The Battle of the Leyte Gulf, the clash of the US Navy and the most important elements of the Imperial Japanese off the Philippines, continued.
The Japanese were now desperate to prevent further US advances and threw the greater part of their remaining Navy into the attack, without the Philippines they would be cut off from their fuel supplies.
The mismatch between the resources of the two sides was now so great that the US Navy had more ships than the IJN had planes. The battle saw the first organised use by the Japanese of ‘Kamikaze’ tactics – their planes would be used in suicide attacks on Allied ships.
LT Walter B. Burwell, MC, USNR, a medical officer on USS Suwannee (CVE-27) describes the situation on the carrier after two Kamikaze attacks. He had been so exhausted by his work over the past few days that he had fallen asleep in a bunk on a lower deck rather than return to his own quarters. It proved to be a lucky escape – because where he should have been sleeping was smashed apart in the Kamikaze attack on the 26th September:
After the first explosion, my corpsman lit out for my stateroom to get me, thinking that’s where I was. But when he got up there he found that my stateroom had been demolished and thought I was gone. I will never forget how after we got working again, he looked up and saw me and said, “My God, you can’t be here.” Indeed, he thought I was dead. “I’m so glad I’m not here by myself,” he said.
The second explosion forced us to evacuate the battle dressing station. After the first explosion, there was smoke and fire fed by aviation gasoline pouring onto the deck above us. The wreckage in the passageway and ladder to the deck above by bomb and ammunition explosions, prevented entrance or exit to or from our dressing station. But up to that point we could have remained where we were, at least temporarily.
However, the second explosion further wrecked our compartment, buckled our bulkheads, and ruptured water mains above and in our compartment, so that we began to flood. As the water level rose to knee height in our compartment, the ship was listing uncomfortably and lying dead in the water without steerage because of destruction of the bridge and wheelhouse. Isolated from the rest of the ship with only the reflection from the gasoline fires above and a few flickering battle lamps for light, I saw my wounded partially covered with wreckage and already awash and knew that we had to evacuate.
I think there were about 30 of us, including two corpsmen, two stretcher bearers, and perhaps 25 wounded resulting from the action of the day before, mostly consisting of extensive burns, blast and fragmentation injuries, traumatic amputations, compound fractures, and multiple severe lacerations. About half the wounded were able to help themselves to some extent in dragging themselves about, but the remainder required stretchers to be moved.
Though I did not know the extent of damage to the compartments aft of us, I knew that they were unoccupied and sealed off during battle conditions. I informed my corpsmen that I would try to find an escape by this route as it seemed to offer our only hope of evacuation. We opened the hatch to the adjacent compartment, and I was able to get through it and lock it behind me without flooding from our compartment. Feeling my way with the help of a pocket flash light, I found the compartment to be intact and dry, though without light or ventilation.
Then I worked my way aft through several adjacent unoccupied compartments in the same way until at last I reached an open space on the main deck. Now, feeling certain that we could make our way out by this route, I returned to my group in the forward battle dressing station. There, with my corpsmen and stretcher bearers, and with the valiant help of some of the mobile wounded, we were able to move our stretcher-bound wounded through the hatches from one compartment to the next without leaving or losing a single member of our party to finally emerge on the open deck.
From there, we entered the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess, to find 2 corpsmen tending to about 20 more wounded. So, we joined forces to organize an amidship’s dressing station and began to gather additional wounded in that area.
On the deck above, we found about 15 or 20 more wounded, mostly burns and blast injuries, who had made their way into bunks in the Chief Petty Officers Quarters. There was no immediate possibility of moving them to our already overflowing and understaffed amidship’s station. One of my corpsmen and I gathered up what medical supplies we could carry and made our way up to the Chiefs’ Quarters to treat the wounded there.
Just as we arrived at the entrance to the compartment, a sailor, apparently in panic, came running along the passageway screaming, “Everybody’s going over the side! The Captain’s dead! Every one on the bridge has been killed! Everybody’s abandoning ship!”
Now, havoc! Now, contagious panic and cold fear! The wounded who had crawled into the compartment began struggling to get out, screaming hysterically, “Where’s my life jacket? Who took my life jacket? Turn that loose! G’mme that! No, it’s mine!” Some were shoving toward the entrance, fighting and scrambling over one another.
My heart sank as I stepped into the threshold to block the entrance and shout over and over, “Get back into your bunks! There’s no order to abandon ship! You don’t need your life jackets!”
I could see this was only having limited effect; so, with much inward trepidation but outwardly extravagant bravado, I made myself step into the compartment from the threshold, remove my own life jacket and helmet and hang them in clear view on a coat hook near the entrance.
Then, I had to consciously force myself to move away from the entrance and the comfort and security of my life jacket and go into the compartment to tend the wounded, fearing that at any moment some panicky sailor might snatch my life jacket and bolt, setting off a wild melee. It seemed to me that time hung in the balance for an eternity, but finally one after another of the men quieted down and crawled back into their bunks, so that gradually things began at last to calm down and sort themselves out.
However this was not the limit of the horror that was unfolding on the ship:
In the meantime one of our corpsmen tending the wounded on the flight deck saw the plight of those isolated by fire on the forecastle. He came below to report that medical help was critically needed there. It seemed to me that we would have to try to get through to them.
So he and I restocked our first aid bags with morphine syrettes, tourniquets, sulfa, Vaseline, and bandages, commandeered a fire extinguisher and made our way forward, dodging flames along the main deck. Along part of the way, we were joined by a sailor manning a seawater fire hose with fairly good pressure, and though the seawater would only scatter the gasoline fires away from us, by using the water and foam alternatively as we advanced, we managed to work our way up several decks, through passageways along the wrecked and burning combat information center and decoding area, through officers’ country, and finally out on the forecastle.
Many of the crew on the forecastle and the catwalks above it had been blown over the side by the explosions. But others trapped below and aft of the forecastle area found themselves under a curtain of fire from aviation gasoline pouring down from burning planes on the flight deck above. Their only escape was to leap aflame into the sea, but some were trapped so that they were incinerated before they could leap.
By the time we arrived on the forecastle, the flow of gasoline had mostly consumed itself, and flames were only erupting and flickering from combustible areas of water and oil. Nonetheless, the decks and bulkheads were still blistering hot and ammunition in the small arms locker on the deck below was popping from the heat like strings of firecrackers.
With each salvo of popping, two or three more panicky crew men would leap over the side, and we found that our most urgent task was to persuade those poised on the rail not to jump by a combination of physical restraint and reassurance that fires were being controlled and that more help was on the way.
Most of the remaining wounded in the forecastle area were severely burned beyond recognition and hope. All that could be done for the obviously dying was to give the most rudimentary first aid consisting of morphine, a few swallows of water, and some words of companionship, leaving them where we found them and moving on to others.
For the full story see Naval History and Heritage