John Chapman and the Kamikaze Attack
On April 6, 1945, the first wave of ten coordinated kamikaze attacks began to hit the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet off the coast of Okinawa. Ships in the Fifth Fleet had experienced suicide attacks before — but never on such a scale. The terrifying sight of Japanese pilots diving their planes into ships would become common over the next two and a half months. Aircraft carriers and battleships were supposed to be the main targets, but the ships that suffered the most damage were the destroyers and smaller vessels assigned to protect the fleet from incoming attacks.
Pilots Willing to Die
One such destroyer was the U.S.S. Newcomb. The Newcomb had seen combat before, at the Mariana Islands, Peleliu, Palau and in the Philippines. But it was at Okinawa that she would fight her fiercest battle. On board the destroyer was 21-year-old John Chapman, a First Class Boatswains Mate, and gun captain of a five-inch gun. Facing enemy pilots willing to give their lives to sink his ship struck him as almost incomprehensible.
"It didn't make you feel good. I don't know whether that's 'terrified' or not, but it didn't make you feel too well because of it, knowing that people would do a thing like that. You know, people we had always known weren't like that. They were brave people and so forth, and they fight, but weren't someone to just deliberately take their lives to take yours."
Watching Kamikazes Attack
More than 300 kamikazes departed Southern Kyushu on April 6. Their target was the U.S. Fifth Fleet stationed in support of the battle being waged on Okinawa. As the Japanese pilots approached, they broke off into smaller attack groups. John Chapman was at his gun post at the stern of the U.S.S. Newcomb.
"There was probably 45 planes in the air. Well, it was a scary situation, because you knew that they were going to dive on you. You could be firing on the aircraft, and they'd come right on, just keep coming right on through that. And you'd see pieces flying over the planes and everything else, and they'd just keep right on a-coming."
A Roaring Inferno
The Newcomb shot down four enemy planes. Five others hit the ship. Those on board who were not killed or injured fought desperately not only to put out the raging fires and repair damaged engines, but also to keep firing at an enemy dead set on sinking them. The scene aboard the Newcomb was repeated on many vessels of the fleet that day.
"It was hot. The fires were just raging totally out of control. Between the bridge and the afterdeck house, that's a big percent of the ship. It was nothing but a roaring inferno. The flames were shooting. They said [it] was high as 1,000 feet in the air off the Newcomb."
Firefighters battling the raging fires forced John Chapman and an injured friend to jump overboard. There was no space left for them on the stern to remain. Chapman handed his life belt to the injured friend and, once in the water, towed him to the safety of a lifeboat. They were later rescued along with many others in the waters off Okinawa.
Ninety-one sailors were killed or wounded on the U.S.S. Newcomb. Many of those who were injured suffered devastating burns. But despite suffering at the hands of the five kamikazes, the crew of the Newcomb kept their vessel afloat and earned the Navy Unit Commendation and eight battle stars for World War II service. John Chapman would earn a bronze star for his service; years later, his view of his heroism is clear-eyed:
"People try to glorify wars and so forth. There's people that do outstanding things, but there's nothing really glorious about a war. You do wars to protect your country if you have to, and that's the only time you should ever do it."
Terrible Naval Losses
Nine more waves of kamikaze attacks hit the fleet off of Okinawa before the battle came to an end. Almost 2,000 Japanese pilots would willingly lose their lives in these attacks.
By late June 1945, close to 5,000 U.S. sailors had been killed and 5,000 more wounded by the Japanese suicide pilots. Thirty ships had been sunk and almost 400 others were damaged. The attack on the Fifth Fleet off Okinawa would mark the worst losses of World War II for the U.S. Navy.