Recollections of LT Walter B. Burwell, MC, USNR, a medical officer on USS Suwannee (CVE-27) when it was struck by two Japanese suicide (Kamikaze) aircraft on 25 and 26 October 1944
Adapted From: "The First Kamikaze." Navy Medicine 85, no. 5 (Sep.-Oct. 1994): 6-11.
The [escort aircraft carrier] Suwannee's [CVE-27] sick bay had one standard hospital bed and four tiers of three bunks. We also had an operating room, and adjacent to that, a pharmacy and a sick call area, and a dental office. For the ship's company, we had a senior medical officer; I was the junior medical officer. Each squadron usually brought a surgeon with them. We also had about 12 corpsmen and a chief pharmacist's mate. We had a dentist aboard as part of our Ship's Company Medical Division. Of course, he would help out with first aid, health and sanitation inspections, and things like that, but he was kept pretty busy with his dental duties, because in those days the general public had pretty poor dental hygiene. And a lot of these boys coming aboard had probably never seen or heard of a dentist before.
The Suwannee's first deployment was to support Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, in November 1942. In addition to providing air cover and helping to destroy the Vichy French Navy, we also ferried over a bunch of Army P-40s [Curtiss Warhawk single-seat, fighter-bomber aircraft]. On the way back, we ran into a terrific storm with a 59-knot gale. Tremendous waves peeled back the forward part of our flight deck. After repairs at the Portsmouth Navy Yard the Suwannee went to the Pacific. We arrived at Noumea, New Caledonia, in January 1943 and amazed the South Pacific veterans by steaming into the harbor with officers and crew at quarters in whites. We spent the next 7 months or so based at Efate Island. From time to time we'd sortie out and run up the "Slot" to Guadalcanal to support various operations. We made a quick trip back to San Diego in September 1943 for resupplying, refurbishing, things of that kind. But we made it back in time for the assault on Tarawa. We took part in the shore bombardment for that operation, and then, in succession, supporting landings at Apemama, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Aitape, Hollandia, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, and Moratai.
I recall one very narrow squeak off Saipan one night. Our radar had picked up a bogey some miles out. You could hear reports of the action on our PA [Public Address] system. "He's 15 miles out, 10 miles," and so on. As the plane approached, our spotters actually saw him release a torpedo which came straight for us. I was at my battle station in the forward battle dressing station which was at the waterline and I heard the torpedo strike the side of the ship and then glance off. You could hear it bouncing off throughout the length of the ship--glunk, glunk, glunk, glunk. It never exploded. The explanation was that the pilot released the torpedo so close to us that it didn't have time to arm before it struck. I remember when we got back into dry dock, seeing the scars along the star board side of the ship where the torpedo had scraped from front to back.
On 12 Oct 1944, we left Seadler Harbor to participate in the Philippines invasion, supporting the landings at Leyte. As I remember, our fleet was divided into three groups--Taffy 1, 2, and 3 off the east coast of the Philippines. Our group, Taffy 1, was the southernmost and was to support the landings on Leyte. The Army seemed to have no great trouble with the initial landings on 20 Oct, and we were able to successfully repulse Japanese aerial attacks on our group.
But of course, the Japanese Navy came down to try to knock us out of our positions. By 18 Oct, we received reports from our search planes that the Southern Japanese Fleet had put out from Singapore and was heading for the Philippines. By 22 Oct, our submarines had spotted the Japanese Center Force heading for San Bernardino Strait. The Southern Force was destroyed at Surigao Strait during the night of 24 Oct. At the same time, Admiral Kurita's force came through the San Bernardino Strait to the north expecting to catch us in a pincer maneuver. Even those of us doing mundane jobs were aware that something was going on from all the radio activity and reports.
On 25 Oct we had gone to general quarters at dawn. After being released from general quarters, I had had breakfast and gone back to my stateroom to take a shower. Our captain announced on the PA system that the whole Japanese fleet was attacking Taffy 3 to the north of us. I looked out on the forecastle and sure enough it looked like there were a hundred ships on the horizon. At that point general quarters sounded and I had to go below to my battle dressing station in the forward part of the ship. It was one deck below the main deck--two or three below the flight deck. We were just about at the waterline. There was nothing unique about the battle dressing station; it contained 25-30 bunks and medical supplies stored in lockers and was just below and aft of the catapult engine room. There was an open deck one deck above so you could look out on either side. This was ordinarily used as a barber shop and had a couple of barber chairs there. Many times during general quarters I would sit in one of those barber chairs because it was the most comfortable thing I could find.
Shortly thereafter, we were hit by the first Kamikaze. Our sister ship, the [escort aircraft carrier] Santee (CVE-29), was actually hit first, but 19 minutes later another Kamikaze managed to get through all the antiaircraft fire and crash into our flight deck about amidships and penetrate to the main deck. This attack did not do nearly as much damage as the second attack the next day.
On the morning of the 26th we had maybe 25 wounded in the forward battle dressing station from the action of the day before. And we had things pretty much under control by that evening. In fact, we were not even at general quarters. My stateroom was only two decks above our battle dressing station and I told my corpsman that I was going up there to get a change of clothes and maybe lie down a minute, and that if he needed me to come and get me. For some reason, exhaustion just got the better of me before I even got up there and I crawled into a bunk in an adjoining sleeping compartment just forward of our battle dressing station and fell asleep.
I was asleep when the second attack occurred. The thing that woke me up was the sound of our antiaircraft guns going off. When I heard the guns, I jumped up and started for the dressing station. Just as I got to the doorway there was a terrific explosion and we lost our lights. I went into the dressing station and helped our corpsmen pull some of the wounded out from under wreckage when there was a second explosion. That one shattered all the bulkheads and broke water mains.
After the first explosion, my corpsman lit out for my stateroom to get me, thinking that's where I was. But when he got up there he found that my stateroom had been demolished and thought I was gone. I will never forget how after we got working again, he looked up and saw me and said, "My God, you can't be here." Indeed, he thought I was dead. "I'm so glad I'm not here by myself," he said.
The second explosion forced us to evacuate the battle dressing station. After the first explosion, there was smoke and fire fed by aviation gasoline pouring onto the deck above us. The wreckage in the passageway and ladder to the deck above by bomb and ammunition explosions, prevented entrance or exit to or from our dressing station. But up to that point we could have remained where we were, at least temporarily. However, the second explosion further wrecked our compartment, buckled our bulkheads, and ruptured water mains above and in our compartment, so that we began to flood. As the water level rose to knee height in our compartment, the ship was listing uncomfortably and lying dead in the water without steerage because of destruction of the bridge and wheelhouse. Isolated from the rest of the ship with only the reflection from the gasoline fires above and a few flickering battle lamps for light, I saw my wounded partially covered with wreckage and already awash and knew that we had to evacuate.
I think there were about 30 of us, including two corpsmen, two stretcher bearers, and perhaps 25 wounded resulting from the action of the day before, mostly consisting of extensive burns, blast and fragmentation injuries, traumatic amputations, compound fractures, and multiple severe lacerations. About half the wounded were able to help themselves to some extent in dragging themselves about, but the remainder required stretchers to be moved.
Though I did not know the extent of damage to the compartments aft of us, I knew that they were unoccupied and sealed off during battle conditions. I informed my corpsmen that I would try to find an escape by this route as it seemed to offer our only hope of evacuation. We opened the hatch to the adjacent compartment, and I was able to get through it and lock it behind me without flooding from our compartment. Feeling my way with the help of a pocket flash light, I found the compartment to be intact and dry, though without light or ventilation. Then I worked my way aft through several adjacent unoccupied compartments in the same way until at last I reached an open space on the main deck. Now, feeling certain that we could make our way out by this route, I returned to my group in the forward battle dressing station. There, with my corpsmen and stretcher bearers, and with the valiant help of some of the mobile wounded, we were able to move our stretcher-bound wounded through the hatches from one compartment to the next without leaving or losing a single member of our party to finally emerge on the open deck. From there, we entered the Chief Petty Officers' Mess, to find 2 corpsmen tending to about 20 more wounded. So, we joined forces to organize an amidship's dressing station and began to gather additional wounded in that area.
On the deck above, we found about 15 or 20 more wounded, mostly burns and blast injuries, who had made their way into bunks in the Chief Petty Officers Quarters. There was no immediate possibility of moving them to our already overflowing and understaffed amidship's station. One of my corpsmen and I gathered up what medical supplies we could carry and made our way up to the Chiefs' Quarters to treat the wounded there. Just as we arrived at the entrance to the compartment, a sailor, apparently in panic, came running along the passageway screaming, "Everybody's going over the side! The Captain's dead! Every one on the bridge has been killed! Everybody's abandoning ship!" Now, havoc! Now, contagious panic and cold fear! The wounded who had crawled into the compartment began struggling to get out, screaming hysterically, "Where's my life jacket? Who took my life jacket? Turn that loose! G'mme that! No, it's mine!" Some were shoving toward the entrance, fighting and scrambling over one another. My heart sank as I stepped into the threshold to block the entrance and shout over and over, "Get back into your bunks! There's no order to abandon ship! You don't need your life jackets!"
I could see this was only having limited effect; so, with much inward trepidation but outwardly extravagant bravado, I made myself step into the compartment from the threshold, remove my own life jacket and helmet and hang them in clear view on a coat hook near the entrance Then, I had to consciously force myself to move away from the entrance and the comfort and security of my life jacket and go into the compartment to tend the wounded, fearing that at any moment some panicky sailor might snatch my life jacket and bolt, setting off a wild melee. It seemed to me that time hung in the balance for an eternity, but finally one after another of the men quieted down and crawled back into their bunks, so that gradually things began at last to calm down and sort themselves out.
In the meantime one of our corpsmen tending the wounded on the flight deck saw the plight of those isolated by fire on the forecastle. He came below to report that medical help was critically needed there. It seemed to me that we would have to try to get through to them. So he and I restocked our first aid bags with morphine syrettes, tourniquets, sulfa, Vaseline, and bandages, commandeered a fire extinguisher and made our way forward, dodging flames along the main deck. Along part of the way, we were joined by a sailor manning a seawater fire hose with fairly good pressure, and though the seawater would only scatter the gasoline fires away from us, by using the water and foam alternatively as we advanced, we managed to work our way up several decks, through passageways along the wrecked and burning combat information center and decoding area, through officers' country, and finally out on the forecastle. Many of the crew on the forecastle and the catwalks above it had been blown over the side by the explosions. But others trapped below and aft of the forecastle area found themselves under a curtain of fire from aviation gasoline pouring down from burning planes on the flight deck above. Their only escape was to leap aflame into the sea, but some were trapped so that they were incinerated before they could leap. By the time we arrived on the forecastle, the flow of gasoline had mostly consumed itself, and flames were only erupting and flickering from combustible areas of water and oil. Nonetheless, the decks and bulkheads were still blistering hot and ammunition in the small arms locker on the deck below was popping from the heat like strings of firecrackers. With each salvo of popping, two or three more panicky crew men would leap over the side, and we found that our most urgent task was to persuade those poised on the rail not to jump by a combination of physical restraint and reassurance that fires were being controlled and that more help was on the way. Most of the remaining wounded in the forecastle area were severely burned beyond recognition and hope. All that could be done for the obviously dying was to give the most rudimentary first aid consisting of morphine, a few swallows of water, and some words of companionship, leaving them where we found them and moving on to others.
Nonetheless, within an hour or so after being struck in the last attack, power and steerage had been restored, fires were out, ammunition and gasoline explosions had ceased, pumps were working, and ruptured water mains had been shut off. But it was miraculous that we escaped destruction during this period, because we were vulnerable to further air or submarine attack.
By this time we had done what we could for the wounded on the forecastle, and I moved back to the amidship's dressing station. From there my corpsmen and stretcher bearers were searching out and gathering wounded. By nightfall, we began to run short of medical supplies and I realized that we needed to salvage the supplies left behind in the forward battle dressing station. I was able to recruit a small group of stretcher bearers to help me and successfully made our way back to the forward battle dressing station. We found the compartment was still flooded with knee-deep water, but most of our supplies were salvageable in wreckage above this level. We were able to load up our stretchers with plasma, dressings, sulfa, Vaseline, and morphine and haul them out. After two or three trips we had all our supplies safely out and distributed elsewhere.
For the ensuing 3 days we still had our hands full continuing to search for, find, and care for our many wounded scattered throughout the ship and burying the dead at sea. Then we proceeded to Kossol Roads, [in the] Palaus, where we transferred our most seriously wounded to two hospital ships, the Mercy [AH-8] and the Bountiful [AH-9]. From there we went to Seadler Harbor, Manus Islands, to further "lick our wounds" for 5 days. There we cared for our less seriously wounded and made temporary repairs so we would be seaworthy enough to proceed to Hawaii.
We arrived at Pearl Harbor on 19 Nov. As we limped up the channel to the naval base, every Navy ship at anchor or in dock there "manned the rail" in a salute to the Suwannee, and our radio received this message: "Welcome to Pearl! Your successful fight against great odds will live as one of the most striking tales of Naval History. The people of our country and those of us in the Naval Service are gratified and proud of your outstanding performance of duty against the best the enemy could offer. As long as our country has men with your heart, courage, skill, and strength she need not fear for her future. To each and every one, a `Well Done' -- s/ADM [signed Admiral] Nimitz."
We stayed in Pearl Harbor only overnight, just long enough to transfer our remaining wounded to the Naval Hospital and to take on supplies, and then headed for major repairs at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, where we docked on 26 Nov. 1944. The repairs took about a month. Because I was junior medical officer, I had to stay aboard for a week or so while it was being repaired and when the first section came back from leave I was able to go on leave. While I was on leave orders came through for me to report to the Naval Dispensary, U.S. Training Center, Gulfport, Mississippi. I went to Bremerton to be released and to pick up what was left of my belongings. While there, I walked through the ship once more. realized I must have led a charmed life. The bunk I had been lying in at the time of the first explosion had been destroyed by the second explosion. It was absolutely unbelievable.
I departed with great pride in my ship and shipmates and their accomplishments, for I had witnessed innumerable instances of cool courage, bold bravery, and unselfish heroism blended with faith, friendship, and self-sacrifice. But I will say that I had gained no fondness for naval warfare, and I was thankful to go on to other endeavors.
Note: For his heroic work on Suwannee, LT Burwell received the Silver Star.
5 June 2000