On the morning of 16 April 1945, US Sumner class destroyer DD-724, the USS Laffey, was assigned the most dangerous job in the US Navy: radar picket for the Fifth Fleet off of Okinawa. The USS Laffey was expected to identify Japanese air attacks originating from the Japanese Home Islands and direct American fighters to intercept. The problem was that many Kamikaze attacked the first American ships they saw, which invariably were the radar pickets.
Just after dawn while most men were in breakfast chow line, the first Japanese bomber was spotted radar and the crew raced to battlestations. The single D3A Val divebomber with its distinctive fixed landing gear retreated from the Laffey’s anti-aircraft fire. An obvious scout, the Val was a harbinger for the hell about to descend on the Laffey.
At 0825, the Laffey identified a large raid of 320 Japanese aircraft. They directed the fighters to intercept. At 0830, four Val divebombers attacked. Twelve minutes later, 50 planes broke off from the main formation to attack the Laffey, including 22 Kamikaze. The Laffey had just four older FM2 Wildcat Fighters from the escort carrier USS Shamrock Bay flying top cover.
The captain, Commander Frederick Becton, ordered the Laffey to flank speed while the helmsman made frequent radical course corrections to disorient the attacking Japanese. The first Kamikaze hit started a fire that the flank speed exacerbated. Becton slowed the ship down to contain the flames, but this just convinced the Japanese that the Laffey was crippled and ready to sink. After several more strikes, Becton increased the speed and the crew fought the flames, flooding, and Japanese simultaneously.
The Laffey, the four Wildcats, and eventually twelve F4U Corsair fighters desperately fought off the Japanese attacks for over 80 minutes. In that time, the Laffey took serious damage: she was hit by six Kamikaze, four bombs, strafed three times, and was even clipped by a Corsair whose daring pilot prevented an attacking Val dive bomber from slamming into the bridge. By 1030, the Laffey was on fire and out of ammunition, listing to port, and the stern was almost underwater due to flooding. She had all of her 5” guns knocked out, half of her 20mm and 40mm AA mounts destroyed, all of her masts knocked down, and the American flag hung off of a makeshift pole.
When asked if they should abandon ship, Becton replied, “No! I’ll never abandon ship as long as a single gun will fire.” He did not hear a nearby lookout who said under his breath, “And if I can find one man to fire it…”
At 1033, 24 more Corsairs and F6F Hellcats arrived and shot down the last of the attackers to much jubilation from the remaining crew. The USS Laffey suffered 32 dead and 71 wounded in two hours of fighting.
The USS Laffey is now a museum ship off of Patriots Point, outside of Charleston, South Carolina.