Thursday, August 2, 2007
• Close to Home
(Originally published in the Washington Post, June 17, 2007. Reprinted with permission.)
My father died on Aug. 6, 1989, at the age of 69. On May 12, I saw him again.
That was the day my wife and I attended a reunion on the USS Hugh W. Hadley for the first time. This year, the surviving members of the Hadley crew came to Washington, their second visit to the city.
At the Naval Academy Chapel and the National World War II Memorial, they gathered to pray for their departed shipmates, my father among them, who served with them on the sleek destroyer that 62 years ago stared down a horrific new weapon of war and passed into Navy legend.
The USS Hadley was commissioned in San Francisco on Nov. 25, 1944, bound for the Pacific war. As the Hadley set out to sea from San Diego in February 1945, Bill King, a young officer who was assigned to the boiler room and who would be my father’s friend for the rest of their lives, flew a huge, handmade kite high above the stern.
One of the enlisted men thought him odd for doing that, but his young children, Billy and Susan, watching from shore with their mother and mine, knew exactly where their father was.
The battle for Okinawa was already well underway as the Hadley patrolled offshore on the morning of May 11, 1945. At 7:45 a.m., the first Japanese plane was sighted, heading directly for the ship. In the ensuing hour and thirty-five minutes, the action was nonstop.
Okinawa was the first time suicide planes, called kamikazes, were deployed en masse as key weapons in the Japanese defense. That first plane was shot down at the range of 1,200 yards. Ten minutes later, at 7:55 a.m., radar picked up a mass of 156 enemy planes approaching at various altitudes, in groups of 36, 50, 20, 30 and 20, all headed toward the Hadley and her sister ship, the USS Evans. Marine Corsair fighters formed a protective halo above the ships. The Corsairs attacked first and reported shooting down 12 Japanese planes, but at 9 a.m. the Evans was hit and put out of action.
From then on, the Hadley fought alone, the target of relentless assault from groups of four to six enemy aircraft homing in from both sides. When the Marine pilots ran out of ammunition, they followed the kamikazes directly into the Hadley’s guns, dropping down on top of them in an effort to force them into the water short of their target.
At 9:20 a.m., 10 Japanese kamikazes circled the Hadley —four off the starboard bow, four off the port bow, and two astern—then attacked simultaneously. In the seconds that followed, all 10 planes were destroyed. But three crashed into the ship.
One of them struck below the waterline, immediately killing the sailors below and opening a huge hole in the ship’s side.
Another hit the ship, aft, plunged through the deck and detonated the ammunition stored there. The last hit the mast just above where my father sat, helpless; in a bubble directing antiaircraft fire.
By this time, the ship, aflame and listing precariously, was in grave danger of capsizing. The order to prepare to abandon ship was given, but a courageous band of about 50 crew members, officers and enlisted men alike, some in bare feet on a red-hot deck, stayed on board and extinguished the fire. Somehow the Hadley managed to stay afloat. It was towed back to the States and decommissioned on Dec. 15, 1945.
In those terrifying 95 minutes, the Hadley shot down 23 enemy planes, more than any ship in any one engagement in Navy history, before or since. It also sustained the impact of three kamikazes and two bombs. Thirty-one members of its crew perished, and 116 others, including my father, were wounded. After the battle, the ship was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.
The survivors of the Hadley crew have dwindled to a precious few. After dinner this May 12, one day after the anniversary of the most harrowing experience of their young lives, 14 members of that crew gathered proudly in front of their families and a large American flag. Susan King French—the little girl who’d caught sight of Bill King’s flag—was there to honor the memory of her father too, along with her son, also named Bill, and her grandson. We, their progeny, stood as one and applauded, and as I looked on from the back of the room, surveying the faces of each of these gentle, brave men, in each one of them I once again saw my father.
Thomas M. Boyd
The writer is the son of the late L.B. (Pete) Boyd, Holly Springs native, Naval Academy Class of 1943, who was assistant gunner officer aboard the USS Hadley.
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