Kamikazes in Lingayen Gulf -- A Grim Anniversary

Remembering January 1945.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    AP

    Early in January 1945, the tiny Navy ship I served on entered Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines.

    We were amazed by what we saw. Dozens of Japanese fighter planes swarmed over the fleet. They were kamikazes, single-engine planes called "zeroes," red dots on their wingtips. And their mission clearly was to strike the larger ships in the American fleet and destroy them.

    The alarm that enemy forces were attacking us was sounded.

    With hundreds of other ships in the 7th Fleet, we opened fire. It was difficult for the gunnery officers to decide on what planes to target. They seemed to be everywhere. But, fortunately for us, we were not a battleship, cruiser or destroyer. We were a submarine chaser, a ship just 173 feet long and 23 feet wide. Small potatoes for the pilots who had been trained to attack the big boys.

    So, even as our gunners fired their 30-mm machine guns at the aircraft, we were able to have a spectator's role. We could hardly believe what we were witnessing. These guys were committing suicide, right before our eyes -- trying to take out major American vessels even as they lost their own lives.

    I saw a kamikaze strike the battleship USS California while the huge vessel was bombarding the shore. We later learned that, when the forward part of that ship burst into flames, 44 crew members were killed and 155 wounded. But after some temporary repairs, the California resumed its bombardment of enemy forces.

    This was the second big invasion the 7th Fleet made of the Philippines. It fulfilled Gen. Douglas MacArthur's promise, made after the Japanese drove us out of the islands early in the war that: "I shall return."

    The word kamikaze means "God wind" or "Divine wind." On May 11, 1945 the USS Bunker Hill was hit by two kamikazes, leaving 389 dead or missing from a crew of 2600. The Japanese resorted to desperate kamikaze tactics in the last days of the war. We suffered heavy losses, including 24 ships sunk.

    In a world still troubled by suicide bombers, using new methods, I think the birth of the kamikaze is worth remembering.