May 22

Beating 1,000-to-1 Odds

Friday, May 22, 2020 12:25 PM

By

USS Drexler (DD-741)
(U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

“Fantastic Feat of Suicide Plane Sank USS Drexler” was the headline of the press release the U.S. Navy sent out on 12 August 1945, three days after the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan and two days before that country surrendered. The USS Drexler (DD-741) had gone down more than two months earlier, on 28 May, but because of the grievous losses—158 dead and 52 wounded out of a 350-man crew—notifying the next of kin doubtlessly had taken much time.

Commissioned on 14 November 1944, the Drexler had sailed from Norfolk to Trinidad and then on to the Pacific for more training. In March and April, she was attached to Carrier Division 22 during operations off Okinawa. But on 2 May, she was detached to serve as a radar picket support ship. For a U.S. Navy destroyer in World War II, there was no more dangerous duty than manning the radar picket line off Okinawa, and it was there that the Drexler went down.

What follows is an edited version of the Navy release describing the Drexler’s demise.

Three Japanese suicide bombers struck at the destroyer USS Drexler off Okinawa on May 28, 1945, in a 90-second attack and sank the ship only after the third pilot barely managed to crash his damaged plane into his target.

The story was told by the skipper of the sunken destroyer, Command Ronald Lee Wilson, USN, who described as “fantastic” the action of the last suicide pilot who was forced to make two passes at the crippled, dead-in-the-water Drexler before succeeding in sending her to the bottom of the sea north of Okinawa.

After the first suicide plane had struck the 2,200-ton destroyer amidships, cutting off her power and starting large gasoline fires, the second plane approached 30 seconds later. Despite power failure, fires, and shock, the Drexler’s gunners splashed the craft with a direct hit from a 5-inch gun.

Seconds later, the third plane made its amazing attack. Guns of the Drexler scored many hits on the plane as it closed in while being chased and further riddled by two Marine pilots in Corsairs. Despite the carnage, the pilot came on but missed his mark, zooming over the midships section of the destroyer.

The plane was so close to the ship and water it appeared obvious it would crash into the water immediately after passing over the ship, Commander Wilson reported. The plane barely cleared the stacks.

“It was so apparent the plane would crash that the Marine pilot veered off,” said Commander Wilson. “But the Jap didn’t crash at all. He flew a tight circle to attack a second time. Again, the ship’s guns took up the fight as did the alert Marine pilot who observed what had happened.

“All during the circling maneuver a few feet above the water the Japanese plane was further riddled but completed the circle and crashed onto the deck of the Drexler.” Commander Wilson said that he had figured the odds as 1,000 to 1 against the pilot being able to crash his plane on the Drexler. When the plane struck the destroyer at the base of the No. 2 stack, a tremendous explosion rocked the ship, blowing parts hundreds of feet and starting an immense oil fire.

The Drexler rolled over rapidly on her starboard side, and her bow lifted high out of the water. She sank stern first within 49 seconds after the last suicider found his mark. Commander Wilson attributed the high casualties to the rapidity with which his ship sank and the fact she rolled over almost immediately.

In his action report, Commander Wilson stated that the planes that attacked his ship were “Frances” bombers—Yokosuka P1Y twin-engine planes. But they were almost certainly smaller Kawasaki Ki-45 “Nick” twin-engine two-seater fighters.

According to historian Bill Gordon: “Japanese special attack records show that only one squadron of twin-engine planes sortied on May 28, 1945, so planes from this squadron almost certainly sank the destroyer Drexler. Nine Nicks in the 45th Shinbu Squadron sortied from Chiran Air Base in southern Kyushu.”

The squadron’s commander, First Lieutenant Hajime Jujii, had served in the Japanese Army as an artillery infantryman, according to Gordon. But he switched tribes to become an aviator. After Jujii had told his wife of his “fervent desire” to join the kamikaze special attack corps and sink a ship, she and their two daughters committed suicide “to allow him to carry out his desire.”

While Jujii “joined his wife and two daughters in death on 28 May 1945,” it hasn’t been determined if the plane he was in attacked the Drexler.

Sources:

Action Report, Involving Loss of USS Drexler (DD-741).

“Fantastic Feat of Suicide Plane Sank USS Drexler.

Bill Gordon, “Who Sank the Destroyer Drexler.”