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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