U.S.S. Bunker Hill (CV-17) afire
after being hit by two Zero fighters
carrying bombs on May 11, 1945
by Phelps Adams
This article was published in the Baltimore Sun
on May 28, 1945. It also appeared in newspapers in other U.S. cities. The article on
this web page comes from pp. 487-94 of the following book:
Snyder, Louis L. 1962. Masterpieces of War
Reporting: The Great Moments of World War II. New York: Julian Messner.
ABOARD A FAST CARRIER IN THE FORWARD PACIFIC AREA, May 11 (Special—Delayed)
—Two Japanese suicide planes carrying 1,100 pounds of bombs plunged into the
flight deck of Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's own flagship early today, killing
several hundred officers and men and transforming one of the our biggest
flat-tops into a floating torch, with flames soaring nearly 1,000 feet into the
For eight seemingly interminable hours that followed the ship and her crew
fought as tense and terrifying a battle for survival as had ever been witnessed
in the Pacific, but when dusk closed in, the U.S.S. Bunker Hill—horribly
crippled and still filmed by wisps of smoke and steam from her smoldering
embers—was plowing along under her own power on the distant horizon, safe.
Tomorrow she will spend another eight terrible hours burying at sea the men who
died to save her.
From the deck of a neighboring carrier  a few
hundred yards distant I watched the Bunker Hill burn. It is hard to
believe that men could survive those flames or that metal could withstand such
One minute our task force was cruising in lazy circles about 60 miles off
Okinawa without a care in the world and apparently without a thought of an enemy
plane. The next the Bunker Hill was a pillar of flame. It was as quick as
that—like summer lightning.
The oriental equivalent of Lady Luck was certainly riding with Japan's
suicide corps today. Fleecy white, low-hanging clouds studded a bright sky to
conceal the intruders from lookouts manning all the stations on the ships of
Task Force 58. Not until the Japs began their final plunge from the cover of
these clouds did the kamikazes become visible.
And it was sheer luck, of course, that they happened to strike on the
particular day and at the exact hour when their target was most vulnerable.
Since there was no sign of the enemy and because the Bunker Hill and her
men were weary after 58 consecutive days in the battle zone off Iwo Jima, Tokyo,
the Inland Sea and Okinawa, her crew was not at general quarters when she was
For the first time in a week, our own ship had secured from general quarters
an hour or two before. Some of the water-tight doors that imprisoned men in
small, stifling compartments were thrown open. The ventilators were unsealed and
turned on, and those men not standing the regular watch were permitted to relax
from the deadly sixteen-hour vigil they had put in at battle stations every day
since we had entered the danger area.
So it was on the Bunker Hill. Exhausted men not on watch were catching
a catnap. Aft, on the flight deck, 34 planes were waiting to take off. Their
tanks were filled to the last drop with highly volatile aviation gasoline. Their
guns were loaded to the last possible round of ammunition.
Young pilots, mentally reviewing the briefing they had just received, were
sitting in the cockpits warming up the motors. On the hangar deck below, more
planes—also crammed with gasoline and ammunition—were all set to be spotted on
the flight deck, and in the pilots' ready rooms, other young aviators were
kidding around, waiting their turn aloft.
Just appearing over the horizon were the planes returning from an early
mission. They jockeyed into the landing circle and waited until the Bunker
Hill could launch her readied craft and clear the deck for landing.
Then it was that a man aboard our ship caught the first glimpse of three
enemy planes and cried a warning. But before general quarters could be sounded
on this ship, and before half a dozen shots could be fired by the Bunker Hill,
the first kamikaze had dropped his 550-pound bomb on the ship and plunged his
plane squarely into her 34 waiting planes in a shower of burning gasoline.
The delayed-action bomb pierced the flight deck at a sharp angle, passed
through the side of the hull and exploded in mid-air before striking the water.
The plane, a single-engined Jap fighter, knocked the parked aircraft about like
ten-pins, sent a huge column of flame and smoke belching upward, and then
skidded crazily over the side.
Some of the pilots were blown overboard by the explosion. Many managed to
scramble to safety. But before a move could be made to fight the flames, another
kamikaze came whining out of the clouds, straight into the deadly anti-aircraft
guns of the ship. This plane was a Jap dive bomber, a Judy .
A five-inch shell that should have blown him out of the sky set him afire and
riddled his plane with metal. But still he came. Passing over the stern of the
ship he dropped his bomb right in the middle of the blazing planes. Then he
flipped over and torched through the flight deck at the base of the "island."
The superstructure, which contains many of the delicate nerve centers from
which the vessel is commanded and controlled, was enveloped in flames and smoke
which were caught in turn by the maws of the ventilating system and sucked down
into the inner compartments of the ship. Scores of men were suffocated in these
Minutes later a third Jap suicider zoomed down to finish the job. Ignoring
the flames and the smoke that swept around them, the men in the Bunker Hill's
gun galleries stuck to their posts, pumping ammunition into their weapons and
filling the sky with a curtain of lead. It was a neighboring destroyer, however,
which finally scored a direct hit on the Jap and sent him splashing harmlessly
into the sea.
That was the end of the attack and beginning of the fight for survival. The
entire rear end of the ship by this time was burning with uncontrollable fury.
It looked much like the newsreel shots of a blazing oil well only worse, for
this fire was feeding on highly refined gasoline and live ammunition. Smoke rose
in a huge column from the stern of the ship, shot through with angry tongues of
Blinding white flashes appeared continuously as ready ammunition in the
burning planes or in the gun galleries was touched off. Every few minutes the
whole column of smoke would be swallowed in a great burst of flame as another
belly tank exploded or as the blaze reached another pool of gasoline flowing
from the broken aviation fuel lines on the hangar deck below.
For more than an hour there was no visible abatement in the fury of the
flames. They would seem to die down slightly as hundreds of thousands of gallons
of water and chemicals were poured on them only to burst forth more hungrily
than ever as some new explosion occurred within the stricken ship.
The carrier itself was listing and as each new stream of water was poured
into her, the angle increased more dangerously. Crippled as she was she plowed
ahead at top speed, and the wind that swept her decks blew the flames and smoke
astern over the fantail, prevented the blaze from spreading forward on the
flight deck and through the island structure. Trapped on the fantail itself, men
faced the flames and fought grimly on; with only the ocean behind them, and no
way of knowing how much of the ship remained on the other side of that fiery
Then, somehow, other men managed to break out the huge openings in the side
of the hangar deck, and I saw the interior of the ship. That, I think, was the
most horrible sight of all. The hangar deck was a raging blast furnace. Even
from where I stood the glow of molten metal was unmistakable.
By this time the explosions had ceased and a cruiser and three destroyers
were able to venture alongside with hoses fixed in their rigging. Like fire
boats in harbor they pumped great streams of water into the ship, and the smoke
at last began to take on that grayish tinge which showed that somewhere a flame
Up on the bridge, meanwhile Capt. George A. Seitz, the skipper was concerned
about the list his ship had developed. He resolved to take a gambling chance.
Throwing the Bunker Hill into a 70-degree turn, he heeled her cautiously
over onto the opposite beam so that the tons of water which had accumulated on
one side were suddenly swept across the decks and overboard on the other. This
wall of water carried the heart of the hangar deck fire with it.
That was the turning point in this battle. After nearly three hours of almost
hopeless fighting, she had brought her fires under control, and though it was
many more hours before they were completely extinguished, the battle was won and
the ship had been saved.
A goodly thick book could not record all the acts of heroism that were
performed aboard that valiant ship today.
There was the executive officer, Commander H. J. Dyson, who was standing
within 50 feet of the second bomb when it exploded and who was badly injured,
yet refused medical aid and continued to fight the blaze until it was safely
There was the squad of Marines who braved the white heat of the hangar deck
to throw every bomb and rocket out of a near-by storage room.
But the most fruitful work of all, perhaps, was performed by the pilots of
the almost fuelless planes that had been circling overhead for a landing when
the ship was struck. In the hours that followed, nearly 300 men went overboard,
and the fact that 269 of these were picked up by other ships in the fleet was
due, in no small measure, to the work of these sharp-eyed airmen.
Although our own flight deck had been cleared for their use and they had been
instructed to land on it, these pilots kept combing every inch of the surface of
the sea, tearing packets of dye marker from their own life jackets and dropping
them to guide destroyers and other rescue vessels to the little clusters of men
they saw clinging to bits of wreckage below them.
Calculating their fuel supply to a hair's breadth, some of them came aboard
us with such a close margin that a single wave-off would have sent them and
their planes into the sea before they could make another swing about the landing
circle and return.
In all, I am told, 170 men will be recommended for awards as a result of this
Late today, Admiral Mitscher and 60 or more members of his staff came aboard
us to make this carrier his new flagship. He was unhurt—not even singed by the
flames that swept the Bunker Hill—but he had lost three officers and six
men of his own staff and a number of close friends in the ship's company. It was
the first time in his long years of service that he had personally undergone
such an experience.
As he was hauled aboard in a breeches buoy across the churning water that
separated us from the speedy destroyer that had brought him alongside, he looked
tired and old and plain, downright mad. His deeply lined face was more than
weather-beaten—it looked like a badly eroded hill. But his eyes flashed fire and
He was a man who had a score to settle with the Japs and who would waste no
time going about it. He had plans that the Japs will not like, not at all.
But the enemy is already on the losing end of the Bunker Hill
box-score. Since she arrived in the Pacific in the Fall of 1943, the Bunker
Hill had participated in every major strike. She was initiated at Rabaul,
took part in the invasions of the Gilberts and the Marshalls, pounding at
Kwajalein and Eniwetok. With Task Force 58 she had struck twice at Tokyo and
also at Truk, the China coast, the Ryukyus, Formosa, the Bonins, Iwo Jima and
During this time the pilots of her air groups have sunk or damaged nearly a
million tons of Jap shipping. They have shot 475 enemy planes out of the air,
169 of them during the last two months. In two days here off Okinawa, they
splashed 67 Nipponese aircraft and the ship herself has brought down 14 more by
On a raid last March at Kure Harbor, when the Japanese fleet was hiding out
in the Inland Sea, Bunker Hill planes scored direct bomb hits on three
carriers and one heavy cruiser, and then sent nine torpedoes flashing into the
side of the enemy's beautiful new  battleship,
Yamato, sinking her .
In the Jap column stands the fact that at the cost of three pilots and three
planes today the enemy killed a probable total of 392 of our men, wounded 264
others, destroyed about 70 planes and wrecked a fine and famous ship. The flight
deck of that ship tonight looks like the crater of a volcano. One of the great
50-ton elevators has been melted almost in half. Gun galleries have been
destroyed and the pilots' ready rooms demolished. Virtually the entire island
structure with its catwalks . . . is a twisted mass of steel, and below decks
tonight hospital corpsmen are preparing 352 bodies for burial at sea, starting
at noon tomorrow.
But the ship has not been sunk. Had it been, it would have taken years to
build another. As it is the Bunker Hill will steam back to Bremerton Navy
Yard under her own power and there will be repaired. While she remains there,
one American carrier with a hundred or so planes and a crew of 3,000 men will be
out of action. But within a few weeks she will be back again, sinking more
ships, downing more planes, and bombing out more Japanese airfields.
Perhaps the next task will be to cover the invasion of Tokyo itself.
Details of the kamikaze attack on U.S.S. Bunker Hill (CV-17)
and the horrific aftermath can be
found in Maxwell Taylor Kennedy's 2008 book entitled
Danger's Hour: The Story
of the USS Bunker Hill and the Kamikaze Pilot Who Crippled Her.
Louis Snyder provides background information to this article on pp. 487-8 of
Masterpieces of War Reporting: The Great Moments of World War II (1962). Some is
incorrect such as the following three items. He states that the kamikaze attacks
started at the sea battle of Leyte on October 29, 1944, but actually the date
was October 25. The background indicates that the cherry blossom was the
insignia of the kamikaze pilots, but only the Kamikaze Special Attack Corps ōka (or
ohka) rocket-powered glider pilots officially used the cherry blossom as
their emblem. Snyder introduces the "Kamikaze Song of the Warrior," but this is
actually Umi Yukaba (If I go to sea), which was a popular song among all in the
1. Adams was on board U.S.S. Enterprise
(CV-6) when he witnessed the kamikaze aircraft attacks on U.S.S. Bunker Hill.
2. Both kamikaze aircraft that hit Bunker Hill
were Zero fighters that carried bombs (Rielly 2010, 268). The second kamikaze
aircraft was not a Judy dive bomber.
3. The battleship Yamato, commissioned in December
1941, was not new.
4. The battleship Yamato, on the way from mainland
Japan to Okinawa, was sunk by multiple bombs and torpedoes dropped by American
aircraft on April 7, 1945.
Rielly, Robin L. 2010. Kamikaze Attacks of World War II: A
Complete History of Japanese Suicide Strikes on American Ships, by Aircraft
and Other Means. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.