TASK FORCE 58
125 MILES NORTHWEST OF OKINAWA
APRIL 16, 1945
Intrepid’s guns were firing. By now, everyone knew the sequence. When you heard the rumbling blast of the 5-inchers, it meant that the kamikaze was still at long range. He hadn’t yet zeroed in on a target, and every ship in the task group was tracking him. Then came the stuttering pom-pom-pom of the shorter-range 40-millimeter Bofors guns. That was worrisome. The kamikaze was coming closer. He was headed for Intrepid.
When you heard the staccato rattle of the 20-millimeters, you stopped in your tracks and stared up at the gray steel overhead. The kamikaze was very close. “Close enough to hit with a beer can,” observed radarman Ray Stone, whose battle station was in the ship’s combat information center.
Stone was 19, a high school graduate who had gone directly from Navy boot camp to Fleet Radar School at Virginia Beach, Virginia. He had been aboard Intrepid since her commissioning in August 1943. Forever embedded in Stone’s memory was what had happened off the Philippines the previous November. Two kamikazes, six minutes apart, had crashed through the flight deck and exploded on the hangar deck below. Thirty-two men, mostly radarmen on standby duty, were killed instantly in Ready Room 4 on the gallery deck.
Stone was worried about a repeat performance. His duty station in CIC was on that same gallery deck. “If the flight deck had a target painted on it,” he recalled, “the meatball in the center would be right over CIC. The wooden flight deck and thin steel ceiling above us wouldn’t stop much. One day, I thought, one of these bastards is going to hit the bull’s eye and that will be it.”
On the flight deck, plane captain Felix Novelli was having the same morbid thoughts. He’d been aboard Intrepid since the carrier left Alameda in February. This morning Novelli had watched his assigned Corsair lumber off the deck on another mission. Now, as he always did, he was waiting for it to return.
Like everyone above deck, Novelli was wearing his steel gray battle helmet. The steady din of the antiaircraft guns was beating against his eardrums. Out there over the water, surrounded by the black antiaircraft bursts, he could see the ominous specks. Kamikazes. While Novelli watched, the specks came closer. They were threading their way through the web of gunfire.
The first was a pointy-nosed Ki-61 Tony fighter. The Tony was in a 20-degree glide directly toward Intrepid’s bow. The carrier’s forward 5-inch batteries were firing, having no apparent effect. At 3,000 yards range, the 40-millimeters opened up. Still nothing. Just in time, the 20-millimeters rattled, tracers closing around the kamikaze, splashing it close off Intrepid’s starboard bow.
Then came the second. This one was a round-nosed Zero fighter, also zooming in from dead ahead. The combined fire of all the ships in Intrepid’s task group took him apart, cartwheeling him into the sea off the carrier’s port quarter.
There was no break in the action. From astern came another Zero in a 40-degree dive through the maelstrom of fire. Still in his dive, the pilot switched targets, going for the battleship Missouri, which was steaming on a course parallel to Intrepid. The guns on both ships hammered away at the kamikaze. The Zero made it to within a thousand feet of Missouri before losing a wing and plunging into the ocean.
The attacks were unrelenting. Like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, the deep-throated thunder filled the air. The sky roiled with smoke. Explosions seemed to come from everywhere.
Eighteen-year-old Seaman 1st Class Ed Coyne was watching from his battle station. “How did they get this close?” he recalled wondering. “There were other ships out there. Why didn’t they get them?” To the young sailor, it didn’t seem possible that any airplane could get through so much gunfire.
But they did. Two more were sweeping in from astern. Ens. Fred Meyer of VF-10 had just returned from a CAP mission. He was standing in the catwalk watching the action. He saw the kamikaze erupt in flame a thousand feet from the Missouri before making a wingover into the ocean. Then he saw the next one, right behind. While the task group’s guns had been trained on the closest kamikaze, the second managed to slip through most of the air defense fire. By the time Meyer’s eyes fixed on the kamikaze, it was already in its dive. The Zero was hit but still flying. Trailing smoke and debris, it was aimed at Intrepid’s stern.
Meyer was getting a bad feeling. He whirled and headed for the nearest ladder to a lower deck.
Felix Novelli, watching from the flight deck, had the same feeling. He sprinted for the island—the carrier’s superstructure—where the plane captains normally stood watch. As he ducked into the compartment, he glanced up and caught an image that would stay fixed in his memory for another half century. “There was Old Glory, stiff as a board in the 30-knot wind, with tracers flying all around it. I couldn’t help thinking of ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ ”
For the gunners squinting through their sights at the smoking kamikaze, time slowed to a crawl. The dusky-colored shape swelled in size. The features of the Zero fighter became clearly visible—the round, blunt nose, greenhouse canopy over the cockpit, oblong-shaped bomb fixed to its belly. It felt like a replay of the nightmare they’d lived off the Philippines the previous November.
The Zero didn’t waver from its death dive. Like an unstoppable comet, it kept coming, shedding parts and trailing flame. The Zero plunged into Intrepid’s aft flight deck next to the number three elevator. It was almost the same spot where the kamikaze had struck five months before.
A geyser of flame and debris leaped from the deck. The heaviest components of the Zero—the engine, part of the fuselage, and its 250-kilogram bomb—punched straight through the flight deck and ricocheted off the armored hangar deck. The bomb exploded three feet above the deck, sending a cascade of fire and shrapnel the entire length of the hangar bay. Nearly every airplane stowed in the forward hangar bay instantly burst into flame.
The explosion punched a 5-by-5-foot hole in the thick armor plate of the hangar deck. Above the explosion, the flight deck was shoved upward a foot. The gallery deck, as in the previous kamikaze strikes, was engulfed in smoke and salt water from the extinguishing system. The number three elevator, which had been rebuilt during Intrepid’s last stay at the Hunters Point shipyard in San Francisco, was ruined again.
A 12-by-14-foot gash had been ripped in the flight deck. The imprint of the Zero’s wings was still embedded in the wood like a fossilized skeleton. The cockpit and upper fuselage had skidded all the way to the forward flight deck, where the remains of the Japanese pilot were found in the wreckage. After being searched for items of intelligence value, the body was unceremoniously heaved overboard.
Intrepid wasn’t out of danger. Radar screens showed the blips of more incoming bogeys. Like vultures drawn to wounded prey, the kamikazes were homing in on the plume of smoke cascading from Intrepid’s deck. Gunners fired at the attackers while firefighters battled the blazes in the hangar bay.
A pair of Zeroes came sweeping in low on the water. Neither, apparently, was a committed suicider. The first dropped his 550-pound bomb, missing Intrepid’s starboard quarter by 75 yards. As he pulled up to escape, a direct hit from a 40-millimeter gun blew him out of the sky. The second Zero’s bomb came closer, exploding near the carrier’s port bow. He too flew into the web of gunfire and tumbled flaming into the sea.
Through it all, Intrepid’s damage control crews kept working. The intensive training they’d received plus the newly installed fire extinguishing nozzles and foam generators were paying off. In fifty-one minutes, they had the raging fires in the hangar bay put out. Forty of Intrepid’s warplanes had been torched by the fires. After removing vital instruments, cameras, and hardware, deck crewmen shoved the charred hulks over the side.
The telltale beacon of black smoke had stopped, but Intrepid’s flight deck had a gaping cavity. A dozen planes were still airborne, returning from CAP duty and low on gas. They needed a deck to land on. Capt. Giles Short, Intrepid’s skipper, gave the order: Patch the deck—now!
And they did. With guns still firing over their heads, Intrepid’s carpenters and welders labored to install a massive steel plate over the hole in the landing deck. In a classic display of grace under pressure, they completed the task less than three hours after the kamikaze had crashed through the deck.
At 1615, Commander Geisser, Intrepid’s air boss, signaled the orbiting airplanes: Intrepid had a ready deck. One after the other, the exhausted pilots landed back aboard their ship.
Intrepid was operational but crippled. Her number three aircraft elevator was wrecked. Most of the compartments on the gallery deck were charred or damaged from smoke and salt water. The worst damage was in the hangar bay, where gasoline servicing outlets, water sprinkling systems, and most of the electrical controls for the elevators, lights, and some of the gun mounts were wiped out.
The flight deck was serviceable, but barely. The newly installed steel patch was not flush with the deck, and the explosion itself had raised the wooden planking as much as 12 inches in places. Several of the vital arresting cables were gone. Forty valuable warplanes now lay at the bottom of the Pacific.
The next day, April 17, Intrepid was detached and ordered to the fueling area, several miles east of the task group’s operating area, where her damage could be accurately assessed. A naval damage assessment group came aboard to inspect the ship. To no one’s surprise, they determined that Intrepid was too badly wounded to continue combat operations. In company with a pair of screening destroyers, she headed for the anchorage at Ulithi for repairs.
“USS Intrepid at Okinawa” by Richard C. Moore.
That afternoon, Intrepid’s crew assembled at elevator number 2, on the port side of the ship, for a now-familiar ritual. Eight flag-covered canvas bags lay in pairs at the deck edge. On either side of the body bags stood a row of the fallen sailors’ shipmates. At one edge of the elevator was the Marine honor guard, heads bowed, at parade rest. The adjoining hangar bay, still smelling of smoke and carnage from the previous day’s battle, was filled with the officers and men of Intrepid, assembled in formation to honor the dead.
Intrepid’s losses from the kamikaze attack—8 dead and 21 wounded—were light compared to the kamikaze strikes of the November before, when 69 were killed and 150 wounded. For many of those standing on the hangar deck, this was their first close-up look at the results of war. “Up until now,” recalled Eric Erickson, “my pilot friends who had perished in combat were just not there. There was no funeral, no eulogy, and no ceremony. It was just like they never existed.”
This was different. Each of the eight canvas bags contained the body of a shipmate. The chaplain recited the Twenty-third Psalm, then commended the souls of the fallen men to the Almighty. The bugler played taps. As each mournful note echoed through the steel bulkheads of the hangar bay, many men wept openly. Together they flinched at each volley fired by the Marine honor guard. As each name was read, a board was tilted and a canvas body bag, weighted by a 5-inch shell, slipped from beneath the Stars and Stripes and disappeared into the sea.
The ritual was complete. In silence the men left the hangar bay and went back to work. The next day, one of the wounded died from his injuries. The crew mustered on the lowered elevator and repeated the ceremony.
Not all Intrepid’s airplanes made it back to the carrier. A three-plane flight led by Lt. (jg) Wes Hays had launched shortly after noon on the day of the attack. Their mission was to fly cover for a PBM Dumbo seaplane while it rescued downed airmen from the Inland Sea in Japan. With Hays were his two wingmen, Ensigns Jim Hollister and Bill Ecker.
It was a long and tedious day. They encountered no Japanese fighters while the Dumbo rescued the crew. Then, for what seemed an eternity, the Corsairs escorted the lumbering PBM seaplane all the way back to Okinawa, throttled back and flying as slowly as they could. Darkness was falling by the time the Dumbo finally plopped into its sheltered seaway in the Kerama Retto near Okinawa. As they turned toward Intrepid, Hays received a terse order over the tactical frequency: “Red One, do not return to base.” No explanation was given, but Hays knew that something had happened to their ship.
With night coming and no other good options, he and his flight diverted to Yontan airfield on Okinawa. The runways on the newly captured airfield were cratered and crudely patched. The fatigued pilots were still climbing from their cockpits when Japanese warplanes roared in from the north, strafing and bombing the airfield. The pilots spent the night huddled in a bunker, sharing Spam and crackers with the Marines, while around them the guns boomed and bombs exploded.
A day passed, and then another. By now they knew that Intrepid had taken a kamikaze hit and had been detached from the task force. Hays finally managed to wheedle from the Marines three 55-gallon barrels of aviation gasoline, one for each Corsair. It was barely enough to get them to the closest carrier, but they didn’t care. Anyplace was better than Yontan. They’d had enough of tents, Spam, and grunt warfare.
Bumping and lurching on the same cratered runway on which they’d arrived, they roared back into the sky. They flew east until they found the USS Essex.
As Hays climbed out of his cockpit, he saw the deck crewmen on Essex rubbing their hands on the Corsair’s wing-fold mechanism. The fighter was still covered with dried mud from Yontan. To the sailors on Essex, who had been at sea for nearly two months, the dirt was almost sacred. It was the closest thing to real earth that they’d seen.
The task group commander aboard Essex, Rear Adm. Fred Sherman, gave them a choice: they could stay there and join the Essex air group, or they could make their way back to wherever they’d come from. In either case they were losing their airplanes. The Corsairs were staying right there on Essex, where they were needed.
The Intrepid pilots made an instant collective decision. To hell with joining somebody else’s air group. Wearing the same salt-stiffened clothes in which they’d begun their odyssey, they high-lined over to an oiler, then to a destroyer escort, then to an escort carrier, which eventually deposited them on Guam. There they threw themselves on the mercy of fellow aviators, who lent them clean khakis and enough cash to buy booze at the bar.
More days passed. Nearly two weeks after they’d launched from Intrepid on the Dumbo escort mission, they finally got a ride home. Wearing borrowed khakis and feeling like refugees, Hays, Hollister, and Ecker climbed onto a camouflage-painted Marine R5C Commando transport for the trip to Ulithi, where Intrepid was undergoing repairs.
As he was boarding the transport, Hays glanced into the cockpit. One of the pilots looked familiar. He had a flashy grin and movie-star good looks. Hays did a double take. Hell, the guy was a movie star. Their pilot was none other than Tyrone Power, now an aviator and first lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
Wes Hays had to shake his head. It was just another bizarre scene in what seemed like an endlessly weird movie. The folks back in Novice, Texas, weren’t going to believe this one.
Lt. Harold “Bitz” Bitzegaio limped into the Grim Reapers ready room, dreading the ceremony that awaited him. The squadron skipper, Wally Clarke, was going to pin a medal on him.
Bitzegaio was the only pilot injured in the kamikaze attack on Intrepid. He had been standing on the flight deck when the flaming Zero was diving on the ship. Seeing what was coming, he had already turned and was headed for cover, getting the hell out of the way, when he felt something tap him in the rear. It took several seconds before he realized that he’d been nailed with shrapnel.
Bitzegaio wasn’t badly wounded, but while he was walking down to sick bay under his own power, the sickening realization hit him: he was going to get a Purple Heart out of this. And he’d been around Navy squadrons long enough to know where they were going to pin it.
And they did. He didn’t mind so much getting the Purple Heart pinned to the seat of his pants by the skipper. The worst part for Bitzegaio was knowing that years from now, when they were all recounting their war exploits, he’d still be explaining how he got hit in the butt running from the enemy.