Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few. - Winston Churchill, about R.A.F fighter pilots
Okinawa Picket Line
You can do plenty in five short minutes if those minutes mean your life or death - as they did to six men newly attached to NSD whose ships were sunk 50 miles off Okinawa. It took no longer than that for each of the four ships concerned to sink after being struck by one or more Jap suicide planes.
They were the USS Little, USS Luce and USS Pringle, all destroyers of the Fletcher class, and an LSM (R), rocket assault ship. They had been off Okinawa since D-Day 1 April, and were on radar picket duty, standing out in a semi-circular line away from the beach head to pick up locations of the enemy planes and radio them to the beach. Of the four, the USS Little suffered the worst attack.
It was early evening on 3 May 1945 when the LIttle received her death blow from a Japanese suicide squadron. Nineteen-year-old Torpedoman Sam Mandelbaum S1c of Los Angeles, tells the story:
"We were at general quarters at 1830 and had sent out our combat air patrol as our radar had picked up an unidentified plane. While we were waiting for the word from the air patrol we sighted 30 Jap planes coming in off our fantail, where I was stationed as loader for an anti-aircraft gun. The Japs came in at another DD a few miles away. We started throwing all we could at them but they just came on. We got two of them before the other DD was hit.
Two Hits in Two Minutes
"Our air patrol started coming back but we told them to go away as we didn't want to hit them. In the meantime a Jap plane came at us out of the sun, too fast for us to get a good bead on her, and she made a direct hit on the portsideamidships, right on number two torpedo tube. This hit stopped the motors and knocked out the main battery. Only the 20mm and 40mm's were working. Two minutes later another Jap plane hit on the starboard side in direct line with the first hit. The ship split apart."
At the time of the second hit, Seaman Mandelbaum said, a tremendous explosion occurred, and it is yet undetermined whether the torpedo or the plane itself went up.
Meantime, up on the forward 50mm guns, nineteen-year-old Art Sandstrom S1c of Padadena, was passing ammunition when seven Zeke fighter planes came over. Sandstrom's gun got three of them but three struck the Little on the waterline and one hit the superstructure, causing two forward torpedoes to go off. On orders to abandon ship, Sandstrom hit the water, remaining afloat three and a half hours before he was picked up by a small gunboat.
Third and Fourth Hits
Back on the fantail planes kept coming on - one hit the radar apparatus and another made the second starboard hit, striking farther forward.
By this time the Little was listing badly to starboard, but orders to abandon ship, issued after the first hit, never reached the men on the fantail as the communications system had been demolished.
"We brought the wounded back and put them on rafts and in life jackets before we left the ship. I was the last one to step off the fantail and I started swimming away from the ship but the current was against me. I turned on my back expecting the end. Luckily, I was swept along with the current which was going away from the sinking ship. Again, I started swimming and caught up with two injured officers. One had his leg blown off and the other's legs were in pretty bad shape. They asked me for help so I towed them to a life raft that had been thrown off the ship. Such rafts are only for the badly wounded so as soon as I got the officers settled I set off again to swim around until help came."
Rocket Ship Is Sunk
Five minutes after the Little had been hit she sank. Five minutes after she went down, Mendelbaum saw a rocket ship in the same force hit and sunk by another squadron of Jap suicide planes.
Mandelbaum kept swimming around for about an hour when an LCS tried to pick up survivors, but the Jap planes began strafing the men in the water and flying low over the rescue ship.
When darkness set in, the men joined hands to form a big circle, so that none of them would drift off. About this time there was a big underwater explosion.
"We weren't sure what caused the explosion but we thought that the depth charges might have gone off. Some of the men were injured internally from the concussion, but we all managed to stick together, singing and trying to be happy and merry until help could come."
Rescued At Midnight
At midnight, after five hours in the water, Seaman Mandelbaum was picked up by an LCE which took him to the beach where he was given medical treatment for shrapnel wounds on his arms and hands, and was sent back to America via Saipan.
The LSM (R) Mandelbaum saw go down had been on her way to pick up Little survivors when she was hit. She carried a crew of 79, including Harold Hollingsworth [unreadable] stationed at NSD Naval Barracks.
"I was at the 20mm gun station just forward of the five-inch gun mounted when the wave of planes came over," Hollingsworth related. "They strafed us as they went over, and three of them came right at us. The first missed us, the second we shot before she could strike, but the third one got us amidships. We were carrying 3,000 rockets and these blew up in all directions."
"The whole deck started burning, and we couldn't control any of it except around the five-inch gun mounted, which had the only sprinkler that would work. I jumped over the side right after the abandon ship order, and got pretty far away. There were four big explosions, and then she split in two and sank but not before the fire reach the gun mount. When it exploded the terrific concussion threw some men several feet out of the water. I was far enough away so that it just lifted me up a little, but I felt pretty weak for a few hours. We swam around for five hours before we were picked up by the USS Bache."
Hollingsworth's ship lost nine men, most of whom were caught below decks where they were preparing first aid equipment for the Little's men. Twenty-one others were injured seriously.
While Mendlebaum [inconsistently spelled in original article], Sandstrom, and Hollingsworth were fighting for their lives, the USS Luce was on the alert in another picket sector.
At 0800 on 4 May the ship was at general quarters sounded when the radar screen picked up approaching planes. At their battle stations were Pete Miller S1c, gun pointer on Gun Mounted No. 1, and James Maxwell S1c in Gun Mount No. 5 Handling Room. Miller tells of the action topside:
Another DD Is Hit
"The first bomber to attack had a near miss, hitting in the water. The concussion knocked out all the power on the ship so the guns couldn't fire. The second plane made a direct hit on Gun Mount No. 4, ripping its top off. It went right through the 40mm guns on Mount No. 5 and bounced off Mount No. 3 before landing aft amidships on the main deck. Coming in for a run, the third plane hit on the forward torpedo tubes."
Miller's guns kept firing "at anything we could as the action was so fast there wasn't time to sight a target."
While this was going on, Maxwell was jammed into the Mount No. 5 Handling Room, trapped in after the second hit. He cleared away the debris and climbed through the gun mount escape hatch to find that one side of the mount had caved in.
The only other survivor from the Handling Room joined Maxwell on the mount and they tried manning the two 20mm guns. The ship was listing badly but Maxwell stayed on the fantail until the water reached his knees.
Although in different parts of the ship, Miller and Maxwell abandoned ship at the same time. As they both pulled away Jap planes came over and strafed the survivors in the water.
Miller had a life jacket but he kept it deflated so he could duck under the water. Maxwell, however, had nothing but a pair of pants as his life jacket and clothes had been blown off.
Ducked under water as the Japs strafed them, Maxwell was blown a foot into the air and Miller suffered internal injuries when the destroyer exploded.
At the end of three hours an LCI picked up the two men and transferred them to an APD which took them into Okinawa, where they were hospitalized aboard an APA for the trip to the States.
Hit in Three Actions
It was three strikes and out for the USS Pringle, veteran of Saipan, Tinian, Guam, the Solomons, Phillipines and Iwo Jima. She was damaged at the Solomons, again at the Phillipines, then finally was sunk at Okinawa on 16 April, victim of two Zekes - suicide planes with stationary landing gear. Her story is told by Edward J. Knipfer MM3c, 27, of ABS.
"The engineer and I were in diesel generator room, two decks below," he reports. "We felt a terrific jolt, and then all the lights went out. We didn't know what was up, because the communications system was off, but we knew we had to get out fast. The first hatch we tried was jammed, but we got out another one and up to top deck. We found out later that two Zekes had hit us, one glancing off and the other crashing down into forward engine room, which was two rooms aft of where we had been. The explosion knocked out the forward fire room, next to diesel generator, and killed the chief engineer, the only officer we lost."
"I didn't have time to get a life jacket," Knipfer continues. "I jumped overside and swam as far as I could away from the ship. She was cut in two amidships and sank within five minutes of the hit. Later the current carried me directly over the spot where she sank. While we were in the water a Jap plane flew over us, and we thought it was going to strafe, but it just wagged its wings then flew off toward another ship. There were three sharks pretty close to us, but they were kept away by machine gun fire from the USS Hobson, the ship that picked us up."
Out of a crew of 300, the Pringle lost 75. There were about 100 men injured, some by shrapnel, but most by deck fires.
NSD's six survivors from the four lost destroyers all feel fortunate to have escaped with their lives. Each man received medical treatment for shock and exposure, and Maxwell was awarded the Purple Heart for his injuries in ceremonies at NSD on 14 July.
Source: Article in an unknown newspaper and reproduced in the 1992 USS Little Reunion booklet.