On 24 October 1944, the light carrier USS Princeton (CVL-23) had recovered 12 aircraft when her lookouts spotted a “Judy” coming straight for the ship. Batteries of 20- and 40-mm antiaircraft guns immediately opened up, but the Japanese bomber continued in, undeterred, releasing a single 550-pound armor-piercing bomb. Plummeting straight and true, the bomb landed almost dead-center on the flight deck, just forward of the after elevator. A series of explosions ripped great gaping holes in the flight deck, and one of the ship’s massive aircraft elevators was lifted completely out of its pit and came to rest at an odd angle on the flight deck.
As the Princeton ’s crew battled raging fires, several other ships of the task group moved in to rescue men who had either jumped or been blown overboard by the explosions. The light cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-62) came close aboard to help fight fires and to get a hawser across so that she might take the disabled Princeton under tow. As the Birmingham approached the carrier’s port side, the cruiser’s topside decks were crowded with towing and firefighting equipment and, more significant, hundreds of her crew.
Without warning, a tremendous explosion tore off a huge portion of the Princeton ’s stern as her after magazine blew up. There was a terrible staccato of metal on metal as shrapnel of all shapes and sizes—pieces of the Princeton —raked across the Birmingham ’s exposed decks, echos of the deadly grapeshot canisters fired from the cannon of yesteryear’s sailing ships. The effect was the same. Hundreds of men instantly fell dead or were horribly wounded. The official report of the incident reads “The decks ran red with blood, not figuratively but literally.” Severed limbs lay about the blood-smeared deck like casual droppings on a slaughterhouse floor. The senior medical officer was away from the ship assisting in an operation on the cruiser USS Santa Fe (CL-60), and the dental officer was among the first to die, which left only one doctor to deal with the incredible carnage.
There is great irony in that war is humanity’s greatest folly, yet it sometimes brings out what is best about mankind. In sharp contrast to the surrounding horror, many of the crew, some seriously injured themselves, administered first aid to those with hope and helped ease the suffering of those without. The ship’s executive officer later described the scene:
I really have no words at my command that can adequately describe the veritable splendor of the conduct of all hands, wounded and unwounded. Men with legs off, with arms off, with gaping wounds in their sides, with the tops of their heads furrowed by fragments, would insist, ‘I’m all right. Take care of Joe over there,’ or ‘Don’t waste morphine on me, Commander; just hit me over the head.’ ”Terrible as the destruction was, it is a source of supreme gratification to know the heights of courage and forgetfulness of self to which one’s shipmates can rise.
Despite a final casualty count of 229 killed, 4 missing, 211 wounded seriously, and 25 with minor injuries, the heavily damaged Birmingham was repaired and returned to the war in time to participate in the battle off Okinawa. There she would survive another hit—this time from a kamikaze.
Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several Naval Institute Press books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .