Hell from the Heavens

The Epic Story of the USS Laffey and World War II's Greatest Kamikaze Attack


By John Wukovits

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Looking toward the heavens, the destroyer crew saw what seemed to be the entire Japanese Air Force assembled directly above. Hell was about to be unleashed on them in the largest single-ship kamikaze attack of World War II.

On April 16, 1945, the crewmen of the USS Laffey were battle hardened and prepared. They had engaged in combat off the Normandy coast in June 1944. They had been involved in three prior assaults of enemy positions in the Pacific-at Leyte and Lingayen in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima. They had seen kamikazes purposely crash into other destroyers and cruisers in their unit and had seen firsthand the bloody results of those crazed tactics. But nothing could have prepared the crew for this moment-an eighty-minute ordeal in which the single small ship was targeted by no fewer than twenty-two Japanese suicide aircraft.

By the time the unprecedented attack on the Laffey was finished, thirty-two sailors lay dead, more than seventy were wounded, and the ship was grievously damaged. Although she lay shrouded in smoke and fire for hours, the Laffey somehow survived, and the gutted American warship limped from Okinawa’s shore for home, where the ship and crew would be feted as heroes.

Using scores of personal interviews with survivors, the memoirs of crew members, and the sailors’ wartime correspondence, historian and author John Wukovits breathes life into the story of this nearly forgotten historic event. The US Navy described the kamikaze attack on the Laffey “as one of the great sea epics of the war.” In Hell from the Heavens, the author makes the ordeal of the Laffey and her crew a story for the ages.


Hell from the Heavens

Copyright © 2015 by John Wukovits


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Da Capo Press, 44 Farnsworth Street, 3rd Floor, Boston, MA 02210.


Designed by Trish Wilkinson

Set in 11 point Adobe Garamond Pro


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Wukovits, John F., 1944–

Hell from the heavens : the epic story of the USS Laffey and World War II's greatest kamikaze attack / John F. Wukovits.

pages cm

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-306-82325-1 (e-book) 1. Laffey (Ship) 2. World War, 1939–1945—Naval operations, American. 3. World War, 1939–1945—Campaigns—Pacific Area. 4. World War, 1939–1945—Aerial operations, Japanese. 5. Japan. Kaigun. Kamikaze Tokubetsu Kogekitai. 6. Kamikaze pilots—Japan. I. Title.


D774.L3W85 2015




First Da Capo Press edition 2015


Published by Da Capo Press

A Member of the Perseus Books Group



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10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To my granddaughter, Megan Grace Dickerman, whose cheerful spirit lights up any room she enters.


List of Maps




Part I: The Normandy Training Ground

Chapter 1 The Formation of a Crew

Chapter 2 Off Normandy's Shores

Chapter 3 To the Pacific

Part II: Into Pacific Combat

Chapter 4 Kamikazes Stage a Terrifying Introduction

Chapter 5 North from the Philippines

Part III: Hell from the Heavens

Chapter 6 First Days at Okinawa

Chapter 7 The Triumph of Laffey's Gunners

Chapter 8 Agony on the Afterdeck

Chapter 9 Defying the Odds

Chapter 10 A Lasting Legacy

Appendix I: List of the Crew on April 16, 1945

Appendix II: List of the Crew Killed on April 16, 1945

Appendix III: Medal Recipients for Actions on April 16, 1945







Map 1.1 USS Laffey in the Pacific

Map 1.2 USS Laffey off Okinawa

Map 1.3 Air Attacks on USS Laffey, April 16, 1945, Kamikazes Numbers 1–12

Map 1.4 Air Attacks on USS Laffey, April 16, 1945, Kamikazes Numbers 13–22


After writing For Crew and Country: The Inspirational True Story of Bravery and Sacrifice Aboard the USS Samuel B. Roberts, my editor asked if there were another World War II ship that piqued my interest. He felt it might be an apt companion to the story of the destroyer escort. Of a handful of options, one shone above the rest: the exploits of the USS Laffey (DD-724). I was convinced that readers would be moved by the crew's stirring April 16, 1945, performance against twenty-two kamikazes off Okinawa.

I soon found that the destroyer had amassed quite a record before that penultimate act. After experiencing her initial combat during the Normandy invasion, where Laffey supported the ground forces from the June 6, 1944, landings through the end of the month, she participated in three Philippine assaults and the landings at Iwo Jima, and screened for a carrier task group as it charged north to attack the Japanese Home Islands. My interest heightened when I learned that the ship still exists as a floating museum in South Carolina, meaning that I could walk the decks and gain a feeling for the crew stationed inside the five-inch mounts and on deck among the 40mm and 20mm antiaircraft guns.

I was delighted to learn that the veterans of the destroyer formed an active survivor's group. The USS Laffey (DD-724) Association hosts reunions bringing together not only the veterans from World War II but also the men who served aboard the ship during the Korean conflict and after. The Association's website holds a wealth of information and provided me with my initial material about the destroyer, and the current president, Sonny Walker, compiled a list of the World War II survivors that I might contact.

Interviews and other research led to the present volume. In arriving at this point, many people helped along the way. Atop that list are the men who served aboard Laffey during World War II, who kindly offered their time for interviews, as well as their letters, photographs, and other memorabilia. Ari Phoutrides, who had already posted riveting material on the Association's website, was available for in-depth interviews or for those times when I needed a quick answer to a question. He also took me on a tour of his destroyer when I visited the ship on the sixty-ninth anniversary of the April 1945 encounter. In addition to our many interviews, Robert Johnson kindly offered the large collection of letters he wrote during the war and shared photographs with me during an early 2014 visit to his Richmond, Virginia, home. Daniel Zack of Massachusetts offered meticulous insight into the ship's operations during many interviews, and the family of the late Wilbert Gauding gave me access to his World War II diary. Joel Youngquist provided a compelling account of his time on the aft guns during the April 1945 action, and he, Lloyd Hull, and Jay Bahme opened up the world of an officer aboard a wartime destroyer. Robert Dockery, Dr. Andrew Martinis, Joseph Dixon, Fred Gemmell, and Lee Hunt helped me better understand the ship's operations from the enlisted viewpoint. Marguerite Fern, whose love for her late husband and crew member, Tom, shines to this day, opened her impressive collection of articles, photographs, and wartime letters when I visited her Massachusetts home in 2013.

A special thanks goes to my gifted agent, Jim Hornfischer. I could not have asked for a more professional person to help steer me in the right direction, and his attributes—as an agent, a fellow World War II author, and friend—have been one of the true blessings of my writing career.

A team of editors at Da Capo Press, led by Bob Pigeon offered comments that improved the manuscript.

As always, I cannot forget the advice and friendship of two men. The words of Dr. Bernard Norling, my history advisor at the University of Notre Dame and my consultant through the years, and Tom Buell, my writing mentor and the author of acclaimed biographies, influence me each day, even though, sadly, both are no longer with us. Their memories prod me to produce the best possible manuscript I can deliver.

I have been fortunate to enjoy the amazing support of family. My three daughters, Amy, Julie, and Karen, and my older brother, Tom, a naval aviator and Vietnam War veteran, freely exhibit their pride with my work and with me. The grandfather in me loves that my four grandchildren, Matthew, Megan, Emma, and Kaitlyn, think it is cool that I write books, and the past two decades would not have been as fulfilling without the companionship of Terri Faitel, an extraordinary mathematics teacher/coordinator who meticulously scours my manuscripts with the same fervor with which she attacks the Pythagorean theorem.

Finally, three family members who are no longer with me provide impetus to exert my utmost. My parents, Tom and Grace Wukovits, gave unquestioned love throughout their lives and were proud that I reached my dream of writing history books. My younger brother, Fred, would also have shown his pride, most likely through a humorous remark or a wry smile.

Two final notes. I have used two sources in determining the ranks and ratings of the crew—the list of survivors included in the Appendix to F. Julian Becton's The Ship That Would Not Die, and the Laffey muster rolls for March 31, 1945. In the interest of uniformity, I used those designations throughout the book, even if earlier in the war a crew may have held a different rank or rating.

Also, the two poems I have referenced throughout, "An Ode to the USS Laffey (DD-724)" by Gunner's Mate 3/c Owen G. Radder and "Invicta," by Lieutenant (jg) Matthew C. Darnell Jr., can be found respectively at http://www.laffey.org/glenrodetolaffey.htm and at Laffey News, April–June 1990.


John F. Wukovits

Trenton, Michigan

June 30, 2014


February 8, 1944

The USS Laffey (DD-724) is commissioned in Boston.

March 2–31, 1944

Shakedown cruise in Bermuda.

June 6, 1944

Laffey participates in the Normandy invasion.

June 25, 1944

Laffey duels with Battery Hamburg at Cherbourg.

August 26, 1944

Laffey begins her voyage to the Pacific.

September 18, 1944

Laffey enters Pearl Harbor.

October 23, 1944

Laffey proceeds to Eniwetok, Marshall Islands.

October 25, 1944

At Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, Japan unleashes her first organized kamikaze assault of the war.

November 11–19, 1944

Laffey participates in four carrier air strikes against the Japanese in the Philippines.

December 6–7, 1944

Laffey participates in the Ormoc landings in the Philippines.

December 12–16, 1944

Laffey participates in the Mindoro landings in the Philippines.

January 6–21, 1945

Laffey participates in the Lingayen Gulf landings in the Philippines.

February 16–17, 1945

Laffey participates in air strikes against the Japanese Home Islands.

February 18–23, 1945

Laffey participates in the Iwo Jima landings.

February 24–26, 1945

Laffey participates in a second round of air strikes against the Japanese Home Islands.

March 26–29, 1945

Laffey participates in the seizure of Kerama Retto southwest of Okinawa.

April 1–2, 1945

Laffey participates in the landings on Okinawa.

April 3–12, 1945

Laffey operates off the coast of Okinawa.

April 13, 1945

Laffey receives orders posting her to Picket Station No. 1.

April 14–15, 1945

Laffey operates at Picket Station No. 1.

April 16, 1945

Twenty-two kamikaze aircraft attack Laffey at Picket Station No. 1.

April 17–21, 1945

Repair crews work on Laffey at Hagushi.

April 27, 1945

Laffey anchors in Saipan.

May 12, 1945

Laffey enters Pearl Harbor.

May 24, 1945

Laffey moors in Seattle.

May 25–30, 1945

The Navy opens Laffey to public inspection in Seattle.

June 26, 1945

Becton steps down as commander of Laffey.

July 1946

Laffey participates in the Bikini Atoll nuclear weapons tests.


Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, accepts Laffey from the Navy as a floating museum.


In his most terrifying nightmare Seaman 1/c Jack H. Ondracek could never have imagined the sight that confronted him that April 16, 1945, morning. As he leapt into the straps of the 20mm antiaircraft gun aboard the destroyer, USS Laffey (DD-724), a Japanese aircraft raced directly toward him.

Ondracek took this attack personally, for the human being piloting the aircraft did so with the lethal intent of killing Ondracek and mortally damaging his ship. It hearkened to those days that pitted single warrior against single warrior, the path hostilities had taken for centuries past. But one-on-one encounters were for Caesar's swordsmen or medieval knights, not for a sailor on a World War II destroyer, where combat usually pitted five-inch guns and torpedoes against enemy plating.

As the lone aircraft bore down on him, Ondracek's gun beat a steady rhythm that matched the pounding of his heart. His 20mm gun was effective up to one thousand yards. He brushed aside the sobering thought that although his opponent had closed to within the range of his gun, he now had fewer than fifteen seconds to destroy the hurtling plane before it smashed into the ship. His best defense—his only defense—was to kill the pilot before the pilot killed him. "You either kill them or get killed," said Gunner's Mate 2/c Lawrence H. Delewski. "You were playing for keeps and it was a very deadly game."1

As the aircraft eluded Ondracek's bullets and narrowed the gap, the seaman knew it would be only moments before either he or the kamikaze pilot, or both, perished in a deafening explosion.


Nothing in his tour of duty had prepared Ondracek for this moment. He experienced his first taste of combat off the Normandy coast in the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion, when the Laffey's five-inch guns lambasted German gun emplacements as Allied troops rushed ashore. He had participated in four prior assaults of enemy positions in the Pacific—at Ormoc, Mindoro, and Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, and at Iwo Jima—where their guns again blasted land targets while Marines and infantry battled across the terrain. He had seen kamikazes purposely crash into other destroyers and cruisers and had witnessed firsthand the bloody results of those crazed tactics, but until now he had avoided being the target of such suicidal actions.

His good fortune appeared over. As Ondracek glanced skyward, it seemed that the entire Japanese air force had assembled directly above. At one point the Laffey's radar plotted fifty enemy aircraft converging on the ship, their dots all but obliterating the radar screen.

On that April 1945 day off the Pacific island of Okinawa, Ondracek and the rest of the crew contended with one of the war's most terrifying weapons. First appearing in late 1944, kamikazes caused American skippers and sailors untold heartache and misery. "Few missiles or weapons have ever spread such flaming terror, such scorching burns, such searing death, as did the kamikaze in his self-destroying onslaughts on the radar picket ships [at Okinawa]," wrote the eminent naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison. "And naval history has few parallels to the sustained courage, resourcefulness and fighting spirit that the crews of these vessels displayed day after day after day in the battle for Okinawa."2

Prominent among those picket ships was the crew of the USS Laffey.

Chapter 1

The Formation of a Crew

Born in Bath Maine

With an already famous name

The crew got her in shape

For her destiny with fate.

—"An Ode to the USS Laffey (DD-724)," Gunner's Mate Owen Radder

"An Officer Is Supposed to Worry about His Men First"

The men who battled so gallantly in April 1945 took their cue from their skipper, Commander F. Julian Becton. A man of considerable combat experience, Becton was born in Des Arc, Arkansas, on May 15, 1908. He became interested in the Navy in 1925 while in high school, when an aunt mailed photographs of the Naval Academy to the family. Becton, who had already been attracted by billboards touting "Join the Navy and see the world," marked Annapolis as his destination.

After graduating in 1931, Becton quickly rose through the ranks. He served aboard two battleships and two destroyers, absorbing valuable knowledge in the ships' engineering departments. In 1935 he journeyed to China, where he served as engineering officer aboard first a gunboat and then a destroyer.

Along the way he started what became a lifelong habit of writing down words of famous individuals he found meaningful. One of his favorites came from an 1897 speech Civil War General John M. Schofield delivered at West Point, in which he reminded the cadets how important it was to treat the men under their command with respect, for "the differences among men are far less than they generally seem." General Schofield added, "the road to military honor will be guarded all the way by the hearts of those who may be your subordinates. You cannot travel that road unless you command those hearts."1

A two-year stint at the Naval Academy to teach marine engineering interrupted his Pacific duty. In 1940 Becton returned to those waters as engineering officer on the USS Gleaves (DD-423), followed by a posting to the destroyer USS Aaron Ward (DD-483) as executive officer.

Following the outbreak of war, the Aaron Ward steamed to the South Pacific as part of the United States's August 1942 effort to seize the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. A series of dramatic naval clashes unfolded in the waters about Guadalcanal, including the November 13 nighttime encounter known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. In that action the Aaron Ward joined five cruisers and six destroyers under the command of Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan to prevent a stronger Japanese force from bombarding American forces on Guadalcanal.

A widespread melée erupted. Japanese and American vessels darted through the darkened waters, rapidly firing at enemy targets while just as quickly trying to evade incoming shells. "It was disorganized. It was individual [action], with every ship for herself,"2 recalled Becton later.

Though the American forces sustained heavy damage—nine shells struck Becton's Aaron Ward, killing fifteen and wounding fifty-seven—they turned back the Japanese and safeguarded for the moment the troops and aircraft ashore. Becton did not fail to notice that an aggressive commander like Callaghan, even though he lost his life in the encounter, could defy the odds and snatch victory from a more potent foe.

Becton learned another lesson that night. One mile astern from the Aaron Ward the destroyer USS Laffey (DD-459) went down after a stout fight in which the gun crews maintained fire until their shipmates could abandon ship. Becton never forgot the heroism exhibited by the Laffey and made a silent promise that, if he ever commanded a ship, he would try to perform as valiantly.

"Later on in World War II," wrote Becton, "when it came time for me to take Laffey's successor into battle, I could never forget the example she set for all of us in those brief final minutes of her life. Thus the story of the first Laffey


  • Praise for Hell from the Heavens

    "John Wukovits is a master storyteller of battle at sea. With a fine eye for revealing detail, he re-creates, with sure and dramatic strokes, the almost unbelievable story of a destroyer, its dauntless captain, and its brave men under assault by a score of kamikazes in the climactic days of the Pacific War. A great read about one of the Navy's most stirring single-ship actions."—Evan Thomas, bestselling author of Sea of Thunder and John Paul Jones

    "Inspiring true story of a legendary World War II warship that famously refused to die and her intrepid crew of tin can soldiers who fought their way across the seas from Normandy to Okinawa. John Wukovits's Hell from the Heavens is naval history at its compelling best."—Bruce Henderson, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell

    "John Wukovits is one of those rare authors with the ability to capture the stink, the heat, and the fear of battle. In Hell from the Heavens, he almost without mercy thrusts the reader into the terrifying experience of being on the receiving end of Japanese suicide attacks. If your palms aren't sweating while reading this book, you need to have your vital signs checked!"—Flint Whitlock, editor of WWII Quarterly
  • "Well researched and finely written, Hell from the Heavens brings vividly to life the story of USS Laffey's life-or-death struggle against kamikazes determined to send her to the bottom. The story of 'The Ship That Wouldn't Die' is a nail-biter, and John Wukovits tells it with panache."—Stephen Harding, author of the New York Times bestseller The Last Battle

    "A stirring account"Roanoke Times

    "Vivid detail"—San Francisco Book Review

    "Well-researched and pulls the reader into the story"World War II

    "Thoroughly recommended"Naval History

    "An admirable job"Proceedings, US Naval Institute

    Kirkus Reviews, 2/15/15
    “The incredible story of the ‘destroyer with a heart that couldn't be broken'.... For WWII buffs, surely, but also for general readers looking to understand the damage inflicted and the terror inspired by the Japanese suicide squadrons.”
  • "This detailed account...gives a clear and interesting picture of what actually took place...The author offers a well-constructed and clearly written narrative...An absorbing, fast-paced recounting of a significant incident in WWII PTO history. Any naval enthusiast with an interest in destroyers in general or operations off Okinawa in particular would do well to consider this book...The lively writing style would also make it a good first reading experience for anyone who is showing an interest in naval history."

    Warship International, September 2016
  • "A compelling tale of bravery and tenacity...Wukovits offers a very well written account of the USS Laffey, making extensive use of personal interviews that the author conducted with former members of the ship's crew. Indeed, his moment-by-moment account of the April 16 kamikaze attack almost places the reader at the scene...The book provides an enjoyable narrative that will appeal to those with a general interest in World War II, naval history, or the Pacific war in particular...Its strength is its storytelling, which Wukovits does very well. Thus, it offers a strong narrative for a popular history audience."
  • "[A] tale of great courage...This is an excellent tome that provides a lucid account of 'what a group of individuals can do when united by sound leadership and a deep sense of duty.'"
    Curled Up with a Good Book

On Sale
Apr 7, 2015
Page Count
336 pages
Da Capo Press

John Wukovits

About the Author

John Wukovits is a military expert specializing in the Pacific theater of World War II. He is the author of many books, including Tin Can Titans,Hell from the Heavens, For Crew and Country, One Square Mile of Hell, and Pacific Alamo. He has also written numerous articles for such publications as WWII History,Naval History, and World War II. He lives in Michigan.

Learn more about this author