A Fight to the Death

Today in History, April 16, 1945:

Picket duty in the seas off of Okinawa was a very dangerous place.  Destroyers were stationed in exterior positions from the US fleet to provide radar warnings for the carriers, bombardment and landing groups.  That also made them the first targets for Japanese Kamikaze aircraft inbound.

The USS Laffey (DD 724) was on picket duty.  She was already a veteran of D-Day where she served with Pearl Harbor survivor USS Nevada, and then several other actions in the Pacific.

A flight of approximately 50 Japanese suicide planes attacked the fleet, and many of them chose to target the tiny destroyer.  Val diver bombers and others repeatedly dove on the desperately maneuvering ship while the Laffey’s gun crews kept up a killing fire.  The crew kept fighting, shooting down several of the bombers, taking numerous bomb hits and being impacted by six of the Kamikazes.

A flight of 4 Grumman Wildcat F4F’s and a squadron of 12 F4U Corsairs from nearby carriers raced in the help, shooting down some of the attackers.  A couple of the fighters went down in the melee, including one Corsair which clipped the destroyer’s antennas before crashing into the sea.  Fortunately all of the flyers were rescued.

The Navy’s most notable Historian, Samuel Eliot Morrison, said, “Probably no ship has ever survived an attack of the intensity she experienced.”

The Presidential Unit Citation awarded to the Laffey’s crew read:

CITATION:  “For extraordinary heroism in action as a Picket Ship on Radar Picket Station Number One during an attack by approximately thirty enemy Japanese planes, thirty miles northwest of the northern tip of Okinawa, April 16, 1945. Fighting her guns valiantly against waves of hostile suicide planes plunging toward her from all directions, the U.S.S. LAFFEY set up relentless barrages of antiaircraft fire during an extremely heavy and concentrated air attack. Repeatedly finding her targets, she shot down eight enemy planes clear of the ship and damaged six more before they crashed on board. Struck by two bombs, crash-dived by suicide planes and frequently strafed, she withstood the devastating blows unflinchingly and, despite severe damage and heavy casualties, continued to fight effectively until the last plane had been driven off. The courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men enabled the LAFFEY to defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds, and her brilliant performance in this action, reflects the highest credit upon herself and the United States Naval Service.”

For the President,

/s/ James Forrestal
Secretary of the Navy

You can still walk the decks where these brave men fought and several died aboard the Laffey at Patriot’s Point in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.  Her museum location is significant as she was named for US Navy Seaman Bartlett Laffey, who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War, which began in Charleston Harbor.

The Texas City Disaster

Today in History, April 16, 1947:

The Texas City Disaster, the worst industrial disaster in US History.

A French ship, the SS Grandcamp, loaded with 2300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in the port city of Texas City, across from Galveston, explodes in the channel leading to Houston, devastating the docks and the town.

All but one of the town’s firefighters were killed, and several other fires were ignited on other ships and in the oil town in the following days. Most of the city was destroyed, and at least 581 people were killed.

A Devil’s Bargain

Today in History, April 13, 1941:

The Russian and Japanese governments sign a non-aggression treaty. The treaty gave both nations much needed cover.

The Russians didn’t have to fight the Japanese in Manchuria, freeing up hundreds of thousands of troops to fight the Germans.

The Japanese, likewise, freed up hundreds of thousands of troops to fight the Americans. FDR encouraged Stalin at Malta to declare war on Japan after the defeat of Germany.

They did so, conveniently, between the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ostensibly after the war was over, invading Manchuria and demanding the northern islands of Japan for their “effort”.

A Kamikaze in London

Today in History, April 9, 1937:

A Kamikaze in….London.

In the 1930’s most nations were attempting to set aircraft range records…for the sake of doing so and for military purposes.

The Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun sponsored the flight of the “Kamikaze-Go”, a long range reconnaissance aircraft from Tokyo to London in honor of the coronation of King George VI.

Arriving at it’s destination in a little over 51 hours, the aircraft was greeted in London by cheering crowds.

It’s pilot, Masaaki Iinuma, became a Japanese national hero, hailed as the Japanese Lindbergh. He and his navigator, Kenji Tsukagoshi would both be killed during WWII.

The aircraft would crash, be recovered, and placed in a museum which would be destroyed by aerial bombardment.

The aircraft type would be used as a long range recon plane during the war. The whole thing began as the Japanese designed aircraft that could reach their far-ranging territories.

American Patrol

Today in History, April 2, 1942:

In Hollywood, California, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra record their version of “American Patrol.” 

The tune was originally written in 1885 by F. W. Meacham, but Miller’s orchestra would add swing and jazz to the already inspiring instrumental.

This would make it representative and nearly synonymous with the jaunty, cock-sure attitude of American servicemen fighting World War II in multiple theaters.  Miller and his band would entertain the troops with this and other hits in live shows until his death on December 15, 1944, when he would be lost while flying to France for a performance. 

Think of the most popular entertainer you can, and they would pale in comparison to Glenn Miller in the late thirties and early forties.  Major Miller’s loss was felt.

It is important to remember what was occurring in April of 1942.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was only five months in the past, American troops at Bataan were about to surrender, the US Navy was conducting hit and run raids on Japanese strongholds, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was in this month, and Americans were training up for the war in Europe while U-Boats lurked off of American shores.

“The Girl I Left Behind Me.”  If you listen, and know what you are listening for, at about the 1:40 mark you pick up on the overlay Miller’s crew added to “American Patrol” of “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”  While versions of this tune were popular in Dublin and the British service long before, it became popular in the US Army during the Civil War and in the Cavalry as a marching tune.  So popular in fact, you’ve likely heard it in movies about the US Cavalry.

Just What a War-Weary Audience Needed

Today in History, March 31, 1943:

Historically Broadway musicals had gone for flash and opened with a bang.

So most critics expected this folksy, country new musical, opening on Broadway in the middle of WWII, to bomb.

They misunderstood the mood of the nation, which had been in the midst of world war and the related personal losses and stress for years.

When Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! premiered on this date in 1943 on Broadway, it opened with the melodious tunes of a cowboy singing as he greeted a peaceful morning.

Almost in unison the war weary audience let out an audible “aaaaahh”.

By the time the cast had sung the title song and closed the play, Joan Roberts (Laurey) says that the applause was deafening through two encores. The record setting musical would run for 15 years, 2,212 performances, before closing.

The Prolific Life of a Prolific Author Begins…Louis L’Amour

Today in History, March 22, 1908:

Louis L’Amour is born in Jamestown, North Dakota.

Ditching school at age 15, he spent the next twenty plus years traveling the world, working as a cowboy, a longshoreman, a sailor, prizefighter, miner, and a World War II tank crewman in Europe.

When he came home from the war, he began writing. 108 books and 225 million copies later, he was recognized as the most prolific Western writer in America.

His narrative was gritty and quick…and many of us loved them.

Many in Hollywood would be honored to portray his characters…it made some careers. Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, John Wayne, George Peppard, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds and so many others.

My second favorite movie, “How the West Was Won” was based on one of his books. What a life!