'Our highest hope is to die for our emperor.'
Conventional enemy air attacks failed to halt the Allied landings on the Philippines. The Japanese then resorted to 'kamikaze' (suicide) tactics in which they deliberately crashed their planes into the Allied vessels. Aircraft were armed with bombs or packed with high explosive and piloted by men prepared to die for their emperor. More than 1000 Japanese aircraft were lost in kamikaze operations during the last months of the Pacific war. On 21 October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines, HMAS Australia became the first Allied warship to be hit by a kamikaze aircraft.
On 20 October 1944 Australian ships were part of the massive Allied invasion fleet that landed American troops at Leyte Gulf, in the Philippines, enabling General Douglas MacArthur to honour his promise made two years earlier to return to liberate the Philippines. The frigate HMAS Gascoyne and motor launch HDML1074 were part of a hydrographic survey group that plotted the approaches to the landing beaches and then the landing ships HMA Ships Kanimbla, Manoora and Westralia were among hundreds of transports and landing craft. The cruisers HMA Ships Australia and Shropshire, the latter having been transferred from the Royal Navy as a replacement for HMAS Canberra lost at Guadalcanal in August 1942, and destroyers HMA Ships Arunta and Warramunga were part of the covering force. They shelled enemy positions on shore and protected the landing craft taking soldiers to their designated landing beaches in Leyte Gulf.
Years later, Able Seaman David Mattiske, HMAS Shropshire, recalled:
Well here we were in Shropshire, fulfilling a prophecy, a promise and creating history. The lowliest seaman can say to his grandchildren with pride, 'I helped take MacArthur back'.
The preliminary bombardment began at 9.00 am when Allied warships, including the Australian cruisers, assisted in the shelling of the Leyte Island landing beaches. An hour later, US Army troops stormed ashore and still later that day, General MacArthur waded ashore at Beach Red.
On 21 October Japanese aircraft attacked the Allied fleet, targeting Shropshire and Australia, the latter becoming the first Allied warship to be hit by a kamikaze aircraft. Thirty of Australia's crew were killed or died of wounds, including her commanding officer, Captain Emile Dechaineux. Another 64 were wounded, 26 of them seriously. The badly damaged Australia, escorted by Warramunga, was forced to withdraw from the battle and sailed to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides for repairs.
Reg Walker, who was serving in Australia, described the scene on board when the kamikaze hit the ship:
And suddenly gunfire opened up, and there was ... all hell broke loose, and the next minute there's one helluva bang, and the mast, which was a tripod mast, part of it came down into ... into our radar room, and - part of the tripod - and that shook and threw us around a little bit. And our door was jammed. I opened our door, and we got out with our anti-flash gear that we wear to stop any flames and that sort of thing, and we were called to ... that there was fire on the bridge, which ... it was fortunate in one sense, because whenever there was a fire during training it was always on the bridge, and the guys were trained so wonderfully well they had the fire out pretty quickly and it was very well done.
I thought we'd been hit by a ... a bomb or something, I didn't know what it was at the time. But then when we got up and there was such a helluva fire blazing - I suppose the petrol that ... or fuel that exploded on the plane, and we learnt later that it had been hit and it was already alight as it crashed in onto the ... onto ... onto the bridge or the compass platform, and down past B turret, and onto the deck, and the foredeck, and then went over the side.
Some of us were instructed to ... to help ... anyone that wasn't going out on gun and firing duties to get up there as quickly as we can and do what help what we could.
The kamikaze aircraft had wiped out the bridge of the ship.
And the captain was in a sitting position and - Captain Dechaineux - and he ... we were able to get him down into the rec room - recreation room - which was two ... two flights down from there ... from the bridge, and ... Two decks down. And Admiral Collins had gone by then, he'd been wounded, had a nasty cut under the eye. And Captain Dechaineux had this hole in his stomach, and he was burnt a little, his lips were rather swollen. And ... and it was a tragic sight. Commander Rayment was dead. And there were a lot of badly burnt people around that area. Some were dead, some were still alive. And I was down - by then we'd got the Captain down and others down, they kept coming down into the rec room. Those that were alive. And the sick-bay attendants were there. The commander-surgeon, Flattery, he was there. And very active. A very big man. And I remember Captain Dechaineux saying - he was conscious but ... and he was asking all the time whether there were sufficient ... whether the troops were ... those that were injured were being looked after. You know, you're very conscious of his role as a gentleman, and … as a very much-loved captain. And he kept saying, 'Look after them,' Just how serious are the injuries? And that, that's all he was interested in.
[Reg Walker, HMAS Australia, interview June 1989, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM]
A couple of days later the ship's company farewelled their dead:
They're stitched in white canvas, the body, and there's a 40-inch shell, put between their legs for weight, and then they were stitched up in that. There's a board the shape of a table-top, where they're laid on…and the flag, the Australian flag is laid over the body. And after the sermon, or the burial business is read by the captain or the senior officer, whoever it is, it's just tilted and you heard it slide … into the sea.
[Reg Walker, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM]
Shropshire and Arunta remained at Leyte as a unit of Task Force 77, providing fire support for the troops and conducting patrols to protect the transport ships. On 25 October 1944, the RAN vessels took part in what became the last traditional line sea battle in history, the Battle of Suriago Strait. This action, part of the wider Battle of Leyte Gulf, routed a smaller Japanese battle squadron. The Battle of Leyte Gulf virtually finished the Imperial Japanese Navy as a fighting force.
In January 1945, Allied ships went into action in Lingayen Gulf to cover the invasion of Luzon Island in the north of the Philippines. HMAS Gascoyne and HMAS Warrego carried out survey tasks and escort duties in Lingayen Gulf whilst under attack from both enemy aircraft and shore artillery batteries. Gascoyne was narrowly missed by a bomb, which fortunately failed to explode.
The repaired Australia, together with Shropshire, Arunta and Warramunga, carried out bombardments while under heavy attack from enemy aircraft including kamikazes. Once again Australia became the victim of sustained air attacks with five aircraft hitting the ship during attacks on 5, 6, 8 and again on 9 January, her last action.
... There was an occasion when I think there were twenty-seven aircraft coming at us at once, and that's when the fire was really going. 8-inch and the lot were going, and we blew a few out. No doubt ... we were singled out for some reason, the 'Aussie' - why I'll never know. Maybe they ... well they saw the admiral's flag onboard, his pennant, and that may have had something to do with it ...
... we were a big ship, but the Shropshire was identical to us, and she got by. But they seemed to want to pick us out for some reason. And that was the way it was...
... most of these were shot down, whoever shot 'em down I don't know, but our guns were going, and they seemed to be coming at us, the whole lot of them there at once, and a couple got in of course. And it was rather interesting, because that's when you started to - not fear, because you were too bloody busy, and I suppose you were too angry at the time, you're thinking of your mates and that that were wounded, others that were killed, and that sort of thing, and that was the thing that played on your mind most...
... you'd hear the 8-inch guns going so you'd say, 'Hello, there's something they're after'; then you'd hear the 4-inch start up, (those are the smaller guns, not such a range); then you'd hear the pom-poms; then you'd hear the Bofors, and then the Oerlikons are the last; and ... and you'd brace yourself, because you'd know you were about to be hit by another one of these, because it had got through that far.
[Reg Walker, Keith Murdoch Sound Archive, AWM]
The first attack occurred on the Friday evening as the Australia approached the Gulf. A Japanese pilot dived through all the Australia's and other ships' anti-aircraft fire and struck the top of the centre funnel from the starboard side, coming down on the port side gun position. The aircraft engine, propeller and fuselage remained on the deck. Twenty-five men were killed or died of wounds and many more were wounded and severely burned.
Arunta was also attacked but without a direct hit. The attacking aircraft missed the ship by just a few metres and crashed into the water nearby. However, a bomb carried by the aircraft blew holes in the ship's hull causing damage to the ship's steering and killing two of the crew.
Just after midday on Saturday 6 January, Shropshire was attacked and near-missed by a kamikaze. Five and a half-hours later, Australia was attacked again and another kamikaze pilot crashed against the base of the ship's centre funnel. Again, engine, propeller and fuselage remained onboard. Fourteen men were killed and another 26 were wounded. The third attack was from an aircraft-launched torpedo. Australia's guns destroyed the aircraft, which together with its torpedo, hit the ship on the waterline alongside the bridge.
During the fourth attack on 8 January, a kamikaze aircraft crashed and exploded about 30 metres from the side of Australia. This attack blew a large hole in the hull, which caused the ship to flood but, despite her list to 5 degrees, Australia carried on.
On 8 January, Westralia also had a narrow escape from a kamikaze when she was attacked just before 7.00 pm. She was carrying 880 members of the American 37th Infantry Division when an enemy aircraft dived and aimed at the ship's bridge. The gunnery crew's barrage caused the attacker to crash about three metres astern of the ship, showering Westralia with debris and slightly injuring one of the crew.
The fifth and last attack on the unlucky Australia was around 1.00 pm on Tuesday 9 January 1945 when a kamikaze lopped the top off the ship's funnel. This time there were no casualties but the badly damaged Australia was ordered to return to Sydney for repairs, accompanied by Arunta, which had also been ordered to retire from the battle. (Four months later, in May 1945, Australia had to be sailed to England for a complete refit because the Australian dockyards were required for maintenance and repairs to ships of the British Pacific Fleet.)
The other RAN ships, including Hobart, newly repaired after being torpedoed in July 1943, continued in the area until March 1945. The LSIs (Landing Ships, Infantry) HMA Ships Manoora, Kanimbla and Westralia were attacked frequently, mostly from kamikaze aircraft, as they landed Allied troops on Luzon but no Australian warship was as badly damaged as the Australia. These three ships, and others, went on to take part in the Australian landings in Borneo.