|Kamikaze Attack; Okinawa, May 4, 1945
(Part 5 - A Narrative)
Text from "The Little Giants. U.S. Escort Carriers against Japan," pages 382-390
by William T. Y'Blood
© Naval Institute Press, 1987
U.S. Naval Institute
Reproduced with permission
Images from the Don Schroeder Collection
The following day [May 4, 1945] was even worse for the Americans. One of the unfortunate recipients of the kamikaze's attention was the Sangamon. The fourth was very cloudy, and the clouds provided excellent hiding spots for the kamikazes. Shortly before dawn the Sangamon and her two escorts slipped into the Kerama Retto to take on ammunition and supplies. During her stay there, general quarters was sounded three times, slowing the replenishment process. And had it not been for the late arrival of some aviation lubricating oil, she would have left the anchorage earlier. This delay may have turned a routine day into a disastrous day.
At 1830 the Sangamon finally got under way, heading south to rejoin TU 52.1.3. Low cumulus clouds hung heavily and wetly in the sky, particularly to the west, where a setting sun painted the clouds with brilliant splashes of reds, oranges, and pinks. The ocean, initially colored a beautiful clear blue, gradually turned to a slate gray as the sun went down. Most of the ammunition that had been taken on earlier had been struck below. Only some boxes containing 5-inch rocket bodies and a like number of rocket warheads were still stacked in the hangar when a large raid was reported closing from the southwest.
Marine Corsairs shot down four of the planes in this raid, but the remainder kept on. At 1902 a plane identified as a Tony was seen circling left very fast to a position off the Sangamon's port quarter. Watching the plane closely, Captain Malstrom ordered a hard left turn as well as ordering his gunners to open fire. Joining in were the flattop's escorts, the Dennis [DE-405] and Fullam [DD-474], as well as a passerby, the minesweeper Spear [AM-322].
The Tony made a wide arc, then barreled in from astern. Antiaircraft fire hit the kamikaze, but it wasn't stopping it. Suddenly smoke began to stream from the Tony and it rolled to the left. Only a few hundred yards from the Sangamon, the plane seemed to be upon the carrier in an instant. Luck was on the Sangamon's side. Apparently out of control, the Tony, wings in a vertical position, slashed into the water just twenty-five feet off the starboard quarter.
As a towering plume of water shot into the air, the carrier quivered all over. Luckily, considering the proximity of the explosion, only one antenna was sheared off. Three sailors, seeing the Tony seemingly about to land in their laps, dove overboard, but were soon picked up by the Spear.
Relative quiet reigned for the next half hour, enabling ordnancemen to finish sending the rockets stowed on the hangar deck down the recently installed bomb elevator to the magazines and closing its hatch. The sun set at 1903, and a few minutes later two night fighters were catapulted for night CAP. They were hardly airborne when they were vectored toward a bogey twelve miles away. Nothing was found, and the Hellcats returned to circle the ships.
At 1925 the Fullam reported another bogey, also twelve miles away. Vectored out again at 2,500 feet, the two night fighters just missed the enemy plane, which had apparently come in very low. As the suicider broke through some clouds three miles away, it was taken under fire. It ducked back into a heavy black cloud aft of the Sangamon, and all firing was checked. Moments later the plane, now identified as a twin-engined Nick, plunged out of the cloud heading right at the carrier. Intense flak that lit up the darkening sky ripped into the Nick but did not knock it off its fatal course. Roaring in from astern at over 350 knots, the Nick leveled off slightly for a moment, then nosed over again in a shallower dive. About 600 yards away, its left engine began to blaze. Yet on it came. Just before the Nick slammed into the carrier, it dropped a bomb that penetrated the flight deck to explode in the hangar. A fraction of a second later the kamikaze followed its bomb through the flight deck just a few yards farther on. Most of the plane, including its engines and heavily armored wing sections, wound up in the hangar.
A "tremendous, blinding, gaseous explosion" rocked the ship. Both of the Sangamon's elevators (each weighing twenty-six tons) were blown out of their wells. The after elevator was deposited, upside down, on the edge of its well, and the forward elevator was canted and thrown onto the flight deck. Between the elevators the flight deck itself was buckled upward, a hole twenty by ten feet in the center.
All over the carrier, men were knocked off their feet. Shrapnel sliced through thin steel and men with impartiality, cutting men down in the code room, the clipping rooms along both catwalks, and in the midships pump room. Luckily it was standard operating procedure on the Sangamon for personnel on the hangar deck to clear that area when the guns started firing, and no one was in the hangar when the Nick hit.
Orange tongues of flame licked at the bridge and black clouds of smoke swirled about it. Captain Malstrom ordered everyone off the bridge except for himself, his orderly, the navigator, and the helmsman. The flattop had been hit at 1933. Communications remained intact for a while, and Malstrom was able to order a turn out of the wind. By 1955, though, all communications from the bridge had been lost, and the Sangamon began an uncontrolled turn. Steering was finally assumed aft, steadying the ship on a southerly course. Because of the heat from the fire and the choking smoke, the bridge was abandoned at 2025, Malstrom establishing a command post at the forward end of the flight deck.
Below, in the hangar, an inferno was raging. Eleven planes were in the hangar. All had been degassed, but this didn't stop the fire from spreading wildly. Some men had already been blown off the ship, and the mounting flames forced more to leap for safety. The fire effectively split the ship into two sections, and it was fought from both ends with no coordination between the firefighting parties. A great impediment to the firefighters was the failure of the hangar deck water curtains and sprinkler system, caused by damaged risers and the isolation of water valves by the fire. After a lot of hard work by repair parties on the risers and by finally reaching some of the valves, most of the sprinkler system was activated.
As the men run hoses from each end of the hangar, another danger became evident. Though the planes had been degassed, they had not been dearmed. This ammunition, and that in the clipping rooms, began to go off. Fifty-caliber and 20-mm shells whizzed through the air and out the thin sides of the ship. Moving his hose forward to fight the blaze, AMM3c Ted Mann caught one of these wild shells in his helmet and was knocked cold. Waking up a few minutes later with a splitting headache, Mann continued to fight the fire.
Other individuals were fighting their own battles with the conflagration. As he inched forward against the blistering heat, one man said, "Hell, this is just like fire school only they didn't have all that damned .50-caliber and 20-mm ammunition exploding. Wonder if that damn stuff is dangerous."
Lieutenant John McDuell and another man teamed up to crawl onto the smoldering hangar deck using a foam nozzle to beat down the fire. Others soaked them constantly with a stream of water to keep them from being burned by the fiery debris from above. The use of foam and water did not always prove so compatible. When one group would get a burning plane liberally coated with foam, their handiwork would promptly be washed off by other following with a stream of water. At one point the firefighters were temporarily driven back by what was thought to be another bomb explosion but turned out to be a bursting arresting gear accumulator.
Not just on the hangar deck were the Sangamon's men fighting to save their ship. Crewmen on the flight deck were manhandling those planes yet unburned out of the way of a number of planes set afire. The only place to push the aircraft was over the side. A runner went forward to seek permission to jettison the unburned planes; by the time he was able to fight his way through the chaos amidships and return with the permission, the planes were already overboard.
Meanwhile, a number of vessels closed with the Sangamon (now dead in the water) to render assistance. The LCI-61 fought the hangar deck fire from the port side. While attempting to do the same, the LCI-13 had her superstructure damaged extensively when the carrier swung into her. On the starboard side the destroyer Hudson [DD-475] was supplying water through eight hoses, but like the LCI-13, she suffered heavy topside damage. She was lucky, too. While she was alongside the flattop, a burning plane fell from the flight deck onto her depth charges. Before these exploded, her crew pushed the burning remains of the plane overboard.
By 2130 it was possible to move back and forth along the flight deck. In another half hour all fires were reported under control. Malstrom later said, "Again it has been proved that firefighting school is worth all the man days it requires." The Sangamon was not a pretty sight. Her flight deck was broken and charred; heaps of ash and metal marked the remains of aircraft, of which only one was left undamaged; the island was scorched and unusable; the hangar was completely gutted, with roller curtains blown out and bulkheads bent outward; her steel sides were riddled and torn; seventeen men were dead or dying and many others wounded. But she was still afloat. That was amazing. No other escort carrier faced with a hangar fire of such magnitude had survived. And some fleet carriers, notably the Franklin [CV-13], had been hard pressed in their battles with such fires.
The Bureau of Ships noted several factors that led to the Sangamon's survival. Her planes had been degassed; all hangar personnel had cleared the hangar, reducing casualties there; and all hands had been thoroughly trained in firefighting techniques.
There were two other factors that gave the Sangamon-class ships an advantage over other carriers in overcoming a hangar fire. Loss of stability due to the large volumes of firefighting water sloshing about high in the ship, such as occurred on the Franklin and Gambier Bay [CVE-73], was eliminated by the open main deck under the hangar. Also, again in contrast to the Franklin and the Ommaney Bay [CVE-79], the Sangamon's machinery spaces were aft of the hangar and were able to function relatively normally throughout the fire. An amidships type of engineering plant would have had serious problems.
At 2320 the Sangamon was underway again. An Aldis lamp borrowed from the LCI-13 and a VHF radio from her sole remaining aircraft were her only means of communication with her two escorts. Shortly after dawn she rendezvoused with TU 52.1.3. In her battered state she made a great contrast to her sisters, the Suwannee [CVE-27], Santee [CVE-29], and Chenango [CVE-28]. And there was a newcomer also steaming gracefully with the other carriers the Block Island [CVE-106], one of the new Commencement Bay-class vessels that had been specifically designed as an escort carrier. Her design owed much to the Sangamon.
After cruising with TU 52.1.3 all day, the Sangamon departed on a long journey back to Norfolk. She had been in the war from North Africa to Okinawa, and she and her crew had fought well. Now she would fight no more.
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