The Ship That Would Not Die
by F. Julian Becton with Joseph Morschauser III
Pictorial Histories Publishing, 1980, 295 pages
The destroyer Laffey (DD-724) fought for 80 minutes against 22
Japanese kamikaze planes and conventional bombers on April 16, 1945. Although
the ship's gunners downed many incoming planes, seven suicide planes crashed
into the ship, and two other planes dropped bombs that hit the ship. These attacks killed
32 and wounded 71, but Laffey survived despite fires, smashed and
inoperable guns, and a jammed rudder. F. Julian Becton, Laffey's
commander during World War II, wrote this thorough history of the ship's
distinguished wartime service at Normandy, the Philippine Islands, and Okinawa.
Joseph Morschauser III, a former writer for Look magazine, co-authored this
book's 12 chapters that tell the story of the ship that was hit the most times by
kamikaze planes in a single day.
Becton, while executive officer aboard the destroyer Aaron
Ward, witnessed the sinking of the first destroyer named Laffey
during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. He later became
commander of the Aaron Ward in March 1943, but his command lasted only
three weeks before being sunk after five Japanese planes hit or nearly missed
his ship with bombs. The Navy then assigned him to command the
newly-built destroyer Laffey, commissioned in February 1944. He
continued as commander of the ship until July 1945, after the damaged ship
returned to the U.S. mainland for repairs. Becton became famous for his reply to an
officer who asked him whether they would have to abandon Laffey after
several kamikaze planes had hit her. "We still have guns that can shoot.
I'll never abandon ship as long as a gun will fire!" He continued to serve
in the Navy after World War II and reached the rank of Rear Admiral.
Chapters 1 and 2 describe the sinking of the original
destroyer named Laffey and Becton's assignment as commander of the new Laffey.
Chapter 3 gives a description of the new ship being built at Bath Iron Works in
Maine, and the next chapter covers the ship's shakedown training in Bermuda.
Chapters 5 and 6 tell about Laffey's first battle assignment to provide
support for the Allied invasion of France in June 1944. Chapters 7 to 10 cover Laffey's participation in many
Pacific battles from her arrival at Ulithi in early November 1944 to the
beginning days of the Battle of Okinawa in early April 1945. The destroyer had
numerous experiences with kamikaze planes during this period. The crew
witnessed suicide crashes into other ships, shot at incoming planes, and
provided aid to other ships that had been hit by kamikaze aircraft.
Although this book includes descriptions of many kamikaze
attacks and resultant damage, the author does little more than speculate on
sources of the attacks and motivations of the pilots. He does explain the
typical view of kamikaze pilots held by Americans during the war. Americans
could not understand how any sane person, no matter how patriotic, could commit
preplanned self-murder by smashing into a ship with a plane (p. 159). The words
Becton uses to describe kamikaze pilots illustrate his and his crew's attitude
at the time: "crazy," "religious fanatics," "little
devils," and "obsessed."
Chapters 11 and 12 include over 20 pages describing the
attack by 22 Japanese planes on Laffey. On April 14, 1945, the ship had
arrived at her radar picket station about 30 miles north of Okinawa, where the
ship had the duty of early detection and warning of kamikaze planes headed
toward the rest of the American fleet. Many kamikaze pilots decided to attack
destroyers on the picket line rather than try to find a larger target such as a
carrier or battleship about 50 miles behind the picket line. On April 16, 1945,
Japanese planes attacked Laffey from all angles (see overhead diagram of
attacking planes). Although the book has 16 pages of photos, no photo of these
attacks exists since the two men on board who had a camera were among the 32 men
Ship's battered after 5-inch
hit by two bomb-laden kamikaze planes
The multiple plane attacks on Laffey provide a good
example of the great difficulty in counting the exact number of suicide attacks
on Allied ships during World War II. Both conventional bombers and suicide
planes attacked the American fleet from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. on April 16, 1945.
Vice Admiral Ugaki, commander of the Japanese strike, writes in
his diary that the following planes attacked during this time: about 40 dive
bombers and fighter bombers, 12 Ginga bombers, 6 ōka weapons (piloted
glider bombs released from Betty bombers), 15 army fighters, and 50 special
attack (suicide) planes (Ugaki 1991, 587-8). Laffey gunners shot down several planes clear
of the ship, but it is difficult to determine with certainty whether these
pilots intended to crash into the ship or just to drop a bomb. Even planes that
hit the ship may have not intended originally to commit a suicide attack but
may have decided to crash into the ship after their planes had been hit and
damaged. The Japanese Navy and Army counted pilot and crew deaths by special
attack only if a plane had been designated for special attack prior to sortie and did not
return. In contrast, the American Navy counted kamikaze attacks based on the
perceived intention of the attacking plane.
F. Julian Becton
The author focuses on Laffey's history, but he also
shares some personal stories. However, his comments seem somewhat guarded and
almost all positive, probably due to his high rank. Throughout the war he
mentions his relationship with Imogene Carpenter, a popular singer and Broadway
star who he had grown up with in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They exchanged letters
and met together a few times during the war, but they decided to go their
separate ways soon after the Laffey returned to the States for repair.
Becton provides only a few personal details about his men, and most of these
sound like a commander praising his crew. One heartwarming incident concerns an
unnamed problem crewman who pled guilty to charges of disrespect toward a
superior and disobedience of orders. He was to be fined and given a bad-conduct
discharge from the Navy. Becton realized that a bad-conduct discharge would be a lifetime problem
for the crewman, so the commander decided to remit the
bad-conduct discharge pending one year of good behavior. He ended up being one of
the most dependable crewmen.
The Epilogue briefly summarizes Laffey's postwar
service after completion of her repairs and Becton's postwar career until his
retirement in 1966. The Navy decommissioned Laffey in 1975, but she has
been on display since 1981 as a museum ship at Patriots Point in Charleston,
Laffey received a Presidential Unit Citation for "courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her
officers and men" as she fought to "defeat the enemy against almost
insurmountable odds." The Ship That Would Not Die gives the
remarkable story of why the American public considered this WWII destroyer as a
Ugaki, Matome. 1991. Fading Victory: The Diary of Admiral Matome
Ugaki, 1941-1945. Translated by Masataka Chihaya. Edited by Donald M. Goldstein
and Katherine V. Dillon. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.