Okinawa declared secure after the most costly Naval Campaign in history. U.S. had 30 ships sunk, 233 damaged (mostly from Kamikaze attacks), 5000 dead & 5000 wounded.
In November 1957, Proceedings published an article by Commander J. Davis Scott of the U.S. Naval Reserve, about a rescued aviator’s extraordinary experience aboard a destroyer during an attack by Japanese planes. The article, which was written on the USS Bennington while it was a member of Task Force 58 off Okinawa, is prefaced with the following note:
For more than ten years this has been an untold story. Written aboard the USS Bennington (CV-20)—a member of Task Force 58—during the weeks when the Bennington was a vital part of the “Fleet That Came to Stay” off Okinawa in 1945, the article was withheld from publication by Commander-in-Chief Pacific Ocean Area because it told too much about the success of the dreaded Japanese kamikaze. It has now been released by the Department of Defense. Few personal tales in World War II can compare with that experienced by Marine Lieutenant Junie B. Lohan during the height of the kamikaze attacks.
TOKUNO SHIMA, a Japanese air base sixty miles north of Okinawa, was the target. A flight of Corsairs was launched from the Bennington to blast it with rockets and bombs. Marine 1st Lieutenant Junie B. Lohan piloted one of the planes.
An hour later Lohan’s plane was smashed by enemy ack-ack. He crash-landed in hostile waters, battled for more than two hours to stay alive in the rough sea, and then was rescued by a friendly destroyer, which steamed forty miles to pick him up. Death came close to him as he floated near enemy shores, but it was to come even closer during the next 24 hours as the destroyer he boarded fought off nearly a hundred Japanese planes almost single handed and then like a tired, bloody fighter finally went down for the count.
Lohan did everything he possibly could. He helped load ammunition. He gave morphine. He salved burns. Carried wounded. Battled to save the lives of others. Stood bridge watches. Pointed out enemy planes for the AA gunners to shoot down. They figured he ought to know best the recognition characteristics of the Japanese planes. During it all he was “scared as hell.” Attired in old clothes and borrowed bedroom slippers, he sloshed about the sea-swept decks muttering to himself, “I’ll be catching cold with these wet feet.”
Before he came back to the Bennington, the Leatherneck pilot was on and off four ships—he had hitchhiked to the newest U. S. air base on Okinawa and had related his experiences for the admiral commanding our carrier task group.
His strange story began at 1,000 feet over the Japanese airfield of Tokuno Shima where he had raced in for a strafing attack when his Corsair was suddenly rocked by a terrific blast. He had been hit by flak, and the instrument panel showed he was losing oil at a rapid rate. He prepared to ditch his plane.
“I unbuckled my parachute harness and got out of it,” he said. “I called my flight leader and told him I would soon be making a crash landing. Oil was covering my windshield. I was half wishing I had not unbuckled the chute. I figure it might be better to jump, but it was too late now. I tried to get my plane as far from the island as possible.
“The sea was exceptionally rough. If I hit wrong, the waves might well snap the plane in half. The spurting oil nearly blinded me. Then the plane stalled. I was going down, but I was unable to tell when I would hit the water. I leveled off and smacked the sea—lucky I wasn’t hurt.
“I got out. Reached back for my boat pack. The straps had caught in the cockpit. I climbed back into the cockpit and tried to loosen it. The plane started to sink. I went down with it. I fought to get out of the cockpit under water. I had to drop the boat pack. I pulled the toggles on my Mae West and popped to the surface.
“The waves and swells were very high. I took a beating. My shoes troubled me, so I took them off.”
Looking up, Lohan could see the planes from his flight circling his position. They were within range of the enemy ack-ack at Tokuno, but they didn’t seem to mind. Several of them dropped life rafts, realizing that without a raft Lohan was practically at the mercy of the sea. Lohan, however, found it impossible to swim to the rafts his mates dropped. Suddenly his own chute and boatpack popped to the surface. It must have worked loose from the cockpit of the sunken plane. Lohan swam to it and pulled out his jungle knife to cut it open.
“While selecting a place to cut, I put the jungle knife in my mouth,” he said. “A huge wave caught me and I went under. I lost the knife, boatpack, and chute.
“I figured my situation wasn’t hopeless, but I guessed I’d better relax if I wanted to stay alive. Now the waves took me where they wanted. I floated on top completely relaxed.
“Finally a plane dropped a rubber boat about ten feet away. I swam to it and climbed aboard. It was upside down but I didn’t care.
“It wasn’t long after that the mast of a destroyer appeared over the horizon. They tossed a line, pulled me toward the ship, and two men lifted me over the side. I was half frozen.”
Later, after a shower, a shot, warming food and clothing, he met the destroyer skipper and learned that he was the sixth aviator the ship had rescued. The commander told him that his wolfpack squadron mate, 2nd Lieutenant R. B. Hamilton, had flown more than forty miles from where Lohan went down to locate the destroyer and lead it to the rescue. Lohan spent the rest of the day getting acquainted with the officers and the crew. He answered numerous questions. What was it like over Tokyo? How many Japanese planes did he have to his credit?
It was 1:30 A.M. before he finally got to his bunk. He had been too nervous and upset to try to sleep before that. He had just closed his eyes when general quarters were sounded—Japanese planes were attacking. Lohan had fought Japanese planes in the skies over Japan and Okinawa. He had shot down two of them. He hadn’t been afraid then, but this time it was different. He was a pilot without a plane to fight off enemy planes. This was another, unfamiliar side of the game called war. Lohan found himself shaking all over.
“Unless you’ve been aboard a destroyer when she opens fire on attacking planes, you have no idea of your feelings,” Lohan claims.
“You feel like you’re sitting in the middle of a huge gun turret with guns firing from all angles. The whole ship shudders as each barrage goes forth. In the rooms, light bulbs break. Glass splatters everywhere. Drawers come open, crash on the floor. The destroyer is a seaborne gun platform. The roar nearly deafens you.
“By morning the Japanese were gone. The ship was unhit. No one knew exactly how many enemy pilots we’d shot out of the night skies—but it must have been plenty. I finally went to bed. In a short time I was up again. A husky ensign named ‘Bull’ gave me fresh clothes, and Doc Casey, the ship’s doctor, got me some bedroom slippers to wear. Seeing Doc again was an odd coincidence. He had treated me when I was a flying cadet back in Florida.
“By 4 o’clock that afternoon the Japanese were back. There were many enemy bogies reported. We were right in the center of things again. Fifteen minutes later another destroyer radioed for help. We put on full steam. Found her in bad shape. We made high speed turns about her and then the Japanese turned their fury on us.
“We opened up. One of the Japanese planes was hit. It trailed white smoke. Evidently the oil line had been smashed. It pulled out of its dive before we could inflict more damage.
“Now there were enemy planes all about us. Our own planes had come to our aid. Japanese planes were going down before our own pilots. One of the Japanese started to dive on us. He was coming in at about 300 miles an hour and it didn’t take more than a glance to realize that this guy wasn’t any ordinary Japanese. He was a suicide pilot. He was going to bring his bomb right to us—deliver it personally, giving up his life for a hit. Our gunners swung on him. Everyone else ducked for cover.
“I was too fascinated to move an inch. I just stood by the rail and watched him come racing toward us. I wasn’t afraid. Guess I wanted to see what another pilot was going to do. I reckon I figured he couldn’t hit us, but he did. He hit with a terrific whack forward of amidships. Parts of the airplane went everywhere. It tore up the deck and kindled fires.
“I don’t believe I’ll ever forget the noise that plane made as it came racing in. It was a horrible sound. Something like when a plane flat-hats a field, or a house. But instead of trailing away in the distance, it ends with a sudden startling splat!
“Doc Casey and I had just begun to carry the worst cases into the wardroom for treatment when another suicide plane hit us. The ship shuddered, then plunged forward, all guns still firing.
“The wounded were suffering terribly. Many were badly burned. But time and again a sailor would refuse treatment, waving us to others more badly burned. We gave morphine to the worst cases.
“Another Japanese came diving at us. Evidently he was one of the suicide corps, too, but he missed. His plane went in alongside with a big splash. The force of the crash sent the plane’s belly tank flying through the air. It landed amidships—smashed—and sent flames racing to all corners of the ship.”
Lohan, working with Doc Casey and a host of volunteers, raced from side to side picking up the wounded, carrying them to safe spots, giving them relief with morphine and burn ointment. The deck was wet and slippery. His bedroom slippers were soaked through. Suddenly he realized that his feet were wet and cold.
“Damn it,” he said aloud. “If I don’t get out of these wet slippers I’ll get pneumonia . . .”
He never got time to change. The word was passed that another enemy plane was diving on the ship again—this time from the starboard. All who were able rushed to move the wounded under protecting bulkheads—out of danger from shrapnel.
“We crouched with the wounded and prayed,” Lohan recalled. “The plane hit directly amidships. The bomb he was carrying burst on impact and there was death and destruction everywhere. Our ship was stopped—dead in the water.
“The fire rooms were the hardest hit. Only one man emerged alive from each one. You could see the horribly burned bodies floating in the blackened water. It was terrible—awful—I gave blood plasma. The doc was everywhere.
“The explosion blew one sailor overboard. He started to drift away. Another sailor dived in after him. Someone tossed him a line and he carried it to the half-drowned first man. We pulled them back aboard.
“The noise, the diving planes, the barrages, the moans of the dying, the cries of the wounded and the burned, jarred your senses, upset your mind.
“I saw one sailor shaking like a leaf. He was so frightened he was unable to move out of danger. A couple of minutes later I saw the same sailor carrying wounded, helping the doctor, and doing the work of three men. He was the coolest man aboard.
“We kept trying to keep the deck clear of shell cases. They only added to the shrapnel when the bombs hit.
“I went topside to help with the burn cases. I learned that our guns were now firing only manually. Our electrical system had been knocked out.
“They asked me to help spot the enemy planes. The Japanese were now making us a special target. They figured we were ‘goners.’ I could count more than fifteen enemy planes above us. Our planes were giving them hell, but every now and then one would slip through and come diving at us.
“One Japanese slipped up astern. He missed hitting us directly, but his wing caught on the fantail and he flipped over and went down. New fires sprung up.
“After that it was just plain hell. I kept thinking about my wet feet, though—thought surely I was going to catch cold. Funny how little things like that keep buzzing through your head.
“There were Corsairs and Hellcats above us fighting the Japanese. A Val peeled off behind them and came in without being touched. It dropped a 500-pound bomb opposite the No. 1 turret on the portside. I hit the deck. The concussion jarred the ship from stem to stern.
“We figured we were about done for now. We got the rafts together and lashed them with rope. We wanted to be together—we wanted to be sure the stretcher cases, they were multiplying now, were going to be able to go along with us.
“I went back to the bridge. Another suicide plane came boring in. He was aiming for the bridge and coming like hell. I figured this one had my number. I crouched behind the bulkhead, all unnerved. He hit the portside of the bridge, the fuselage smashed all over the superstructure but for some reason the bomb didn’t go off. It fell into the water alongside.
“I stood up. Looked over the side. I could see the dead pilot floating by us. He was dressed in some kind of a silken robe. It had a big anchor embroidered on it. He didn’t look a day more than fourteen years of age.”
“The order was passed to prepare to abandon ship.
“I prayed and prayed. Not real prayers—I just asked for God’s help. Asked him to bless us all.
“By 9 o’clock another destroyer had answered the ship’s plea for help. The fires lit up the darkness. When the destroyer tried to come alongside to take off personnel the seas were found to be too rough. It gave up.
“Finally a couple of LCS’s came alongside. We put over the stretcher cases, the badly wounded first—then the rest of us piled in. The skipper, first lieutenant, gunnery officer, and several others stayed aboard to keep the ship afloat for as long as they could. The LCS headed for the nearest U. S. base.
“That ride was a real nightmare. There were still plenty of Japanese planes around. And we knew that if just one singled us out and dove for us—well, everyone would be killed.
“It took hours. We couldn’t turn. The LCS skipper was afraid a turn might capsize the ship. We prayed silently and we prayed aloud.
“I tried to sleep sitting down—wouldn’t come. I kept seeing the Japanese diving at us. I kept remembering the courage of the kids whose burned bodies we’d left behind. They had given everything.
“Then out of the dawn came the shape of a ship. Then another. And another. Up ahead. We realized we were nearing our fleet base. I broke down and cried. I looked around. Lots of others were crying, too.”
Bitter news waited their arrival. Their ship had been finally abandoned—and sunk by our own gunfire. The two men Doc Casey had heroically saved from the fire rooms had died during the night aboard the LCS. Lohan was transferred to another ship. His mates aboard the Bennington had heard nothing from him for nearly a week and figured he was probably lost. Then came a message telling them he was safe.
Several days later Lohan and another aviator were put ashore on Okinawa. “Go up the road to Yontan airfield and there’ll be planes there that will take you back to your carriers,” they were told. Okinawa was far from won then. There were still Japanese along the roads, and Lohan and his new friend had no idea where Yontan was, but after walking a short distance a Marine-manned jeep picked them up and took them to the field.
Two days later Lohan was put aboard the Bennington. He was returned unhurt in a breeches buoy from a destroyer. Furthermore, he hadn’t caught the cold he had worried so much about. His squadron mates besieged him with questions. They wanted to hear the story of his experiences.
“I’ll tell it just once and that once will be to Scotty, If it ever gets into print, you can all read it. After I tell Scotty I’m not going to talk about it. I’m going to forget about it as soon as I can.
“There’s one thing I won’t forget, though, and I don’t want any of you guys to forget it, either—that’s the courage of the men who man those destroyers out there. We owe a hell of a lot to them—more than any of us can ever repay.”