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This Day in History: USS Bismarck Sea sunk by kamikazes at Iwo Jima

On this day in 1945, kamikazes plow into American warships near Iwo Jima. One aircraft carrier, the USS Bismarck Sea, was fatally wounded. A handful of other American ships were also hit, but they managed to stay afloat.

One observer would later say that there were so many Japanese planes that “they looked like a swarm of flies on a boarding house table.”

When most Americans think of the Battle of Iwo Jima, they think of the difficult Marine landings during February 1945. But there were losses at sea, too. Some of those men were living through a hell of their own.

Trouble began late on February 21, just as night was falling. Little did anyone know it, but the American warships hovering near Iwo Jima were in danger. Dozens of kamikazes had left Tokyo earlier that day, and they were headed straight toward the Americans.

The kamikazes hit many ships, but Bismarck Sea took the worst of it. A Japanese pilot had come in, flying low and swerving around the stern of an American destroyer. What was Bismarck Sea to do? It couldn’t fire at the kamikaze without also firing at the destroyer.

Within just a few minutes, that first plane would be followed by another.

“We were hit by two kamikaze planes,” Second Class Petty Officer Richard Kaplan later recounted, “and the first one hit us where the torpedoes were stored, and a couple of those went off. It just about tore the rear end of the ship off. The second kamikaze plane hit us on the other side where the other battery of torpedoes was stored.”

Bismarck Sea couldn’t survive such damage. An order was given to abandon ship.

As survivors went overboard, they found themselves in rough waters. It was a windy day, and the water was choppy and cold. Worse, some of the Japanese planes came back and began strafing the survivors in the ocean.

Some of the men got pulled out of the water relatively quickly, but others would have a harder time of it. Crew member Ernie Peluso, for example, found himself in the water without a life jacket. He ended up treading water all night long before he was found. It was so dark that he couldn’t see anyone. For a while, he worried that he was the only survivor.

Another man had a similar experience, but he spent the night singing Psalm 23, over and over, trying to keep his own spirits up. Other survivors would speak of watching their fellow sailors dying in the water. They spoke of seeing sharks.

One chaplain emerged as a hero. He was lying in a lifeboat, severely injured, but wouldn’t you know that he ended up being a blessing to everyone in that raft? He was lapsing in and out of consciousness, but “repeatedly roused himself in an effort to allay the fears of all,” as his Navy and Marine Corps Medal citation would say. He drew “deeply from his spiritual strength in the midst of chaos and disaster, [and] spoke with calm courage to the panic-stricken, bewildered men.”

Chaplain Eugene Shannon seemed to hold himself together by sheer strength of will. He was holding out, just until his men were safe. When it was his turn to be rescued, he collapsed and passed away.

Ultimately, about 600 men would be pulled from the water. More than 300 had been lost. Nevertheless, the survivors looked to the island and saw a heartwarming sight less than two days after their ship went down:

United States Marines were raising a flag on Mount Suribachi.

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