USS EMMONS – Okinawa’s Rediscovered Wreck
by Gary Hagland
Published in Issue 12
Advanced Diver Magazine
In April of 1945, the war in the Pacific was in its final stages. U.S. forces, on the offensive against a stubborn Japanese enemy since the battles of Midway and Guadalcanal in 1942, had mounted a massive two-pronged attack. In the southern Pacific, General MacArthur had recaptured most of the Philippines after waging a difficult campaign in New Guinea. In the central Pacific, naval and marine forces had broached the outer perimeter of Japanese defenses with their capture of Iwo Jima. U.S. bombers were flying daily missions against the main Japanese islands from their bases on Tinian and Saipan.
U.S. planners had decided that Okinawa would be the next target before the invasion of the home islands. The relatively small island, only 64 miles in length, was a short 282 nautical miles from Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main Japanese islands. Okinawa would be used as a launching point for further air attacks and as a large support base. Indeed, the Americans had completely restored five existing airfields and were constructing six others by the end of the war.
In the face of the ever increasing onslaught, the Japanese had adopted a defensive strategy that was designed to make the attackers pay more and more in blood and material with each step they took towards their homeland. They intended to make military operations so costly that the U.S. and its allies would agree to a negotiated peace rather than continue the fighting. In that way, their system of government, emperor worship, and possibly some of their far-flung East Asian empire could be salvaged. As U.S. forces drew closer and closer, their fanatical resistance stiffened. The capture of Guam and Saipan proved unusually difficult. On Iwo Jima, U.S. Marines often measured daily progress in feet and inches. However, the allies had no intention of succumbing to any peace initiatives. Only total Japanese capitulation was acceptable.
Early on Easter Morning, April 1st, 1945, an armada of 1300 ships, the likes of which had not been seen since the invasion of Normandy, surrounded Okinawa. Most were off the island’s western coast where fire from ten battleships, 12 cruisers, 23 destroyers and 177 gunboats pounded the invasion beaches and inland areas of the central part of the island. Hundreds of carrier aircraft bombed the beaches. It was the heaviest concentration of firepower to ever support a landing of troops. Okinawans called it, “The Typhoon of Steel.”
At 4:06 am, Admiral Kelly Turner, as he had done in numerous island campaigns before, signaled the order “to land the landing force.” The main thrust of Operation ICEBERG, the military’s code name for the Okinawa Campaign, began. By 8:30 the first of the landing craft reached the beaches. Surprisingly, the invaders found little resistance and had swept across the narrow part of the island by the next day. For several days, no real opposition was met, but that would soon change and the bloodiest battle of the Pacific campaign would ensue. The Americans were unable to claim victory until June 21st. The final casualty toll included 12,000 American and over 90,000 Japanese personnel killed. Many estimates of Okinawan civilian deaths equal the number of Japanese military killed.
On 6 April, the Japanese struck back with the largest air attack they had ever mounted. Among the 400 plus aircraft that were fielded from bases in Kyushu and Formosa (Taiwan), were at least 223 planes of the Special Attack Force, known as the "Tokko-tai" to the Japanese. Americans knew them by another name, “Kamikaze.”
The kamikaze suicide raiders were born of Japanese desperation. They were a last ditch effort to stop the American juggernaut. Used initially, in the Philippines, Japanese leadership was perfectly willing to sacrifice the nation’s best and brightest young men to a certain death. Kamikaze means “divine wind,” which has both romantic and historic significance for the Japanese people who understand the term in reference to the two typhoons which saved Japan from invasions by Kublai Khan in 1274 and 1281.
April 6th was overcast. The USS Emmons, in company with her sister ship, the Rodman, was patrolling the waters off northern Okinawa. They were covering minesweeping operations in the Iheya Strait being conducted by six smaller ships. The Emmons and the Rodman had been together in North Africa and on the highly dangerous Murmansk run in the North Atlantic. The Emmons also provided fire support for the landing on Omaha Beach during the Normandy invasion. Both had been reconfigured to support minesweeping operations, which required the loss of one of four of their 5-inch guns.
Just after 3 pm, around 20 to 30 enemy aircraft were spotted on the horizon heading for the two ships. Thanks to accurate antiaircraft fire by its gun crews and the assistance of carrier aircraft, the Emmons weathered the initial encounter unscathed. However, a suicide bomber hit the Rodman’s forecastle.
At 4:30, a second wave of attacks began. Once again, the Emmons’ gun crews leapt into action. However, their ammunition was running low and this time the attackers were more persistent and focused. The Emmons was circling the Rodman providing fire support to the stricken ship when, in rapid succession, five suicide aircraft struck her. One impacted forward of the bridge on the port side. Two crashed into the fantail; one knocking out 5-inch Gun #3 and the other causing significant damage including the loss of the rudder assembly. A fourth struck the Emmons on the port side where the Combat Information Center was located. The final Kamikaze impacted into the wreckage of the superstructure after strafing the ship.
With many of its sailors wounded and with some in the water after being blown over board by the horrific explosions, and with at least 60 of its men lying dead within its burning hulk, the Emmons was in danger of drifting towards enemy controlled territory. The decision was made to sink her. The proud ship, which had fought and provided vital support to operations in North Africa, Normandy, and Southern France, and had survived the extremely dangerous Murmansk Run without a scratch, was dispatched the next day by gunfire from the 5-inch guns of another destroyer/minesweeper, the USS Ellyson.
The Emmons lay silently on the ocean’s bottom for 55 years. In September of 2000, Japanese Coast Guard divers rediscovered her after responding to a report of a persistent oil slick from a local fisherman. After a grainy photo of a five-inch gun taken by one of the divers appeared in a local English language publication, American divers on the island began their own quest to find the wreck. The Japanese hadn't marked it and weren't publicizing the coordinates.
During the battle, 36 American ships were sunk around Okinawa, many of them at diveable depths. However, most were either salvaged or somehow disposed of. Reportedly, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drug remaining wrecks to a depth of 600 feet after several disastrous incidents when unlicensed scrap collectors blew themselves up in the late 50’s. In July 1957, 32 died in the Kerama Islands, only 18 miles from Okinawa attempting to obtain scrap steel from a sunken ammo ship. When the TNT used to blast away plating from the vessel’s side touched off the 3000-ton cargo, it rained fish over the tiny island of Aka, and a small tidal wave was created. In April 1958, 40 died when the sunken ammo ship, Canada Victory exploded off Yomitan in the central part of Okinawa. The action by the Corps of Engineers stopped the carnage, but left divers years later with no wrecks to explore until the Emmons was rediscovered.
Several American divers were able to locate the sunken ship in February 2001 and unabashedly promoted their accomplishment in the local English language press. However, they, and others, also earned the interest of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service for items removed from the wreck. The Emmons is considered a war grave and the Navy takes a dim view of anyone disturbing the site.
The USS Emmons final resting place is in 147 feet of water exactly 1000 meters north-northeast of Okinawa’s Kouri Island. It lays on its starboard side and the bow points due west. As you descend, the ship usually comes into view by 50 feet. Your attention is immediately directed to the two 5-inch guns that sit forward of what is left of the superstructure. They are canted upward at a 45-degree angle and look as if they are still ready to respond to attacking Japanese suicide bombers. The bow and forecastle are clean except for one shell hole on the port side, which may have been the result of U.S. gunfire to sink the ship after its rudder assembly had been lost. The port anchor is secured.
Only the bottom level of the superstructure remains. A hatch is locked open on the port side. A 20mm gun with the shield gone, but with its protective skirt mostly intact is located just above.
As you swim aft, you see a Bofors twin 40 mm anti-aircraft machine gun. This gun was considered by the Navy to be its most effective surface weapon against the kamikazes. Some of the panels that skirted the gun are missing and the guns’ characteristic barrels with their recoil springs are heavily encrusted.
Empty lifeboat davits still stand at attention on the port side, although one points inward and the other outward. Its lifeboat was launched after many sailors were already in the water. It helped pick them up and carry them to a rescue ship.
Paravanes or “pigs,” as the sailors called them, looking somewhat like WWI aerial bombs, are still lashed to their bulkhead in the stern. These devices made up part of the apparatus the ship employed while conducting minesweeping operations.
On the bottom is a large debris field, much of which is below where the remnants of the superstructure are. Pieces and panels torn from the ship by the violent explosions are located here in a jumbled mess. The wheelhouse itself can be seen lying on its side within the pile of debris. Some distance away a large paravane, still attached to one of its mounts, lies on the bottom at the edge of a field of sea fans, which indicates the presence of strong currents. Beyond that, less than a 100 feet off the mangled fantail is the Emmons rudder assembly. Its loss left the ship helpless and sealed its doom.
As you approach what’s left of the fantail, the damage becomes more pronounced. There are huge areas where the ship’s internal framework is visible. Everything looks black and burnt. Peering inside, through a massive hole just below deck, you see metal bunk bed frames. This was the crew’s aft berthing compartment.
Another 20mm gun is located in this area. Its barrel points straight up. It is positioned on a tripod type base rather than on the usual pedestal. Its shield and skirt are completely gone.
Still mounted to what remains of the deck is the aft 5-inch gun. It bore the force of a kamikaze crashing into it. The turret housing has a large jagged hole ripped in its side. The gun barrel hangs down dejectedly. It’s a sad sight.
Too soon, on each dive, the thumbs-up signal is given and we reluctantly leave the Emmons to begin our ascent and decompression stops. As we rise slowly in the water, we stare down at the lifeless hulk and imagine her as she looked when she was afloat during those final desperate hours. Decompression is a good time to reflect and the excitement of the dive is tempered with the memory of the vessel’s last violent moments and reverence for her heroic crew. Reportedly, they accounted for six of their attackers before succumbing to the Kamikaze onslaught. They didn’t stop fighting until all means of defense was exhausted or destroyed. Sixty sailors died. The surviving crew assisted their wounded comrades into the water and to the safety of other vessels. The Emmons was absent from the huge flotilla of ships assembled in Tokyo Bay five months later when the ceremony of surrender was conducted on the deck of the USS Missouri. However, her crew had done their part to make that event possible.