"The Ship That Would Not Die:" USS Laffey Survives Kamikaze Attacks Near Okinawa
USS Laffey (DD-724) during its Second World War service, c. 1944-45
Photographer unknown; image courtesy of http://www.navsource.org/archives/05/0572410.jpg
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: April 17, 1945
Today's stroll through history takes us to the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. As the war was coming to an end, the Imperial Japanese Navy was growing desperate. In the opening months of 1945, Japanese military aircraft were converted into flying bombs. Their targets were any Allied naval vessels that came into view. The USS Laffey was one of those targets…
The vessel was named for Seaman Bartlett Laffey, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for bravery during the War Between the States. In fact, this ship was the second destroyer to bear the Irish sailor's name. The first was the USS Laffey (DD-459) which was sunk during the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November, 1942.
A second destroyer bearing the same name was constructed, launched, and commissioned in February, 1944. The USS Laffey (DD-724) participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June of 1944. In August, the Laffey sailed for the Pacific Theatre of Operations. The destroyer was mainly used as a screen for the bigger ships of the 7th Fleet. It also provided shore bombardment on a number of amphibious operations.
"The Ship That Would Not Die"
On April 16, 1945, Laffey was assigned to radar picket station 1 about 30 miles north of Okinawa, and joined in repulsing an air attack which downed 13 enemy aircraft that day. The next day, the Japanese launched another air attack with some 50 planes.
At 8:30 a.m., an Aichi D3A "Val" dive bomber appeared near the Laffey for reconnaissance. When the Val was fired upon, it jettisoned its bomb and left. Soon after, four Vals broke formation and made a dive into Laffey. Two of the Vals were destroyed by 20 mm anti-aircraft guns and the other two low angle attacks crashed into the sea. Immediately afterward, one of Laffey's gunners destroyed a Yokosuka D4Y "Judy" dive bomber making a strafing approach on the port beam. Ten seconds later, Laffey's main gun battery hit a second Judy on a bombing approach from the starboard beam. The second Judy's bomb detonated in the water, wounding the starboard gunners with shrapnel. The flames were quickly extinguished by the damage control team.
Aichi D3A1 (Allied designation "Val") dive bomber
At 8:42 a.m., Laffey destroyed another Val approaching the port side. While the bomber didn't completely impact the ship, it made a glancing blow against the deck before crashing into the sea, also spewing some lethal aviation fuel from its damaged engine. Three minutes later, another Val approaching from port crashed into one of the 40 mm anti-aircraft mounts of the ship, killing three men, destroying several 20 mm guns and two 40 mm guns, and setting the magazine afire. Immediately afterward, another Val made a strafing approach from the stern, impacted the after 5"/38 caliber gun mount, and disintegrated as its bomb detonated the powder magazine, destroying the gun turret and causing a major fire. Another Val on making a similar approach from astern also impacted the burning gun mount after being set afire by Laffey's gunners. At about the same time, another Val on a bomb run approaching from astern dropped its bomb, jamming Laffey's rudder 26° to port and killing several men. Another Val and another Judy approached from port and hit Laffey.
USS Laffey under attack by Japanese kamikazes, April 17, 1945
Artist unknown, image courtesy of http://flattopshistorywarpolitics.yuku.com/
Meanwhile, four FM-2 Wildcats took off from the escort carrier USS Shamrock Bay, attempting to intercept kamikazes attacking Laffey. One of the Wildcat pilots, Carl Rieman, made a dive into the kamikaze formation and targeted a Val. His wingman took out that dive bomber while Rieman lined up behind another, opened fire, and destroyed the enemy aircraft. Ten seconds later, Rieman pursued a Nakajima B5N "Kate" torpedo plane, fired, and killed the Japanese pilot. Only five seconds later, Rieman lined up behind another Kate and expended the last of his ammunition. As Rieman returned to his carrier, he made diving passes at kamikazes, forcing some of them to break off their attacks. The other three Wildcats destroyed a few aircraft and then interfered with the enemy's attack runs after they exhausted their ammunition, forcing them to return to Shamrock Bay when their fuel ran too low to stay. The Wildcats were replaced by a group of 12 American Vought F4U Corsair fighters.
Another Val approached the disabled Laffey from port. A Corsair pursued the kamikaze and destroyed it after forcing it to overshoot the ship. The Corsair lined up behind a Nakajima Ki-43 "Oscar" making a strafing approach on Laffey from starboard. One of Laffey's gunners hit the Oscar, causing it to crash into the ship's mast and fall into the water. The pursuing Corsair also crashed into the ship's radar antenna and fell into the water, but the pilot was later rescued.
Another Val came from the stern and dropped a bomb which detonated off the port side. The Val was later destroyed by a Corsair. The Corsair quickly lined up behind another Val and fired; but the bomb from the second Val hit and destroyed one of Laffey's 40 mm gun mounts, killing all its gunners. The Corsair lined up behind two Oscars approaching from the bow, took out one, and was shot down by the other. The surviving Oscar was then shot down by Laffey's gunners. Laffey's main battery destroyed a Val approaching from starboard. The last attacker, a Judy, was shot down by a Corsair.
Laffey survived despite being badly damaged by four bombs, six kamikaze crashes, and strafing fire that killed 32 and wounded 71. Assistant communications officer Lt. Frank Manson asked Captain Becton if he thought they'd have to abandon ship, to which he snapped, "No! I'll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire." Becton did not hear a nearby lookout softly say, "And if I can find one man to fire it."
Footnote #1: Laffey spent the next two years receiving repairs and updated equipment it was decommission in 1947, but was re-commission in 1951 and saw service in the Korean War and the Cold War.
Footnote #2: Laffey was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986, at which time she was recognized as the only remaining US-owned Sumner-class destroyer, and for her spirited survival of the kamikaze attack
Footnote #3: Laffey is currently a museum ship at Patriots Point in Charleston, SC.
USS Laffey, berthed at Patriots Point, Charleston SC
In the background is USS Yorktown (CV-10)
Image courtesy of https://www.wunderground.com/wximage/SammyWoody/117