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May 26, 2013
Pia Lopez: Toll of war captured in my grandfather's scrapbook

Pia_Lopez_Grandfather_Kamikaze2.JPG

(May 26) Lest we forget that war is about sacrifice and carnage, we have Memorial Day - remembering and honoring the nation's war dead.

Each new generation fights its own wars in its own way, but the toll of slaughter is universal. Men and women go into action, knowing the horror they will face - from soldiers sent out to clear roads and footpaths of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan to the first waves of troops landing at Omaha beach on D-Day or Japanese-American units rescuing the Texas "Lost Battalion" surrounded by German forces. in World War II.

I am reminded of the terrors that those in war confront and the courage they muster every time I look at my grandfather's scrapbook from World War II. Dennis Larkin Francis was a career Navy officer from the Naval Academy Class of 1924. At Okinawa, the last and bloodiest battle in the Pacific, he commanded a flotilla of 12 rocket-loaded landing ships (LSMRs, numbered 188-199).

These were specialty ships designed to attack fixed shore targets in preparation for U.S. landings. In March, LSMR-188 was the first to be hit by a kamikaze, suffering damage that put it out of the war, a precursor of what was to come in April and May. The hand-lettered combat record of the flotilla in my grandfather's scrapbook shows that of the 81 men on board, 15 were killed and 32 wounded - a horrific 58 percent casualty rate.

The remaining 11 LSMRs were among 206 ships that drew picket duty in a ring of 16 stations encircling Okinawa. Their job was to be the "eyes and ears" of the U.S. invasion fleet - warning of incoming Japanese planes and drawing them away from the carriers, battleships and cruisers.

That duty came at high cost.

As Vice Adm. Richmond Turner noted, from April 1 to May 17, 1945, the 206 ships "absorbed the brunt of 560 raids from 2,228 enemy planes" and "attrition was severe."

My grandfather's flotilla suffered the most from kamikazes. Of the LSMRs left, three were sunk and two were damaged - a 45 percent casualty rate, the most hazardous naval duty in World War II.

At Picket Station 14 on April 12, LSMR-189 took a kamikaze hit and was damaged, as shown in the photo. Still, the crews on LSMR-189 knocked down three kamikazes and rescued 150 survivors from a destroyer that had been sunk.

On May 3, 25 kamikaze planes attacked the five ships of Picket Station 10. Six kamikazes hit and sunk one destroyer. Four hit and sunk another destroyer. One kamikaze sunk LSMR-195. Other ships picked up 67 survivors "several of whom were in serious condition due to wounds and burns from the rockets which had been aboard and exploded during the fires," according to the combat action report.

On May 4, some 40 to 50 kamikazes attacked Picket Station 1. The other photo shows LSMR-190 shooting off rockets. Later that day, two kamikazes hit and sunk it, killing 13 and wounding 18 sailors. That deadly day, kamikazes also sunk LSMR-194, killing 13 and wounding 22.

The numbers in combat action reports, however daunting, do not really tell the story of what happens to men in the aftermath of a kamikaze attack. You have to look at first-hand accounts for that.

Military historian Robin Rielly collects some of them in "Kamikazes, Corsairs, and Picket Ships: Okinawa, 1945." From one: "They were cut and torn and burned and broken and they were naked or their clothes hung on them in rags and they were all covered with black heavy oil except where the blood was running from their cuts and wounds."

Those who survived for another day of picket duty lived under constant tension and terror: "The air raids were endless and our nerves became frayed and stomach churned at the thought of being killed in a horrible blast or gasoline fire."

My grandfather told my mother that men would go hysterical under the pressure of relentless raids. The LSMRs were the most vulnerable of the ships on picket duty because, as my grandfather noted, they did not have radar or directional control for their guns, and the preset rockets on their decks were a major hazard.

The LSMRs were sitting ducks serving a purpose - which everyone from the brass to the enlisted men knew.

Courage and devotion to duty kept them going. My grandfather was among the survivors and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Silver Star, in lieu of a second Bronze Star, for his role at Okinawa.

On Memorial Day we cannot avert our eyes from the carnage of war. This day of remembrance and honor is our way of acknowledging the true cost of war.

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