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Kamikaze Down

by Willie Lagarde

During all the firing we did while I was in 3rd division I was behind the muzzles of the 40 MM's and it wasn't until I was transferred to 2nd division and Mount 6 and 8 gun deck that I learned just how loud these guns were they were if heard anywhere in front of the muzzle. I don't suffer from any noticeable hearing loss, but hearing test indicate I no longer hear higher frequency sounds. I believe I lost that to the 40MM mount just forward of our gun deck. This gun can be seen in the 6&8 gun crews picture.

It was a piercing sound that actually hurt the ears. The only hearing protection we had was wads of cotton and often not even that.

Supposedly the ship's strongest firing point was in the port quarter quadrant. I don’t know if this changed after the three quads were added to the starboard side along with four others in 1944. The three on starboard side were midships and no doubt deemed necessary after that Kate was able to bore all the way in though he failed to release his torpedo. Whatever, we sometimes had that mount firing over us. It had been mount #8 before they added the extra guns and I had occasionally stood watches on it when I was in 3rd division.

On one of the days I thought would be my last I was nauseated with a sick headache, made worse by breathing gun smoke and stack gas. All the starboard guns were firing when we got the order to standby. As soon as I took my position behind the gun the ship heeled over from a sharp hard left turn and not having anything to grab onto I went stumbling across the deck and until I hit a bulkhead. When we steadied up on a new course the other Essex with us was out of our view and a Baltimore heavy cruiser was on the port quarter.

Our division officer whose battle station was in air defense aft main fire controller hollered over the PA to get on any target manually and fire on it. One of the few times this happened.

5" guns were not designed for close in air defense. Using them against planes flying low on the water inside the force where gun elevation is near zero is very dangerous. A five inch projectile would do considerable damage and kill many people if we hit a ship. The Marines on Wake island sunk two Jap destroyers with guns the same size as this one. I could see a kamikaze flying very low on the water that appeared to be heading between us and the cruiser* possibly going after the other Essex.

Either our pointer and trainer or Pops on the Mark 51 director was tracking and getting on target and I was watching Rosie’s right hand. We were using proximity fuses which means the powder case and projectile were already in the loading tray and would be rammed and fired when he pulled the ramming lever. Time for a prayer I thought but I was so sick and miserable I said "God if I’m going to die in this war make it today." Then quickly added, "scratch that out God, hear my mother."

Just when I thought Rosie was about to pull the ramming lever there’s the cruiser in the line of fire. We couldn't fire at him nor could the cruiser. When it was clear to fire he was too far aft for us but the quad next to us got off a few rounds. When the plane was almost astern he turned and started gaining altitude, the sunnavabich wanted us all along. All of our planes were loaded with ordnance and gas. I don’t remember if the pilots were in them but we had 500lb bombs and hundreds of gallons of avgas within 20 ft of us. It was up to the two quads on the fantail or the two twenties aft of us and manned by the commissary stewards to stop him or we all die. After he made his turn I couldn’t see him anymore. I rate the next few seconds of not knowing and waiting for the life or death outcome, among the most terrifying of my naval combat experience. They got him and we were told it was the twenties manned by the stewards that did it. God love ‘em!

It was one of the kamikazes that broke through our combat air patrol, and all the guns of our screen until nothing was left to stop him but Yorktown’s guns. *I don’t know exactly at what point or in what frame of mind time perception changes but memory records such events in "slow motion" and they are recalled as such. I’m sure the effect of this phenomenon is unique to the individual observer. Actual clock time from sighting cruiser to splash was probably thirty seconds or less.

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