Book Review: Hell from the Heavens
by John Wukovits
Da Capo, 2015
The Sumner-class destroyer USS Laffey, 376 feet long and bristling with guns, entered the annals of naval fame on the basis of just one day: the 16th of April, 1945, when the ship, plying the Pacific about thirty miles north of Okinawa, was the target of twenty-two Japanese kamikaze attacks over a span of only about 80 minutes. Thirty-two of her crew lost their lives and more than seventy were wounded, but the ship didn’t sink. It made its way home and promptly became a legend, “The Ship That Wouldn’t Die.”
But there was always much more to the Laffey‘s story than just those 80 minutes, and the whole of the ship’s stellar career, from the moment her keel was laid in June of 1943 to her miraculous survival of one hell of a mauling two years later, is the subject of John Wukovits’ rousingly readable new book, Hell from the Heavens. Wukovits has studied the histories, read all the memoirs, interviewed the survivors and their families, and produced what will likely remain the definitive account of one destroyer’s short but dramatic life. He takes his readers through the Laffey‘s tour screening landing craft at the Normandy invasion, the three Philippines assaults and two Iwo Jima landings in which the ship participated, and finally the job the Laffey did running interference for an aircraft carrier task group as it headed for Japan and the heart of Japanese resistance.
One of Wukovits’ many strengths as a narrative military historian is his easy ability to let his many interviewee’s memories weave into his story, filling it with little details that might get lost in much larger-canvas accounts (although Wukovits has clearly absorbed all those larger accounts; they all show up in his first-rate Bibliography). He tells us that the Laffey‘s commander, F. Julian Becton, was young, handsome, and quietly charismatic, a disciplinarian aboard ship and something of an actress-dating dandy on shore, but brings the description alive by including one sailor’s memory of how he always prized any order that would require him to go to the captain’s cabin – just so he could catch a glimpse of the captain’s framed photo of the beautiful actress he’d left on land. Likewise we get a more immediate sense of the dangers the ship faced on the open ocean, some of which could come from her own side:
The carriers and their accompanying battleships, cruisers, and destroyers made an impressive spectacle. As planes alighted in the distance, Laffey steamed back and forth, providing the first line of defense for the carriers nestled in the middle. To avoid colliding with a vessel that could handily snuff Laffey out of existence, Becton carefully watched the carriers in case the mammoth warships swerved into an emergency turn. “The carrier is always right, and you better be able to alter your course to fit theirs,” explained Sonarman Zack. “You had to be on the ball, or you could lose your ship.”
Becton put his men through relentless combat drills designed to eliminate all thought and hesitation when real combat arrived, and the men might have grumbled at the time, but Wukovits’ book makes it perfectly clear that they also admired Becton and credited him in large part for their survival. “We are going to outmaneuver and outshoot them,” Becton said of the omnipresent Japanese fighter aircraft, adding simply, “They are going to go down, but we aren’t.”
That conviction was tested as nobody could have dreamed possible on April 16, and despite its dorky title, Hell from the Heavens is genuinely thrilling when its narrating those 80 minutes that made up both the climax and the final act of Laffey‘s active service. Planes swarmed from all directions; the ships guns blasted and boomed continuously except when some of them were obliterated along with their crews; every inch of the vessel was riddled with bullets or dowsed with jet fuel or scorched by flames, and through it all, Becton and his men worked hard to stay alive and in the fight – in Wukovits’ account, their incredible bravery honestly does seem like an afterthought. Ensign James Townsley took a microphone to the top of the pilothouse – completely exposed to enemy fire – in order to call out firing positions to the gun crews; supply officer Joel Youngquist stayed with his guns in the ship’s aft section until the whole area was engulfed in flames; Becton himself stubbornly asserted that he wouldn’t abandon the ship as long as it had one working gun. And even the injured and the dying displayed a stoicism and wry humor that would have done any Roman legionary proud:
Seaman Martinis, one of the men assisting Doctor Darnell, lacked the skills to help the most severely wounded, but used words to console men in their final hours. He bent over one man who had been injured on the bridge and whispered, “God is with us.” Through his pain, the man weakly joked, “Oh, is the captain here?”
The USS Laffey went on to have a long life in service and was finally decommissioned in 1975. She’s now a museum ship in Charleston, North Carolina, where the old men who were once her invincible young gunners tell the story of those amazing 80 minutes to new generations. Those new generations now have this first-rate book as well.