Walking into Publix on Veterans Day, I ran into a thinish old gent coming out wearing a World War II Veteran baseball cap. He spotted my Tin Can Sailors cap and stopped me for a chat.
My new friend is 92 now. He was a first-class boatswain’s mate on a Fletcher Class destroyer off of Okinawa in ’45. He was just one of millions who answered the call when needed, did his duty, and then went back to civilian life when the shooting stopped. We swapped a few sea-stories. His were better, of course. He was delighted to run into someone who knew the difference between a Fletcher Class destroyer and Louise Fletcher. He doesn’t hear so well anymore. But he still has a bounce in his step. The eyes are lively and don’t seem to miss much. God bless him, and all the rest who served.
Destroyers and destroyermen off Okinawa had it tough. The landing and the campaign on the island had to be supported by a huge armada of ships. Not just the troop ships to land the Marines and soldiers, but also supply ships to keep these guys fed and supplied with ammunition, fuel, vehicles, and all the other stuff a large campaign requires. As guys were being killed and wounded on the island and on ships, floating morgues and hospital ships with operating theaters were needed. And of course there were aircraft carriers to supply planes for support of the troops on the ground and fighters to protect the assembled fleet.
Naval gunfire didn’t stop after the “softening up” that preceded the landings, but continued throughout the campaign. Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers kept banging away at Japanese positions. In fact, a significant percentage of Japanese fatalities, as in other island campaigns, came from naval gunfire.
The destroyers not used for fire support, most of these of the Fletcher class, were picketed in a line miles out from the remaining support fleet. They were there to extend the range of the carriers’ radars. This way the fleet would know when incoming Japanese planes or surface ships were still many miles out so they could scramble Hellcats, Corsairs, and/or Avengers to intercept them and to be ready to put up anti-aircraft fire. The destroyers also used their sonars to detect any Japanese submarines intent on crashing the party, and to go after the subs with their depth charges when they spotted them.
The Japanese, of course, knew what the destroyers were there for and went after them with their kamikazes. Huge flights of them. Most of the kamikazes were shot down, but a few reached their targets. A dozen destroyers were sunk with great loss of life. It was very lonely, very dangerous duty.
During the Okinawa campaign, at least 30 American warships of all types were sunk by Kamikazes, a much larger number were damaged, and 4,700 American sailors were killed (more than 7,600 soldiers and Marines were killed on the island). My new friend, a great American, was one of the lucky ones. I’m glad he made it back home to a long life. And I’m glad to have made his acquaintance.