|Gunners Mate Third Class Raymond Miller was at his assigned station as one of four loaders behind the quad 40 millimeter bofors anti-aircraft gun on the starboard side of the Destroyer he was assigned. The ship's Captain had issued the order for General Quarters (battle stations) fifteen minutes earlier when several outer ring Destroyer Pickets equipped with early detection radar confirmed movement of unidentified aircraft heading in their direction. Petty Officer Miller's Ship was part of a US Strike Force off the coast of Okinawa in April 1945, and were there to protect Carriers from Kamikaze attacks after it became apparent the Japanese had ramped up their efforts to increase the frequency and ferocity of those attacks. The closer the US fleet approached Japan, the greater their determination to destroy it.
Ray Miller was 18 years old and had enlisted in the Navy 6 months earlier. He wanted to join the Navy following the attack on Pearl Harbor, but was too young and still in school. He would be following in the footsteps of his father who served in the Navy during the Great War, and his grandfather who had also served in the Navy, the immediate and extended family all very proud that young Raymond would be continuing the tradition. Petty Officer Miller and his childhood friend, Fireman First Class Harrison Boone, had made special arrangements when they enlisted to be assigned to the same duty station after recruit training, which led to orders directing both to the Fletcher Class Destroyer they were currently assigned. Ray and Harrison met in the first grade, became best friends growing up and hung out together on a fairly regular basis. They both did well in school, were active in sports and other school activities, popular with their peers, and had girlfriends from the age of 16. The families of both boys were well acquainted as the town they grew up in was a small agricultural community of approximately seven thousand residents. Before Pearl Harbor it was their intention to go to College, but the war had changed that. Both knew they would be drafted if they failed to enlist, so it was a no brainer that Harrison would follow his best friend into the Navy.
Two days earlier, Ray and Harrison were on the Ship's fantail during a break, Harrison emerging from the Boiler room where he worked, covered in grime and sweat from the high temperatures down in Engineering.
"Man, you're a sight," Ray announced to his friend, laughing at the disheveled look Harrison sported as he walked toward the rail Ray was leaning against.
"What do you expect, it's hotter than hell down there. I don't ever see you waltzing down below to say hello."
"How did you ever get assigned to Engineering?" Ray asked, dodging his friend's remark while digging two cigarettes out of his top shirt pocket and offering one to his friend.
"Damned if I know," Harrison answered as he lit up. "The Navy guaranteed we'd be assigned to the same ship after boot camp, not the same job," he added wistfully. "If the shit hits the fan with those Kamikazes, I'd rather be behind a gun than in Engineering, that's for sure. Did you know they moved my GQ station to after steering."
"Doesn't surprise me, Ray answered. "You were in deck division before they transferred you to engineering. Rumor has it you were the division's best boat coxswain and the most qualified 'after steering' helmsman. It's good to know you're the one behind the wheel," pausing before adding, "if it's necessary, that is. I wouldn't trust anyone else."
"That's the idea," Harrison answered as he leaned slightly forward over the rail, moving his head up and down and enjoying the cool breeze in contrast with the murderous temperatures and stale atmosphere below decks. "Well, it is a little cooler in after steering, he conceded somewhat begrudgingly, exhaling a thick cloud of cigarette smoke, straightening as he turned toward his friend. "When we're at GQ everything is ramped up to the max down in the engine room; it's even hotter than it is now, so I guess I should be happy about that," a belated smile making its appearance.
"Hey, as soon as all this is over and we pull into port somewhere, the cold beer is on me," Ray responded as he rendered an approving pat on his buddy's shoulder in a half-hearted attempt to make his friend feel better. Everyone was worried about the Kamikazes, when the war would end, and most importantly, if they would even survive the war. The Japanese were fighting savagely, insanely, and every member of the crew knew they would have to fight even harder, with the reality that each successful engagement would be followed by even more determined attacks.
Back to the present:
"HERE THEY COME," the Gun Captain announced loudly as three Mitsubishi ZEROS, all fully fueled and carrying five hundred pound bombs flying parallel to the ship at approximately twelve thousand yards peeled off one at a time to begin their death dive toward the Destroyer's starboard side.
"Those three must have made it through the CAP (Combat Air Patrol) the Carriers launched earlier," Petty Officer Miller thought as he prepared himself for what was coming.
No one would admit it, but they were all scared; there was nothing they could do other than try their damnedest to blast those ZEROS into flying chunks of swiss cheese.
"PREPARE TO FIRE," the Gun Captain yelled.
The anti-aircraft gun and its crew was ready. Petty Officer Miller knew from practice firings he and the other loaders would have to continuously and correctly hand feed separate four round clips into the loading racks as soon as the gun battery opened fire; the clipped 40 mm rounds were large and heavy, and there could be no let-up and no jamming due to incorrect feeding of the gun's ammunition, the rate of fire approximately 120 rounds per minute.
"FIRE," the Gun Captain yelled again as loud as he could as the firing trigger was keyed and the Kamikazes closed to within ten thousand yards, the pointer and trainer struggling to maintain sight on the lead ZERO as the bofors joined the other starboard guns in unison, other gun crews singling out the other two aircraft bearing down on their starboard side.
"BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM" was the signature rapid sound of the bofors as each barrel fired and recoiled in succession, almost as if they were conducting their own firing orchestra.
"I LOVE THESE POM POMS," the other loader nervously shouted out, the combined firing deafening as he and Petty Officer Miller labored feverishly to feed the ravenous guns gobbling up ammo as quickly as it was loaded.
"HE'S HIT," the Gun Captain shouted.
"HE'S HEADING FOR THE DRINK," Petty Officer Miller hollered.
"CEASE FIRE," the Gun Captain yelled several times.
The firing trigger was released and the gun went immediately still and silent.
The gun crew briefly scanned the horizon as they followed the tracers of the other gun crews, black puffs of smoke (flak) appearing from the exploding proximity rounds as the trainer moved the anti-aircraft battery to the left, the Gun Captain preparing to order his crew to open fire a second time as the other two ZEROS continued to bear down on the ship.
"FIRE," the Gun Captain screamed as the firing trigger was closed and the quad bofors again roared to life, spitting out rounds as fast as they could be fed. The second ZERO’s right wing was blown off as the aircraft twisted and morphed into an uncontrollable spin directly toward the Ocean's surface. The third ZERO miraculously made it around the front of the Destroyer and then turned hard to the left, the pilot attempting to straighten his flightpath so he could crash his already wounded plane directly into the bridge of the ship. It was apparent the plane was not responding the way the pilot wanted, as the ZERO was slightly to the right of the destroyer parallel to the ship's port side. The port gunnery crews opened fire and made direct hits on the front of the aircraft, setting it ablaze as the doomed but determined pilot and plane continued to descend closer to the water and nearly level to the ship's lower superstructure. The ZERO’s left wing clipped the superstructure above the deck where it ended just forward of the stern, violently spinning the plane around and slamming it upside down on top of the fantail.
Petty Officer Miller and his gunnery crew witnessed this from their elevated gun position on the starboard side. He knew immediately that underneath the fantail is where after steering is located.
"HARRISON!!" he screamed.