By Barry McCombs
On Easter Sunday, April 1st 1945, 73 years ago, the deadliest battle of the Pacific campaign began with a naval bombardment to the Island of Okinawa. The battle would last for 82 days and result in horrendous casualties on both sides. Among the large flotilla of ships of the 5th fleet participating in the assault was the U.S.S. Vestal. It had been anchored in Saipan and arrived a couple of weeks after the initial bombardment began. The Vestal was the oldest ship in the Navy, it could still be outfitted with sail and had an illustrious history. At this time it had been made into a repair ship armed with smaller guns including anti-aircraft guns.
Among the gunners mates on this ship was a young sailor named Pete McCombs. Following the example of his two older brothers he had joined the Navy as soon as he was old enough and had just turned 18 about a month before this battle began. Pete recalled that the firepower levied against that island was such that he couldn’t believe anything could have survived it. Indeed that was the idea. It went on day and night until on a large part of the island the only thing left standing was an occasional bare stump of a tree. The 5 week battle to take Iwo Jima had resulted in 26,000 U.S. casualties while 21,000 Japanese had fought to the death and U.S. commanders were trying to do everything possible to avoid a similar struggle. It didn’t work. The Japanese were just as determined to hold off the American advance from their homeland and had nearly 100,000 troops deeply dug into fortifications on this island. In the end the U. S. suffered 50,000 casualties in Okinawa. For the Japanese it was much worse. It is thought that 90 percent of them fought to the death and approximately 150,000 civilians died, some committing suicide rather than face the torture the Japanese propaganda assured them would happen if the Americans overtook the island.
The battle at sea was no less desperately fought. Wave upon wave of Kamikaze pilots attacked the fleet. Thirty-six ships were sunk, 368 were damaged and the Navy suffered the highest number of casualties in any single engagement, 12,000 sailors killed and 50,000 wounded. McCombs manned an anti-aircraft gun during these continuous attacks. He said he would barely lay down in his bunk after fending off one of these attacks and the alarm siren would sound again, calling him to his battle station. His children can attest that the experience stayed with him, because years later he would wake them up on Saturday mornings blowing his boatswain’s pipe and calling out. “Now hear this! Now hear this! All hands on deck! Man your battle stations!” He recalled that at one time during this period he operated his gun for 24 hours straight.
The training that Pete received as a gunners mate would seem very familiar to the video game generation of today. The Navy had devised a way to use movie footage of planes and create a simulator that would react to a hit if the trainee fired a shot with a trajectory that would strike the target. On the ships, guns were loaded with tracer bullets every so many rounds so the gunner could see where the ammunition was flying and adjust his aim accordingly. This created a problem when a suicide pilot could actually guide his plane by following the path of a tracer bullet back to the ship. This probably wasn’t much of a factor at Okinawa because McCombs said that with so many guns firing from so many ships you couldn’t tell your tracers from the other ones being thrown up in the barrage of fire.
The only way to stop a kamikaze plane was to kill the pilot, causing the plane to veer off course, or to damage it sufficiently to make it inoperable. These light planes could be shot full of holes without that happening. There had been suicide runs by pilots on both sides of the conflict. It was not unheard of for U.S. pilots to make a suicide run at a Japanese ship if they believed their plane would not make it back. The Japanese had a historical and cultural heritage of suicide and for them the kamikaze attacks actually made numerical sense. Their experience told them that to score 12 hits towards the end of the war they had to send up 300 planes and 220 wouldn’t make it back. 60 planes piloted by kamikaze could make the same 12 hits.
The other danger that the ships faced were suicide attempts by Japanese soldiers that would load a small raft with explosives and swim out into the harbor to attempt to blow a hole in the side of a vessel. McCombs recalled being on sentry duty one night armed with a shotgun when his ship was approached by one of these rafts. He emptied the shotgun at the swimmer and then as the raft drifted slowly with the current between the other nearby ships he could hear sentries on the other ships continuing to fire away at it.
After the battle was over, McCombs was assigned to a detail that dove into the sunken ships in the harbor to retrieve the bodies of slain sailors. This was a gruesome task as body parts would sometimes separate as they attempted to haul the corpses to the surface. The water in the harbor was covered in oil from the many sunken ships and planes, and McCombs told how when the detail would go into the galley to eat, the other sailors would get as far away from them as possible because of the stench they gave off from being immersed in those oily waters.
McCombs was bothered by the battle hardened response of some of the U.S. combatants to their experience and told how some had gathered bags of gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers or would make a lamp out of a skull. He made the observation that war brought out the natural inclinations of people, giving those that had sadistic characteristics the opportunity to exercise them while at the same time making those who were kind by nature more compassionate. For McCombs, his war experiences seemed to have had the effect of intensifying his compassionate side as evidenced by the many acts of service he did for other people, including the most downtrodden, during the rest of his life.
The battle in Okinawa was the last battle that McCombs would participate in although not the his last experience with death and suffering for he would see both again as he later served as a shore patrolman in post war Hong Kong. For the sailors on board the Vestal at this time, however, World War 2 ended unexpectedly when President Truman made the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki based in good part on the terrible death toll of Okinawa for both the Americans and the Japanese. They had expected that the worst lay ahead of them as they knew the Japanese would not surrender and an attack on the mainland was imminent. Now they experienced the relief of knowing that they would probably make it home alive as they went about the task of repairing the many damaged vessels in the fleet.