“Kamikaze Warfare” — Damage Control, Part II

Memory from: Shipfitter 1st class Russell L. Keith

Setting the Scene

Shipfitter 1st class Russell L. Keith, in this interview with KIDD historian Fred G. Benton, Jr., describes in detail the events of kamikaze attack of April 11, 1945, and the critical hours immediately afterward when the survival of the ship and the crew hung in the balance.

The Recollection

Fred Benton, Jr.: When did you, as a member of the crew of the KIDD, go aboard the ship? Russell Keith: I came aboard in, I think, August of ’43, in Norfolk, Virginia. We were a bunch a’ recruits. There were probably twenty-five or thirty of us, as it happened. All of our last names began with “K,” so I suppose we were assigned to the KIDD under the complicated Navy tradition of always going according to the alphabet. We went on a shakedown cruise to Trinidad, which would include two trips down there, one with the aircraft carriers and another one with the cruisers and battle wagons. We went through the Panama Canal and headed through the Solomon Islands, and with a group of battleships, we went from there to Pearl Harbor. At Pearl Harbor, we picked up another group and headed toward the Solomons. We crossed the equator, and we all got indoctrinated in the tradition. We finally wound up at Espiritos Santos. Training was going on all this time. We went to the raids of Rabaul and up the coast of New Guinea, Hollandia, and all the different islands there. After our friend the battle wagon shelled us, putting two star shells through us, we got indoctrinated on how to repair and take care of different things.

Working with Task Force 58, we more or less became famous for picking up pilots. We were called “cowboys,” and we picked up a number of pilots and shot down a few planes, so we thought we were getting pretty good. From there, we went through the Marshall Island raids. We were in the waters around Tarawa. The Japs attacked INDEPENDENCE and the aircraft carrier got hit that night. We stayed basically with the Task Force 58. We did some shore bombardment and harassment in and around the Marshall Islands, isolating one island in particular that they didn’t want to land on with an invasion force. I’d look out for shore fire so that we could spot where the guns were. We participated in the Saipan, Tinian, and Guam operations and even in the Marianna turkey shoot. We then went to the Philippines and then to the States for repair. After that, we went back out again and picked up with Task Force 58 again. From there, we went on to the picket line around Okinawa, and that’s when we got hit with a suicide plane. The day before we got hit, we had a number of raids where there were a lot of near misses. Wing tips were almost hitting the guns, they were so close. We were lucky; we didn’t get hit by any of ’em. Either they had their eyes closed or they were poor judges of crashing. Well, anyway, the next day we were in square formation on the picket line. We had off and on raids and we were on general quarters continually. And this suicide plane made a run at the BLACK, hopped right over the BLACK, and got between it and our ship.

The two ships were probably a mile or two miles apart. Because of the angle, we couldn’t fire or didn’t get the word to fire. The plane kept coming straight at us. I was standing on the rear deck, behind No. 5 gun, where I could see the plane coming. It rolled toward the fantail and I figured, “Oh, boy. Here he comes.” Then the plane rolled the other way. The forward guns started to fire; the 20s and the 40s. But the plane was in so close; kept bearing right in. Last night, I was talking to Maurice Lawler who was in No. 4 gun and could see the pilot. Just before the plane hit, the pilot stood up, just as if he was saluting himself. The plane came straight in, punching into the forward boiler room on the armor plate right above the waterline. The pilot was cut in two right at the belt line. As the plane went in, it sheared the safety valves off the top of the steam dome. The bomb evidently followed through and blew up after it went out the other side. So we had two gaping holes, one right by No. 1 boiler and the other one a little forward where the bulkhead and the boiler room joined. When the steam was released, it went up through the stacks, and, boy, it cleaned everything out: soot and water. It was so heavy that I thought we were underwater. It was just coming down at us. After that settled down and the fog moved out, a fire was reported. The gasoline evidently had set the flag bags afire on the bridge. I went on the other side of the ship and went forward with the after repair party. We started running the fire hose out in order to take care of the fire. Well, since we had no power, we had to start thinking about hooking up handy billies—little gasoline fire pumps. As luck would have it, we got one started and got water, but by the time we got it situated, the fire was out. Somebody had gotten a fire extinguisher and taken care of it. As it turned out, there wasn’t that much of a fire. When we started to look over the damage, we saw that a lot of men were wounded and all bloody. They were coming down off the superstructures.

The ones who could move went to the first aid station. The sickbay was midships. When we opened up the hatch going into No. 1 boiler room, I looked down in. I saw Jim [Carmody], who was the water tender, sitting on the railing of the top catwalk. His job had been to stand there and watch the water level in the boiler, and he was tending to it now. He was sitting there just as natural as if he was on watch. But he was dead. The superheated steam had taken care of everybody in the boiler room. None of ’em were marked or hurt or had any damage to ’em, but that dread heat and the high pressure killed ’em instantly. We went down in, checked the damage, and saw where the plane had sheared the safety valves off the top of the boilers. The rest of the plane was on the other side of the ship on top of the auxiliary water tank. We went forward into the corner where the bomb had passed through so that we could see what damage there was. On the lower level, there was a rupture that was letting a small amount of water in, though a small amount of water would eventually fill the boiler room. We figured that we’d better patch the holes in the sides the best we could, seal ’em off, so that we would not be visible to submarines or planes at night. We built collision mats from what timber we had aboard. We had four-by-fours and nails and different odds and ends. We were limited to what we could have under the restrictions of the Navy. You couldn’t have too much wood because it blows up in splinters and is a fire hazard. We covered the collision mats with mattresses, confiscating what we had to have in order to make them. We then pulled the mats into the holes with come-alongs and chains falls. When they saw that the water was rising in the boiler room, they finally got the men out of the lower level.

They didn’t get ’em all until later. But, when we started trying to pump the water, we couldn’t get the pump from the forward engine room to pump the forward boiler room. Then we hooked up the P-500 big handy billies, which were new pumps that could pump 500 gallons a minute, to suction lines and tried to pump the boiler room with them. During all this time, the electrician and myself were cutting electrical cables. He wanted to isolate the forward section of the ship from the aft section so that the engine rooms could generate power. With the front isolated, the damaged cables and things could be cut loose and not create a fire. We were cutting all that while we were standing in water and fuel oil up to our armpits. That night, we stayed right there on the main deck, tended to the pumps, and took out all the things we could. Doc Garrett, who was hurt really bad, sent a message for me to come and see him. When I went, he told me, “You’re damage control. Now, down under my bunk, I’ve got a half case of brandy in pints.” He then told me to “break them out and see that all leading petty officers have one, and be sure every man on the ship gets a good shot of brandy; they probably need it.” Everybody was pretty pleased when I issued ’em out. Even though Doc Garrett was wounded pretty badly, he was still thinking of the fellas in wanting them to have a little drink. Well, none of us refused. That night, of course, every little thing would stir us up. Somebody reported a sub off our starboard quarter.

Come to find out, it was one of our own which had come up to see what was going on. The next day, we came alongside a tanker and everybody on board it was anxious and wanted to help. They wanted to know if we needed anything. So we got two induction pumps off them—pumps which hook up to the suction lines and 2½” inlet supply. The more water pumped through the pumps, the more they will pump out. I was anticipating pumping the boiler room with that, with those pumps. Well, between the time of getting the pumps, rigging them up and into the holds, and starting them, all the insulation material, pipe covering materials, and thinks like that had evidently broken loose, and this stuff plugged up our pumps so much that we couldn’t keep ahead of it. We’d have to keep unplugging ’em, and we’d pump five or ten minutes and then be jammed again. So we had to give up that idea and just go along with the flooded boiler room. Mr. Kenny, who took over the captain’s command, asked me my thoughts on how the ship would fair structurally. Because the plane went through the boiler room without hitting any vital supporting structural members, I thought that the ship was still in good shape. The main deck wasn’t broken or anything like that. In a very short time, the engineering crew isolated the forward boiler room so that they could build up steam pressure with the remaining two boilers and run both engine rooms.

We couldn’t get top speed but we could get at least half speed, which was enough. And luckily, the sea didn’t have more than two-foot waves, so the surface wasn’t too rough. The ship thus had no real danger of buckling or twisting and breaking in two. We did take some of the weight forward and move it back by a chain gang of guys lugging ammunition so as to lighten the forward end. And there was a steam ejector that really sucked the water out of the boiler room and fixed us up. In the process, we had a little rest and got a chance to get our feet under us. It was quite an experience. Fred Benton, Jr.: Did this tender weld some plates? Russell Keith: Yes, temporary plates over the sides to secure us and make us safe for the trip back to the States, to Hunter’s Point. At Hunter’s Point, they cut the sides open, repaired the boilers, taking one boiler out and putting another on in, and started rebuilding us like a regular ship again. Fred Benton, Jr.: You had to virtually cut the superstructure off?. Russell Keith: No. They just cut the sides of the boiler room out, water tanks and everything while in the dry dock. I was home on leave at the time, so I didn’t see the whole operation. But according to the process, they’d cut the side of the hull open. Fred Benton, Jr.: On the starboard or the port side? Russell Keith: Oh, I don’t know which side. They had to repair both sides, so I think they took the starboard side. And they’d slide one boiler out and slide another one in and rebuild that whole side. Fred Benton, Jr.: That experience you had with the chief electrician’s mate, cutting those electric power cables. That must have been very dangerous, in case you hit a cable with any power in it at all? Russell Keith: Well, you see, we were completely out of power.

All four boilers were down and the generators weren’t in operation. What he was actually trying to isolate was the motor generator in the forward section; the emergency generator. But, with us being dead in the water, that was the time we could cut ’em, as there would be no danger of power until they got up steam and started generating power. And the chief electrician’s mate had more control. He could tell ’em okay to generate power, because he was the chief electrician. He knew what he was doing; he was quite a guy. Fred Benton, Jr.: Everyone was killed in that forward fireroom. How did they get the bodies out? Russell Keith: Well, the pharmacist’s mate and the rest of the damage control parties, the officers, and the crewmen were working the other side of the ship. There was a hatch on that side similar to the one that we’d opened on the starboard side. They were removing the dead and tending the wounded. We had an emergency ward—we used the washroom on the midship or back aft, the crew’s washroom as more or less a ward. We had men lying all over the place and some of them dying. Fred Benton, Jr.: How long did it take to get control of the wounded, in the sense of tourniquets and …” Russell Keith: Well, that was amazing. ‘Course we’d had, more or less, mock drills of casualties. Each section would have its first aid crew. The leading petty officers would have a box of morphine tablets. If we gave morphine to a man who was wounded, we were instructed to mark his forehead with iodine, to put an “M” on it. If a wounded man got two shots, we had to mark it so. We had a good crew of first aid technicians; men that understood. The pharmacist’s mates and the men who were under Dr. Garrett were really good. They did a beautiful job. And there were some pretty horrible messes, but they took care of ’em real good. I was lucky I didn’t get hurt or anything.

I was around where I could see what they were doing and how they were taking care of ’em. And then we did get a doctor aboard from another ship. There was so much going on that I didn’t—I couldn’t keep track of everything. You’d hear this and see this, and I had enough to do as it was. Fred Benton, Jr.: You sure did, with those handy billies. Russell Keith: Yeah, boy, they were temperamental. We’d have to keep working on them to be sure they’d start. They were your only emergency firepower, waterpower you had. Fred Benton, Jr.: Is there any other thing that you can remember? Any special event like the star shell episode? Russell Keith: Oh, yes. That was quite an experience. That’s when I ran into a little trouble with the boatswain’s mate and I finally got into the shipfitter’s department through Mr. Roby. I was on the bridge, as lookout, at the time we got hit, so I still had to stay on lookout. And I knew they were having problems down in the compartment where the shell went through at the waterline. I don’t know whether the young fellow that was doing the welding had the experience or what, but anyway, I asked Mr. Roby if I could be relieved so I could go down and help ’em When I went down, they were having a great problem getting the arc started so that the plates could be welded. The water was squirting in. So I asked him if I could help ’em, and he said sure. So I told ’em to load all the current they could on it so that they could strike an arc and nothing would put it out. So they kept going over and over the area and finally got it sealed off, caulked it out, and got it bone dry. Then, from there, I progressed up the rates. Fred Benton, Jr.: Did you work on any of these ships at Bath Ironworks before you joined the Navy? Russell Keith: Oh, yes. The destroyer squadron which the KIDD was part of included the ERBEN, the STEMBEL, the HALE, and the CHAUNCEY, and another one, I think, which were built at Bath Ironworks. And when I worked at Bath, I basically welded on all of ’em. Welding the name plate on was a final touch. And I welded the names on most of ’em. Fred Benton, Jr.: That’s quite a remarkable coincidence. How old were you then? Russell Keith: Oh, I was … I was probably twenty-six then. I went into the Navy when I was twenty-seven.

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