In 2014, on my first Memorial Day without my father, I reflected on how he lived his life after 0930, 18 March 1945.
A young ensign on duty that morning, he sat in the fire-direction cupola above a 5-inch gun on the aft superstructure of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) during the Battle of Okinawa. At sea, the U.S. Navy’s big guns had fallen momentarily silent, but on shore still raged the bloodiest ground battle of the Pacific war. Ensign Jens Hansen cradled his morning cup of Joe against the chill, marveling at just how uncomfortably cold one’s ass could get when plastered against the hard surface of a steel gun-chair.
From his perch atop the island superstructure he studied the disciplined and orchestral movements of the flight deck crews below, readying Attack Squadron VF-15 for its morning sortie against the Japanese Imperial Army dug in against the advance of U.S. Marines ashore. His eye caught the arrival of a contingent of young sailors from below decks. Eighteen of the ship’s mess stewards, cooks really, taking up their secondary duty stations for gunnery practice at the four 40mm anti-aircraft guns just below Hansen’s own turret. He marveled at the skill and precision of the cooks’ movements as they performed loading drills under the watchful and thoroughly unsympathetic eye of their chief petty officer taskmaster.
It was the perfect time for them to train. Aside from readying the flight deck for VF-15, there was a temporary lull in action on board the Hornet. It would be another hour before these cooks would return to the ship’s galley and prepare the noon meal for the Hornet’s officers and crew.
These 18 men, every one African American, were assigned the highest posts the 1945 U.S. Navy deemed proper: ship’s cooks. But however humble their assignment, these young men were proud to wear the uniform of the United States and play their part in winning the war. They relished their secondary duties as backup “gunfighters.” Should battle conditions dictate, they would leave the relative safety of the galley and reinforce their fallen brothers at guns on the bloody fighting decks above. Their skill, readiness, and courage would be tested this quiet, cold March morning.
As the great carrier sat unaware, a Zero-class kamikaze suicide-bomber plunged through the clouds from 5,000 feet above, heading straight at Ensign Hansen’s 5-inch gun position. If his position were hit, it would destroy the guns defending the Hornet’s stern. Worse still, it would ignite the bombs, rockets, and gasoline being loaded onto the fighter-bombers on the flight deck below, which surely would end Ensign Hansen’s life and snuff out his dreamed-of future family. The attack also might spell doom for the second USS Hornet in this Pacific war, as well as for thousands of aviators and sailors.
An alert steward’s mate, scanning the skies for imaginary targets from his gun chair just below Ensign Hansen, spied a real one hurtling downward. Screaming warning to his brothers, he opened fire with his 40mm cannon, and within seconds all the other cooks joined in, blasting their cannons skyward at the diving suicide-bomber. The rest of the ship’s crew and officers, unaware the Hornet was under attack, were trying to figure out what had caused the deafening cacophony on her rear deck.
Ensign Hansen, with a ringside seat to the furious battle, feared these might be his last mortal moments. In the final 500 yards of the suicide-bomber’s dive on the Hornet, the ship’s cooks, furious and ready gunfighters now, found their mark—blasting off the kamikaze’s right wing, igniting the bomber into a fireball that veered left and toward the Hornet’s flight deck. Passing just 30 feet from Ensign Hansen’s battle station, the kamikaze pilot’s visage was clearly discernible through cockpit smoke, and the heat of the passing fireball singed Hansen’s eyebrows. The kamikaze continued its plunge, barely missing the gasoline-, bomb-, and rocket-laden flight deck before splashing into an ocean grave.
Their guns now silent, 18 very excited ship’s cooks were celebrated to the collective cheers of a dazed but exultant and grateful crew. Within minutes, the captain, speaking over the squawk box to all hands, announced on-the-spot promotions for every one of the Hornet’s “Fighting Cooks.”
A war correspondent by the name of Dwight Shepler was on board the Hornet that day and witnessed the event. He interviewed the crew, made sketches, and following the conclusion of the Pacific war, immortalized the attack in the now famous painting displayed at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum.
There was a time in my youth when I did not fully understand the softness in my father’s heart as he raised two young sons amid the turmoil of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. Now older and wiser, I have the perspective to understand his compassion for those rising from humble beginnings, his fondness for the underdog, and his profound respect for what men do when visited by adversity and danger. My father owed not only his own life, but also the lives of his future sons, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren—25 in all—to the unhesitating skill and courage of 18 unselfish young cooks. No wonder he spent the rest of his professional life in a warrior’s uniform, raising two sons to later walk in his footsteps. Like Private Ryan in the Spielberg movie, who received the challenge from his dying rescuer to “Earn this!” so too did young Ensign Hansen that day on the USS Hornet receive his own challenge, from his young rescuers: to remember their dedication and selfless actions, to live the rest of his life with appropriate reverence for their faithful service.