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LCT 746 (right) and LCT 1184
during salvage operations

For Five Seconds, A Gunner
by Daniel A. Kitchen, Lt. USNR (Retired)

In combat and emergencies demanding physical action, seconds stretch. A minute seems an hour. Movement in slow motion becomes real. And the event is seared into memory, with detailed recall more than half a century later. For me at least fear, if felt at all, comes after the fact. And so it was, this cloudless spring day on a semi-tropical sea.

Bloody fighting raged on Okinawa in mid April, about three weeks after the initial landings, and we were under air attack. LCT 746 was nested with our sister ship, LCT 1184, anchored about a hundred yards from a sandy beach at the south edge of Ie Shima, a small island off Okinawa’s west coast. On that beach the Navy and Marines had set up a field hospital, now crowded with medical personnel and wounded. In the anchorage to the south were a hundred or more ships of every description . . . freighters, landing ships, destroyers, aircraft carriers and two battleships. Nearest to us, perhaps a hundred yards away, a freighter flying the Dutch flag busily unloaded supplies into small boats that would ferry items ashore.

A twin engine Japanese attack bomber had dropped its explosive cargo out of our field of vision and to what effect I cannot say. We watched as it flew north, high overhead, attempting to escape three US Marine Corsairs. The Japanese plane was fast . . . very fast. The Corsairs, among our fastest fighters, were having difficulty catching the unwelcome intruder. I estimate that he was flying at 3500 to 4000 feet and obviously hoping to return home. But our Marine flyers were closing in, one directly behind and one to either side of the enemy. The Japanese pilot realized that evasive action would not prevail and, to our alarm, decided to go out in a blaze of glory.

With a tight 180-degree turn, he came back over the island, directly toward us, and nosed down. Two LCTs tied side to side probably looked large from the sky and suddenly we appeared to be his selected target. As anti-aircraft fire from the ships in our anchorage blossomed the Marine pilots wisely broke off their pursuit. Shipboard gunners tended to not take time to identify friend or foe in the sky. If a plane were closing, it was assumed not friendly. My gunners, standing ready at general quarters, opened fire while the enemy was more than a mile away, far out of effective range.

Our LCT had three machine guns, two 20-millimeter and one 50-caliber. I was standing next to the 50-caliber gun that had been scavenged from an airplane. Not well suited for shipboard use, it was effective if fired in bursts but would quickly overheat and jam if fired steadily. Not only that, but with barrel elevated at 60 degrees as it was, its explosive projectiles seemed likely to fall into the canvas-covered hospital on the beach.

“Hold fire until he’s within range,” I shouted. Joe, a young seaman ignored my repeated cries and fired steadily, the tracers obviously falling ineffective, far under the path of the oncoming airplane. I literally pulled Joe from the gun and took over.

During the last month I had watched thousands, probably millions of tracers fall harmless behind and below attacking Japanese planes. Often when off to one side of the action we’d see an enemy plane boring in followed by a curtain of hot steel, most of it trailing the aircraft by a hundred yards or more. Our young Navy gunners, even on the big battleships, simply seemed never to allow for the speed of aircraft and the effect of gravity on projectiles.

This plane came head on so speed was not a factor. I elevated the gun to allow for the effect of gravity and waited, watching the plane grow larger. When the enemy is closing at 700 feet per second it’s amazing how long one second lasts. At a range of about 1500 feet, I squeezed the trigger for a 2-second burst. Time to do or die.

But time was up. I sent not one projectile towards that plane. The overheated gun had jammed and, helpless, I watched the attacking plane grow large. Our two 20-millimeter guns, manned by our qualified gunners, were firing but to no avail. The kamikaze was within 100 feet, a split second away, and seemed to take up the entire sky before we knew our LCTs were not the final target.

The pilot had reconsidered. The plane abruptly leveled off, clearing our mast by what seemed inches, and crashed into the much larger Dutch freighter, sliding across the main deck in a ball of flame, then falling out of view and into the sea on the far side, carrying with it men, rigging and one manned gun tub. Flames from ruptured fuel tanks enveloped the deck amidships. A dozen or so men died instantly, many more were seriously burned or injured.

Only once in a lifetime have I aimed at an enemy and pulled the trigger. That one time was an exercise in futility. But fortune smiled, and I live.

August 2001

Three days or so later I watched that same Dutch ship shoot two US fighter planes out of the sky, ignoring repeated radioed pleas to hold fire, that these were friendly aircraft just taking off from the Ie Shima air strip. The planes were clearly marked but gunners who have just lost friends and fellow sailors to air attack tend to fire first and ask questions later. In fairness to the Dutch, there was a language barrier and even the possibility that their radio was not tuned to the correct frequency.

Please contact Dan Kitchen if you have any comments or questions about this story