World War 2 History: Kamikaze Attack on the Battleship USS Missouri and Controversy
Battleships USS Missouri and USS Iowa
USS Missouri was the last battleship completed for the U.S. Navy. She was the fourth of four mighty Iowa-class battleships, and started her long career during World War II in November 1944. On April 11, 1945, Missouri was near the island of Okinawa when a kamikaze pilot crashed his Zero into her starboard side. A sailor photographed the Zero moments before impact and the image became an icon of the war. Fortunately, there was little damage to the battleship. What the captain did after the attack was controversial and unpopular.
USS Missouri (“Big Mo”) displaced 45,000 tons, was almost 900 feet long and had nine 16-inch guns (406 mm) in three turrets. Her secondary armament consisted of twenty 5-inch guns (127 mm) and she bristled with 129 anti-aircraft guns. She supported the invasion of Iwo Jima and screened US aircraft carriers heading toward the Japanese mainland and participated in shelling Japanese coastal targets. In April, Missouri supported the invasion of Okinawa.
Zero About to hit USS Missouri
During the Battle of Okinawa, on the afternoon of April 11, 1945, USS Missouri came under kamikaze attack and managed to shoot down all but one of the planes. A single Japanese Zero, although riddled with anti-aircraft fire, succeeded in striking the battleship on its starboard side. Fortunately, the plane's 500-lb bomb did not explode, although fuel from the plane started a fire in one of the anti-aircraft gun mounts. There were no American casualties.
Debris from the plane cluttered the deck. One of the plane's machine guns impaled a 40-mm anti-aircraft gun barrel. The plane's wing that had not fallen into the sea was turned over to the crew to be cut up into souvenirs. A corpsman discovered the remains of the young Kamikaze pilot; only his upper torso was found. He called up to the bridge, asking whether he should discard it overboard. Missouri Captain William M. Callaghan made his controversial decision: “No, when we secure, take it down to the sick bay, and we'll have a burial for him tomorrow.' This did not sit well with many of Missouri's crew. The pilot's remains were taken to sick bay for examination before it was placed in a canvas bag and weighted down with dummy shell casings. Three of the crew stitched together together an improvised Japanese flag. During the examination, various crew members took souvenirs, including the helmet, scarf and jacket.
Missouri's Captain Callaghan
Burial and Bitterness
The next day, April 12, a burial at sea with military honors was performed. The ship's chaplain performed the service and six pall bearers tipped the flag-draped remains into the sea to a volley of rifle fire. Although there was much bitterness among some of the crew, Captain Callaghan insisted it was the honorable thing to do. The pilot was “a fellow warrior who had displayed courage and devotion, and who had paid the ultimate sacrifice with his life, fighting for his country”. He understood his crew's feelings toward the enemy-- his own brother had been killed fighting the Japanese on Guadalcanal three years earlier-- but he felt it necessary to show honor and respect to a brave warrior, even if he was the enemy. He believed the kamikaze pilot was doing his job, as his country demanded.
The Japanese Surrender on Big Mo
Big Mo in the Persian Gulf
Four months after the kamikaze attack, the Japanese signed the Instrument of Surrender on the deck of USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. She went on to fight in the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm before she was decommissioned and donated to the USS Missouri Association as a floating museum. The dent in the side of Big Mo from the kamikaze attack is still visible.
Captain Callghan was replaced as caption of Missouri a month after the attack, though there is no record of him being punished for his decision. In 1946, he was promoted to Rear Admiral and retired in 1957 with the rank of Vice Admiral.
The identity of the kamikaze pilot is not 100% certain, though it is almost certainly one of two young men: Setsuo Ishino, age 19, or Kenkichi Ishii (age unknown). An information plaque on board the USS Missouri advocates the view that the pilot was probably Ishino.
Kamikazes Strike USS Bunker Hill
With the passage of time, many of those opposed to the funeral came to begrudgingly admit that, on reflection, Captain Callaghan had done the correct thing. On April 12, 2001, 56 years later, Americans and Japanese gathered aboard the USS Missouri, by then a museum ship berthed at Pearl Harbor, to honor Captain Callaghan's gesture and remember the kamikaze pilot for his bravery and dedication to his country. There was still controversy, however. Commenting on the decision to hold such an unprecedented memorial service, a US veteran said "If the Japanese want to memorialize their pilots and soldiers, let them do it on THEIR soil." A Marine Corps veteran claimed it was "a promotional deal to excite Japanese visitors into visiting the Missouri."
© 2012 David Hunt