Once I Was Young and There Was a War, Part III

Bob Butler

by Bob Butler

After the 1945 invasion of Iwo Jima, our next U.S. Navy assignment was to go to a port on the east coast of the Philippines. There, a large section of our fleet was making preparations to invade Okinawa. The trip from Ulithi to the Philippines was about 1,200 miles and I had not navigated landing craft infantry gunboat 81 in this area before. (When traveling, even in a convoy, the navigator of each ship had to report its estimated location at 12:00 noon. This kept all of us navigators actively engaged.) I contacted the navigator from one of the larger neighboring ships for suggestions on what stars I should use to determine our location as we went along. We met the following day at daybreak and again nightfall. His help enabled us to hit our port head on. I don’t think we were assigned any duties while waiting to begin our mission. We were merely warned to be alert for Japanese swimmers. They could climb into small ships like ours.
At this point in my narrative I want to provide some background information on two of our officers: Don Hawkins, formerly the Executive Officer whom I first met when he was nursing his penis, and the Engineering Officer, whose name I have forgotten. He joined the Navy in 1937 as an enlisted man and must have been reliable and skillful at his work for he received a spot promotion to a commissioned officer. Hawkins was frequently criticizing him. This may be what could have led to serious repercussions.
One night while we were at anchor and I had the watch, one of the crew came up to the Conn to tell me that I was wanted in the Ward Room. I went down to find out what was up. The Eng.O. and two other officers were there. Missing were Hawkins and the Exec.O., and for good reason. They weren’t invited. The Eng.O. told us that some of the members of the engine room crew were plotting to kill Hawkins. This was to take place when we were invading Okinawa. All members of the ship’s crew would be carrying out their assignments, and Hawkins would be up in the Conning Tower. I told the others that this kind of talk was fantasy expressed by disgruntled sailors. I went on to say that in the first world war the comparable talk in the trenches was to shoot the lieutenant as they “went over the top.” I emphasized that Hawkins, given his apparent unstable psychological condition, would go berserk if we told him of the plot. And who knows how that would play out. I thought I had won them over. Not so. The Eng.O. told me on the following day that he told his men we three deck officers would claim ignorance of the plot. Holy shit! Now we were all in trouble. A plot that I had fully discredited now had a sliver of traction. The Eng.O. was acting as if assassination was a real possibility. I had to act fast to clear up this mess.
Why me? I had ended up, after a series of transfers and new officers coming aboard, as third in command. We were to leave for Okinawa the next day. Time was short. I met with the Eng.O. and told him it was his responsibility to get his people to scrap any action against Hawkins; that his crew would accept his guidance. Should the plot to kill Hawkins be carried out, I said I would name him to the investigators as the ringleader (and today I think he was). This part of my story sounds so melodramatic to me today that I find it difficult to accept it as being based on fact. But it is. As we were heading toward Okinawa, the Eng.O. would meet me on the deck to report that another of the instigators had dropped out of the plan. By three days all was back to normal, i.e., anger, distrust, retaliation. …
D-Day. April 1, 1945. Early morning. I went out on deck and saw a splendid scene: our impressive fleet arranged clear across the horizon. You felt that something BIG was about to happen. I thought of my high school graduation ceremony. Something BIG was also about to happen then. We were lined up in order (“Stand up straight.” “No talking.”) and we were wearing our handsome cap and gown outfit. That too must have been a splendid scene. But what a contrast between the two. Today, the invasion of Okinawa. Then, the receiving of the high school diploma. Both were big events in my young life. They are linked together firmly in my memory.
Now for the invasion. We followed the same procedure that was established at Peleliu: rockets loaded — rockets fired, rockets loaded — rockets fired, Marines passing through our lateral line of LCI(G)’s on their way to the beach — the firing of every single gun in the area. Again the rocket loaders went below deck when the rockets were fired. This time I was nominally the leader of the rocket-loading operation, but I considered my most important job was to pass rockets to the next person in line. A true leader of men would have had them back on deck immediately after the first salvo was fired. I inserted about a two-minute grace period before getting them back to the war. Any longer period would have been treated as treason. An aside: As strongly as I was anti-war, I still got caught up in the excitement of individual events.
After we did our part in the initial invasion, we were assigned to smoke screen duty, i.e., to attempt to conceal the larger ships during the kamikaze attacks. These suicide missions took place every evening and were causing considerable damage to our fleet. The smoke screen was generated from an oil or chemical-based substance. We first used an oil-based smoke-making machine. We were ordered to give it to another ship and we had to use the chemical pots. We knew nothing about them and I mean NOTHING. I was positioned at the fantail and near the smoke pots, three of them.
Evening came, the kamikazes came, and the smoke pots were activated. Immediately we were smothered by the dense smoke. The men about me ran to the bow to escape the noxious fumes. I remained at my assigned location, but not because of some military tradition. I was wearing headphones to communicate with Hawkins and was entangled in a mess of wires and blinded by the smoke. After a while the chemical fuel was spent and I could move around. Within two hours I was panting for breath — pneumonia. We waved down a small boat passing by and someone accompanied me to a neighboring large ship. I was taken to its sick bay. In two days I had recovered. In the meantime, my ship had been assigned to patrol an area along the east coast of Okinawa. So I ended up as a guest on this ship. I learned quite soon that my host played a central role in defending our fleet against kamikaze attacks. I asked the Exec.O. for permission to observe our defense procedures in action. He said I could but that I must stay out of the way. I did so by sitting on the floor at the rear of the room where all the action was taking place.
This is what I saw and learned: One of our ships, a destroyer I think, was positioned off the north tip of Okinawa. Its role was to inform the officers in this room that the Japanese planes were on their way. (Several of these “messenger” ships had to be replaced. They were the first to be attacked.) A large map of Okinawa was fixed to the wall. Two men, standing on a platform, marked the location of each incoming plane. Our planes were airborne and their locations were also mapped. When the location of a Japanese plane and one of ours overlapped, this point was encircled. We waited for the outcome. From what I remember, the U.S. planes would almost always, if not always, be the victors. I suspect that this was not a surprise to the officers in the room. Our planes were intent on shooting down theirs. Their planes were intent on crashing into our warships. And indeed many of them penetrated our air defense. I could tell that the two men plotting locations of enemy planes were receiving accurate information. When the map on the wall indicated a Japanese plane directly overhead, I would always hear our guns firing.
I must have spent 10 to 12 evenings viewing the replica of the air war. Then one morning I was out on deck when I saw the 81 lurking off port side of my host ship. It had come to pick me up. OK, my unexpected vacation was over. It was time to share the overall responsibilities with the other officers.
We returned to the east coast of Okinawa and began patrolling. The area seemed so desolate. Occasionally we would see our sister ship, the 82. She patrolled the region immediately to the north of us. There were several caves along the coast line that could have housed suicide boats and every day we would shoot into them. But of course, if they were there, they would have been protected by some means or other. And if they were there, why hadn’t they come after us by now? They carried explosives in their bows and reached a top speed of 35 mph. That surely would have eliminated us. At least that was my thinking.
Hawkins thought differently. He frequently took the middle of the night watch — 12-4 a.m. Several times a night he would call General Quarters, which directed everyone to his battle station immediately. One man I knew always appeared naked at his station. I always dressed. I had discovered at Peleliu that when I carried my 45 cal. revolver in a holster fixed to my belt, it would drag down my pants. Now when facing death, no one should be running to his battle station while holding up his pants — certainly not an officer. This is one of the first things they teach you at Midshipman School. So I left my gun behind.
One night as we all had responded to the G.Q., the 20 mm gunner and I thought we saw a trace of surf in the distance. It soon became apparent that this “trace of surf” was made by a suicide boat coming toward us rapidly, bouncing through the waves. Our gunner was firing continuously, but kept missing his mark. The boat was getting closer and Closer and CLOS-WHAM! It exploded. It was night. No one could see my knees shaking. Nor could I see theirs. Hawkins’ super-apprehensiveness may have saved our lives. Number 82 was not so lucky. A few nights later she was rammed by a suicide boat. All aboard perished. Now this area became even more desolate.

Bob Butler, 95, raised beef cattle in Iowa County for almost 25 years after retiring as a highly regarded professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He lives on his family’s farm near Dodgeville with his wife, Caroline. Read the conclusion of this series in the August issue of Voice of the River Valley. To read the first installments, see Part I and Part II.