Joining a Task Force
The past chapters dealing with navy life on board the Crouter dealt with incidentals and short stories, but this one will zero in on the Okinawa Campaign and aftermath of the war's activities.
Our last assignment, previously described, had been convoying in the Central Pacific. But in early March of 1945 our orders changed which seemed to offer more excitement, danger and gustosomething battle-tried vets were less anxious to experience. Oh, it wasn't that we hadn't taken part in anything dangerous or things that weren't essential to the war's conclusion, it was just that we wanted to get right into the midst of things. And that we did!
Our orders read to proceed to Leyte in the Philippines to join a task force unit of the Fifth Fleet under the command of Rear Admiral J.L. Hall. Included in that task force was Vice Admiral Turner, Commander of Amphibious Operations.
Before we reached the Philippines, a devastating typhoon to that area had sunk many ships of allied forces, causing extreme damage to facilities in and around the entire island group and great loss of life. We were most fortunately not one of those who had to face such testing.
A typhoon might be equated to a tornado, with the exception it occurs on waters, or a hurricane, with great loss of life and property to adjacent land areas as the waters are tossed over them.
It isn't clear in my mind if the episode I'm about to relate happened on our way to the Philippines or if it took place after we'd been there and formed the task force. But we were outside the China Sea when we spotted a large floating object, and GQ was called. I took my position on my 20MM cannon, which, I've explained before, gave me the chance to "see" visually what was going on rather than seeing a blip on a screen in the radar shack.
As we approached nearer to the object, it became obvious it was a large life raft. Soon it was also noted there were a number of human forms on the raft. As we approached near to it, soldiers with leggings strapped over their legs could be seen, apparently in full uniformed dress. One other thing was also discernible as we got right up to the raft, those soldiers' bodies were riddled with machine gun holes, as was the raft. Evidently while in the China Sea some allied craft had spotted the raft and "let 'em have it!" The victims were Japanese soldiers.
It could have been a troop carrier of some sort which had been sunk and these had been "survivors" of the sinking. And then along came the allied plane or planes and did their deadly task. Who knows for sure?
The Skipper ordered the raft to be brought alongside to see if anything of value could be found to report or to take aboard. As our ship bumped into the floating raft, the bodies of all aboard it suddenly fell apartvirtually disintegrating right in front of our eyes! But that wasn't the horrible part of the story.
The moment that happened, a stench of a magnitude almost indescribable filled the ship inside and out. Everything which had a surface of any kind, now took on part of that odor as though it'd been sprayed with it.
The saying "Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust" now took on more meaning (the saying taken from the Holy Bible) and was literally fulfilled in our presence. It was as though the soldiers were made from a sand sculptor's design, held together by the moisture of the seas surrounding them, and the bump by our ship had upset his whole creative work.
Exactly how long that stench held fast to surfaces in and over the ship I don't know, but I recall there were many meals right after that which were lightly attended. And those who were able to be there proved they had stomachs of iron!
The China Sea is known for its humidity and hot days, and the combination evidently was the cause for the rapid and utter decay of those bodies in such a short period of time. It is not an experience I will ever forget! being "Mr. Queasy Stomach" himself.
International Date Line
Before launching full speed ahead into the Okinawa story, I'd like to mention something about Greenwich time and the International Date Line, since we crossed it so many times and changed dates back and forth. It can be a confusing idea!
Greenwich is a borough of London, England. Another of the "imaginary lines" marking the spot on the earth's surface where each new calendar day begins is there at Greenwich, 0 degrees longitude, and it's called the "prime meridian."
For every 15 degrees to the east of the prime meridian the time is one hour later, or until reaching 180 degrees east, it'd be 12 hours later. Going west is just the opposite. For every 15 degrees in that direction, at the 180th west meridian, it'd be 12 hours behind Greenwich time.
Thus when meeting at the half way point (180th meridian) around the world from the prime meridian at Greenwich, the west side being 12 hours later, and the east 12 hours earlier, a 24 hour separation is reached.
The International Date Line at the 180th meridian does not go up and down from north to south in a straight line, but it curves at certain places where land bodies thus divided would have two different dates (the Aleutians Islands and Siberia are examples). This jogging takes place in the Fiji Islands as well to keep the same day on one side of the line.
So when all is said and done, the people of New Zealand, for example, celebrate the New Year 22 hours ahead of those in Hawaii (just 30 degrees or two hours earlier in distance away).
Now back to Okinawa and the Assault Team assigned to soften Okinawa before the invasion.
This screening was the same type duty we performed when leading a convoy at sea. We'd make patterns of sweeps in front of the larger naval vessels while constantly looking for subs in the area that might be looking to feast on the fatness of the number of ships jammed into a rather small area such as that. We'd try blasting them out of the water before they could inflict any damage.
I can still remember the approach to Okinawa as we anti-submarine vessels held our position in front of that huge task force, the heavy guns of cruisers, battlewagons and heavier destroyers blasting away right over the top of us while firing on the island to soften it up. I'd heard of the "remedies" to soften such sounds, like chewing, swallowing hard, holding hands over the ears, etc. Frankly, they did not work!
Whatever the decibel rating of those 16 inchers thundering overhead came to I don't know; but I do know it's the next thing to "deafening." It's no wonder stories existed about gunnery crews, where an accident took place on the 16 inchers, were found blown out of their shoes without the shoe laces being untied. That's real concussion!
Another not-so-funny thing took place when we were asked to put down a smoke screen at a certain timesince we were equipped to perform that duty. We'd not to my knowledge ever practiced laying one down before, so I didn't know what to expect.
As the smoke came pouring out (and it worked real well!), I soon found a bit of difficulty breathing. I was out in the open at my gun station, and I tried (as did the others) covering face and eyes with a wet handkerchief; but it didn't help very much. It got worse and worse. "Soon," I thought, "we'll have done ourselves in instead of hiding something from the enemy!" It seemed like hours, though it may have been for minutes, before one could see or breathe freely once again. I can now imagine what being in a tear gas raid might be like!
Since we'd arrived with the initial task force at Okinawa and were five or six days later asked to pick up a convoy at Saipan consisting of assault shipping, the short interlude before our soon return confused my writing somewhat as to trying to set straight in my mind which event took place first. So it's possible some I'll quote as the before or after may have been the opposite in time sequence.
Returning from the Saipan convoy assignment we were assigned a screening station off Ie Shima. The kamikazes (suicide planes of the Japanese) were in full bloom by now, ramming into ships all over the place. So effective were they in that area, I believe I'd heard one time that of seven of us in our group, the Crouter was the only one not even touched or damaged in any way, sustaining no loss of crew members whatsoever. We did see many DE's still afloat which had bows blown off, mattresses hanging from them as deadly reminders of what could happen. Others had other damaged areas, smoke still ascending to the skies from recent hits. God had been extremely protective of our ship!
On the return trip from Saipan back to Okinawa, a depth charge attack was made on a submarine. I don't think any official evaluation was given on that attack.
Recovered Downed Pilot
Also on that trip back we ([on April 16th] according to ship's records) picked up a downed pilot, Second Lieutenant R.L. Wickser from the Kadina Air Strip, Okinawa, who had crashed off our starboard bow.
That's not to say it was all roses, however. On April 21st a Jap plane attempted to torpedo our ship and was shot down (the word "probable" was used in the evaluation). That same night a Jap observation plane dropped a bomb off our fantail exploding near to the ship, raising the fantail well out of the water. That was one of the few Jap planes which carried any armament of an offensive natureoutside of the kamikazes which were weapons in themselves.
The torpedo was seen headed right at our starboard bow area, and the Skipper called for "hard right rudder at flank speed!" I remember watching the fast turn and the torpedo wake seemingly jockey for position. Thank God the Crouter's maneuver prevailed, and a near miss occurred as the wake went harmlessly by the ship. Here was another time many of us wondered which way would be the side to jump over in case of a direct hit (and having any life left with which to try it). This was the night of the 27th.
Right after the [April] 21st assignment off Ie Shima a group of civilians were observed on the island waving white flags in an attempt to surrender to our ship. This was reported to the Task Group Commander. That's how close we'd get to the land sometimes. Sometimes too close for comfort!
Shot At by Cannons
A shore battery fired upon our ship, one shell exploding close to the ship...so close that a deafening blast made some of us think, "Gee, a guy could be killed out here! We didn't really need that kind of action," though that's what we thought we'd wanted earlier. That blast I just spoke of reminds me of a story about one of our ship's cooks (maybe "the" cook).
He had claimed to be an affirmed atheist, you know, "There is no God" type of person. When that blast went off I observed him from my gunnery position down on his hands and knees in a prone position, pleading with God for His divine intervention on his behalf. He thought it was over for him and us.
Later I'm told (and others had seen him, too) he denied ever having taken such a position of prayerful humility to God. You see, "When the trouble's over, who needs God?" He was back to his old self-dependence. Another term for that action is called "foxhole salvation."
Attacked from Above
On a night when kamikaze action was very heavy, four Bettys (bomber type craft) launched a coordinated attack on four ships, of which we were one. The first crashed into the sea just missing our ship; but let me tell you more of this one.
We were at GQ just hanging around waiting for more action when this happened, so when that Betty came at us on our starboard side (seems they knew that was my gun position) I could see my tracers (and everyone else's) flowing right into the engine nacelles, cockpit and entire framework of the twin engine bomber. It was like a "sitting duck." Yet it kept flying as though trying to maneuver right into the side of the ship.
He passed over the starboard bow side and headed over, returning on the port side as he circled back. He crashed into the sea short of our ship. This was another time I and my gun crew turned our heads to see "which way to go if he makes it back."
Before that GQ was called, I had been on radar duty and at the scope. I called the bridge to report an attempted IFF signal which was not our own. The ship's record reads: "The suicide planes used running lights similar to ours in an attempt to confuse our radar operators, which was detected and reported by the U.S.S. Crouter to Vice Admiral Turner." Guess I wanted recognition for just doing my job, huh? Maybe it could have gotten me the second class rating I wanted but would never get. Ha!
Actually, there were two incidents so similar that I don't know which of the bomber's crashing near to our ship was the one I reported above.
Have you heard of Marines or Army guys complain about having to eat that "lousy canned Spam"? Well, as for me and my crew, we loved the stuff. It was the best tasting food we'd had in a long timethis only happened when at our GQ station for extended periods of time. Sometimes we'd hoped we'd never have to leave GQ with that great food. Of course, if we'd gone the whole route on rations, maybe we'd not have been so sweet on them.
Prior to returning from Saipan we'd had 50-caliber machine guns installed on our fantail (and maybe a couple on the second deck toward the rear of the ship). It was thought they might come in handy at Okinawa, I guess.
One night when everything was blacked out and we were all at our GQ stations, all gunners were advised to hold their fire until given the command to do so. In other words, "Don't expose our position and lead the whole pack down on us!"
But wouldn't you know that one of the guys who were given gunner's positions on the fifties saw the flames from enemy nacelles and opened fire? Naturally, he did just what we'd been told not to doled the gang right at us!
That 50-caliber gun going off sounded like a kid shooting a pea shooter at a kid across a classroom somewhere. Or a better example might be that it sounded like a woodpecker hard at work on a telephone pole. "Peck, peck, peck...!"
The first enemy plane I saw crashing into the sea near to our ship reminded me that in spite of the fact here was an enemy we were glad to see hitting the water, I still knew it was a human life on its way into eternity; and I cried out to the Lord to do what He could to save that wretched person from an eternity of damnation (based on what I knew of the Shinto religious system as opposed to Christianity). I wanted him out of the way to be able to do no more harm to our men or ships, but I still felt badly about his end.
On May 4th, a plane was spotted heading for our ship without any IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) signal and coming out of the sun it looked like a Jap plane too. So we all started shooting at it. And when it went down, I remember the joyous yells, "We got him! We got him!" But we weren't so happy about it when we learned it was one of our ownthough, happily, he was uninjured! After picking him out of the water, Lt. (j.g.) F.S. Siddall, USNR, told us he'd been flying a Corsair F4U from the USS Shangri-La and was attacked by Jap fighters who destroyed his IFF and also shot away part of his stabilizer and hydraulic gear. With oil on his windshield, he had been blinded to the fact he was making a run over a friendly ship.
This last incident took place while we were assigned screening stations off the southern tip of Okinawa between the first and sixth of May of 1945 and, specifically, while behind the Jap lines at the entrance to Chimmu Wan on the western side of Okinawa.
During this time Japan's fate was becoming evident to even the most hardened of the religious sect which controlled the military, and the population was being fired up to believe they should prefer death over capture or surrender. It began to seem apparent an invasion of the Japanese mainland would be required by the allied forces to finally end this thing.
1[Return to Text] This was undoubtedly the same typhoon we mentioned in Footnote 2 of Chapter 19, which was Typhoon Cobra in December, 1944, during which 3 destroyers of the Third Fleet capsized and sank, accounting for 775 of the 790 who lost their lives.
4[Return to Text] A portion of the Crouter's War Diary for its 16 APR 1945 entry states: "At 1105 picked up emergency IFF on air search radar on plane bearing 125°(T), range 17 miles. Sighted friendly Corsair over convoy in distress at 1130. All hands went to general quarters at 1132 and plane made crash landing 1200 yards on starboard bow. Position Lat. 24° - 07'N, Long. 130° - 41'E. At 1202 picked up pilot who was suffering from shock and exhaustion. Subject officer was Second Lieutenant R. L. WICKSER, 028008, VMF 332, attached to Kadina Air Strip, Okinawa."
5[Return to Text] Perhaps "foxhole prayer" is more apt, since few of these incidents result in the person actually becoming a Believer who loves God and therefore changes how they live (indicating that true salvation has occurred).
7[Return to Text] We have confirmed by reading the War Diaries of various ships involved, that this was the USS Ralph Talbot (DD-390), not the USS Talbot (APD-7; whose War Diary never mentions any enemy damage to their ship). A portion of the DD-390's War Diary for 27 APR 1945 states: "At 2201 one enemy suicide plane crashed the starboard side at frame 165, causing extensive under-water hull damage and personnel casualties." [Four crew members died.] "A second enemy suicide plane scored a near miss close aboard at 2204, causing no additional damage." The phrase "scored a near miss" means that at least part of the plane did hit the ship, but it did not cause any additional damage.