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DD 522: Diary of a Destroyer
by Ron Surels
Valley Graphics, 1994, 208 pages

Rear Admiral F. Julian Becton, who commanded the destroyer USS Laffey (DD 724) during WWII, wrote the Foreword to this fine history of the destroyer USS Luce (DD 522). Both destroyers bravely fought against kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Okinawa. On April 16, 1945, Laffey barely remained afloat after seven suicide planes crashed into the ship and two other planes dropped bombs on the ship. On May 4, 1945, Luce sank within three minutes or so when three or four kamikaze aircraft did damage to the ship causing the deaths of 149 men. Becton's history of Laffey, The Ship That Would Not Die, stands as one of the best histories about a ship attacked by Japanese kamikaze pilots. DD 522: Diary of a Destroyer proves itself to be at least the equal of Becton's book with its thorough research, clear writing, and numerous firsthand accounts.

Ron Surels, a minister and former educator, wrote this book as part of his favorite hobby of researching American military history. He became interested in writing the story of USS Luce and her crew when he attended a reunion in Philadelphia in 1992. Over 60 survivors and relatives of survivors contributed to the book. Surels skillfully weaves their accounts into the chronological history of the ship taken from the Daily Deck Log Summary and various war diaries and action reports. The author lets the former crewmen speak for themselves with extended quotations throughout the book. Sixteen pages of photos show many Luce crewmembers during the war and around the time when the book was published.

The book's first part covers Luce's commissioning in June 1943 until the destroyer went to the Aleutian Islands in November 1943. Parts 2 to 4 deal with Luce's battles in the Aleutians, the Philippines, and Okinawa. The narrative never becomes a dry chronological account of every date and every action but rather focuses on personal accounts including humorous incidents. The veterans' stories frequently describe the same incidents, but the different perspectives lead to a better understanding of what exactly happened, especially with the Japanese kamikaze attack that sank the destroyer.

Luce served in Alaska's Aleutian Islands for nine months from November 1943 to August 1944. The destroyer participated in two raids on Paramushiro Island, one of the northernmost islands of the Japanese homeland at that time. The raid in the darkness of the early morning of February 4, 1944, was the first naval attack by American warships on the Japanese homeland. The former crewmembers have quite a few funny stories about their stay in the Aleutians, but the thing everyone remembered most was the intense cold as described by Marty Nyholt (p. 31):

The weather in the Aleutians and the North Pacific was unbelievably bad. Perpetual fog, cold, snow, freezing temperatures and stormy seas. I think that the sun came out nine times in seven months. The water temperatures were below freezing and a man would die in something like five minutes should he have to go into it. We had a fellow fall overboard in Attu and fished him out in about three minutes. Too late, he suffered so much from exposure that he was transferred to the hospital in Dutch Harbor and was subsequently discharged. We located several downed aircraft during our tour, but the crews were always dead from exposure, even though they were in their life rafts.

In the Philippines, the destroyer got the nickname of Lucky Luce as she survived Japanese air attacks and shot down three enemy aircraft in January 1945. However, Luce's luck did not continue long since from April 1, 1945, she was assigned to various radar picket stations surrounding Okinawa to protect the main American fleet. During breakfast on May 4, 1945, radar detected about 90 enemy planes approaching from the north about 100 miles out. American fighter planes picked off some of them, but two Luce surviving crewmen remember hearing a report through their earphones that 28 Japanese aircraft were circling Radar Picket Station No. 12, where the destroyer Luce and four other smaller ships prepared for battle [1].

The first kamikaze plane to damage Luce nearly hit the bridge and splashed off the starboard side. The plane's bomb that exploded on impact knocked out much of the ship's electrical system and caused some casualties from the shrapnel. After that, the crew's accounts of the number and types of planes that hit Luce become somewhat inconsistent. Surels tries to summarize the several stories that contain quite a few discrepancies (p. 127):

In less than a minute after the first plane splashed off the starboard bow, at least two other planes had simultaneously hit the aft section, and possibly a third crashed close to midships on the port side. . . . One of the planes that hit, in all probability, carried a bomb which blew up in the aft magazine, the combined explosion of the ammunition and the bomb blowing out a section of the bottom of the ship, thereby giving it the coup de grace, as the ship had probably already started to sink because of the damage caused by the first plane which splashed close to the ship and exploded.

The author organizes the numerous eyewitness accounts into six chapters that cover each aspect of the kamikaze attack and its aftermath. The chapters describe the planes circling, the actual attack, the carnage, abandoning ship, time in the water, and the rescue. These chapters contain less than a handful of specific times and few references to what happened to other ships at the same radar picket station [2]. Despite the many years that passed between the sinking of Luce and the interviews for this book, the survivors graphically describe what happened. Orville Hiles describes what happened to him when one of the kamikaze planes exploded (p. 133):

Next thing I knew, I was standing on my head in the corner of the turret, in the safety net, and my clothes were all burned off. I only had about a six inch strip around my belt with my keys, and the rest, I think, was basically nude, with the exception of my life jacket, which was burning. I threw that right off. Suffering from burns, I wandered towards the wardroom to get some medical attention.

Cliff Jones tells of a gruesome shark attack that he witnessed (pp. 160-1):

As I was helping a man get aboard one of the little ships, two long grey shapes quickly went under me through the water, about ten or twelve feet down. They were sharks, going for our barber—I can't recall his name—and while he had his life jacket on, he was bleeding. He was swimming toward the ship when those two sharks got him. It was an awful, bloody mess as they chopped him and pulled him under. He disappeared. I never wanted to go into the ocean again. The fear of sharks was imbedded in me.

In contrast to F. Julian Becton's history of the destroyer Laffey, which gives the captain's perspective, this history of the destroyer Luce presents the feelings and experiences of various surviving officers and crewmen. The Epilogue describes the annual Luce reunions that started in 1985 and that allowed survivors to share their feelings that many had buried for several decades. J.C. Phillips, who had been making breakfast for the crew when interrupted by approaching kamikaze planes, was able to make breakfast again for the survivors at the 1988 reunion aboard the museum ship USS Kidd, a destroyer of the same class as USS Luce.

Photo of USS Luce (DD 522) taken in October 1944


1. The four other ships at Radar Picket Station No. 12 were LSM(R) 190, LCS(L) 81, LCS(L) 84, and LCS(L) 118.

2. LSM(R) 190 sank after being hit by a kamikaze plane.