Julian Becton's Book
THE SHIP THAT WOULD NOT DIE
about this book:
The Ship That Would Not Die
Although this book includes descriptions of many kamikaze attacks and resultant damage, the author does little more than speculate on sources of the attacks and motivations of the pilots. He does explain the typical view of kamikaze pilots held by Americans during the war. Americans could not understand how any sane person, no matter how patriotic, could commit preplanned self-murder by smashing into a ship with a plane (p. 159). The words Becton uses to describe kamikaze pilots illustrate his and his crew's attitude at the time: "crazy," "religious fanatics," "little devils," and "obsessed."
Chapters 11 and 12 include over 20 pages describing the attack by 22 Japanese planes on Laffey. On April 14, 1945, the ship had arrived at its radar picket station about 30 miles north of Okinawa, where the ship had the duty of early detection and warning of kamikaze planes headed toward the rest of the American fleet. Many kamikaze pilots decided to attack destroyers on the picket line rather than try to find a larger target such as a carrier or battleship about 50 miles behind the picket line. On April 16, 1945, Japanese planes attacked Laffey from all angles. Although the book has 16 pages of photos, no photo of these attacks exists since the two men on board who had a camera were among the 32 men killed.
The multiple plane attacks on Laffey provide a good example of the great difficulty in counting the exact number of suicide attacks on Allied ships during World War II. Both conventional bombers and suicide planes attacked the American fleet from 8:30 to 10:00 a.m. on April 16, 1945. Vice Admiral Ugaki, commander of the Japanese strike, writes in his diary that the following planes attacked during this time: about 40 dive bombers and fighter bombers, 12 Ginga bombers, 6 ohka weapons (piloted glider bombs released from Betty bombers), 15 army fighters, and 50 special attack (suicide) planes (Ugaki 1991, 587-8). Laffey gunners shot down several planes clear of the ship, but it is difficult to determine with certainty whether these pilots intended to crash into the ship or just to drop a bomb. Even planes that hit the ship may have not originally intended to commit a suicide attack but may have decided to crash into the ship after their planes had been hit and damaged. The Japanese Navy and Army counted pilot and crew deaths by special attack only if a plane had been designated for special attack prior to sortie and did not return. In contrast, the American Navy counted kamikaze attacks based on the perceived intention of the attacking plane.
The author focuses on Laffey's history, but he also shares some personal stories. However, his comments seem somewhat guarded and almost all positive, probably due to his high rank. Throughout the war he mentions his relationship with Imogene Carpenter, a popular singer and Broadway star who he had grown up with in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They exchanged letters and met together a few times during the war, but they decided to go their separate ways soon after the Laffey returned to the States for repair. Becton provides only a few personal details about his men, and most of these sound like a commander praising his crew. One heartwarming incident concerns an unnamed problem crewman who pled guilty to charges of disrespect toward a superior and disobedience of orders. He was to be fined and given a bad-conduct discharge from the Navy. Becton realized that a bad-conduct discharge would be a lifetime problem for the crewman, so the commander decided to remit the bad-conduct discharge pending one year of good behavior. He ended up being one of the most dependable crewmen.
The Epilogue briefly summarizes Laffey's postwar service after completion of her repairs and Becton's postwar career until his retirement in 1966. The Navy decommissioned Laffey in 1975, but she has been on display since 1981 as a museum ship at Patriots Point in Charleston, South Carolina.
Laffey received a Presidential Unit Citation for "courage, superb seamanship and indomitable determination of her officers and men" as she fought to "defeat the enemy against almost insurmountable odds." The Ship That Would Not Die gives the remarkable story of why the American public considered this WWII destroyer as a hero ship.
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