Thursday, October 8, 2015


Seki's unit taking off October 25, 1944 (A6M2, 301st Hikotaki, 201st Kokutai, ikishima-Tai)

St. Lo's magazine detonates after Seki's attack.

A formation of nine more Shinpu took off from Mabalacat. Leading the group was Lieutenant Yukio Seki, one of twenty-four volunteers who stepped forward—every Mabalacat aviator, to a man—after Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi’s 19 October meeting.

Seki, 23, was at once an odd and natural choice to command the mission. An Imperial Japanese Naval Academy graduate fresh out of advanced flight school, Seki was a skilled pilot with some carrier-based combat experience. Seki had more in common with the Taffy 3 pilots than the Japanese flight novices whose deficiencies in age, skill, and experience would make them prime “body crashing” fodder in the months ahead. At the same time, though, Seki was a poster boy for the best in Japan’s latest generation of military manhood. He was wolfishly handsome, trim, and ramrod straight. 

As the son of a widowed mother, Seki’s pedigree was unpretentious and unassailable. He was the personification of the new samurai, a role model and sacrificial example for others—many others it turned out—to emulate and follow.

The group’s official name became the Shinpu (a compound noun, written using the Chinese characters for “god” and “wind”). Special Attack Unit with Seki as commander. Composed of all the pilots and remaining aircraft of what had formerly been the navy’s 201st Air Group, Shinpu Special Attack Unit was organized into four flight sections, each section’s name chosen to symbolize an essential virtue of Japanese manhood. The aircraft resources—twenty-six Zekes—were further divided: half would be used for body crashing, half for escorts and witnesses.

Ready to go and perhaps as motivated as they might ever be, Seki and the other original volunteers nevertheless had to linger several days before realizing their fate. During that time, there were a number of missions, but each was either aborted or produced dismal results—mistaken target coordinate s, mechanical failures, planes lost in bad weather, or jumped by American C.A.P.s. As new aircraft filtered into the Philippines during these frustrating days, they became part of Shinpu Special Attack Unit. Organized into new flights with their own glorious names, the planes were ferried south to airstrips on Cebu Island and then onto Mindanao to be closer to the developing action.

Meanwhile, while every Mabalacat mission got its ceremonial send-off, the fanfare for each became increasingly self-conscious and subdued. Whether mission takeoffs sparked pride, resignation, or dread, “failed” returns implicitly carried the stain of shame. When grounded, the original volunteers sat idle, free to relax (if they possibly could) and to contemplate their destiny. Though squadron mates offered encouragement and consolation, an ominous question loomed: Just how many times could a person set off prepared to die and return alive?

As it was, for all the glory that had been initially showered on this first contingent of body crashers, they might end up as no spearhead at all. Though officially unsanctioned, there’d already been earlier body crashing episodes—some perhaps as early as mid-1944. Now these new units—not to mention ones being formed by the IJA—might grab the first glory, dulling the first volunteers’ legacy while eventually leaving them just as dead.

Then, at 1020 on 25 October, Seki’s formation of Zekes broke through and made contact with Taffy 3.

Now Things Will Start Rolling
One Zeke dived at Kitkun Bay (CVE-71). Ron Vaughn, an 18-year-old Texan positioned as a lookout on Kitkun Bay’s after port catwalk, watched as the plane climbed, rolled, and plunged straight down toward the flight deck. Kitkun Bay’s 40-mm gunfire battered the plane. Vaughn saw a portion of the plane’s tail section crumple, causing it to veer drunkenly from its trajectory. One of the attacker’s wings managed just a glancing blow to the ship’s port-side catwalk—but its bomb exploded in the water just off the bow, with blast and shrapnel claiming a score of casualties.

Moments later, Kalinin Bay took a deeper mauling from a plane that succeeded in crashing its deck. Two other Zekes were shot down and two more driven off by gunfire from Fanshaw Bay and White Plains (CVE-66). But then the remaining three planes drew a bead on St. Lo.

The wing of one Japanese plane, shot down by St. Lo, fluttered right in front of Tom Van Brunt, barely missing his Avenger. Then he saw another plane careen toward St. Lo and watched as it too was shot out of the air. What Van Brunt didn’t see—and what St. Lo gunners missed as well—was a third Japanese plane approaching astern. Van Brunt recalled later: “He came right up the wake, pulled up, nosed over, and then crashed into the flight deck.”

Aboard St. Lo, crewmen were caught in the abrupt squeeze of contradictory events. First, they’d exhaled and stood down after spending the early morning square in the crosshairs of a Japanese fleet. Then they—and particularly the flight deck crews—were working furiously to recover aircraft. And now back to GQ as bogeys snooped in.

Few eyewitnesses agreed completely about what happened next. Many were convinced the entire Japanese aircraft sliced through St. Lo’s flight deck, igniting fuel and ordnance in the hangar area below. Brock Short, 19, a signalman positioned on the island just aft of St. Lo’s conning bridge, instead was sure he saw a bomb drop from the plane’s wing just before the plane itself disintegrated atop the deck. It was this bomb, Short was convinced, which “doomed our ship.”

This much was certain. In the next twenty-seven minutes, as explosions rocked and fractured St. Lo, all its crewmen abruptly turned their attentions to the singular, urgent business of survival.

Larry Collins, 29, one of St. Lo’s communications officers, was in the wardroom when GQ sounded. He jumped up and sprinted toward his GQ station on the fantail. His accustomed route was through the hangar deck, “but the Lord steered me another way.” Collins went up the usual ladder, but instead of getting off at the hangar deck, he kept climbing to the gallery level. The plane hit while he was still climbing. Collins turned and ran forward. Explosions seemed to chase him. They came one after another—maybe a half dozen—and with each explosion the ship shuddered.

Hearing blasts, Radar Technician Evan H. “Holly” Crawforth ran from the mess deck to a forward ladder also leading to the hangar deck. Someone cautioned him: “Don’t go up.” He started to turn back, “but I just had to see.” Crawforth glimpsed smoke and fire sweeping across the deck and a huge hole in the flight deck just behind the elevator. He ducked back below and took a roundabout series of passageways back to his duty station in Radio 2.

Radio 2 was dark but filled with sailors. “I told them to get the hell out. We went over to radar, which had a door opening onto the catwalk.” The door was jammed but they quickly unhinged it, tumbled out, and ran forward along the starboard catwalk, away from the smoke and fire. Crawforth inhaled the acrid scent of exploded ordnance. After emerging unscratched from the morning’s ordeal, it was hard to believe they’d finally been hit.

Joe Lehans, 27, St. Lo’s radar officer, was in that same gallery level radar compartment when he felt the first jolt of the crash. Dust puffed from the air ducts and settled across the room. Then there were explosions—and it was clear the ship was listing. The radar equipment and everything associated with it were classified Top Secret. Lehans knew what he had to do. First, he grabbed an armload of messages and instruction manuals and stuffed them into a weighted canvas bag. Next, he loaded and cocked his .45-caliber pistol. With the weighted sack in one hand, Lehans backed out of the compartment like a bank robber with his gun blazing, shooting up screens and consoles. When he got outside to the catwalk, he heaved the weighted bag overboard.

Briefly, inexplicably, Lehans then started toward his stateroom intent on retrieving his Remington electric shaver. Very quickly he let that idea go. Lehans did, however, dip back into the darkened radar room to retrieve a canvas bag stuffed with his own assortment of survival gear—gloves, an extra life belt, several .45 ammunition clips, and pieces of chocolate in watertight containers.
On St. Lo’s bridge Seaman Bill Pumphrey was getting final instructions from the ship’s skipper Captain Francis McKenna. Pumphrey, a 20-year-old from the West Texas plains town of Paint Rock, was the Captain’s Bridge Talker, a position of both privilege and isolation. Several minutes before, McKenna had calmly given the order to abandon ship and would by tradition be the last man to leave. 

Now McKenna was releasing Pumphrey so he could go over the side. He thrust a sheaf of papers into the young sailor’s hands, ordering Pumphrey to take care of the papers, but by no means to be killed or captured while they were in his possession. Pumphrey gulped audibly, rolled the papers into a tube, thrust them under his shirt and belt, removed his talker’s headphones, saluted McKenna, and started for the ladder leading to St. Lo’s flight deck.

Meanwhile, Larry Collins joined lots of others jammed onto St. Lo’s forecastle. He’d been there less than five minutes when another ship’s officer called down from the flight deck. “Captain says abandon ship.” Some men headed for knotted escape ropes being rigged over the side. Some jumped. One man near Larry hopped immediately to the rail, perched there for a moment, then leaped. 

Windmilling his arms and legs, the sailor gleefully shouted “30 days leave!” all the way into the water.

When Holly Crawforth got forward, sailors were evacuating the wounded—putting life jackets on them, looping lines around their torsos, and lowering them painstakingly to the water. The process, Crawforth remembered, “was just too slow. Finally, all we could do was put jackets on them and drop them over the side.”

Crawforth got to a knotted line hanging from one of the forward gun tubs. He didn’t get very far on the line—maybe ten feet. “The man above me lost his grip and peeled the rest of us off as he fell.” 

Crawforth hit the water hard and plunged deep. When he finally surfaced, Crawforth tried to use his life belt but it was torn: the last of the CO2 used to inflate it just bubbled out. He ditched the belt and began swimming.

Larry Collins jumped from the rail still wearing his helmet, and when he hit the water the chin strap wrenched his jaw and his teeth dug deep into his tongue. Collins’ mouth filled with blood as he swam away to windward. Finally, he turned on his back and inflated his life belt. Survivors gathered together and waited. St. Lo was drifting downwind and still exploding. “Her whole port side flew up in the air, and pretty soon she was gone.”

It had taken the wounded St. Lo barely thirty minutes to sink. She carried with her to the bottom of the Philippine Sea the extinguished lives of 140 sailors and airmen. There were more muffled explosions once she’d submerged and then, all at once, silence. The Divine Wind had claimed St. Lo as its first kill.

There was little for Tom Van Brunt and his shaken crew to do now. A landing refuge had been pulled out from under him and, along with it, who knew how many good friends and squadron mates. Using right rudder, Van Brunt nosed the Avenger west toward Leyte and Tacloban where, with more than a little luck, he, Frederickson, and South were able to land in one piece. Burt Bassett, Van Brunt’s University of Florida fraternity brother was standing near the runway as Van Brunt’s shrapnel-ridden Avenger touched down and taxied to a stop. He was surprised to see Van Brunt emerging from the cockpit—they’d not seen or heard from each other since before the war. They had some catching up to do. The day was over for both, they’d each lost a ship, but they’d each come through it without a scratch.

Back in his headquarters in Manila, Onishi received reports from the surviving observer pilots from the morning missions out of Mindanao and Mabalacat. The first strike reported hits on at least two carriers, with each set ablaze. The results of the second strike—Onishi knew it had been led by Seki—were even better: four American carriers hit, with at least two severely damaged. Sensitive to the imperative of supplying inspiring results to his emperor and his countrymen, Onishi fairly leaped to the conclusion that his body crashers’ morning work had sunk six aircraft carriers. “Okay,” he muttered, leaning back in his chair. “Now things will start rolling.”

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