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Fred W. Mitchell
Seaman First Class

Forever Grateful
by Fred W. Mitchell
On May 28, 1945, two Japanese kamikaze planes hit the destroyer Drexler within about five minutes of each other. The ship sank 49 seconds after the second plane hit, with 158 men killed and 51 men wounded.

I was in the mess hall, and it was about 0700. I had just finished breakfast of pancakes when G.Q. (General Quarters) sounded. We all rushed to our battle stations.

My G.Q. station was "lookout" on Mount #43 (quad 40 mm) on the starboard side. After arriving at my post and with all the excitement, I forgot to put on my life jacket, after putting on the phones, steel helmet, and binoculars. It was lying at my feet on the deck. I looked through my binoculars and saw a twin engine Frances heading straight for us. I yelled into my phones to the gun captain and gave the approximate bearing, elevation angle, and range of the incoming plane.

Our gun crew was already signed in on the plane and was firing straight at it. I watched as our barrage of shells and tracers went right into him. We expected the plane to explode at any moment before reaching the ship. The plane, even though riddled with our gunfire, kept coming towards us. Suddenly the plane was upon us. The wing was about 80 ft. wide. I could even see the windshield. Everything happened so fast. I knew it was going to crash into our gun.

In an instant, I remembered what one of the Marines we transported from Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal told me. He said that when you know that an explosion is going to occur, "hit the deck and lay flat on your stomach." I did this and it saved my life.

Just as I hit the deck, the plane crashed into our gun. There was a tremendous explosion, and debris was falling all around me. After a few moments, I looked up and got up on my feet. It was a horrible sight. The gun mount and the crew were gone. Everything was on fire. It appeared that I was the only survivor until I learned at a [Drexler] Reunion that Duke Payne also survived when he was blown into the water.

I was dazed and felt numb. I felt my arms and legs to make sure they were still there. I wiped my face and felt blood. A mate rushed by, and I asked him if my face was gone. He said it was cut but nothing serious. Then he hurried away.

I knew the ammo from our gun and the port 40 mm would explode. I found my life jacket and binoculars on the deck and picked them up. I went down the ladder to the starboard deck. The P.A. system was dead. I started to run towards the midship passageway. I ran into an officer going in the opposite direction. I don't remember who he was. He yelled at me and asked me where my battle station was, and I told him. He ordered me to go back to my battle station. I told him that it was blown up and on fire, but he still ordered me to go back.

I started climbing back up the ladder, and the gun captain from Mount #3 was trying to climb down. He looked at me in disbelief and asked me where I was going. I told him that I was ordered back to Mount #43 by an officer. He said the mount was no longer there and the ammo was going to blow up any minute. He told me to get back down the ladder, which I did. I again found my way to the midship passageway without incident. The officer I saw previously was not there, and I never saw him again.

Shortly thereafter, there was another tremendous explosion, as the second plane hit. Suddenly the deck started to tilt, and the ship began to roll over. I knew that I wouldn't have time to put on my life jacket, which I was still holding. I dropped it on the deck and grabbed the lifelines. I started sliding down the side of the ship. The bottom of the ship was lifting out of the water as it was rolling over. I ended up in the water, and I still had my foul weather jacket on, but I knew that I had to get away from the ship so I started to swim. I swam until I was nearly exhausted. I stopped to look back, and I saw the bow pointed toward the sky, and then it disappeared.

My jacket was waterlogged and heavy, and I could not get it off. The weight of it was starting to make it very difficult to stay afloat. All of a sudden, a mate appeared and asked me if he could help me. I told him that I could not get out of my jacket. Fortunately, he had a knife and cut the jacket loose. He asked me if I was okay, and since I was no longer weighted down with the jacket I thought that I could stay afloat. He then took off. I think he saved my life, and I don't know his name.

I swam, floated, and treaded water for what seemed like an eternity. My strength and energy were once again leaving me, and I could hardly keep my head above water. I saw an officer with a life jacket on, and he saw me. He helped me stay afloat and together, with his help, we got to a raft. There must have been 30 to 35 men hanging on to it. There was no more room to hang on. One of the mates told me to hang on to his belt. His name was Stephen Marinari, SoM3/c (Soundman Third Class). I will never forget him either.

The next crisis I encountered was the burning oil. As it came close to the raft, everyone started to yell and panic. The officer, who had helped me previously, told us to stop and to paddle with our hands to get away from the fire. It worked, and we managed to get clear of the burning oil.

We saw the LCS (Landing Craft, Support) in the distance and paddled towards it. When we got close to it, we thought they would throw a line, but they did not. We started to drift away. One of the men on our raft swam toward the LCS and yelled at them to throw him a line, which they did. He swam back and tied it to the raft, and they pulled us alongside. We finally climbed aboard. Thank God for the solid deck under my feet. I am forever grateful to all those shipmates who helped me that day.

Reprinted with permission of USS Drexler DD-741 Survivors Reunion Association


Fred Mitchell's story about the sinking of Drexler comes from pp. 130-1 of the following book:

Brown, Charles D., comp., and Robert L. Anteau, ed. 2002. Historical Review: U.S.S. Drexler DD-741. 3rd ed. Privately published.

Minor corrections and editing have been made to the originally published article.