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The Ship That Would Not Die
by F. Julian Becton with Joseph Morschauser III
Pictorial Histories Publishing, 1980, 295 pages

The destroyer Laffey (DD-724) fought for 80 minutes against 22 Japanese kamikaze planes and conventional bombers on April 16, 1945. Although the ship's gunners downed many incoming planes, seven suicide planes crashed into the ship, and two other planes dropped bombs that hit the ship. These attacks killed 32 and wounded 71, but Laffey survived despite fires, smashed and inoperable guns, and a jammed rudder. F. Julian Becton, Laffey's commander during World War II, wrote this thorough history of the ship's distinguished wartime service at Normandy, the Philippine Islands, and Okinawa. Joseph Morschauser III, a former writer for Look magazine, co-authored this book's 12 chapters that tell the story of the ship that was hit the most times by kamikazes in a single day.

Becton, while executive officer aboard the destroyer Aaron Ward, witnessed the sinking of the first destroyer named Laffey during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. He later became commander of the Aaron Ward in March 1943, but his command lasted only three weeks before being sunk after five Japanese planes hit or nearly missed his ship with bombs. The Navy then assigned him to command the newly-built destroyer Laffey, commissioned in February 1944. He continued as commander of the ship until July 1945, after the damaged ship returned to the mainland for repairs. Becton became famous for his reply to an officer asking him whether they would have to abandon Laffey after several kamikaze planes had hit her. "We still have guns that can shoot. I'll never abandon ship as long as a gun will fire!" He continued to serve in the Navy after World War II and reached the rank of Rear Admiral.

Chapters 1 and 2 describe the sinking of the original destroyer named Laffey and Becton's assignment as commander of the new Laffey. Chapter 3 gives a description of the new ship being built at Bath Iron Works in Maine, and the next chapter covers the ship's shakedown training in Bermuda. Chapters 5 and 6 tell about Laffey's first battle assignment to provide support for the Allied invasion of France in June 1944.

Chapters 7 to 10 cover Laffey's participation in many Pacific battles from her arrival at Ulithi in early November 1944 to the beginning days of the Battle of Okinawa in early April 1945. The destroyer had numerous experiences with kamikaze planes during this period. The crew witnessed suicide crashes into other ships, shot at incoming planes, and provided aid to other ships that had been hit.

Ship's battered after 5-inch
gun mount hit by
two bomb-laden kamikazes 

 

Although this book includes descriptions of many kamikaze attacks and resultant damage, the author does little more than speculate on sources of the attacks and motivations of the pilots. He does explain the typical view of kamikaze pilots held by Americans during the war. Americans could not understand how any sane person, no matter how patriotic, could commit preplanned self-murder by smashing into a ship with a plane (p. 159). The words Becton uses to describe kamikaze pilots illustrate his and his crew's attitude at the time: "crazy," "religious fanatics," "little devils," and "obsessed."

Chapters 11 and 12 include over 20 pages describing the attack by 22 Japanese planes on Laffey. On April 14, 1945, the ship had arrived at her radar picket station about 30 miles north of Okinawa, where the ship had the duty of early detection and warning of kamikaze planes headed toward the rest of the American fleet. Many kamikaze pilots decided to attack destroyers on the picket line rather than try to find a larger target such as a carrier or battleship about 50 miles behind the picket line. On April 16, 1945, Japanese planes attacked Laffey from all angles (see overhead diagram of attacking planes). Although the book has 16 pages of photos, no photo of these attacks exists since the two men on board who had a camera were among the 32 men killed.

The multiple plane attacks on Laffey provide a good example of the great difficulty in counting the exact number of suicide attacks on Allied ships during World War II. Both conventional bombers and suicide planes attacked the American fleet from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. on April 16, 1945. Vice Admiral Ugaki, commander of the Japanese strike, writes in his diary that the following planes attacked during this time: about 40 dive bombers and fighter bombers, 12 Ginga bombers, 6 ohka weapons (piloted glider bombs released from Betty bombers), 15 army fighters, and 50 special attack (suicide) planes (Ugaki 1991, 587-8). Laffey gunners shot down several planes clear of the ship, but it is difficult to determine with certainty whether these pilots intended to crash into the ship or just to drop a bomb. Even planes that hit the ship may have not originally intended to commit a suicide attack but may have decided to crash into the ship after their planes had been hit and damaged. The Japanese Navy and Army counted pilot and crew deaths by special attack only if a plane had been designated for special attack prior to sortie and did not return. In contrast, the American Navy counted kamikaze attacks based on the perceived intention of the attacking plane.

F. Julian Becton

 

The author focuses on Laffey's history, but he also shares some personal stories. However, his comments seem somewhat guarded and almost all positive, probably due to his high rank. Throughout the war he mentions his relationship with Imogene Carpenter, a popular singer and Broadway star who he had grown up with in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They exchanged letters and met together a few times during the war, but they decided to go their separate ways soon after the Laffey returned to the States for repair. Becton provides only a few personal details about his men, and most of these sound like a commander praising his crew. One heartwarming incident concerns an unnamed problem crewman who pled guilty to charges of disrespect toward a superior and disobedience of orders. He was to be fined and given a bad-conduct discharge from the Navy. Becton realized that a bad-conduct discharge would be a lifetime problem for the crewman, so the commander decided to remit the bad-conduct discharge pending one year of good behavior. He ended up being one of the most dependable crewmen.

The Epilogue briefly summarizes Laffey's postwar service after completion of her repairs and Becton's postwar career until his retirement in 1966. The Navy decommissioned Laffey in 1975, but she has been on display since 1981 as a museum ship at Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina.

Laffey received a Presidential Unit Citation for "courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men" as she fought to "defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds." The Ship That Would Not Die gives the remarkable story of why the American public considered this WWII destroyer as a hero ship.

Source Cited

Ugaki, Matome. 1991. Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome Ugaki, 1941-1945. Translated by Masataka Chihaya. Edited by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.