A KAMIKAZE INCIDENT

By:  Robert T. Hill*

Memorial Day, May 30 is observed as a legal holiday in honor of those who died in war.  Those who have served in the military and have witnessed death in wartime observe Memorial Day as a very special day.  Many unforgettable memories that we veterans live with day in and day out are distended on Memorial Day.  The following anecdote is of one such unforgettable memory that I shall live with forever.

While serving aboard the US Navy Destroyer USS Stevens in the South Pacific Theater in World War II, the sounds, sights and smells of an ugly war became very real to me.  Perhaps none more graphic than at 1013 hours on December 28, 1944.  At that precise moment, the perdition, the hell capability of a single kamikaze was implanted deep in my mind.  Some sixty four years later that ghastly incident remains pellucid in my memory.

As action in the Philippines moved closer to the Japanese homeland, a new enemy emerged.  They called them kamikaze, or suicide planes.  The pilots would simply fly their explosive loaded aircraft directly into a target.  A suicide mission by design.  This is one formidible opponent and how do you compete with someone hell-bent on committing suicide?  There is but one answer.  You shoot them down before they can get to the target---or else.

On December 28, 1944 the USS Stevens was assigned to Task Unit 78.3.15 steaming enroute to the westerly Philippine Island of Mindoro.  We had departed Leyte Gulf, cleared the Surigao Strait and were in the Mindanao Sea.  The convoy consisted of several ships; nine screening destroyers that encircled twenty five LST's, twenty three LSI's, three merchant ships and others.  There were no carriers to provide air cover and Leyte based planes were grounded with bad weather.  While all of the ships were armed, most of the convoy's defense would fall upon the destroyers.

Several bogies had been spotted on radar so that we spent the best part of the morning of December 28 at general quarters.  Our screening position was abreast of the convoy on the port side.  The sea was heavy and as the ship rolled to starboard, from my position in the number three five-inch gun mount, I could observe a merchant ship located near the center of the convoy.  This was the SS John Burke, which was loaded with cargo and sat quite low in the water.  As we rolled to port the John Burke became lost from my view.  On one occasion as we rolled to starboard I noticed the John Burke had changed course slightly.  When we rolled back to port there was a trmendous explosion that violently shook the Stevens.  As we vibrated and rolled back to starboard the John Burke was gone!  Totally gone!  One kamikaze, one merchantman!  The ship was carrying ammunition and other suplies and simply disintegrated when struck by the kamikaze!

There were upwards of seventy men on the John Burke who would never see the sunrise again.  Seventy good men who would never return home to their loved ones, get married and raise a family.  Seventy young men in the prime of their lives who would never have an opportunity to be a carpenter or pursue a career in medicine.  Indeed, sixty four years later that ghastly incident remains perspicuous in my memory, on Memorial Day and every day.

* Robert T. Hill served on the USS Stevens as a Bosun's Mate 2/c

 

NOT A SINGLE SURVIVOR WAS FOUND!  IT WAS IF THE SHIP NEVER EXISTED!