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Little Ship, Big War: The Saga of DE343
by Edward P. Stafford
William Morrow, 1984, 336 pages

The destroyer escort USS Abercrombie (DE343), commissioned in May 1944, fought in the Philippines and Okinawa with no combat damage and no casualties despite many close calls from both kamikaze and conventional aircraft. The other five destroyer escorts in Escort Division 69 did not have such luck, with two sunk and three hit and damaged. This book vividly describes battle action not only of Abercrombie but also other destroyer escorts. This thoroughly researched and well-written book with many personal stories from the author and other crewmen stands out as one of the finest histories written about a US warship that fought in WWII.

Edward P. Stafford served as Abercrombie's First Lieutenant (third in command) from March 1944, when the ship was being built, and later as Executive Officer (second in command) until May 1946, just before the ship was decommissioned. He has authored several other books including The Big E: The Story of the USS Enterprise (1962), Far and the Deep: The Submarine from U-Boat to Polaris (1967), and Subchaser (1988). The Acknowledgments section in front and the Biographical Notes section in back summarize his meticulous research, which for Abercrombie's story included the Deck Log, official Action Reports and War Diaries, his own journal, and interviews with about 30 men who had served aboard the ship. He lists 77 names in the Crewmen Contributors section of those men who assisted in some way with his writing of this book. The variety and depth of the stories included in this history reflect Stafford's writing experience, comprehensive research, and personal experiences aboard Abercrombie.

Little Ship, Big War has three main divisions: Book 1 up to the ship's arrival in the Pacific war zone, Book 2 about the ship's battle history, and Book 3 about postwar duties in Japan and Korea and the ship's trip back home. Over half the book describes Abercrombie's participation in battles in the Philippines and Okinawa. DE343 spent 68 days and nights off Okinawa, mainly at the northwest corner of 39 patrol stations of the Outer Screen that protected the main American fleet. The author skillfully weaves in background about destroyer escorts, history of Abercrombie's crew, and accounts of significant battle action by other destroyer escorts without digressing from the main storyline about Abercrombie's exploits. The longest section about a ship other than Abercrombie covers the gallant fighting of Samuel B. Roberts (DE413), one of the six destroyer escorts in Escort Division 69. In the Battle off Samar on October 25, 1945, Roberts fought against long odds and helped to defeat a superior enemy force, but the ship sank with more than a third of the destroyer escort's 10 officers and about 200 crewmen losing their lives.

Abercrombie fought several kamikaze aircraft and witnessed several suicide attacks on other American ships even though DE343 came through unscathed. The attack by a Zero (Zeke) fighter at 0300 on June 3, 1945, came closest to hitting the ship as described in the following paragraph (pp. 270-1):

The night was dark and overcast, the first warning a fast-approaching blip on the SL scope five miles on the port quarter. With flash red in effect, all battle stations were manned. The guns trained out on the danger bearing and waited, the gunners strained their eyes into the darkness for that first glimpse that would let them fire, and listened tensely for what seemed like the hundredth time as radar reported the rapidly closing ranges, the steady bearing. The Zeke roared into sight three to four hundred yards out, flat on the water, wings level, the hub at the center of the whirling prop like a bull's-eye, and all guns opened fire at the same instant, the tracers ripping the darkness to shreds. The sudden fountain of fire erupting out of the night must have startled and disoriented the enemy pilot because he banked sharply to the right, climbed, pursued by strings of tracers, and disappeared in the direction from which he had come. In CIC they watched as the little blip reappeared out of the disk of light in the center of the scope which was the ship, saw the blip circle out to about four miles, turn—and start another run. Back came the Zeke, this time from the port beam, fast and straight in. Again the guns opened at four hundred yards and hammered away steadily, lighting up the sea to port, the acid powder smoke blowing across the decks, the tracer streams from fore and aft converging ever more sharply as the kamikaze closed. This time the pilot did not turn away. It was evident from his unwaveringly straight flight path at minimum altitude that he had made up his mind to die for his Emperor on the deck of this small ship, which put out such a surprising torrent of gunfire. At a hundred yards, the twenties were chewing into his wings, but they couldn't stop him. This was it. Yet no man ducked, jumped or took cover. At five twenties and at both twin forties, the crews were like machines, loading and firing now at point-blank range with steady precision, the onrushing aircraft huge at the end of the barrels, the hot, empty brass cascading onto the deck. At the final instant, when fiery death seemed certain, the Zeke flashed overhead and was gone. He had simply missed.

Cover of 1985 paperback version
published by Jove Books

 

Stafford attributed the Zeke's miss to Abercrombie's low silhouette and to the pilot's lack of experience and proficiency. The other four remaining destroyer escorts in Escort Division 69 each got crashed directly by a kamikaze aircraft or had a very near miss that showered the ship with shrapnel. Oberrender (DE344) got damaged beyond repair when a kamikaze plane carrying a 500-lb bomb hit the ship off Okinawa on May 9, 1945. Eight crewmen died in the attack, and Oberrender was sunk was gunfire off Kerama Retto after being cannibalized for parts for other ships.

The Abercrombie crew's personal stories add color to this ship history. Memorable ones include the boxing match of three 3-minute rounds fought to a draw between a first class petty officer and an angry crewman, the search for the accordion stolen by two Abercrombie crewmen at the dock of a port near the Panama Canal, and the author's service as defense counsel in a Summary Court Martial of a crewman accused of striking and injuring another crewman. The middle of the book contains eight pages of photos, but the only ones directly related to Abercrombie are the ship, her captain Bernard Katchinski, and the ship's mascot, a dog named Butch, on deck with a crewman. The back of the book contains an Index plus a four-page Itinerary and Chronology of Significant Events. The many unfamiliar geographic locations mentioned in the book would have been easier to follow if it had some maps.

Despite the author's thorough research in writing Abercrombie's history, the book has a few errors related to Japan's kamikaze operations. On October 24, 1944, the light carrier Princeton (CVL-23) did not get hit by a kamikaze during the Battle of Leyte Gulf (p. 214) but rather got hit by a single bomb from a Japanese dive bomber. Stafford also incorrectly states that the carrier Franklin (CV-13) was kit by kamikazes on March 19, 1945 (p. 226), but the ship actually got hit by two armor-piercing bombs from a single dive bomber. The author writes that shortly after midnight on May 28, 1945, an Abercrombie gunner shot down a rocket-propelled, high-explosive Baka (ohka) glider moving at 500 mph (pp. 266-8), but Japanese sources [1] indicate that the Japanese Navy launched no ohka weapons on that date.

The author states in the Epilogue, "the string of luck challenged belief," which allowed Abercrombie alone to escape any combat damage despite sharing fully in every battle action of the six destroyer escorts of Escort Division 69.

Note

1. Bungei Shunju 2005, 549-57; Osuo 2005, 181-94.

Sources Cited

Bungei Shunju, ed. 2005. Ningen bakudan to yobarete: Shougen - ouka tokkou (Called human bombs: Testimony - ohka special attacks). Tokyo: Bungei Shunju.

Osuo, Kazuhiko. 2005. Tokubetsu kougekitai no kiroku (kaigun hen) (Record of special attack corps (Navy)). Tokyo: Kojinsha.