Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, May 6, 2020: A Ship That Can’t Be Licked
Here we see the proud new Robert H. Smith-class light minelayer USS Aaron Ward (DM-34), resplendent in fresh Camouflage Measure 32, Design 11a, on 17 November 1944. Less than six months later, she would look vastly different after an engagement that took place some 75 years ago this week.
The dozen RH Smith-class DMs were all laid down in 1943-44 as Allen M. Sumner-class destroyers at three different yards but were converted during their construction into fast, very well armed, minelayers. They retained their strong gun armament to include a half-dozen 5″/38 cal guns in a trio of twin Mk 38 mounts, a full dozen 40mm Bofors, and another dozen 20mm Oerlikon AAA guns. Likewise, they kept their ASW gear to include sonar and listening gear, two stern depth charge racks, and four K-gun projectors.
Where they differed from the rest of the 50+ Sumner-class tin cans was in the respect that they never had their twin 5-tube 21-inch torpedo tubes installed and in their place picked up a series of rails for up to 80 naval mines that ran lengthways down her deck and a modicum of mechanical sweeping gear.
The subject of our tale was the third U.S. Navy warship to carry the name of RADM Aaron Ward (USNA 1871). Ward made his mark on naval history during the Spanish–American War, where he was placed in command of the ersatz gunboat USS Wasp, formerly the 202-foot steam yacht Columbia. The hardy little vessel fought at Santiago, enforced the blockade of Cuba, helped send the better-armed Spanish sloop Jorge Juan to the bottom of the ocean, and engaged targets ashore. Ward would retire from the Navy in 1913 as second in command of the Atlantic Fleet and pass away in Brooklyn in 1918.
His name was celebrated on the Wickes-class destroyer USS Aaron Ward (DD-132), which would serve in the U.S. Navy from 1919 to 1940 and then under the White Ensign as HMS Castleton during World War II, transferred as part of the “50 destroyers” deal.
The second vessel to carry the name of our hero was the Gleaves-class destroyer USS Aaron Ward (DD-483) which was commissioned 4 March 1942 and lost just 13 months later when she was sunk by Japanese aircraft off Guadalcanal, four battle stars for her WWII service.
Which brings us to USS Aaron Ward (DM-34).
Laid down as DD-773 on 12 December 1943 at Bethlehem Shipbuilding’s West Coast works at San Pedro, California she was commissioned less than a year later on 28 October 1944 as DM-34.
On 9 February 1945, after workups, she departed San Pedro, bound for Pearl Harbor, then by 16 March joined the Mine Flotilla of the 5th Fleet’s Task Force (TF) 52 at Ulithi. Soon enough, she was bound for the Ryukyu Islands and the big push on Okinawa.
She finished March by downing a confirmed three Japanese aircraft and started April with four days of close-in naval gunfire support for Marines hitting the beach on Okinawa. As the month wore on, she had more brushes with enemy aircraft, downing a Japanese plane on the 27th and another on the 28th. By the end of her (very short) service off Okinawa, her gunners would stencil 18 kyokujitsuki flags on her “scoreboard.”
While replenishing at Kerama Retto, she came to the assistance of the sinking transport USS Pinkney (APH-2) after a kamikaze scored a hit on that auxiliary.
On 30 April, the Aaron Ward turned seaward once again and was installed on one of the series of radar pickets, No. 10, which were to provide critical early warning of inbound Japanese kamikaze waves.
While working radar picket station number 10, she helped repulse several air attacks but got a respite from the worst of it due to bad weather. However, on the afternoon of 3 May, the weather cleared.
51 Minutes of Hell
With her radar spotting bogies at 27 miles out, her gunners manned their posts, and soon enough a pair of Japanese planes vectored right for her. At 18:13 hours, a group of 18 to 24 aircraft attacked from under cloud cover. Soon, the Fletcher-class destroyer USS Little (DD-803) was wracked with no less than five kamikazes that struck that tin can. By 19:55 Little broke up and went down.
After all, what destroyer could survive five kamikazes?
As it turned out, Ward was smothered by six that came close enough to do damage over 51 minutes of hell.
1- Near miss crash. Engine and propeller hit Mt. 3.
2- ZEKE hit Mt. 44. 2B Bomb blew out side after engine room.
3- Near miss crash damaged rigging and No. 1 stack.
4- VAL hit the main deck, frame 81.
4B- Near miss bomb blew in side forward fireroom.
5- VAL crashed deckhouse, frame 90.
6- Plane hit after stack.
6B- Bomb detonated in after uptakes.
Aaron Ward was hit as shown in the above diagram by six Kamikazes and three large bombs, estimated to have been 250 Kg GP. All spaces between bulkheads 72 and 170 flooded to the waterline except for the forward engine room and certain starboard water tanks. Free surface extended through five major compartments, 1650 tons of water were shipped, and GM was reduced to approximately 1 foot positive. Severe gasoline and ammunition fires were brought under control after about two hours with the assistance of LCS83 alongside. Firemain pressure and power forward remained available throughout due to the use of the forward emergency Diesel generator.
Forty-two sailors died and nearly 100 were injured, a figure that marked nearly half of her crew as casualties.
Why so many hits?
One Navy after-action report on suicide aircraft notes, “When damaged by AA. or harassed by our planes, suiciders selected targets of opportunity. Once hit, a ship was likely to be attacked by other planes seeking to finish it off.”
As noted in USN Bulletin No. 24 Radar Pickets and Methods of Combating Suicide Attacks Off Okinawa, CDR William Henry Sanders, Jr., (USNA 1930), CO USS Aaron Ward, comments:
1. The entire enemy attack appeared to be exceptionally well coordinated by a pilot, or pilots, who understood the limitations of a destroyer’s firepower and took every advantage of smoke and the crippled condition of the ship. In fact, it appeared that the attacks were directed from a control plane which never took part in the assault.
RECENT INFORMATION CONFIRMS THE FACT THAT THE LEADER USUALLY IS EQUIPPED WITH RADAR AND BRINGS HIS GROUP WITHIN VISUAL RANGE. IT IS QUITE POSSIBLE THAT THE MORE EXPERIENCED LEADER COULD ALSO DIRECT AND COORDINATE THE ATTACK. CAP OR SHIP GET THAT LEADER!
The operation was too well-coordinated and executed to have been the individual inspiration of each pilot. Not only did planes come in from different directions at the same time, but on several occasions, the first plane was followed immediately by another approximately 1,000 yards astern of the first. This type of attack was seen to deal the death blow to the U.S.S. Little.
2. It is not understood why the Kamikaze does not strafe the target on the way in, as it appears to be a simple matter to close and lock the firing key to the machine guns. Casualties would have been greater had this been done in the attacks on the Aaron Ward.
3. All planes are believed to have used the bridge and main battery director as a point of aim, but due to the radical maneuvering of the ship and the heavy volume of fire forward, this target was never reached; all planes crashed into the superstructure amidships.
4. Before making his run, each pilot circled the ship at a distance of 5 to 6 miles, apparently seeking the most advantageous position from which to start his dive.
THE CAP HAS DONE A MAGNIFICENT JOB IN THESE OPERATIONS BUT OFTEN TOO FEW PLANES HAVE BEEN AVAILABLE. THE CAP MUST BE LARGE ENOUGH AND CAREFULLY STACKED TO TAKE CARE OF A SITUATION OF THIS TYPE, WHICH OBVIOUSLY WAS NOT THE CASE AT THIS CRITICAL MOMENT.
In each suicide run, planes appeared to take their lead angles at a range of from three to four thousand yards, increasing speed considerably and steadying on the attack course. No attempts at evasion were made on any of the runs after the pilot had finally committed himself.
5. From the results of the bombing, it can be readily determined that the pilots had very little experience in bombing and that the release of bombs may have been accidental, caused by the shock of hits from gunfire of this ship.
Amazingly, Aaron Ward survived the night “against raging fires, exploding ammunition and the flooding of all engineering spaces” and the next day arrived at Kerama Retto under tow from sister ship USS Shannon (DM-25) with no freeboard aft, 18 feet draft forward and a 5-degree starboard list.
Her dead that could be recovered were buried at the U. S. military cemetery at Zamami Shima on Kerma Retto and later moved to Okinawa in 1948. Some 20 souls that were blown overboard during the attack rest in the deep.
Aaron Ward remained at Kerama Retto undergoing emergency repairs until 11 June then, against all odds, proceeded under her own power to Navy Yard, Pearl Harbor, using just the starboard shaft.
From there, she continued to New York, arriving in mid-August just as the war was ending.
Her story was celebrated nationwide at the time.
Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz sent accolades to the battered but not broken destroyer, saying “Congratulations on your magnificent performance. We all admire a ship that can’t be licked. The combat record of the USS Aaron Ward and her return from battle in a seriously damaged condition reflect an unusual measure of courage and skill in her officers and men.”
Nonetheless, beyond any economical repair with peacetime coming, she was decommissioned 28 September and sold in the summer of 1946 for scrap.
USS Aaron Ward (DM-34) earned a single battle star as well as the Presidential Unit Citation for her brief wartime service. From the time she entered Ulithi atoll to the time she put in at Kerama Retto for a patch job, she spent just 49 days with the fleet. There has not been a fourth “Aaron Ward” on the Navy List.
Her anchor is on display in Elgin, Illinois, where it was installed as a memorial in 1971 by the parents of SN2 Laverne H. Schroeder, USNR, killed on her decks in the 3 May 1945 attack.
Likewise, her story has been covered in several books on the Pacific War including. perhaps most poignantly, in Brave Ship, Brave Men by Arnold S. Lott, an excerpt of which is on the USS Aaron Ward website.
Her only skipper, CDR Sanders, would receive the Navy Cross for the actions of 3 May 1945 and retire as a rear admiral in 1959 after commanding the destroyer tender USS Dixie in the Korean War. He passed in 1992 at the age of 85 and was warmly remembered as a community leader.
The luckiest unlucky class
Of Aaron Ward‘s 11 sister minelayers, at least five would also prove exceptionally hard to kill in the face of the Divine Wind.
- USS Gwin (DM-33) was swarmed by six Japanese suicide planes the day after Aaron Ward was attacked. She downed five but the final plane embedded itself into Gwin’s aft gun platform, causing 15 casualties.
- The same day that Gwin was hit, USS Shea (DM-30) was slammed by an MXY-7 Ohka (cherry blossom) human-piloted rocket bomb while on radar picket duty. She suffered 35 dead but was able to make it to the U.S. under her own power for repairs.
- In June, USS Harry F. Bauer (DM-26) would suffer a kamikaze attack that hit her boat deck and somehow did not trigger the depth charges stored there. In a further stroke of luck, a 550-pound bomb that the doomed Japanese plane had pickled just before it hit the ship remained intact and armed for 17 days before it was removed.
- USS J. William Ditter (DM 31) was attacked by a large group of kamikazes off Okinawa on 6 June 1945 and extensively damaged when two made it through. Patched up enough to steam home, she, like Ward, was left unrepaired and sold for scrap in 1946.
- Another sister, USS Lindsey (DM-32), was hit by two Aichi D3A Vals on 12 April 1945, killing 57 sailors and wounding 57 more. The explosion from the second Val sheered the front 60 feet off her bow and a quick “all back full” by her skipper avoided catastrophic flooding. Given a temporary bow, like Ward and Ditter she sailed back to the states under her own steam. Decommissioned in 1946 after repairs, she was stricken in 1970 and sunk as a target two years later.
And of course, the famous destroyer USS Laffey (DD-724), which earned the nickname “The Ship That Would Not Die” after surviving six kamikaze attacks and four bomb hits on 16 April 1945 while off Okinawa, was an Allen M. Sumner-class destroyer, which the Smith-class DMs were conversions of.
In short, radar picket duty off Okinawa in 1945 was hazardous to your health, to say the least.
Once the war was over, the remaining ships of the class would endure for a while, with five seeing service during the Korean War period, after which they were reclassified as fast minelayers (MMD).
By the 1970s, most were sold for scrap except for the kamikaze-surviving Gwin which was transferred to Turkey.
Serving Istanbul as TCG Muavenet (DM-357) for another two decades, she would sadly take a pair of NATO Sea Sparrow missiles to the bridge during a live-fire exercise that went wrong in 1991, causing 24 casualties.
She was left ablaze after the incident.
The last of the dozen Robert H. Smith-class converted destroyers afloat, USS Tolman (DD-740/DM-28/MMD-28) was expended in an exercise on 25 January 1997. A high-powered explosive test charge was installed in her hull and she was sunk in 12,000 feet of deepwater about 61 miles off Mare Island. Appropriately, she had been stripped of much vintage gear for use in the museum destroyer USS Kidd.
Displacement: 2,200 tons
Propulsion: Four Babcock and Wilcox boilers, two 60,000shp General Electric geared turbines, two shafts.
Speed: 34.2 knots
6 x 5″/38 3×2 Mk38 mounts
12 x 40mm/60 Bofors in six twin mounts
12 x 20mm/70 singles
2 x .50 cal machine guns
2 Depth Charge rails over the fantail
4 K-guns astern
Up to 80 mines (some sources say 100)
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The bane of O-courses for generations, the unsung cargo net was a vital step in what these days we would call the sea–to-shore connector during World War II.
With the Navy pressing whole classes of old flush-deck destroyers as well as newer destroyer escorts into use as “Green Dragons,” a modification that saw some topside weapon systems (torpedo tubes) as well as below-deck equipment (one of the boiler rooms) deleted, these tin cans could carry a reinforced company/light battalion’s worth of Marines to earshot of a far-off Japanese-held atoll where they would load up in a series of Higgins-made plywood LCVRs to head ashore.
The easiest way to get said Marines from the tin can to the waiting fiddlestick express below? A debarkation net deployed over the side.
Nets were also a facet of transferring troops to landing craft from attack transport (APA) ships, which were fundamentally just converted freighters or passenger liners designs with davits filled with LCVPs.
The tactic was iconic enough to be captured in the maritime art of the era and was used hundreds of times.
As LPDs, LSDs, LPHs (which in turn were replaced by LHAs), and LHDs phased out the old Green Dragons and APAs during the Cold War, the cargo net basically was just retained for use in swim calls and in areas with poor harbor facilities.
Now, with the concept of smaller groups of Marines operating from non-standard amphibious warfare vessels in a future warm/hot war in the Pacific, it seems the staple of 1943 could be making something of a comeback.
As noted by the 31st MEU, a recent exercise in Guam has brought the net back into play:
Marines with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, completed the debarkation net rehearsal from the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in Apra Harbor, Naval Base Guam, harkening back to a historic method of personnel movement with a focus on safety, according to Master Sgt. Daniel Scull with Weapons Company, BLT 1/5, safety officer-in-charge for the event.
“This capability greatly enhances the 31st MEU’s ability to conduct increasingly dynamic tactical actions and operations across the Pacific,” said Scull. “Under the cover of darkness, specially-equipped Marine elements can debark onto a landing craft and insert uncontested onto small islands in the Pacific”.
Here we see a distinctive long-barreled British Sherman Firefly– a U.S.-made M4 Sherman with British radios and a QF 17-pounder gun– of the famous 7th Armoured Division (Desert Rats) in Hamburg, Germany, 4 May 1945.
Fireflies, fielded in 1944, were popular in Western Europe as they could penetrate the armor of German Panthers and the like with ease– something that couldn’t be said of American Shermans.
Another great image of this Firefly taken on the same day by Midgley also exists in the IWM’s collection. Offical caption, “British tanks of the 7th Armoured Division in the center of Hamburg, last war’s memorial is in the background.”
The Hamburg Cenotaph (Hamburger Ehrenmal) by the city hall, was built during the last days of the Weimar era featuring the work of sculptors Claus Hoffmann and Ernst Barlach, although some elements were later “sanitized” by the Nazis. The inscription from 1931 reads, “Vierzigtausend Söhne der Stadt ließen ihr Leben für euch, 1914–1918” (forty thousand sons of this city lost their lives for you)
The memorial is still there.
A STEN-armed Para of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion shakes hands with a greatcoated Soviet officer in the Baltic Sea city of Wismar, Germany, 4 May 1945, about 150 miles Northwest of Berlin.
The surrender of German forces was four days away at this point.
Such link-ups, where the Western Front met the Eastern Front, were increasingly common in the last two weeks of the war in Europe.
The first occurred on 26 April 1945 when the U.S. 69th Infantry Division of the First Army and the 58th Guards Rifle Division of the 5th Soviet Guards Army met along the Elbe at Torgau, southwest of Berlin.
The original caption of this Underwood and Underwood news service photo received 3 May 1919:
U.S.S. Missouri steaming into her berth at Hoboken with last of 27th Division, namely the 106th Machine Gun Battalion. Red Cross women at left nearest the river’s bank are waiting for the ship to dock so as to distribute delicacies to the men, a regimental band playing, “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s all here,” and shows the men getting their first eyeful at the rail of the ship, of New York and the skyline of the city with the Metropolitan tower in bold relief against the eastern sky.”
USS Missouri (BB-11), was the middle child in the three-ship Maine-class of pre-dreadnoughts ordered during the Spanish-American War. Commissioned 1 December 1903, she was obsolete just three years after she joined the fleet. A veteran of the circumnavigating Great White Fleet, she would spend most of her career alternating between ordinary and training cruises. Speaking of which, her Great War experience was spent in the Chesapeake, schooling new gunners and firemen. Once the war ended, she transitioned to what would have been termed “Magic Carpet” duty in the next World War, shuttling back and forth to Europe to bring 3,278 Doughboys back from “Over There” across four runs.
She would decommission 8 September 1919, at the ripe old age of 16 years old, and be sold for scrap three years later to comply with the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. Her name would be recycled in the 1940s for a “fast battleship” that you may have heard of.
As for the 27th ID, the Division was formed from NY Army National Guard units in 1917 and put under the command of Maj. Gen. John F. O’Ryan, an NYC attorney and politician who later went on to be Fiorello LaGuardia’s Police Commissioner. “O’Ryan’s Roughnecks” arrived at Brest, France, 10 May 1918 and by July were in action, seeing heavy losses along the St. Quentin Canal before going on to break the Hindenburg Line.
After WWII service in the Pacific from Makin Atoll to Okinawa, the 27th was later downgraded to an infantry brigade in 1986, the 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (“Empire”) of the NYANG, and has recently seen action in Afghanistan and Iraq.