Two hours late, several pumps short
Could it be that we saved the Laffey?
By Daniel A. Kitchen, Lt., USNR Retired
In reconstructing my long-ago navy experiences, I’ve read a good deal of history. A story of true heroism and courage was the fight put up by the USS Laffey against overwhelming odds off the western coast of Okinawa on April 16, 1945. It’s in the history books. One of the best accounts starts on page 234 of “Victory in the Pacific,” Volume XIV of Morison’s “History of United States Naval Operations in WWII.” The description of the Laffey’s ordeal with the courage, discipline and tenacity of her sailors and officers will not be forgotten. We, LCT 746 and crew, played a minor but possibly critical role. We didn’t make or deserve mention in the history books.
I and others aboard LCT 746 felt more like spectators than participants in the battle for Okinawa. Our Landing Craft Tank, a 150-ton underpowered, flat-bottomed amphibious vessel, was specially fitted for salvage and harbor clearance tasks. We’d been at Kerama Retto for about two weeks starting March 24, then moved to an anchorage off Ie Shima to render whatever assistance we could during the conquest of that small island.
We’d seen countless Japanese aircraft, including kamikazes, assault our ships. We knew the devastating damage they wrought with successful attacks. But far more enemy aircraft splashed harmlessly than found targets. Up to now, we had contributed little to the invasion effort. And our ship was a small and uninviting target, hardly worth dying for, even by a desperate kamikaze.
Ours not to reason why
Ours but to do or die
On April 16, 1945 our role as spectators suddenly changed.
Early that morning the Japanese launched a major air attack, striking at ships on the “picket line,” It was a terrible and tragic day for the US Navy. Morison records that by nightfall we counted 215 dead, 388 injured, had a dozen ships put out of action and one destroyer sunk.
For the first time LCT 746 played an active, if inept, role. At about 0900 we received a radio command: “Take pumps out to the USS Laffey. She’s been hit, has lost power and is taking on water. She needs help, urgently.”
Ships on the picket line, maintaining visual and radar watch for incoming enemy aircraft, and providing early warning for the invasion fleet, suffered far more than their share of attacks and casualties. The Laffey was on post in the East China Sea, some 25 miles north of Ie that morning, when Japanese aircraft . . . kamikazes, bombers and torpedo planes swarmed.
Sending us was a serious error in judgment by the Fleet Salvage Group to which we were assigned. The Laffey needed help, fast. LCT 746, specially fitted for diving and salvage work, was slow. The sinking destroyer needed big pumps. All we had on board was one “handy billy,” a small gasoline powered portable pump. In defense of our command, it was a frantic hour. A half dozen ships were in trouble and at least one had been sunk. The salvage group’s resources were spread thin.
On LCT 746 we responded to the best of our ability, rounding up “handy billies,” from nearby ships. With four or five aboard, we plotted a course to the Laffey’s location, and headed out.
The next few hours were probably the most dangerous that LCT 746 would experience during the entire war. If spotted, we’d be a prime target for a kamikaze or strafing attack. We had two 20 mm and one 50 caliber machine guns, the latter a gun designed for aircraft use, a “moonlight requisition” by our gunners mate. No armor, except for half-inch armor plate surrounding our wheelhouse. One-on-one, we might shoot down an airplane before it reached us. Against two or more we’d stand little chance.
Pressed by urgent and frequently impolite radio messages from the stricken destroyer and our command and over the protests of our Motor Machinist Mate, we maintained flank speed . . . an unimpressive eight knots. Higher engine rpm for more speed was counterproductive. Cavitation (vapor bubbles around the propeller blades) would set in, actually reducing speed. At best it would be after noon before LCT 746 reached the Laffey. We felt very alone but were thankful for a clear sky, now empty of aircraft.
Nearly three hours passed before we sighted two ships on the horizon. As we drew close, we could see that one was a destroyer, very low in the water and with severe damage to her superstructure. The other was a smaller but well armed patrol craft. Sailors on the stricken ship took our lines as we came alongside. Our crew helped unload, position and start the gasoline powered pumps. Soon water was gushing over the side from a half-dozen discharge spouts. Whether the volume equaled the seawater leaking into the ship’s damaged hull was questionable. But we were doing all we could.
We soon found that fewer than 30 men remained aboard, out of a crew that had numbered more than 300. In the hours lapsing since the attack, other vessels had helped extinguish the fires that had raged on the Laffey and had taken the dead and injured aboard along with all unessential crew. The patrol craft (I believe it was LCS 51) was standing by to take the remaining crew aboard should the Laffey sink, an event that seemed likely. But after we arrived the smaller ship, nursing battle wounds of her own, got underway and quickly disappeared over the horizon. Again we were very alone . . . a LCT and a mortally injured destroyer with a skeleton crew.
A young officer wearing silver bars on his collar gave us a quick tour of the ship. We did not see Commander Becton, ship’s captain, who was in the communications center on the remains of the bridge, in radio contact with his command and the fleet tugs on their way to take his wrecked ship in tow. Not until I read Morison’s account did I know that thirty-one of his officers and men had perished in the attack and another 79 were injured. At least one kamikaze had made a direct hit in the bridge area, killing or wounding many officers. Only one gun turret was intact . . . but useless without power. Most of the gunners, said the young officer guiding us, were killed or injured. Amidships the deck gapped open and one could look down into the bowels of the ship . . . twisted metal, tangled machinery, blackened by fires that had raged.
If the officer escorting us was in shock, he did not let it show. He described the attack clearly and quietly. He said kamikazes . . . twenty or more of them . . .had swarmed over the ship. The destroyer’s gunners had shot down three or four enemy planes before one reached their decks. In the action that followed he thought two more had been hit and gone into the water . . . but he believed that eight had crashed into the ship. The captain had radioed for help and other ships on the picket line responded but came under attack themselves.
Most of the details I learned far later by reading Morison’s “Victory in the Pacific,” Volume XIV of his “History of United States Naval Operations in WWII.”
The air assault on the Laffey continued for 40 long minutes. The USS Pringle, a destroyer on her way to assist, was attacked, broke in half and sank a half-mile or so away with heavy loss of life. LCS 51 (Landing Craft Support) also attempting to help, was hit by a kamikaze and holed below the water line. When it ended the Laffey was steaming in a tight circle, a third of her crew dead or injured, fires raging, hold flooding and the rudder hopelessly jammed. With the ship still under power but with no rudder control, Cdr. Becton radioed for help. All the assisting ships could do was help fight the fires, provide first aid to the injured and transfer the critically injured to medical wards.
The captain, Commander Frederick J. Becton, later said of the attack and the wait for help that “it was the longest three hours ever experienced by all hands.” His skill in handling the ship plus the courage and determination of his crew made history that day and earned the praise of all. To my regret, I never met the captain. Justifiably angered by the time it took to get pumps to his ship, he and his executive officer asked not to be disturbed and remained in the communications center, talking to their command and planning steps to put the Laffey back into action.
We stayed with the stricken destroyer until early afternoon when a minesweeper, the DMS McComb arrived and took her in tow. We followed for a while but the tow proceeded at less than three knots, slow even for a LCT. When a fleet tug appeared to assist, we stepped up to our maximum sustained cruise speed and headed back to Ie Shima. Dusk was falling by the time we reached the fleet anchorage and safety provided by massed firepower.
We tied up alongside our sister ship, another LCT with divers and an A-frame over the bow ramp. To the best of my knowledge, these two were the only LCTs in the Pacific so manned and equipped. We dropped both bow and stern anchors, holding us firmly in the restless sea, about 100 yards from the beach.
Dawn revealed that the Laffey was also in the anchorage, lashed between two big fleet tugs. Her main deck was now awash and tension on the lines caused both tugs to list sharply towards the sinking ship in the middle. If you had told me then that the destroyer could return to service, I would have said “impossible.” But Cdr. Becton was determined and persuasive. The Laffey did live through it, although the war had ended before she was put back into service. With the help of the tugs, she was pumped dry and temporary repairs made. She then picked up the survivors of her scattered crew and steamed under her own power to Guam and dry-dock. There she was made seaworthy and battle- ready, completing a truly historic story of heroism and survival.
Small as our contribution was, those handy billies may have saved the Laffey. She was perilously close to sinking when we arrived. I’d like to think that the little we did made a difference. But we were not called again for this type of mission. It had taken three hours for us to reach the Laffey . . . far too long. I’m sure that the ears of the Salvage Group Command were blistered. From then on they used a faster craft, a PT boat I believe, to send help to ships in distress. There would be many more.
© 2000/03 LCT Flotillas of World War II ETO PTO