Southern Japan was covered with low clouds on 11 May 1945, with a likelihood of rain. Nevertheless, the Imperial Japanese Kikusui (Special Attack) No. 6 Squadron was ordered to hit the American aircraft carriers spotted the previous day southeast of Kyushu.
At 06:00, the first Zeke – a Japanese fighter aircraft – of the 306th Showa Special Attack Squadron lifted off the runway, followed by five more, with the last departing at 06:53. Each carried a 250-kilogram bomb.
The kamikaze pilots
The small formation stayed low as they headed east. Squadron leader Lt. Seizo Yasunori was determined to find the American carriers.
Ensign Kiyoshi Ogawa, a Waseda University graduate who had been drafted the previous summer, put all his attention into following his leader. He had only graduated from flying school the previous February; flying a Zeke with fewer than 150 total flying hours was difficult.
Lieutenant Yasunori spotted the dark silhouettes of American fighters and led his flight into the clouds, where they managed to evade the defenders. Ensign Ogawa was concerned about the clouds, since he had no skill at flying blind, but Yasunori was successful in evading interception.
At the same time, eight VF-84 Corsair pilots on patrol spotted and surprised 30 kamikazes, shooting down 11. The Corsairs turned to head back to Bunker Hill.
The assault on Bunker Hill
Bunker Hill, flagship for Admiral Marc Mitscher, began landing eight VMF-451 Corsairs, with the two VF-84 divisions inbound.
Radar operators in Bunker Hill’s CIC strained to get returns in the stormy skies, but their work was made difficult by a sudden downpour, which reduced their ability to spot inbound attackers.
Lieutenant Yasunori’s formation broke into clear skies to find before them the American carriers, white against the blue sea. Suddenly, dark puffs of anti-aircraft explosions surrounded them and one plane fell away on fire. Ensign Ogawa closed on his leader and followed him in his dive.
The men aboard Bunker Hill suddenly became aware they were under attack when Yasunori opened fire and strafed the deck. Corsair fighter ace Archie Donahue pulled to the side and exited his aircraft quickly.
They had a matter of seconds to mount a defence. Crewmen manning the 20mm guns edge opened fire. Yasunori was hit, but still came on as his Zeke caught fire. When he realised he might not crash the carrier, he pulled his bomb release.
The 550 lb bomb struck near Number Three elevator, penetrated the flight deck, then exited the port (left) side at gallery deck level before it exploded in the ocean.
Yasunori hit the deck a moment later, destroying several aircraft and causing a large fire as his burning Zeke careened through several aircraft before it went over the side.
Thirty seconds later, Ensign Owada, also on fire, dropped his bomb; it struck forward of the island, penetrating into the spaces below. Owada’s Zeke crashed into the island where it exploded and started a second fire.
Moments later, his bomb exploded in Air Group 84’s ready rooms at the gallery level above the hangar deck, killing many.
The fire sent backdrafts of flame into the narrow passageways of the island and up the access ladders. As fire spread from the wrecked ready rooms to the hangar deck, firefighters sprayed water and foam on the planes to keep them from exploding.
The inferno spreads
Captain Gene A. Seitz ordered a hard turn to port in an attempt to clear some of the worst of the burning fuel and debris.
Below, the fires spread and Bunker Hill fell out of formation. Light cruiser USS Wilkes-Barre closed on the burning carrier as her crew broke out fire hoses and turned them on. She came close enough that men trapped on the catwalks jumped to her main deck as other men jumped into the sea to get away from the fires.
Destroyer USS Cushing came alongside and fished survivors from the sea as her damage control teams added their fire fighting to the carrier’s defence.
Fires raged below decks as men struggled through the toxic air to find the wounded and lead them up to fresh air.
Pilots of VMF-221 who had been on CAP landed aboard Enterprise. Chief Engineer Commander Joseph Carmichael and his men stayed together despite 99 of the 500 men in the engine rooms having been killed and wounded, and kept the boilers and engines operating, which saved the ship.
The toll of the suffering
The worst of the fire was contained by 15:30. The cost was staggering: 396 dead and 264 wounded.
For Air Group 84, the worst came next day, when they entered the ruined ready rooms to locate, tag and remove the bodies of their fellows. Many had died of smoke inhalation; their bodies jammed the ready room hatchways.
Sadly, Chief Engineer Carmichael discovered that while the fire was being fought, someone had taken a welding torch and cut through the safety deposit boxes in the ship’s post office and stolen the money they contained. The thief was never caught.
Thirteen of Admiral Mitscher’s staff died in the fire. He was forced with his surviving staff to transfer by breeches buoy to USS English for transport to Enterprise, where he broke his flag and resumed command.
The remains of the pilots
Ensign Owada was identified the morning after, when salvage diver Robert Shock volunteered to go into the bowels of the ship, where the Zeke had finally settled. He found the half submerged wreck and came face to face with the dead pilot.
He found papers that later turned out to be photographs and a letter and also removed Ogawa’s blood-soaked name tag and a smashed watch, as well as the buckle from his parachute harness, which he hid and brought home after the war.
Following Shock’s death in 2001, his son found the items, which were later returned that year to Owada’s niece and grandniece in a ceremony in San Francisco.
Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is a writer, screenwriter, pilot, and aviation history enthusiast who writes about World War Two. Tidal Wave: From Leyte Gulf to Tokyo Bay was published on 31 May 2018, by Osprey Publishing, and is available from all good book stores.