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The Last Destroyer: The Story of the USS Callaghan
by Barry J. Foster
Infinity Publishing, 2002, 316 pages

USS Callaghan (DD-792) became the last destroyer sunk in WWII when hit by a kamikaze plane carrying a bomb just after 12:30 a.m. on July 29, 1945. The attack, which killed 47 crewmen, took place less than two hours before the destroyer was to be relieved by another ship in order to return to the States for an overhaul. This book chronicles the entire battle history of Callaghan and provides accounts, mostly based on official sources, of many Japanese kamikaze attacks. 

Barry Foster, whose father served aboard Callaghan, includes a few personal stories, but the book focuses on the ship rather than crewmembers. The ship's two captains receive the most attention, with the severity and obsession of the first captain, Francis Johnson, contrasted with the leniency and concern of the second captain, C.M. Bertholf, who took over command at the end of October 1944. The personal diary of one of Callaghan's Electrician's Mates, who transferred off the ship in early March 1945, provides a valuable source for this history. The author skillfully inserts technical background about the destroyer's operations when introducing various events and officers.

This even-paced history thoroughly covers all periods of Callaghan's history from the commissioning in November 1943 to the sinking in July 1945. The book does not provide sources or contain a bibliography, but Foster clearly made extensive use of official ship logs and action reports to write this detailed history. Much of the narrative describes typical activities such as gunnery practice, mail delivery, refueling, personnel transfers between ships, and flight operations support in which the destroyer was ready to pick up pilots from aircraft carriers who went into the water. Although these usual tasks include very few firsthand accounts, the author successfully converts the dry language of official Navy records into a more readable chronicle. The Last Destroyer includes four pages of crew photos and three pages of ship photos, but the book lacks maps and an index.

The first four months of Callaghan's service in the Pacific War turned out to be routine with no battle action, as described in Chapter 3, "Much Ado About Nothing." On June 17, 1944, to the east of Saipan, Callaghan gunners shot down the first three planes of a total of 12 aircraft they would shoot down during the war. Two more Japanese planes were destroyed by Callaghan guns on October 14 as Task Force 38 ships fought enemy aircraft off Formosa. From October 1944 to March 1945, Callaghan participated in battles and other operations in support of air strikes on the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Indochina, and Formosa.

USS Callaghan overtakes
aircraft carrier USS Wasp 

 

The crewmen of Callaghan witnessed several successful kamikaze attacks and shot down or hit several kamikaze planes. On January 21, 1945, they witnessed two kamikaze planes dive into the aircraft carrier Ticonderoga (CV-14) off the coast of Formosa. On April 6, they saw another successful kamikaze attack when a plane hit the destroyer escort Witter (DE-636), which damaged her so extensively that she was later scrapped. The next day another kamikaze plane hit the battleship Maryland (BB-46) near Callaghan. During May 1945, the destroyer's crew viewed three more kamikaze hits on close-by warships.

Callaghan had several close calls while off Okinawa. In the early morning of March 27, 1945, three Val dive-bombers attacked Callaghan, but gunners shot down all of them. The second plane splashed just 100 yards off the port side, and the last plane snapped the main wire antenna as it went over the ship and hit the water just next to the ship. Later that morning a crewman spotted the periscope of a midget submarine. Captain Bertholf ordered depth charges dropped to destroy the submarine, and the subsequent oil slick and debris from the submarine provided proof of the sinking. On March 31, a Judy dive-bomber headed toward Callaghan, but the ship's anti-aircraft fire persuaded the plane to withdraw. On the next day, Callaghan gunners helped shoot down two more attacking planes.

On May 25, 1945, two twin-engined planes suddenly appeared out of the clouds and headed toward Callaghan. The gunners hit the lead plane, which crashed into the sea after passing less than 100 feet over the ship, but the smoking second plane flew away. Two men climbed out of the crashed plane, and a rescue party from Callaghan picked them up. The pilot died aboard the destroyer, but the plane's navigator regained consciousness and was transferred to the battleship New Mexico (BB-40). The navigator, Kaoru Hasegawa, contacted Callaghan survivors and met with them at the ship's 1995 and 1999 reunions in order to express his gratitude to the ship's crew for saving his life.

The Callaghan crew rejoiced when they found out on the morning of July 28, 1945, that they would return to the U.S. after one final night of radar picket duty. However, according to the book, a "biplane with floats" [1] hit the destroyer on the starboard side of the superstructure after 12:30 a.m. on July 29. The ship sunk two hours later. Other destroyers and small LCS (Landing Craft Support) ships at the same picket station picked up survivors from the sinking destroyer and from the water covered with fuel oil. Callaghan lost 47 men in the attack and became the last ship and the 14th destroyer sunk by kamikaze planes during WWII. In contrast to most other histories about ships sunk or seriously damaged by kamikaze aircraft, this book lacks detailed stories told by the crew about the attack, its aftermath, and the time in the water prior to rescue.

Even though The Last Destroyer contains few eyewitness accounts and personal stories, the author effectively uses official Navy records to tell Callaghan's remarkable history.

Note

1. It is very doubtful that Callaghan was hit by a floatplane. The Japanese Navy used many floatplanes in special (suicide) attacks starting in late April 1945, but the last recorded special attack by a floatplane took place on July 3, 1945 (Osuo 2005, 237-40). The plane that crashed into Callaghan was most likely a Type 93 Advanced Trainer nicknamed Akatonbo (Red Dragonfly) that took off from Miyakojima, a small island about halfway between Taiwan and the main island of Okinawa. The inscription on the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps 3rd Ryuko Squadron Monument on Miyakojima indicates that seven Type 93 Advanced Trainers took off and did not return in the middle of the night of July 29, 1945, which would be consistent with the timing of when Callaghan was hit. Two Japanese reference sources (Hara 2004, 240; Tokkotai Senbotsusha 1990, 216) indicate that five men in Type 93 Advanced Trainers took off from Miyakojima toward around Okinawa on July 29, 1945, and two others did the same on July 30, 1945.

Sources Cited

Hara, Katsuhiro. 2004. Shinsou kamikaze tokkou: Hisshi hitchuu no 300 nichi (Kamikaze special attack facts: 300 days of certain-death, sure-hit attacks). Tokyo: KK Bestsellers.

Osuo, Kazuhiko. 2005. Tokubetsu kougekitai no kiroku (kaigun hen) (Record of special attack corps (Navy)). Tokyo: Kojinsha.

Tokkotai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyoukai (Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association). 1990. Tokubetsu Kougekitai (Special Attack Corps). Tokyo: Tokkotai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyoukai.