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The Final Stepping Stones

The Pacific Naval air battles of late 1944 and early 1945

by Randy Wilson

Copyright 1995 by the Confederate Air Force and Randy Wilson. All rights reserved.

Originally published in The Dispatch magazine, Volume 20, Number 1, Spring, 1995 edition. If you are interested in subscribing to The Dispatch please write to The Commemorative Air Force, ATTN: Dispatch Editor, PO Box 62000, Midland, TX 79711-2000 or call (432) 563-1000. Reproduced with permission.

By the fall of 1944, U.S. and Allied forces had defeated or bypassed most Japanese strongholds in the Central and Southwest Pacific, and had begun the advance up the island chains toward Japan itself. However, even the newly captured islands of Saipan, Tinian and Guam in the Marianas were still 1,500 miles from Tokyo. General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz both agreed that a closer base was needed for the final air assault and invasion of Japan, but could not agree on whether that island was to be Luzon, Okinawa or Formosa.

On October 3, 1944, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff directed MacArthur to invade Luzon, the northernmost island in the Philippines, in December. Nimitz was directed to assault Iwo Jima in February, 1945 and then prepare to invade Okinawa, less than 400 miles from Japan.

The U.S. naval forces charged with carrying out these operations were built around the large, fast fleet carriers, equipped primarily with Grumman Hellcat fighters and Avenger torpedo bombers, plus Douglas SBD Dauntless and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. By 1945, the Vought F4U Corsair also equipped Marine fighter squadrons onboard. In addition, the smaller escort carriers provided close air support for the beachheads and ground troops, primarily with General Motors FM-2 Wildcats.

With her own carrier air forces decimated, Japan's only hope to stop the Allies was to sink the Allied invasion fleet, using her still powerful surface fleet of battleships and heavy cruisers. In addition, a new weapons was ready to be introduced, the kamikaze.

On October 25, 1944, the first group of 24 bomb-laden Zeros struck U.S. ships in Leyte Gulf, sinking the escort carrier St. Lo. During the final battles for the Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, over 2,200 Japanese aircraft sortied on organized suicide missions, and over 1,300 made good their attack or were shot down. At least 26 combat ships, including three escort carriers, were sunk and some 300 others damaged by the kamikazes. Adm. Halsey, commander of the U.S. Third Fleet, said it was "The only weapon I feared in the war".

On March 14, 1945, Iwo Jima was declared secure, although fighting continued for two more weeks. American casualties were over 25,000, with nearly 7,000 dead. The first P-51s flew escort missions for B-29s attacking Japan on April 7.

On April 1, 50,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines landed on Okinawa. The invasion fleet was hit by massive kamikaze attacks on April 6 and 7, which damaged 28 ships and sank three. But the Japanese were prepared to sacrifice more than just aircraft to stop the invasion. During the afternoon of April 6, the 68,000 ton battleship Yamato, escorted by the light cruiser Yahagi and eight destroyers sailed to attack the Allied ships off Okinawa. With only enough fuel for a one-way trip, the Yamato was to use her huge 18-inch main guns to stop the invasion, or die trying.

The USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) was on station off Okinawa on April 7, when the Yamato was sighted south of Kyushu. Among the aircraft launched to attack the giant were fourteen TBM Avengers of the Bunker Hill's Torpedo Squadron (VT) 84. At 0948 the crews manned their planes and took off, led by Lt. Cdr. "Skipper" Swanson and joined by other bombing squadrons. A solid overcast prevented the dive bombers from leading a coordinated attack, so at about 1215, Swanson divided VT-84 into two divisions and headed for the target.

Every gun on the Yamato, including the nine 18-inchers, seemed to be firing at the TBMs. Pilot "Bull" Turnbull remembered that "It was a beautiful ship but a monster! It was like a huge animal at bay — vigorous and vengeful and spitting fire from every opening". Another VT-84 pilot, Dewey Ray said of the first salvo from the 18-inch guns, "My God, I didn't believe it. The whole forward third of the ship lit up. My first reaction was why would they fire anything that big at me? Then, I stopped wondering and jinxed like hell!"

When Swanson's eight TBMs landed back on the Bunker Hill, they reported seven torpedo hits on the battleship. When "Buck" Berry's six planes landed, they reported another two hits. "Bunker Hill 9; Yamato 0!" was the proud cry. Later reports showed that the Yamato had been hit by at least seven bombs and 11 or 12 torpedoes before the pride of the Japanese fleet exploded, broke in two and sank at 1435.

But the aerial kamikazes had already struck hard at the U.S. carriers in the preceding few weeks. The Saratoga, Wasp, Enterprise and Yorktown were all hit, and the Franklin lost 832 men and had another thousand wounded. The escort carrier Bismark Sea was sunk.

On Mother's Day, May 11, 1945, the Bunker Hill had been at sea and in continuous action for 58 days. With a slight lull that day, the ship was at condition Easy One, with ventilators open and the crew, including Adm. Marc Mitscher, commander of Task Force 58, trying to relax.

At 1002, radar detected planes inbound, some of which were identified as friendly, including Marine Major James Swett's Corsair. But at 1004, Swett frantically radioed "Alert! Alert! Two planes diving on the Bunker Hill!" A minute later, an A6M Zero came in low and fast, dropped a 550 pound bomb and dived into the 34 planes parked on the flight deck. The burning Zero set fire to the fully armed and fueled planes, as it skidded along the deck and over the side. The bomb passed through the flight deck and exploded alongside.

Seconds later, another kamikaze, a D4Y Judy dive bomber, pulled up and dived at the carrier. Although hit by the Bunker Hill's gunners, the Judy's bomb hit the after flight deck and exploded in the gallery deck below. Scores of crewmen were blown overboard and flames covered the whole after deck. In the midst of this carnage, a third plane was spotted diving for the ship, but the gun crews remained at their stations and splashed this attacker into the sea.

Landing only eight minutes prior to the hit by the kamikaze was Major Archie Donahue's flight of Corsairs. Donahue, who was later CAF Director of Flight Operations, recalls how he "saved" all but one member of his flight. "I saved fifteen men that day", he said explaining how he dismissed his men without the normal debrief in the ready room, because "We hadn't seen or done a thing." The one Marine pilot who stayed behind to write a letter was killed by the flames, along with other Navy pilots.

Of the Bunker Hill's crew, 373 perished, 264 were wounded and 43 were missing. Hundreds of crewmen had been either blown overboard or were forced to jump to escape the fires. Adm. Mitscher's staff lost thirteen officers and men, and he was forced to relinquish command of Task Force 58.

Once the fires were out, the crippled carrier sailed the 7,000 miles to Puget Sound Navy Yard under her own steam. Upon arrival, she was call the "most extensively damaged ship" ever to enter the yard. A young member of the arresting gear crew, Walter "Wally" Braun had been with of the Bunker Hill since her commissioning in 1943. He still remembers the people on the dock gazing up at the fire-blackened sides of the carrier and the twisted metal and just shaking their heads.

On June 22, 1945, the battle for Okinawa ended with the suicide of the Japanese commander, Gen. Ushijima. Japanese casualties, both military and civilian, were estimated at 110,000. The U.S. Tenth Army had suffered almost 40,000 battle casualties, and the Navy another 9,700, mostly from kamikaze attacks.

Now that the last stepping stones had been won, there still remained the most awesome and potentially bloody operation of all — the invasion of Japan itself, unless an alternative could somehow be found.

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