A British Pacific Fleet wreath-laying at Okinawa
With a berth on a cruise ship and accompanied by my son and daughter, I finally reached Naha, Okinawa on the 12th February 2014. Close by, on the southern coast of Okinawa, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, is sited the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Park and Museum, dedicated to all those, civilian and military of all sides, who lost their lives during the Battle for Okinawa in 1945. There is a flame of peace and 32 other memorial monuments in the park together with the museum which is also an educational facility.
Our fleet was in support of the American Task Force 57, to which we became subordinate members, fighting in operations known as Iceberg 1 and Iceberg 2. These took place over the Sakashima Gunto Islands south west of Okinawa from 26th March until 23rd June, 1945. Our task was to prevent the ingress of Japanese aircraft from the southern flank. Both the islands of Sakashima and Miyako had fairly large airfields and these had to be put out of use and kept out of use. Formosa/Taiwan was also in Japanese hands and had many airfields.
Some 240,000 people died in the 4 months of the campaign, over half of whom were local civilians who perished in the fierce fighting on the island, some were forced to commit suicide and others died of starvation and/or disease. Every year on 23rd June, Okinawa Memorial Day, a memorial service is held to honour those who lost their lives.
In national order, the names of the fallen, are engraved on 15cm thick slabs of polished black marble standing against and at right angles to each other in a zigzag arrangement in long semi-circular lines, each line about 4 metres from the next. Quite splendid.
We found the British Pacific Fleet panel at the end of one of the lines with the title “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and I laid the wreath against it. It was a poignant moment as I recognised and knew well, seven of the 82 names recorded. The names were engraved beautifully, surname first followed by given names and nothing else, all in alphabetical order. No rank, no ship’s names, just the names of those who had died.
The poppies on the wreath shone and shimmered when we arrived at the magnificent memorial park. The label noted that the wreath was laid on behalf of the Fleet Air Arm Officers’ Association and The Fly Navy Heritage Trust with HMS Illustrious and HMS Victorious added as they were my homes for about six months in 1945.
It was moments after the little ceremony that we were visited by a photographer who mentioned that as I was laying the wreath, the new US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, had parted from her entourage and had walked to within 20 feet or so in order to watch us. Daughter of President John Kennedy, to me, she represented the United States and its Task Force. It was a fortuitous moment and quite precious. The job was done and we were all proud to have been able to do it.
Ex Sub Lieut. (A) RNZNVR 1830 (FFS), HMS Illustrious: 1834 (FFS) HMS Victorious
Arriving at kagoshima, a port in Southern Honshu, enabled me to visit the Chiran Peace Museum for Kamikaze pilots. Chiran was an Army Air Force base during the war and in the battles for Okinawa and, later, Japan. 1036 kamikaze pilots flew from it to their deaths.
Following their defeat in the Philippines, the Japanese High Command realised that bombing ships from the air was not achieving results so they decided to use the plane/bomb with the pilot directing the plane to the target. This was agreed by Emperor and the Order came into force in October 1944. It was called The Divine Wind or Kamikaze and pilots were selected from both Army and Navy units. Many volunteered.
The main target of the Kamikaze pilots was the US Navy Task Force which was heavily attacked, whilst the British fleet received less attention and our carriers had steel decks which foiled attempts to sink them and reduced the damage and casualties. In the American Fleet, out of 525 fighting vessels, 22 were sunk and 254 damaged. The US Fleet lost 539 aircraft, the British 160. US personnel casualties were 4,907 killed and missing and 4,824 wounded. The British lost 82 killed and 83 wounded. No British ships were lost, but all four carriers were hit and HMS Illustrious was so damaged she was forced to return to the UK for major repairs. Japan lost over 4,000 kamikaze pilots, including those from Chiran.
On the 4th May, 1945, from the quarter deck of HMS Victorious. I witnessed an attack on HMS Formidable, when a Japanese kamikaze dived from about 2,000 feet firing his guns as he swept along the flight deck and as he flew over the bows he pulled up into a loop and at the top simply flicked the plane into a dive straight into the deck. There was a violent gout of flame and black smoke which shrouded the ship, then she broke away trailing smoke and within an hour or so, she was landing-on her aircraft including a flight of four Corsairs which had taken refuge with us. 6 men were killed and 47 wounded. 11 aircraft were destroyed.
Five British Fleet Carriers were involved in the Iceberg 1 and 2 operations, HMS Indefatigable, (Rear Admiral Philip Vian, Flag Officer Commanding Aircraft Carriers); Illustrious, Victorious, Indomitable. HMS Formidable replaced HMS Illustrious on 26th April 1945 at Leyte Gulf.