. Apparently, we had learned our lessons well--it looked just like the pictures and diagrams in the training manuals. Yet in the back of my mind I felt something was amiss. Then, it came to me:
The Battleships and Cruisers should be laying a barrage of 16”and 20" shells on the beach. They were not. I looked back. There was not a Battleship or Cruiser in sight. Someone had fouled up. Then, above the roar of the engine, came high pitched screams of high velocity shells passing overhead. Moments later they were exploding on the beach. The Battleships and Cruisers were so far at sea they were below the horizon. Yet their shells were striking the beach with pin point precision. Six miles to go, five miles, 4,3,2, we were coming near. One mile, the barrage ceased. My attention had been so consumed with the barrage that I had failed to notice--about a half mile ahead was a score of Rocket Boats, their decks covered with batteries of rocket launchers. They headed toward the beach firing their mortars. The beach took on the look of New Years in Chinatown. A quarter mile from the beach they stopped, we passed between them and minutes later, hit the beach with a thud, I shouted "drop the ramp". It dropped and the troops charged ashore, rifles and bayonets at the ready. Not a bullet was fired, not a jap was to be seen. I ordered the ramp raised, it came into position. "Back away". The Coxswain put the propeller in reverse and revved up the engine. Slowly it slid back out of the sand. There was no surf, we swung around and headed back to the ship. It had been a text book landing. At lunch time I was back in the ward room and was there for dinner as well.
The rest of the day, and the next 3 or 4 was spent in the slow process of taking in supplies. I no longer went with my boat and my Coxswain took over. We were going to general quarters several times a day as word would come to us that aircraft were in the area. However, none ever appeared in our sector and after 20 minutes to a half hour, the "all clear" would sound and we would secure from General Quarters.
We were at lunch on Thursday or Friday when we were again called to General Quarters. As I reached the signal platform, I saw three planes skimming the island and headed in our direction. I picked the phone off the bulkhead and, in as calm a voice as I could muster, said: "R.O. to Bridge: Enemy aircraft dead ahead. Elevation 200 Range 10,000." (Elevation was given in feet, range in yards) ••• Aircraft sighted," the captain responded and, with that, our 5 inch gun let out a "whooph", then another and another. Moments later white puffs from our exploding shells appeared near the planes. Immediately they zoomed to an elevation of 3500 feet and began shallow dives.
The center plane continued in our direction while the other two proceeded at angles to the right and left. The other ships also opened fire with their 5" guns and the sky around the planes was filled with white puffs like popping popcorn as the shells exploded. Now the plane was at 3000 feet, range of 8000. We had twelve 40mm guns and they now joined the fusillade. They fired a shell that exploded with black powder and now, for every puff of white powder, there were 50 to 75 puffs of black. This was multiplied many times over by shots from the other ships in our sector, yet the plane continued on course. There was now no doubt, the pilot of the center plane had picked his target and it was us.
Range 6000. Now, the 20mm guns joined in. We had a
dozen of those. They fired a bullet and were essentially oversized machine guns. To be effective it was necessary that their bullets actually hit the plane, rather than explode near it. So that the gunner knew where his bullets were going, every 5th bullet left a trail of red smoke called a "tracer". The tracer trails crisscrossed through the black and white puffs of smoke. We were assailed by ear-splitting noise, acrid, lung-searing, eye-tearing smoke. Noise and smoke! Truly, it was a scene to delight the Devil. The Kamikaze never wavered.
Range 4000 still it came. The Kamikaze had one advantage. The winds were now near gale force and the ship was rolling and pitching. The odds of a direct hit with a bullet were about the same as those of a cowboy being able to shoot a rattlesnake from his bucking horse.
Range 2000 still it came. Every man with a 50 caliber machine gun now joined in.
Range 1000. I told myself I now had ten seconds to live! I had never given that possibility any serious thought. The plane would impact the bridge just below me. There would be no more left of me than of the pilot. Any possible remains would be blown overboard. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind. I would be listed as "missing in action" rather than "killed in action". I would not be declared "dead" for seven years. My life insurance would not pay until then. Would the Navy continue to pay the family allotment until then? I hoped so. If so, maybe being listed as "missing" was a break for the family after all.
Then I noticed it. The plane was beginning to roll.
The wings normally pointing between nine o'clock and three, had reached ten and four. Slowly it became eleven and five. As it neared twelve and six it began to veer to its left. It continued the roll until it was again level but upside down. It was now almost to deck-level but far enough off course that it would miss the ship on it's right by about 50 feet. The wing obscured my view of the pilot as the plane roared past at full throttle and disappeared into the sea off our starboard quarter, about midway between our ship and the hospital ship, USS Hope, which was anchored astern of Us. Its bomb did not explode. I am assuming that a Jap Zero, at full throttle descending a ten degree glide path would travel 200 m.p.h. (that is probably a gross underestimate) and would have traversed those 10,000 yards (5.6 miles) in one minute forty seconds. That is a third of the time it has taken me to tell you about it.
The all clear sounded. With my body drained of it's adrenalin, my knees were barely able to support me as I climbed down to the bridge. No one knew what had become of the other two planes. They must have met a similar fate as no smoke was visible anywhere around us.
Discussing the miracle of our escape, we theorized that the pilot had been hit by a bullet from a 20mm or 50 caliber machine gun. Dead, or unconscious, he slumped to his left, pulling the jockey-stick with him. This raised the left aileron and correspondingly lowered the right to cause the roll and, at the same time, tilted the elevators on the tail to swerve the plane as it neared the twelve o'clock position. Once the plane was upside down, gravity straightened the pilot back in his seat and the plane resumed its original trajectory but, fortunately for us, on a different course.
As if that wasn't enough for one day, when I checked the watch-list, I found I had been assigned the midnight shift on the starboard Kamikaze boat-patrol. During the night, two LCVP boats were assigned to patrol, one on each side of the ship, to guard against possible attack from a Kamikaze boat. A Kamikaze boat was long and slender with a torpedo in it’s bow. It was powered by two 1939 Chevrolet engines rigged in tandem and could probably do 50 to 60 knots. The pilot would crash into a ship's hull at the water line. Several ships were sunk in this manner. On March 26 to 28 the Americans captured Kerama-retto, a small island about 20 miles west of Okinawa, and found a cache of over 350 such craft that were intended for us. If you are wondering how they happened to have Chevrolet engines, it was because Chevrolet had a plant there at the time the war started.
I reported to the davit about 11:45 p.m. Ensign Lyttel and his crew were already under the davit. However, the Officer of the Deck had decided the gale force winds made hoisting the boat to the deck impossible. As an alternative, a rope had been suspended from the davit into the boat, appropriately called a "monkey line". You will recall I told you that normally our ship had 26 ft. of freeboard. When the trough of a wave was next to the ship it was now 36 ft. or more. At the crest of the wave it was probably less than 10. When the boat caught the crest of a wave, one of Lyttel1s men grabbed the rope and climbed hand over hand to the deck. Then one of my men caught the line, swung overboard and waited for the crest of the next wave to bring the boat up so he could drop in. In 15 or 20 minutes the transfer was completed and we proceeded out to the patrol area. A short time later, the Coxswain stepped off of his platform and found himself in water up to his shoe tops. We checked for its source and could not find it. Water was coming in from some hole under the floor boards. It was impossible to remove the floor boards. Water was now high enough that it was above the floor boards in the front of the boat. We used our helmets to bail the water out but we may as well have been using thimbles. I ordered the Coxswain to put the boat under the ships davit. I shouted until I got the attention of the officer of the deck and asked him to hoist us aboard. He refused. Then I asked him to get the attention of the port boat and order them to our rescue. We headed for the bow of our ship but we didn't make it. The water was so high it practically covered the engine and it quit. Without power, the high front ramp acted like a sail. The wind caught it and the boat swung around front to stern in the twinkling of an eye. Now the waves broke over the low stern in barrels full. Fortunately, the other boat appeared around the ship's bow and drew alongside. We clambered aboard. In less than two minutes our boat let out a gurgle and disappeared.
No attempt was made to change the crew of the port boat at 4:00 a.m. My crew and I were soaking wet and cold because we were no longer in tropical waters. About 8:00 a.m., we were hoisted aboard. It had been a long, miserable eight hours, made tolerable by the thought that otherwise we would have spent the night bobbing in life jackets in the gale force waves, hoping we might be found when daylight came. After a hot shower and a good breakfast, I was feeling pretty good again. Then the bullhorn sounded: "Lt. Clemens, lay up to the Captain's Cabin"! As I entered he said, "I just want to tell you that I will probably be citing you for a General Court-Martial". I said, "Is that so Captain, what are the grounds"? "Failure to use due diligence to protect Navy property under your command", he replied. I said, II I think when you get the true facts, you'll Court-Martial the Officer of the Deck, not me". "Why would I do that", asked the Captain. I said, in my opinion, he should never have attempted to change crews at all under last nights conditions. However, since I was on the relieving crew, it ill-behooved me to object. Secondly, if he thought it necessary to change crews, he should have done it on the lee side of the ship, certainly not the windward. Thirdly, he should have rigged the ships fenders to cushion my boat when it was crashing against the ship. The small fenders on my boat were completely inadequate. We'll never know exactly how a hole got in the bottom of my boat Captain but, until there is a better theory, I think it was because the bottom of my boat was allowed to hit the top of a ship's scupper. (A scupper is 12 inches in diameter cut in half and welded to the side of the ship. Its top is about 8 or 10 feet below a steel pipe about the deck level and it carries the ships waste into the sea.) The Captain was somewhat non-plussed. The Officer of the Deck is proxy Captain and Court-Martialing him might become embarrassing to the Captain. He said nothing for quite some time and then said, "That still doesn't excuse you for failing to save your machine guns, binoculars, radio and other Navy equipment". "Well Captain consider that there was no way we could plug the leak, or keep abreast of the flow by bailing. Consider, that when I pulled alongside the ship and asked to be brought aboard, the Officer of the Deck refused to even try with no concern for what might happen to my boat or my crew. Consider that, by the time the port boat came to our rescue, our boat was dead in the water and so swamped that its gunnels were 6 feet below the gunnels of the rescue boat. Consider that the boats were not rising and falling in unison but rising and falling against each other. To climb from our boat into the other was extremely hazardous and time was short. The equipment was on the floor of the boat and already under 6 feet of water. I don't believe the Navy expected me to retrieve its equipment under those dire circumstances.
He thought a while longer and said ·Well you go back to your cabin and write a full report on the matter. When I have that, I'll decide what I'm going to do about it. I delivered the report. In a short while the Captain sent his messenger to call me. When I arrived, he handed my report back to me and said: “I can't accept this”. I said ·Why not, Captain"? He said "Your report states that your engine 'Konked out'. Engines don't 'Konk Out', they quit. There is no such word as 'Konk' in the dictionary". I rewrote the report and returned it. The matter was never mentioned again between us. When I got my hands on a dictionary, I found that engines do ·Conk Out· but Conk is spelled with a “C”, not a "K" as I had spelled it.
In a few days, we completed unloading and so notified Admiral Nimitz. There was no reason for us to remain in our sector. We expected to be ordered to move to a position farther south so we could evacuate casual ties but, to our surprise, a couple of days later we received orders to return to Pearl Harbor. As we proceeded, the Secret Communications we were receiving indicated that the land forces were stalled at the Machinato Line and casualties were becoming severe. We were concerned that we would be ordered back to evacuate casualties. The order never came. We reached Pearl Harbor safely. The Battle of Okinawa was over for APA 199. We had incurred no casualties.
So today, as grateful beneficiaries, let us say "Thanks" in our hearts, to those 75,257 fellow Americans who made an installment payment on the price of freedom for us at Okinawa Gunto, 50 long, long years ago. God Bless Them all!