Divine Wind and Tortured Metal

The Kamikaze Attack on USS Sangamon
By Ross Patterson II, Assistant Curator, Portsmouth Museums

Published March 26, 2020

In a small blue plastic shoe box tucked on a shelf in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum’s Collections Room is a twisted and bent piece of riveted aluminum. Muted green paint clings to the surface, and a small wire insulator peaks out from one of the many folds. Yellowed from age, a note made near the end of World War II links this innocuous piece of scrap metal to a chaotic, violent moment in time out in the Pacific.
Destroyed section of riveted Ki-45 aircraft skin recovered from the Sangamon and kept by R. J. Deans. The attached June 18, 1945 note states that “Loss of life was great, exact death toll not known yet.” PNSYM 157.63.186. Photograph by Ross Patterson II
During the late stages of the Second World War, and increasingly desperate Japan sought any and all ways to stop Allied forces from pushing further towards the Home Islands. The war had cost the nation much of its war materiel, and by 1945, many of its best pilots were killed in action. The Allies were coming, sweeping forward across the Pacific with fleets guarded by more aircraft carriers than Japan could ever hope to produce. How could such a force be stopped?

The answer, it was believed, lay in Special Attack Units. Officially the “Tokubetsu Kōgekitai,” these men were more commonly referred to as “Kamikaze,” the Divine Wind that would sweep back the invaders as their namesake typhoon did to the Mongol Horde of the thirteenth century. Lightly trained pilots flying available aircraft would overwhelm Allied fighter screens and anti-aircraft defenses by sheer weight of numbers, dropping bombs and purposely ramming vessels with their planes in an attempt to sink capital and support ships.

It was a cold calculation, born from desperation and ancient tradition. What was one man’s purposeful death if it could take out a carrier or battleship bringing destruction to his countrymen and homeland? It was an honor, a sacrifice in the highest of Samurai traditions. And 3,912 young aviators would make that sacrifice.

Imperial Japanese Navy Lieutenant receiving his Kamikaze sortie orders in front of the rest of his unit. United States Navy Photograph
By May of 1945, the Kamikaze was a known threat to Allied ships.

Unleashed during the Battle of Leyte Gulf the previous October, the concept of a suicide attack on one’s ship was a terrifying threat for any sailor. Anti-air screens and defensive fighter tactics such as the “Thach Weave” were developed to greatly lessen the number of successful strikes. But lessened did not mean stopped.

With the Battle of Okinawa underway, Allied ships and carriers were now operating off of the southern Ryuku Islands, directly attacking Japanese home soil. One of these vessels was CVE-26 USS Sangamon, a former oiler converted by the American Navy into an escort carrier. Armed with twenty-five aircraft and crewed by 830 US Navy personnel, the Sangamon was involved in providing air cover for the assaults on the islands of Kerama Retto, Miyako, Ishigaki, and Okinawa. Constantly fending off aerial counter-attacks, she was forced to rearm early on May 4, leaving the larger American fleet with two escorts, the Destroyer Escort USS Dennis and Destroyer USS Fullam. After three calls to General Quarters and a delay in acquiring aviation lubricating oil from the new base on Kerama Retto, the Sangamon and her pair of escorts finally began their return trip to their Task Force at 6:30 in the evening, joined by a minesweeper USS Spear. The men were finishing storing ammunition below decks, with just a few boxes of five in rockets left in the hanger when the call came in: Kamikaze raid coming from the southwest.

CVE-26 USS Sangamon underway in September of 1942. United States Navy Photograph
USS Sangamon in the Pacific, Circa 1943. United States Navy Photograph

Approximately ten Japanese planes were making a run to strike the Sangamon, now twenty-nine miles out into the open sea. Scrambled Navy and Marine fighters intercepted the flight, claiming nine aircraft shot down. But at 7:00 PM, a Ki-61 ‘Tony’ knifed through and made a sweeping attack. The Sangamon swung hard to the left as the four ships opened fire. Luck was with the gunners, as at the last minute, the now smoking and out-of-control Kamikaze snapped into a clockwise roll and plunged into the sea twenty-five feet from the carrier’s hull before exploding. Everyone aboard breathed a sigh of relief.

Ki-61 ‘Tony’ Kamikaze as it barely misses the Sangamon at around 7:00 PM on May 4, 1945. United States Navy Photograph

Twenty-five minutes later at 7:25 PM, USS Fullam reported a new “bogie” on its radar, coming in low and fast. The carrier’s two patrolling night fighters shifted to intercept, but missed the Japanese pilot in the dark and cloudy skies. Suddenly, three miles from the Sangamon, a plane appeared. The Americans opened fire, but stopped when the errant plane disappeared into thick clouds astern of the Sangamon. It reappeared just before 7:33 PM.

The Kawasaki Ki-45 ‘Nick’ was a twin-engine heavy fighter that saw service as a long-range escort, anti-bomber and anti-ship interceptor, and rudimentary night fighter. Unable to win in a dogfight against more agile single-engine planes, it was nonetheless heavily armed, reasonably fast, and could be retrofitted to carry additional weapons or ordnance. It was one of these Ki-45s, a large bomb slung under its fuselage, which broke free of the clouds and began a shallow dive straight towards the Sangamon.

Recognition Silhouette for the Ki-45 ‘Nick.’ United States Air Force Photograph
A Ki-45 in flight. Smithsonian Institute Photograph A-47659-K
The American gunners opened fire, lighting up the darkness with their tracers. Moving at around 340 miles per hour, the Nick was a hard target. At least one gunner struck the left engine, as it burst into flames 600 yards from the ship. But this was not enough. The Ki-45 screamed over the flight deck, releasing its bomb before diving into the ship. Both ordnance and Kamikaze tore through the decking, detonating in the fully loaded hanger bay.
A crewman silhouetted as flames billow up through the deck of the Sangamon following the Ki-45 Kamikaze attack. United States Navy Photograph

Within twenty minutes, the Sangamon was out of control. Both elevators were blown out of their shafts. A massive hole, ten feet by twenty feet, was cut into the buckled deck. The ferocity of the flames coming off the deck and out of the hanger forced the crew to abandon the bridge. Eleven armed planes burned below decks, their ammunition cooking off and spraying into the fire-fighting parties. It took almost two and a half hours for the fires to be brought under control. Dead in the water, the Sangamon could only communicate using the radio in a damaged F6F Hellcat fighter and a small signal lamp. Eleven of her crew were dead, twenty-five missing, and a further twenty-one seriously wounded. Towed back to port in Kerama Retto for stabilizing repairs, Sangamon then began a slow journey home, arriving in Norfolk, Virginia on June 12. No other escort carrier was known of have suffered as violent an internal fire and stayed afloat, but the war ended before any serious progress had been made on bringing the battered vessel back into fighting trim.

The hole in the Sangamon’s flight deck on May 5, 1945. Crewmen can be seen on deck by the destroyed aircraft and elevator, and below in the burned-out hangar. United States Navy Photograph
Inside the burned-out hangar of the Sangamon following the Kamikaze attack. United States Navy Photograph

Exact numbers relating to Kamikaze attacks and their effectiveness are often disputed, but it undeniable that the pilot of the Ki-45 that struck the Sangamon achieved the goal of the Tokubetsu Kōgekitai, knocking one of the hated American carriers out of the war with his sacrifice. In the words of Lieutenant Hunter Robbins of USS Hugh W. Hadley,

“You hated to see them coming, but at the same time you couldn’t deny the courage of these pilots.”
Damaged propeller shafts and engine parts from the Ki-45 found in the Sangamon’s hanger after the fires were extinguished. United States Navy Photograph