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Lessons from the Last War at Sea Pt 2

September 15, 2009
The USS Aaron Ward (DM 34) took on numerous Japanese warplanes off Okinawa and survived, though just barely.

The USS Aaron Ward (DM 34) took on numerous Japanese warplanes off Okinawa and survived, though just barely.

Yesterday, when we left this week’s study of the Battle of Okinawa and its lessons for today, the US Fleet, specifically Task Force 58 was undergoing its greatest trial by fire ever. In a desperate gamble to weaken Allied resolve and stave off defeat, the Japanese launched their last hope, the Kamikaze suicide planes against the invasion fleet off Okinawa. Though no major naval units were sunk, numerous vessels including several carriers were damaged or forced out of action.

Desperate measures were taken by the Fleet Admiral Raymond Spruance , including greatly reinforcing the Combat Air Patrol. Strikes were also made against enemy air bases on Kyushu and Formosa, to little avail. The Japanese on these islands dispersed and camouflaged their planes well to blunt the overwhelming American air superiority. With the attacks ongoing, soon “there is a trail of limping cripples all the way across the Pacific”. Fortunately for the battered forces off Okinawa, replacements were readily available. According to Hanson W. Baldwin in Battles Lost and Won:

But the traffic across the Pacific is two-way.The cripples steam home; replacements of flesh and steel move steadily westward; destroyer divisions from the Central Pacific, the North Pacific, the Atlantic are ordered to Okinawa to take up their stations in the battered picket line.

Still, by the end of April, 20 ships had been sunk from all causes and 104 of the casualties are from suicide planes.

On May 3, another of the “small boys” experienced a miracle. The light mine layer Aaron Ward was attacked by 25 enemy planes and survived, though just barely. By now the climax was reached with the attacks gradually receding. The war on land now took center stage. The USN lost 34 small ships with 300 damaged. Of these 26 were sunk and 164 damaged by kamikazes. Thanks to the tiny but essential picket ships, no US carriers, battleships, cruisers, or large troop transports were lost, though Enterprise, Franklin, and Maryland were out of the war.

USS Intrepid (CV-11) afire, after she was hit by a "Kamikaze" off Okinawa on 16 April 1945.

USS Intrepid (CV-11) afire, after she was hit by a "Kamikaze" off Okinawa on 16 April 1945.

The number of suicide planes totaled 1900 in 10 major attacks from the Japanese Army and Navy. The largest was the first, on April 6/7 with 355 aircraft attacking the US Fleet. The Kamikazes were well hid on their island bases among the civilian population to ensure survival, as mentioned above. Imagine a future foe armed with anti-ship missiles performing basically the same tactic to safeguard their own formidable weapons.

A post war study also revealed nearly one-third of all Kamikazes hit their target, despite the often rudimentary training of their pilots. The only limiting factor was the human one, with the operators often hitting the first target they saw as with the picket destroyers, instead of the larger, high-value ships. In a future missile war, where the pilot is a pre-programed computer brain, such limitations will be non-existent. Under the cold, relentless purpose of the machine there will be no such diversions.

The planned invasion of Japan would likely have seen an even more horrendous death toll of ships and men. It was later learned the Japanese had withheld 10,000 aircraft prepared for the American onslaught. Half of these were geared for the suicide role. It would be a mistake then to assume the Battle of Okinawa as the last battle of the Pacific War with Japan, but rather the first shot in the future missile war at sea, which the Navy has consistently planned for ever since.

Tomorrow-Lessons not learned.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 16, 2009 10:44 am

    Lee, sadly, you may be right. Just considering Operation desert Storm, which was mighty impressive. of course, the fleet was much bigger then too!

  2. leesea permalink
    September 16, 2009 2:36 am

    see also the LCS(L) stories in: “The Mighty Midgets at War” which said:
    “During their tour at Okinawa, the LCS(L)s had attacked the Japanese ashore, shot down numerous Japanese planes, rescued countless sailors and destroyed a large number of suicide boats”

    IMHO the USN today cannot mount another large logistics heavy operation such as Okinawa was. They just do not have enough afloat logistics assets. Seabasing is still a dream.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 15, 2009 7:02 pm

    Chuck Americans can do logistics, and it is the foundation of our military superiority. I think the USN is OK there but I worry about the USAF and their aging KC-135s, the aerial version of underway replenishment. The US Army is going to have to replace tens of thousands of trucks and Humvees in the coming years, whose axles must be worn through after a decade at war.

  4. Anonymous permalink
    September 15, 2009 5:44 pm

    ”Fleet that came to stay.”

    Heck yes!!!!!

  5. Chuck Hill permalink
    September 15, 2009 4:24 pm

    Reading the British report is a reminder of what a logistic achievement it was for the US Fleet to operate the way they did, up to 60 days without making port. It was definitely the”Fleet that came to stay.”

    In the case of the picket destroyers, its good to remember that they were not there to fight the kamakazis, they were there do what we use E-2s and AWACS for now, to extend radar coverage. After the war they built some subs with big air search radars in anticipation of providing extended radar coverage. I noticed that the Brits were using a cruiser and destroyer combination for their picket stations.

    The American used either two destroyers or a destroyer and some LCI/LCS/PGMs equipped with extra AA batteries that were grimly referred to as Pall Bearer. Ultimately got to three DDs and 4 LCS.

    Lots of uses found for the small stuff at Okinawa. Might make a good stand alone topic.

  6. Anonymous permalink
    September 15, 2009 4:19 pm

    I know what you are driving at with these articles. Just of the top of my head have you considered….

    1) The world war was in all out war. And nations were directing vast resources at the conflict. If you were to scale back that conflict to today’s forces sizes you wouldn’t have hundreds of ships and thousands of aircraft. It is to be doubted for example that Russia could launch whole regiments of bombers at US task groups (as would have occurred Cold War days.)

    2) By the time WW2 occurred aeroplanes were already difficult targets for manually laid guns. Perhaps this why so many Japanese suicide attacks were successful?

    3) Missiles against missile seem to even out. The first versions of Sea Wolf were able to knock a 4.5in shell out of the air. There may be 10,000s of ASM missiles out there but there are expensive assets who’s launch vehicle are just as liable to attack….

    4) Ships, even modern egg shells, can survive a missile strike. HMS Sheffield sank because of stability issues due to water. She didn’t blow up like some action shot in a low budget film. Larger ships would soak up this damage even better.

    Sorry for these muddled thoughts. I know you like me are just trying to make sense of fascinating subject.


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