Lessons from the Last War at Sea Pt 1
Often overshadowed by the ship against ship fights of the Pacific War is the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. Though there were some enemy ship sorties in the struggle over the last Japanese island fortress before the homeland, these were small compared to the sea fights at Coral Sea, Midway, or even Guadalcanal. The real contention was on the ground but also in the air between the suicidal pilots of the Kamikaze, the Divine Wind, and the fully expanded US Fleet, the latter possessed of seemingly limitless power but forced to fight the greatest struggle in her long history. In the book Shield of the Republic, Michael T. Isenberg describes for us the Kamikaze as the Emperor’s forlorn hope:
The damage they inflicted came close to canceling out the entire operation. The toll, in this crimson dawn of guided missile warfare, was bone-chilling. Off Okinawa, the kamikazes caused far more havoc than Pearl Harbor had. They damaged 368 ships and sank 36. The naval carnage included the deaths of 4907 officers and men, six hundred more lives lost than the Army total for the entire battle and two thousand more than the Marines.
By mentioning the “guided missile” the writer brings the carnage home to us today. In this new era of push button warfare, it is the guided missile which gives the admirals the most concern. Whether fired against naval aircraft, cruise missiles launched against ships, or even now the dreaded and apparently invincible anti-ship ballistic missile, there is even a greater risk for the surface Navy today. In Battles Lost and Won, Hanson W. Baldwin carries this comparison further:
The kamikaze attacks on the fleet off Okinawa could be described as the preface to the missile age. The kamikazes, and particularly the baka bomb, were in a sense guided missiles, with human guidance mechanisms. They clearly foreshadowed the new menace to the surface man-of-war which has now, two decades later, come to fruition with the development of the homing missile.
Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, was an 82 day battle lasting from March to June, 1945. It was the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific War, involving 40 aircraft carriers, 18 battleship, 32 cruisers, 200 destroyers, and 1400 aircraft. In support were troops transports, supply ships, mines ships, submarines, landing craft, ect. for a total of 1500 ships and 182,000 troops. Only 340 miles from Japan, it was considered a crucial stepping stone in any future invasion plans of the home islands.
After destroying 500 enemy planes on nearby Kyushu, the carriers were steaming for home on 19 March 1945 when they were found by a flight of Japanese bombers. The Enterprise, Wasp, Yorktown, and Franklin were all hit, but only the latter vessel grievously so. Two 500 pound bombs enveloped the flattop in flames, and though she was saved, it was at a cost of 1000 casualties including 724 dead. On the 11th, the carriers were again attacked, with Enterprise and Essex taking damage, plus many escort ships.
The Kamikazes began on March 31st, with the flagship Indianapolis struck. The first major attack and also the largest was a wave of 355 suicide planes that assaulted Task Force 58 on April 6,7. The destroyer radar pickets took the brunt of 182 planes. Fortunately this day the line held, but at the cost of 3 destroyers and over a dozen support ships sunk, plus many other damaged.
From March 23-April 27, the USN deployed up to 16 fast carriers, 18 escort carriers, and 4 armored carriers, the latter from the British Royal Navy’s Task Force 57
Besides the thousands of aircraft loaded on ships for defense, there were also thousands of anti-aircraft guns from light-weight 20 mm Oerlikons to the formidable Mark 12 5″/38 caliber gun. Still hundreds of suicide planes slipped through.
The small ships on the picket line took the brunt of the attacks. Most ominous was the baka bomb, a jet powered kamikaze able to fly at 500 knots with a horrendous 2645 warhead. An attack by this weapon on the destroyer Abele on the 12th caused the ship to disintegrate with 100 casualties.
Another “small boy” was more fortunate, at least in not sinking. On the 16th the destroyer Laffey contended with 22 attacks and was struck by 6 Kamikazes. Even so, the stubborn greyhound managed to shoot down 9 enemy planes and limped back to port with 31 dead and 72 wounded. Repaired, Laffey enjoyed many years of service and is still in existence today as a museum ship in Charleston Harbor!
Tomorrow-A battle for the future.