WWII (1943-46)

“Kamikaze Warfare — The Signal Bridge”

Memory from: Signalman 2nd class William H. "Bill" Gath

Setting the Scene

Some people just have a gift for memory. They see and hear things and they never forget them. Their ability at recall makes them a vital reference and resource when you want to get the story right. In a sense, they become the historians of their respective group or period, holding a treasure trove of memories—quite often undiscovered and unknown by the world at large. Signalman 2nd class William H. "Bill" Gath, was one such individual. Though he would probably not have referred to himself as one of the USS KIDD's many historians, it was to him that the historians went when they wanted to verify their facts and get the story right. In this installment, Mr. Gath recalls the April 11th kamikaze attack from 1945 as he saw it from the signal bridge.

The Recollection

I was one of the people who actually was on the dock when the ship came over from Kearny, New Jersey, flying the “Jolly Roger.” That was in April of 1943. I was on that ship where I was a signalman, second class, on the bridge until August of 1945, which takes in the account of the kamikaze. At that time, I was sent to the Naval hospital in Treasure Island, and then the war ended with the atomic bomb. I was shipped to a place that I doubt is in existence, a naval hospital in Shoemaker, California, for about thirteen days. And then I was shipped to the Newport Naval Hospital. In all, I stayed five months and twenty-two days in the hospital, receiving a medical discharge on January 08, 1946. I can remember seeing us when we went alongside the FRANKLIN (CV-13) and ran patrol around the FRANKLIN when she was in tow and one of our sister ships, the 517 [USS WALKER] went alongside as the fire pump. I can remember that. And we ran circles around the FRANKLIN—this was before the kamikaze attack when the FRANKLIN was hit and I lost a good friend of mine, a signalman named Joe up on the bridge that day.

I had to go home and face his mother when I went home on leave and tell her what happened. And how do you tell somebody about what happened on the FRANKLIN? It was chaos when two planes or the bombs dropped or whatever hit that thing. It was just one of those things. If you ever saw the newsreels, you will know what I am talking about. And this friend of mine was back in my home city. I had to go back after seeing all of this. I got out of the hospital at Newport on a recuperation leave and went home. And, boy, I had her over to my house for a week. I tried to answer her questions to the best of my ability and still not tell her too much because I didn’t know what happened. He said he had talked to me. And actually what we did was send semaphore [flag signals] at a distance of about half a mile away. I could only see a silhouetted figure. And he said he had written to his mother and told her that he had met me out there, which, more or less, was “face-to-face” in her jargon, but not in mine. I only talked to him on the semaphore flags. We didn’t use a light because we would have had to get special permission to do so.

We were operating as a division, DESDIV 96, with the BULLARD, the KIDD, the CHAUNCEY, and the BLACK and were running maneuvers. We were at General Quarters. At that time, we were running in a column formation. I don’t know the exact distance between ships. But, being a signalman, I got a bird’s-eye view of everything going on, and I had to practically follow the captain around to make sure that all the signal orders were relayed, both flags and visual light. And just about that time, there was a reported radar contact, and it was almost overhead. It was a twin-engine bomber, a Betty, and she had dropped some bombs. There was an emergency signal of “scatter.” The ships turned in every way they were supposed to. The bombs had fallen in our wake. The airplane passed us. The Japanese craft passed up and circled back. The CHAUNCEY, which was on our left, our portside, was practically the only ship which could fire on it without injuring some of the others. The CHAUNCEY did open fire on that plane and hit it, hit that aircraft. I don’t know what the altitude was. And the plane broke up like a piece of rye-crisp, or crackers, with the left wing being torn right off the body. The CHAUNCEY only fired once with two five-inch guns, the 4 and 5 [the two aft-most mounts], and took that wing off. I never saw such an amount of accuracy in firing in all the years I was out in the Pacific. And I’ve got to give that CHAUNCEY crew credit on that—the gunnery credit and that fire control crew. I don’t think it has ever been brought up before. I wish they would imprint the picture in my mind to show to somebody else what I actually saw, but that’s an impossibility at this time.

The BULLARD was the flagship of our division. The 660. The BULLARD was always the flagship, and we never had the flag changed. As far as I know, we were operating in a division of four ships. The other four actually were some other place. The day the kamikaze hit the KIDD, the clouds were about 1,500 feet. We were operating on patrol in enemy waters off the Okinawa coast. It was approximately 1300 in the afternoon. [1:00 p.m.]. We had contact with numerous enemy aircraft, called “bandits” at the time. We were operating in a rectangle, or box, formation with 1,500 yards between each ship. We were operating in the lower left-hand corner. Opposite us were the BLACK and the BULLARD, operating on the starboard or right side of the square, in the lower part of it. At the time, there was no visual contact; the ceiling was roughly 1,500 feet. This plane came out of the low clouds, started heading toward the BLACK, and then jumped the BLACK, more or less checkerboard style, over the top and dropped down low to the water, coming in on the USS KIDD. The ship could not fire its five-inch guns and 40mm guns due to the closeness of the ships in formation, or we would have been shooting our fellow men on the USS BLACK. At that time, the 20mm was shooting, and the plane was actually smoking and going down when it hit the starboard side of the USS KIDD right at the forward stack, underneath what would be the captain’s gig.

The bomb went through the ship and exploded on the portside just about at the entrance to the mess compartment down below. The flag bag on the ship caught on fire on the portside. A lot of injuries were due to the rivets flying. Perhaps nobody knows this. We had a ship that was welded and at the same time riveted, but the rivets were driven loose and became, more or less, the projectiles that hit a lot of these crew members. And we lost a lot of bridge personnel up there. I know of two signalmen and three strikers that were killed in action. I guess almost everyone on the bridge force was hurt, including the captain and the exec [Executive Officer—second in command] and myself. I had shrapnel wounds in the back, buttocks, and legs. The wound in the buttocks got to be a bit of a joke. With a wound being in that place, they thought that I must have been looking the wrong way, but it was because of the way that the bomb exploded. It came through on the starboard and went right through the ship, right through the fireroom, and killed the ten or twelve people down there with hot steam. It, the 500-pound bomb, exploded on the other side of the ship, and that’s what caused more damage than the actual plane hitting the ship. Most of the crew were along the back side of the bridge, what would be in back of the captain’s cabin up there—his cabin when we were underway and forward of the mast. My friend Gene Gothreau was killed. I found Gene. I was on the starboard side, up near what would be the pelorus or the compass area, near the captain. But he had stepped into the pilothouse, and actually he got, I guess, more injury than I did.

Then there was H.G. Moore—Harry Moore. We sent Captain Moore across to a hospital ship. He was pretty badly injured. I think the executive officer, who at the time was Burt Brittin, took over then as captain. But the next day, I think, he was pretty sick. But the captain relinquished the command, and I think that it boiled down to Lieutenant Kenney, who was next senior in command, taking over the ship at that time. I lost three of my friends that day. Ken Faufaw was a signalman, third class, who was killed, dying of shock. Gene Gothreau was a signalman, second class, the same rate as I. I had been with Gene for a couple of years, and we lost Gene that day. He died at 3:00 in the morning. John Canada was one of the other strikers. There were five people in all. That doesn’t include the quartermaster crew. I was the signalman in charge of the bridge force, but only the signal crew at that time. I saw them take Ken Faufaw down a vertical ladder in back of the bridge, which you could descend as a shortcut rather than using the inside one. The last thing he said to me was “Bill, look what happened to my leg.” The only thing I could say was “I’m sorry but have they got a tourniquet on ‘ya? That’s not the end of the world. We’ll make it back. Just stick in there, and I’ll see ‘ya down below.” Well, Ken died about two hours later from shock. I really miss Gene. I put in three years with Gene Gothreau from Berlin, New Hampshire. He and I went through boot camp together.

I was in charge of the bridge force and recommended that he be rated second class, so—and we went on a few liberties together and drank a few beers. Gene died about 3:00 in the morning, and before that time I had volunteered to give blood because he and I had the same blood type. We both had a wrist bracelet with our names and blood type on it, so there was no problem of a cross on the type. But with my injuries, they wouldn’t take a chance on taking any blood at all. Gene was really banged up in his back, and I helped to put some sulphur on it. During General Quarters, it’s not the rule to smoke, but when he asked for a cigarette, I gave it to him and lit it for him, and I don’t even smoke. We were under attack—the fleet and all the other ships were under attack all day long. It was like a wolf pack out there. So many contacts. I can remember going into the night with that big gapping hole on the portside. I went down below when the doctor came in and told me to go down below to my bunk. And I stayed in the fourth compartment. When I went back, there were five or six others back there, and being an old sailor, I had a bottle of “old overhaul” hidden. So we all had a drink, and the doctor thanked me for it because he was glad to get one. He couldn’t find a drink.

They broke it out in the wardroom, but it all disappeared. But I had brought my bottle aboard and kept it hidden, and I don’t even drink. Very seldom that I drink anything. But I couldn’t stay below. I never stayed below. I slept in the flag bag, up on the top of the flag bag for two years. So I went back up on the bridge, crawled up there and got up on the bridge. That’s where my home was, and that’s where, if I was going down and the ship was going down, I was going to see it happen. I wasn’t going to be trapped down below; I was going to get up topside. Well, believe it or not, I put in three years and two days and just enough to get the Good Conduct medal, although I have never received it from the Navy Department. I don’t know why. It’s in my records that I served from January 07, 1943. I volunteered in December of 1942, but I did not go on active duty until January 7th. And I got out on January 8th of 1946 from the Naval Hospital at Newport, Rhode Island, on a medical discharge.

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