After a two-month stay at Bremerton, on February 10, the Sangamon steamed toward Pearl Harbor, arriving and docking briefly at Ford Island. Moving on to the South Pacific to engage the enemy, the Sangamon left Ulithi in the Palau Island Group on March 21 to participate in Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa as a part of Task Unit 52.1.1 5th Fleet under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz. Everyone knew this battle would be horrific as the Japanese were becoming more willed to win as Americans closed in on their homeland. The battle for Iwo Jima only months before was the first invasion of the Japanese homeland and resulted in great loss of lives for both sides. Ironically, the invasion of Okinawa was to begin Easter Sunday (April Fools’ Day) April 1, 1945.
Shortly before the invasion, Admiral Nimitz became aware of large numbers of Japanese planes in the Okinawa area that would present problems to the invasion. After some reconnaissance, it was discovered the enemy planes were originating from airfields in the Sakishima Gunto island group located some 150 miles southeast of Okinawa Shima. Specifically, the Japs were flying kamikaze planes off Ishigaki Shima and Miyako Shima Islands, located in the island group, as well as other airfields on the Japanese homeland and Formosa.
To neutralize these airfields, the task was assigned to the American CVE Escort Carrier Group - to launch planes that would blast away the Japanese airfields and planes for a successful invasion of Okinawa. The Sangamon was particularly effective in this venture as the first CVE carrier that supported night fighter plane squadrons.
The Japanese had formulated a last ditch offensive operation code-named “Ten-Go” of which under the leadership of Admiral Seiichi Ito would unleash a new series of kamikaze attacks called kikusui. By the time the Okinawa campaign was finished, the Japanese had unleashed ten kikushui attacks, with the Sangamon caught up in kikushui #5.
As early as April 7, the Sangamon was flying Grumman F6 Hellcat fighters and TBM Avenger bombers off its deck toward the airfields in the Sakishima. With the expenditure of such large amounts of ordinance, all ships frequently restocked ammunition and supplies from a small group of islands known as Kerama Retto, about 20 miles south of Okinawa. To insure the harbor did not become clogged with ships, thus giving the Japanese an attractive target, ships arrived individually, restocked, and then quickly left Kerama Retto for another ship to reload. Such was the danger of Kamikaze attacks in this area that it was nicknamed “Kamikaze Corner” by veteran sailors.
At 6:30 p.m. on May 4, escort carriers Sangamon and Shamrock Bay CVE-84 maneuvered in Kerama Retto to take on munitions and supplies. Lavon Henson, a friend of Glen Looneys’ from Willis was also a sailor assigned to the carrier, Shamrock Bay. Both ships had already survived the Battle of Leyte Gulf, however it would be years later as Lavon & Glen swapped stories before they knew of each other’s ship locations and that they were both at Leyte and Okinawa together. The flight deck of the Sangamon was loaded with planes, supplies and ammunition. As the Sangamon slowly moved out of the harbor and the Shamrock Bay into the harbor for restocking, little did anyone anticipate the events that would unravel during the next several hours.
In only a matter of minutes a swarm of Japanese suicide fighters led by Corporal Saburo Mizukoshi would assault the Sangamon. Mizukoshi was born in Japan in 1924, the same year as Glen. Having graduated 13th in his class from the Army Youth Pilot School of Japan he led a group of 10-11 pilots on a suicide mission at Kerama Retto on that 4th day of May, 1945. His responsibility was to act as navigator to pilots who knew only how to take off and fly their planes into American ships. It was unnecessary for these pilots to know how to land their planes as they should not be returning home.
The evening of May 24 at 7:02 p.m., a Japanese kamikaze Tony was spotted as the pilot attempted to hit the Sangamon. By this time of the war the Japanese had learned to focus on hitting escort carriers because of their thin wooden flight decks – minor damage could easily set these ships ablaze. The Tony was shot down but came so close to the ship that it clipped off the transmitting antennae on the superstructure. Death” by the Japanese) leaving the fifth plane, a Japanese twin-engine bomber Nick piloted by Saburo Mizukoshi heading straight for the Sangamon.
Although Saburo Mizukoshi was to return to base after directing the Kamikaze group, he spotted the Sangamon and must have felt it (the largest of all escort carriers) was too good of a target to pass up. The majority of his planes had been unsuccessful in hitting an American carrier and he may have felt some disgrace in his mission. In his Kawasaki Ki-45 “Nick” twin engine fighter he singled out the Sangamon then pointed his plane downward beginning his descent onto the ship. With his plane smoking from hits, he somehow managed to fly through clouds and immense flack to crash his plane into the center of the flight deck of the Sangamon at about 7:35pm.
Glen Looney’s 20mm gun station was #5 behind the superstructure. His best friend Howard Burke operated a 40mm antiaircraft gun just forward of the superstructure. As the plane approached the ship from slightly behind the two, Howard could not swing his gun around to get a bead on the plane yet had a good view of the plan coming in. The plane was diving almost vertically toward the ship. Kamikaze pilots were instructed to always try and hit the elevator section of the carriers. Howard recalls…..“Both wings had been shot off and the fuselage was basically a missile heading for our flight deck. The pilot was wincing in pain as fire had engulfed the cockpit. He was gritting his teeth and bearing down on the ship right up until it hit.”
Seconds before the plan hit the flight deck, Glen had to drop to his knees to turn and elevate his gun enough to continue firing at the almost vertical approach of the plane. The Jap plane hit and went through the flight deck, no further than about 50’ and 60 degrees from Glen’s gun station. The 500-pound Japanese bomb detonated below the flight deck in the hanger causing a tremendous explosion. So violent was the explosion that both forward and aft plane elevators were blown out of their tracks. Glen was fortunate that being on his knees in those final seconds kept him below the level of the flight deck where shrapnel and debris flew across injuring and maiming all in its path. Fires immediately broke out causing a concern for spreading aviation fuel and loose strewn ammunition.
The explosion resulted in Glen being blown overboard into the water with 114 other sailors. For buoyancy support most sailors had only CO2 inflatable life belts. Glen, along with friend Howard Burke grabbed a sailor floating on his stomach to keep him from drowning. As Howard grabbed the sailor on one side and Glen on the other, Howard said, “We might as well let him go, Glen – he’s dead”. Glen, Howard, and two other sailors joined hands to stay together and provide support while treading in the dark water. Fortunately the water was calm and a warm 72 degrees with porpoises present, giving the indication there were no sharks in the area.
Many of the men in the water including Glen had single cell flashlights. As darkness was now on them and they could hear the drone of airplane engines someone yelled for everyone to turn on their lights and point them skyward to give their location. Another sailor, John Hoffman, yelled, “Turn off those lights, those planes could be Japanese!” The navy was so conscious of procedure but did not have a manual for every situation, leaving the sailors to trust their own judgment and common sense.
At this point the Sangamon was an inferno of fire and exploding ordinance from stern to stern. A landing craft support ship, the LCS-61 (no other name) pulled alongside to render help. As the Sangamon sailors were pushing burning planes over the deck, one of the planes landed on the fantail of the USS Dennis DE-405, an American destroyer that had pulled alongside to render assistance. That incident prompted the Dennis to pull away, leaving the Sangamon sailors to extinguish the fire on their own.
Glen, nor most of the Sangamon sailors had not heard of the fate of the Gambier Bay and St. Lo sailors at Leyte Gulf some six months prior, how they had not been picked up out of the water for days. The navy was trying to keep that blunder quiet. He once said that had he known of their fate he would have been scared to death of not being picked up. As it was, he told himself it would be a long night and they would surely be picked up by the Dennis the next morning. The Dennis had been faithful remaining close to the Sangamon providing submarine watch. (In his retirement years Glen would call any Dennis sailor he could locate, thanking them for picking out of the water that May 4 evening.)
As it was, about four hours after Glen hit the water at approximately 11:30p.m., the Dennis managed to locate some sailors in the pitch darkness, pulling Glen, Howard Burke and 66 other Sangamon sailors from the water. So tired of treading water, the men’s strength was gone as they were literally pulled from the sea by Dennis sailors. As Sangamon sailor Fred Landry was in the water alone, he continually blew a whistle to get the attention of any ship to pick him up. As he was finally plucked from the water he was so exhausted that he barely had the energy to speak his name.