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Escort carrier Ommaney Bay on fire after crash by kamikaze

 
Kamikaze Nightmare
by Ron Burt
Alfie Publishing, 1995, 218 pages

Thunder and unexpected noises triggered flashbacks of the "kamikaze nightmare." Pete Burt would shout out "DUCK!" and then dive under furniture. In the late 1950s, over a decade after going through four kamikaze attacks, he had a nervous breakdown as he continued to experience the kamikaze nightmare. Pete suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for more than three decades after the war until he experienced his final flashback in 1977. This book written by his younger brother, Ron Burt, tells the intense, emotional story of Pete's survival and eventual recovery from a kamikaze attack that left him unconscious for seven days and required fifty operations over two years.

Ron Burt, who admits up front to not being a professional writer, dedicated this book to his brother Pete and to his shipmates on the escort carrier Ommaney Bay (CVE-79) and the light cruiser Columbia (CL-56). Ron Burt spent several years researching records and trying to contact eyewitnesses to piece together what caused the kamikaze nightmare. The book starts with some of their childhood experiences together. As a high school student, Pete enlists in the Navy at 16 by altering his birth certificate to meet the minimum age requirement of 17. He becomes a gunner on the escort carrier Ommaney Bay, where he experiences his first battle engagements in the fall of 1944 as his ship provides direct air support for the invasion of Palau and Leyte.

On December 15, 1944, Ommaney Bay's gunners shoot down an approaching kamikaze plane, which crashes into the water near the ship. On January 4, 1945, a Japanese Ki-43 Hayabusa (Oscar) hits the ship, and both of the plane's bombs penetrate the flight deck with violent explosions that set fire to fully-gassed planes on the hangar deck and that cause water pressure, power, fuel oil pumps, and bridge communications to fail. The men below deck have no warning of the incoming plane, and men soon begin to abandon the blazing ship. Although nearby destroyers pick up over 800 men in the water, 92 men are killed or missing in the sinking of Ommaney Bay.

Pete Burt survives the kamikaze attack on Ommaney Bay, and he next gets assigned as a lookout on the light cruiser Columbia. On January 5, the day after being rescued from the water, he watches as kamikaze planes smash into four other ships. On January 6, a kamikaze plane with an armor-piercing bomb hits Columbia, causing 41 deaths and 35 wounded (pp. 114-5) [1]. On the same day, the ship's gunners shoot down three other oncoming Japanese planes after this deadly attack, and another kamikaze plane nearly misses the ship, spraying fuel all over the bridge. On January 9, the day that the U.S. invades Luzon from Lingayen Gulf, a Zero fighter with two 250-kg bombs crashes into Columbia only 25 feet from where Pete Burt is standing. He describes what happens next (p. 135):

The explosion carries me thirty feet into a life line. My body burns with hot shrapnel covering me from head to foot. My left arm is practically blown to pieces. The muscle rips out from the elbow to my shoulder exposing broken bones. Hanging halfway over the life line, I lay stunned as numbness comes over my entire body.

Pete survives but loses consciousness for seven days. The Columbia suffers 24 dead and 97 wounded from the attack. The last part of the book covers Pete's long recovery from the kamikaze nightmare, and the final chapter tells about the his brother Ron's search, starting in 1989, for information and eyewitnesses about his brother's wartime experiences.

Kamikaze plane
plunges toward Columbia
on January 6, 1945

 

Numerous remarkable, moving personal accounts from Pete Burt and his shipmates fill this book. These stories give readers some idea of the great terror and damage caused by kamikaze attacks. For some events such as the kamikaze hit on Ommaney Bay, several survivors describe the same event as they experienced it individually. This technique by the author reveals the utter confusion and panic experienced by the men below deck who had no warning of the attack. In another example (pp. 113-4, 142), after the kamikaze hit Columbia on January 6, the captain gives the order to seal off several compartments to prevent fire from reaching the ammunition stores. Tears pour out of Pete's eyes when he realizes the compartments contain two Ommaney Bay survivors. The 17 dead seamen trapped in the sealed compartments do not get removed until Columbia returns to Pearl Harbor for repairs.

Possibly to bring some type of closure to the nightmare suffered by his brother, the author makes a few statements and conclusions that do not seem supported by available evidence. For example, Ron Burt states without qualification that the pilot who attacked the Columbia was Shigeru Kojima. However, a representative of the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies wrote in a letter to Burt, "As you know, it is very difficult to determine who struck what ship in kamikaze suicide attack especially in 1945, . . . " (p. 202). Seven pilots of Zero fighters died in kamikaze attacks on January 9, 1945, in Lingayen Gulf (Tokkōtai Senbotsusha 1990, 143; Hoyt 1983, 165), but Burt concludes on the identity of the pilot based only on limited information the letter.

Even more incredible is the author's conclusion regarding the hairstyle of the kamikaze pilot who attacked Columbia. Pete Burt claimed for several decades that the pilot was a woman, so his brother Ron tried to investigate why he would make such a claim. Pete describes the approaching kamikaze pilot, "Here is this Jap Zero coming at us. Fire from the engine streams along both sides of the fuselage. The Zero is only about fifty feet above the surface of the water. I observe all of this in just a matter of a split second. The pilot and I look at each other" (p. 134). The representative of the Japanese National Institute for Defense Studies also wrote to Ron Burt that Japanese warriors in the past wore their hair long, but Imperial Navy and Army soldiers almost always had their hair cut short. Some pilots were permitted somewhat longer hair. Based on this very limited information and from the "split second" observation of his brother, Ron Burt makes the claim that the kamikaze pilot, Shigeru Kojima, allowed his hair to grow long after being assigned to a kamikaze unit. Burt alleges (p. 132) the pilot's "hair protrudes several inches below the helmet" and "hangs almost to his shoulders," but no evidence exists other than his brother's memory of a fleeting glance at the pilot before he crashed into Columbia.

The American eyewitnesses to the kamikaze attacks provide other interesting insights in this book. The U.S. Navy men in the Philippines referred to the kamikazes as "suicide planes," since at that time they did not know the name given to the pilots by the Japanese. Before Pete Burt experienced any kamikaze attacks, he and his shipmates used to discuss the safest place on a ship when a kamikaze hit. The general consensus was that every inch of the ship was vulnerable, so the kamikaze nightmare constantly haunted the American fleet in the first part of January 1945.

Kamikaze Nightmare not only tells about the damage and terror inflicted on the American fleet off the Philippines but also the tragedy and ultimate recovery of a man who suffered his own personal kamikaze nightmare.

Note

1. The entry for USS Columbia in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships states that 13 were killed and 44 were wounded, but these figures may refer to only the casualties from the second kamikaze plane to hit the ship on January 6, 1945, rather than both planes.

Sources Cited

Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Department of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. Web site: <http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/> Other web site: <http://www.hazegray.org/danfs/> (June 3, 2007) (link no longer available).

Hoyt, Edwin P. 1983. The Kamikazes. Short Hills, NJ: Burford Books.

Tokkōtai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyōkai (Tokkotai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association). 1990. Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (Special Attack Corps). Tokyo: Tokkōtai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyōkai.