This H-gram is in memory of those who almost made it home.
Ensign Wright C. “Billy” Hobbs, USNR
Ensign Eugene “Mandy” Mandeberg, USNR
Lieutenant (j.g.) Joseph G. Sahloff, USNR
Lieutenant Howard M. “Howdy” Harrison, USNR
The four names above are recorded in the memoirs of Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., who asked that they should never be forgotten. Admiral Halsey had given the order to launch carrier strikes on the Tokyo area on the morning of 15 August 1945 to maintain unremitting pressure on the Japanese, as he was directed, even as surrender negotiations were ongoing. As the strikes were on their way in, Halsey received word that the Japanese had officially accepted the Allies’ terms for surrender, and a recall order was broadcast. These four Hellcat fighter pilots of VF-88 were jumped and shot down by Japanese fighters while on their way back to the carriers after receiving the recall. Despite thinking the war was over in one moment and being engaged in a wild dogfight the next, these pilots still put up a courageous and hellacious fight, but were simply outnumbered. Halsey carried the burden of believing that he was responsible for sending these men to die in the last moments of the war, and he never forgot.
“Peace loving people throughout the world today are grateful to those who have given their lives to further the cause of freedom and democracy. But to the men whose very lives have been saved by the heroic deeds of their fighting comrades, this gratitude assumes the strength of an unpayable personal debt. Everlasting are the vivid memories of thousands of us who have seen our comrades sacrifice their lives so that we may live. If only the entire world could feel the same personal indebtedness toward those heroes, it would be a great impetus toward attaining the free and peaceful world for which these men were fighting. The attainment of this goal can be our only reasonable tribute.”
—From the report of LST-647, saved by the sacrifice of USS Underhill (DE-682) and 113 of her crewmen, sunk on 24 July 1945 while defending convoy TU 99.1.18 from a Japanese Kaiten manned suicide torpedo attack
24 January 1945: USS Extractor (ARS-15)—Last U.S. Ship Sunk by “Friendly Fire”
After being assured that there were no friendlies in the area, submarine Guardfish (SS-217), with two previous Presidential Unit Citations, fired a salvo of torpedoes at what Guardfish thought was a Japanese I-165–class submarine running on the surface. The target was actually the rescue and salvage ship Extractor, which had failed to decode a message directing her to return to Guam. Guardfish rescued 73 survivors of Extractor, but six crewmen were lost. Extractor was the only U.S. ship sunk by a U.S. submarine during the war. U.S. submarines were attacked by U.S. and Allied ships and aircraft on numerous occasions, but only one U.S. submarine was almost certainly lost due to “friendly” fire and two others were possibly lost as a result of U.S. action. The U.S. submarine Seawolf (SS-197) was probably sunk by destroyer escort Richard M. Rowell (DE-403) on 13 October 1943 with a loss of all 83 of her crew and 17 U.S. Army personnel on the way to a clandestine operation in the Philippines.
April–July 1945: Seven Minesweepers Lost During Landings on Borneo
Although overshadowed by the Okinawa campaign, there were three major landings on the Japanese-occupied island of Borneo in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), in which Australia provided the ground troops and the U.S. Seventh Fleet provided almost all the ships. The area had been heavily mined by the Dutch (before the war), by the Japanese, and by sophisticated air-dropped U.S. magnetic and acoustic mines. Seven U.S. minesweepers were lost during these operations, several to our own mines. However, due to the work and sacrifice of these vessels, no other U.S. or Allied ships were sunk in the operations and only one U.S. destroyer was damaged by a mine.
24 July 1945: USS Underhill (DE-682)—The Last Destroyer Escort Lost
While defending a seven-ship convoy from attack by Japanese submarine I-53, destroyer escort Underhill rammed or was hit by a Kaiten manned suicide torpedo launched from I-53. This resulted in two massive explosions that obliterated the forward half of the ship. She went down with 113 of her crew, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Robert Maston Newcomb, USNR. I-53 got away, but so did the U.S. convoy with many hundreds of battle-weary U.S. Army troops being brought out of Okinawa. In 1998, Underhill was belatedly awarded a Navy Unit Commendation.
29 July 1945: USS Callaghan (DD-792)—The Last U.S. Destroyer Lost
The last U.S. destroyer to go down in World War II, Callaghan was sunk by a Japanese “Willow” biplane trainer with a 220-pound bomb. The U.S. high-tech radar proximity fuses didn’t work on the wood and fabric biplane. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, the bomb hit in a critical space and a delayed detonation wiped out the fire and repair parties. It also contributed to the rapid spread of fire, which set off 75 5-inch rounds. Callaghan went down quickly with a loss of 47 dead and 73 wounded. The next night, the Willow biplanes attacked again and one crashed into destroyer Cassin Young (DD-793). Cassin Young survived the severe damage, but 22 of her crewmen did not, including the prospective commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Alfred Brunson Wallace (USNA ’39). The commanding officer was among the 42 wounded.
30 July 1945: USS Indianapolis (CA-35)—The Last U.S. Cruiser Lost
Following completion of her top secret mission to deliver components of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to Tinian in a record-breaking transit, the heavy cruiser Indianapolis was steaming from Guam to Leyte when she encountered Japanese submarine I-58 on the night of 29–30 July. In an ideal attack position just as the moon broke through the heavy cloud cover, I-58 hit Indianapolis with two of six torpedoes. Indianapolis went down in about 12 minutes. Although distress transmissions were made, none made it off the ship due to loss of power and damage. Of 1,195 men aboard, only 316 survived. As many as 200 to 300 went down with the ship and another 600 to 700 perished in a horrific four-day-plus ordeal of scorching sun, hypothermia, deadly salt water–induced hallucinations, and shark attack. The survivors were first discovered by accident by a PV-1 Ventura on 2 August. This was followed by a risky open-ocean landing by a PBY Catalina flying boat. The tragedy was compounded due to missed communications, faulty assumptions, and faulty operating procedures. No one ashore knew that Indianapolis was lost until destroyer escort Cecil J. Doyle (DE-368) arrived on scene at midnight, 2–3 August. The magnitude and circumstances of the loss just days before the Japanese surrender resulted in intense criticism of the U.S. Navy that reverberated for decades.
6 August 1945: USS Bullhead (SS-332)—The Last U.S. Submarine Lost
Eight U.S. submarines were lost in 1945 with all 687 men aboard. As Japanese shipping became increasingly scarce, U.S. submarines resorted to increasingly daring, and dangerous, attempts to sink ships. Swordfish (SS-193), Barbel (SS-316), Kete (SS-369), Trigger (SS-237), Snook (SS-279), Lagarto (SS-371), and Bonefish (SS-223) were lost, several of them survivors of over a dozen war patrols. The last was Bullhead (SS-332), sunk on her third war patrol by Japanese army aircraft off Bali shortly after she completed a northbound transit of Lombok Strait. Bullhead was lost with all 84 hand, and was the last of 52 U.S. submarines lost during World War II with a total of 3,506 crewmen. The families of her crew would not find out until after the VJ-day celebrations. The commanding officer on Bullhead’s first two patrols didn’t make the third due to dysentery; years later, wracked by survivor’s guilt, then–Rear Admiral (ret.) Walter Thomas “Red” Griffith committed suicide.
9 August 1945: USS Borie (DD-704)—Last Radar Picket Casualties
On 9 August 1945, Five Japanese B7A “Grace” torpedo bombers attacked four U.S. destroyers performing radar picket duty for the Fast Carrier Task Force (TF 38) off Honshu. One Grace crashed into destroyer Borie. Despite the severe damage and 48 dead and 66 wounded, Borie’s crew saved their ship.
9–12 August 1945: USS Johnnie Hutchins (DE-360) and USS Oak Hill (LSD-7)—Last Japanese Submarine Attacks
Japanese submarine I-58 was not through after sinking Indianapolis. On 9 August, the submarine attempted to attack a convoy that turned out to be a U.S. ASW hunter-killer group, and lost two Kaiten in an unsuccessful attack on destroyer escort Johnnie Hutchins. On 12 August, I-58 attempted to attack landing ship dock Oak Hill with a Kaiten. Destroyer escort Thomas F. Nickel (DE-587) ran down the Kaiten, which scraped along her hull but did not detonate. The Kaiten subsequently self-destructed with no damage to U.S. ships.
12 August 1945: USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)—The U.S. Last Battleship Hit
Pennsylvania nearly met the fate she had avoided during the attack on Pearl Harbor when a single Japanese torpedo bomber slipped into an anchorage area off Okinawa and hit her with a torpedo in a vulnerable spot. Fortunately, the water was shallow, otherwise Pennsylvania might have been lost and joined her sister Arizona (BB-39). Pennsylvania suffered 20 dead in the attack.
13 August 1945: USS Lagrange (APA-124)–Last Ship Hit by Kamikaze
On the evening of 13 August, two Japanese kamikaze aircraft made it into an anchorage area off Okinawa and hit the attack transport Lagrange. She survived, but 21 men were killed and 89 wounded.
14 August 1945: USS Spikefish (SS-404) and USS Torsk (SS-423)—Last U.S. Submarine Victories
Tipped off by Ultra intelligence, Spikefish intercepted and tracked Japanese transport submarine I-373 before sinking her at dawn on 14 August. I-373 went down with 84 crewmen (1 survived), the last of 128 Japanese submarines lost in the war. Later that day, having penetrated the heavily mined Tsuhima Strait, Torsk torpedoed and sank Japanese escort ship CD-47 and then did the same to CD-13, using new acoustic homing torpedoes and passive acoustic torpedoes. CD-13 was the last Imperial Japanese Navy ship sunk by the United States before the surrender, going down with 28 crewmen. (Other Japanese ships would be sunk by U.S. mines in the weeks after the surrender.)
15 August 1945: Fighter Squadron VF-88—The Last Carrier Planes Lost
The Fast Carrier Task Force (TF 38) launched another round of heavy air strikes on targets in the Tokyo area, when word came from Washington, DC, that the Japanese government had officially accepted the Allies’ terms for surrender. A recall message was transmitted to all aircraft in the air; those that were over still over water jettisoned their bombs and turned around. Those that were overland promptly headed back toward their carriers. On the way back, four Hancock (CV-19) F6F Hellcats were attacked by Japanese fighters, but none were lost. Six Yorktown (CV-10) Hellcats of VF-88 aborted their rocket attack on Atsugi Airfield. On the way back, these six Hellcats were intercepted by an overwhelming number of first-line Japanese pilots in first-line aircraft. It was a valiant fight, but four of the Hellcats went down and their pilots were lost, the last U.S. Navy pilots lost in combat during the war. A returning British strike was also attacked and one Supermarine Seafire from HMS Indefatigable went down. The pilot survived the bailout, but was executed by the Japanese that evening, the last Allied pilot lost in the war.
15 August 1945: USS Heermann (DD-532)—The Final U.S. Navy Combat Actions
In the afternoon after Emperor Hirohito’s surrender announcement, a Japanese Judy dive-bomber attacked four U.S. destroyers on radar picket duty for the U.S. carrier force off Honshu, Japan. Destroyer Heermann shot the Judy down “in a friendly manner” with an assist from Black (DD-666) and Bullard (DD-660).
15 August 1945: Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki—The Last Kamikaze
Late in the afternoon following Emperor Hirohito’s surrender announcement, the commander of Japanese kamikaze operations, diehard Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki (who had survived the shoot down of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in April 1943), launched the last kamikaze mission, flying as a passenger in a Judy dive-bomber. Ten other aircrew (pilots and gunners) insisted on flying the last mission with him, although three planes turned back with mechanical problems. No U.S. ships were hit, 19 Japanese lost their lives, and Ugaki’s plane probably dove into a sand bar in the darkness.
18 August 1945: The Last U.S. Combat Casualty
Japanese navy fighters violated the cease-fire on 17 and 18 August, attacking U.S. Army Air Forces B-32 Dominator bombers flying photo-reconnaissance missions over Tokyo. One B-32 was badly damaged and Sergeant Anthony Marchione was killed He is considered to be the last U.S. combat casualty of World War II.
29 December 1945: USS Minivet (AM-371)—The Last U.S. Navy Ship Sunk
While working in concert with Japanese minesweepers to clear a minefield in the Tsushima Strait, minesweeper Minivet struck a Japanese mine and quickly sank with the loss of 31 of her crew. By some accounts, she was the last U.S. Navy ship sunk in World War II.
I have been fortunate and honored to have met a few of the dwindling number of World War II veterans, who quite deservedly get the hero treatment for their role during that terrible war that ensured our freedom today. However, almost to a man, they will invariably say that the real heroes were the ones who didn’t return home. About 35,000 U.S. Navy personnel did not return, and most of them are still at sea.
There is an epitaph on a monument in India to British soldiers who fell at the 1944 Battle of Kohima that seems apt: “When you go home, tell them of us and say,/For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
For more on the last sacrifices, please see attachment H-051-1.
As always, you are welcome to forward H-grams to spread these stories of U.S. Navy valor and sacrifice. Back issues of H-grams enhanced with photos may be found here, along with lots of other interesting material on Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.