21 OCT 1944: HMAS Australia is damaged by Kamikaze aircraft. The Japanese first used special air units (Tokkō-tai) to undertake suicide attacks on warships in the Allied fleet supporting the American landings on Leyte in the Phillipines. HMAS Australia was a battle-hardened heavy cruiser. She had fought in the North Atlantic campaign, West Africa, the Indian Ocean and the Coral Sea. She also took part in bombardments in the South West Pacific and had led the convoys of ships carrying men and munitions to the battle of Guadalcanal.
Now she was part of the largest armada ever assembled in wartime and on her most dangerous assignment. More than 700 ships formed the first strike group of ‘Operation Musketeer’, the code name of the campaign to drive the Japanese forces out of the Philippines.
The fleet consisted of Australian and American ships of all shapes and sizes. There were numerous battleships, around 40 aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, minesweepers and support vessels.
The Royal Australian Navy’s contribution included HMAS Australia and a second cruiser, HMAS Shropshire. There were two destroyers, Warramunga and Arunta, the frigate HMAS Gascoyne and a survey vessel. Also in the group were three Australian storeships and a tanker.
By 21 October 1944, the Allied fleet was assembled in the anchorage off the island of Leyte.
Cliff Anderson of Rosanna was a young member of Australia’s crew. He says that the anchorage was so crowded ‘you felt you could walk from one ship to another. We had just weighed anchor when the Japanese planes appeared, not that there was enough room to zig-zag or manoeuvre.’
Des Shinkfield of North Ringwood was a 19-year-old midshipman. He remembers how Japanese planes had torpedoed the American cruiser USS Honolulu in Leyte harbour the previous day, mistaking her for the USS Nashville on which MacArthur and his senior officers were taking passage.
There had been no intelligence on the suicide mission of the kamikaze pilots, no warning of the measures the Japanese had adopted. The Allied forces had no idea of the lethal ‘typhoon’ about to sweep over their invasion fleet.
Shinkfield says the first sightings of the enemy were three aircraft picked up on radar.
‘It was just after dawn when they appeared on our plot after flying over a nearby range of hills. We tracked them until two disappeared off the screen, presumably shot down, the third plane flew down our starboard side. It was hit by anti-aircraft fire from Shropshire, but the pilot regained control, did a U-turn and came up our port side with guns blazing and on a collision course with the bridge.’ A wing of the kamikaze hit the tripod mast; the luckiest man on the ship was the lookout in the crow’s nest, who managed to scramble to safety after a very close brush with death.
The aircraft slammed into the superstructure above the bridge, spewing burning petrol over a wide area. The attack knocked out most of the Australia’s electrical systems and the main steering, leaving the ship severely crippled.
‘There were the bodies of the dead and dying strewn across the decks,’ Shinkfield recalls. ‘Some of the men were in dreadful agony from burns, others had suffered wounds from hot metal fragments, most were in shock. There was burning debris everywhere.’
Seven officer and 23 sailors were killed, another 56 received wounds or burns. The death toll would have been considerably higher had the bomb strapped to the Japanese plane exploded. Among those mortally wounded were the ship’s Commanding Officer, Captain Emile Dechaineux and the navigator, Commander Rayment. The Flag Officer Commanding the Australian contingent, Commodore John Collins (later Vice Admiral Sir John) was also on the bridge. He too was wounded.
Jim Bell of Bentleigh was a member of an anti-aircraft gun crew. The 23-year-old seaman-gunner was closed up at action stations on a pompom, a rapid-firing weapon that produced an intense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. He had swapped positions on the gun with one of his mates, that mate was to die in the attack. ‘We were on the port side of the ship, the plane seemed to go past in a flash,’ he recalls. ‘We had opened fire, not absolutely sure we hit it. The next thing we saw was a bright flash followed by a loud explosion.’ He also has vivid memories of the dead and wounded. One man ran past their position, on fire from head to toe. A member of his pompom crew had lost both legs, they did what they could for him but he died that night.
Roy Ashton of Williamstown was a Chief Petty Officer. As a shipwright, his action station was to take charge of a damage control party engaged in running repairs so the ship could get underway and defend herself if necessary. ‘There were fires to put out, bodies to be removed and the rescue of wounded men trapped under debris,’ he says. ‘We were working in the forward part of the ship and I could see the bridge in flames . . . almost everyone on the upper deck was in shock but they all did what was required to save the ship.’
Retired Vice Admiral Sir Richard Peek was the Australia’s gunnery officer and was on the bridge at the time of the attack. ‘It was a complete surprise when I saw an enemy aircraft fly across our stern, bank, then fly from our port quarter, apparently aiming at our bridge. ‘I called to our captain, who came over to the port after corner of the compass platform. We watched the kamikaze strike our tripod foremast, debris and flames, apparently from the petrol, covered the whole of the upper bridge.’ Admiral Peek, who received extensive burns, says his first recollection was of the fires and the numerous casualties. ‘My next memory was of visiting our mortally wounded captain and telling him that everything was under control. My first feeling was horror that human beings could commit such attacks, but eventually my horror changed to an understanding of the pilots’ courage and patriotism.’ After repairs in the New Hebrides, HMAS Australia returned to the fighting in January 1945, re-joining the fleet now preparing for the Battle of Lingayen Gulf. Again she became the target of the kamikazes – hit by suicide planes on five separate occasions, with the loss of another 56 lives.
The only other Australian ship damaged by the kamikazes was the destroyer HMAS Arunta which lost two men in the Lingayen action. Photo: The damage to Australia II’s bridge and foremast following the aerial attack of October 21, 1944. More; http://ow.ly/wBSF30g1SXg