Some heroes live in the annals of history forever. Others just fade away, like the old soldier in General Douglas MacArthur's farewell speech on 19 April 1951. The USS Laffey (DD-724) and her crew are like the old soldier, fading away-but not quite yet.
Dubbed "The Ship That Would Not Die" by the late Rear Admiral Frederick Julian Becton in the title of his book recalling the Laffey's World War II history and the ferocious kamikaze attack that brought her momentary fame, the brave ship lived a long life until recently, when she faced another kind of peril: old age. Two World War II destroyers carried the name Laffey, after Civil War Medal of Honor recipient Bartlett Laffey. The first, DD-459, was lost in action off Guadalcanal in November 1942. The second Laffey was built under Becton's close supervision at Bath Iron Works and commissioned in 1944.
Defying all odds, this old ship will on 16 April observe the 65th anniversary of a brutal attack executed by a group of some 22 Japanese kamikaze aircraft on the 347-foot destroyer, leaving 32 of her 336 crewmen dead and 71 wounded. The ship should have "died" that day. It was not uncommon for a single kamikaze or a well-placed bomb to severely damage or sink aircraft carriers and other large ships late in the war. The Laffey suffered five direct kamikaze hits, a glancing blow by another, and four direct bomb hits. But the lucky ship survived to see naval duty until her decommissioning in 1975. In 1986 whe was transformed into a floating museum as part of Patriots Point outside Charleston, South Carolina.
The Most Lethal Enemy
It wasn't the kamikazes, however, that nearly finished this mighty Sumner-class destroyer, recipient of a Presidential Unit Citation and five World War II battle stars. It was the seawater at Patriots Point that slowly ate away at her thin steel hull until it sprang enough leaks-more than the kamikazes were able to make-to endanger her life.
Without the members of the USS Laffey Association, the seemingly indestructible ship might have finally sunk. This dedicated group of Sailors, along with their wives and families, have committed their free time and retirement years to keeping the Laffey afloat and in good order. The deterioration of the hull had them all concerned that what the kamikazes couldn't do, nature would. But all was not lost. The destroyer and her crew members still have influential friends in high places. And although finding the money to fix the hull was a major challenge, they were not about to let their beloved ship sink-not after all she had been through.
Ultimately, just like the Navy fighter aircraft that arrived to fend off the kamikazes in 1945, the State of South Carolina swooped in from Columbia to provide a $9.2 million loan to fix the endangered ship. On 19 August 2009, she was towed to Detyens Shipyards in North Charleston on the Cooper River for repairs, which have now been completed. The rust-eaten metal of the Laffey's hull was fixed with thicker plating, miles of welding, and new paint. Now, with a repaired hull and in ship-shape, she is moored at Veterans Terminal in North Charleston, awaiting her return to Patriots Point in May of this year.
The Day the Ship Almost Died
The ship that will not die almost succumbed that April day in 1945. It was a clear, quiet morning, and the Laffey was on her third day of picket duty about 50 miles north of Okinawa between that island and Japan. The war in Europe was essentially over, and everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Japanese surrendered. Everyone, that is, but the Japanese, who continued to mount an aggressive kamikaze campaign against U.S. warships that were getting closer and closer to Japan's hallowed mainland.
The ship's company was relatively young, with many of the enlisted men in their late teens and early 20s; by this point in the war, most of the older servicemen were either already deployed, dead, or wounded, so younger and younger men were being sent to war. Under Commander Becton, a 1931 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, the Laffey arrived at Picket Station #1 on 14 April, accompanied by the LCS-51 and LCS-116 (small landing support craft).
The morning of 16 April started out with hardly a whisper, and the Laffey's crew was able to finish breakfast and plan another boring day at sea. The hell that would envelope the ship and her crew for the next hour and a half began with radar activity at about 0825. The radar man could not believe his eyes, and there was some suspicion that perhaps the radar was malfunctioning when it showed a flock of blips that defied logic . . . just too many for kamikazes.
But it was not birds, as some in the radar room suspected; it was a large group of kamikazes coming in fast from the north directly toward the Laffey. Commander Becton ordered general quarters, and the crew quickly armed themselves for what would become a horrendous, non-stop fight for their lives.
The battle plan that brought more than 50 kamikazes to that place on that date is still not clear. Perhaps it was to show the United States that the Japanese military still had the planes and pilots to mount a major offensive attack. Maybe it was intended to weaken America's resolve to end the war by unconditional surrender of the Japanese military machine and Japan itself. Or maybe the purpose was simply to kill as many American servicemen and sink as many ships as possible.
The Battle Ensues
The horrific battle raged for 90 minutes, during which the Laffey gave as good as she got. Although she absorbed direct kamikaze and bomb hits, she managed to shoot down nine enemy planes even though most of her firepower astern had been decimated. Navy fighter planes (primarily Corsairs and Hellcats) continued to attack the kamikazes throughout the battle--a few in the beginning and more and more as the battle progressed--and shot down most of the Japanese aircraft that the Laffey did not. The ship was a blazing mess of charred airplanes and body parts, many of her guns were destroyed, her radar was knocked out, more than 30 of her crew had been killed, and she was sinking. But she never gave up.
At one point during the worst of the attack, when the Laffey was an inferno, one of the junior officers approached Commander Becton on the bridge about abandoning ship. The captain, who had previously lost a ship as executive officer (the Aaron Ward [DD-483]) during another raging battle in 1943, was not about to do it again. "Captain, we're in pretty bad shape aft," the young officer told Becton. "Do you think we'll have to abandon ship?" Bedeviled by kamikazes, a blazing ship, and a damaged rudder (locked at 26 degrees to port), Becton quickly replied: "Hell no. We still have guns that can shoot. I'll never abandon this ship as long as a gun will fire."
The last kamikaze-the 22nd-attacked the Laffey at about 1000 and was shot down before it could do any more damage. Severely battered and bruised, the ship survived. Besides sheer luck and the determination of her captain and crew to stay alive, some historians believe that the constant circling of the ship to port because of her damaged and inoperable rudder may have saved the Laffey. All the kamikaze hits and most of the bomb hits were in the rear half of the ship, which was heavily damaged and where most of the Sailors were killed. Perhaps the stern was the easiest target to hit under the circumstances; perhaps the kamikazes were poorly trained pilots; perhaps it just wasn't the Laffey's day to die. After the battle, the ship was towed to Okinawa for initial repairs and finally steamed under her own power to a shipyard in Seattle, Washington, where she was made seaworthy again.
Today, about 40 of the kamikaze attack survivors are still alive, but each year takes its toll on the annual roll call. A dedicated Navy officer and respected leader who was loved by his men, Commander Becton was promoted to captain and then rear admiral, retiring in 1966. He was a true friend to his Laffey shipmates until he died at age 87 on 25 December 1995 in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. He is buried in Section 35, Site 5249, at Arlington National Cemetery.