Eastern Kentuckians Against Imperial Japan, 1944-45

Clay County Veterans of WWII

World War II pulled more than 3000 Clay County men into service against enemies of the United States and her allies. The Clay County Historical Society continues its series of articles honoring the county’s World War II veterans on behalf of the postwar generations who owe their freedom to sacrifices made by these courageous men and women. In this edition, three cousins face the forces of Imperial Japan in the Pacific, each with his own perspective of the battles.

My mother used to claim that everyone in Clay County was related to one another. She never said the statement in a deriding or belittling manner. It was just a fact, in her view. As time went by and I became more and more acquainted with my own genealogy, her adage seemed to pass the litmus test.

It was no wonder then, when WWII summoned boys from Clay into service that many had blood ties to each other. My father, Ambrose Burns “Jr,” had no surviving brothers but, rather, grew up around his cousins. They had worked together on their grandfather’s farm, played together, went to class together and ate together so frequently they were, more often than not, thought of as part of the immediate family. Dad spoke often about their adolescent adventures and it would have been hard to imagine one not taking the side of another in a fight, wrong or right. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the American people felt as though each had been ambushed on that Sunday morning in the Territory of Hawaii. Still, many boys because of age or some other reason could not simply run down to the recruiting office and sign up on Monday, 8 December 1941.

Ambrose Burns was the son of Roscoe and Sarah Hensley Burns. He was born on 11 September 1917 in Clay County. The only known picture of Ambrose as a baby was taken at Hattiesburg, Camp Shelby, Mississippi. Roscoe stands tall and lean in his Army uniform, already aware of the imminent deployment of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) to fight the Hun. Ambrose sits on his mother’s lap, too young to be aware of the dangers the world would cast upon his life from that moment forward. After Roscoe left for “over there,” Sarah and young Ambrose returned to the familiar mountains of Kentucky.

Roscoe’s brother, also Ambrose, an experienced Army sergeant who had braved Mexican bandits and revolutionaries along the border of south Texas, was also headed to France and ultimately Germany. Together, both fathers would have three sons see combat. Laton was born to Ambrose and Florida Roberts Burns on 2 January 1926; he served in the U.S. Navy. His older brother, Milton, served in the U.S. Army during the war. Ambrose “Jr.” would also serve in the army.

Laton grew into a fine sportsman, playing on championship baseball and basketball teams for OBI (Oneida Baptist Institute). It was, in fact, on the court against the rival Manchester High School that Laton first met his lifelong best friend, Lloyd Clements Keith. Though rivals in sports, the two soon became close and would depend on one another for survival in the kamikaze filled skies of the Pacific theater of war.

Delbert Hensley, another cousin, was the son of William H. and Nancy Davidson Hensley. Ambrose “Jr” would marry Bessie L. Spurlock. Bessie’s mother was a Davidson, making her a cousin to Delbert, as well. It was no great leap of faith for her to assume that everyone was related. Delbert was born on 11 March 1926. His father, William, also served during the Great War in an engineer battalion.

While all three cousins saw their fathers move from one place to another, and work at everything from coal mining to teaching, the boys primarily knew that farming the land was a special talent given from God. None took to heart the love of farming, though, as did Laton.

When the United States entered the war, Ambrose was working at Kings Powder Mills, Ohio, in the war industry. Being the oldest of the three cousins, he was already married and his wife was expecting their second child. A tragic accident in which five of Ambrose’s (a shift supervisor) employees were killed in an explosion, brought him to a realization that he was as likely to die in the manufacturing of ammunition as he was in the army. He left the war industry and awaited his draft notice. In the interim he was approached by a friend of his father-in-law, Walter E. Woods, who offered Ambrose a job as a Kentucky State Patrolman. The two became partners, working coal-camp saloons and bootlegger flushed backroads.

Meanwhile, Laton was in Oneida, the town which sat in the shadow of the OBI campus. He heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and rushed back to the school campus to locate his sweetheart, Kathleen Dezarn, and her close friend, his sister Polly Burns. He made a promise in front of them that as soon as he was old enough he would seek his revenge on the Japanese.

While Laton allowed his fifteen-year-old’s anger to subside, he returned to sports and education. Delbert, also frustrated by the age requirement, watched as one of his older brothers, Conley, enlisted as an army officer in October of 1942. Conley would be sent to the European theater and then serve as a civil administrative officer in Germany in the occupation era.

The thought probably never crossed their minds that the U.S. Navy would be so cruel as to separate best friends from the same home town. But when Laton and Clements Keith showed up on 29 April 1944 to enlist and keep their promise to fight the Japanese that was a high possibility. Chances were that they would not remain together any further than basic training. But for the present, the two were shuffled off to Great Lakes Training Center, where the majority of recruits became “blue jackets.” By some miracle, both Clements and Laton received orders to Fort Pierce, Florida for amphibious craft training after boot-camp.

Laton loved the training at Pierce – the more dangerous and challenging the better – he wrote to Kathleen. Florida was a different story. He hated the mosquitos, sand-fleas, climate and general scenery. He swore he would never return willingly.

On 27 April 1944, Ambrose (Walter Woods was likely close by performing the same task) sat down at typewriter and tendered his resignation from the Highway Patrol. Two days later, the two made their way to the receiving station and were sworn into the U.S. Army. They, too, hoped to stay together “for the duration of the war,” as they had stated on their resignation letters. Things looked good at first. They boarded a train and made their way to Camp Fannin, near Tyler, Texas. Fannin was called the Infantry Replacement Training Center, which conveyed little hope of being assigned to the mess hall, motor pool or company headquarters.

Tyler claimed the title of Rose Capital of the World. It painted a glamourous picture, unless you were a low-crawling private slithering through the seemingly endless fields of thorny beauties. The worst blow to their morale, though, came after finishing boot-camp. Ambrose and Walter, two men who had fought side-by-side and depended on each other in the worst possible circumstances, were being separated and sent to different infantry divisions. They would not see one another again, face to face, until long after the war.

Ambrose had also been under the illusion that Delbert would be close by as he too answered his draft notice on 31 May. Unfortunately for many, the U.S. Marine Corps was not an all-volunteer force during the latter part of the war. Delbert was pointed to the line leading to entry into the corps. He left for boot-camp by train alone, and arrived at San Diego Recruit Depot without the support of a single hometown friend. After boot-camp he was sent north to Camp Pendleton, California for infantry and amphibious training.

Being the oldest, Ambrose was the only one of the three cousins married when he enlisted. He was expecting his third child, and his only girl, when he was granted leave before shipping out overseas. He could not bear the thought of facing his wife with the news of his departure to a war zone. He held his newborn daughter and secreted a note under his wife’s pillow telling her of his orders for deployment to the Pacific, then left.

On 6 November the USS General C.G. Morton (AP-138) docked in San Diego. Two days later she loaded 2539 marines from the replacement drafts into her lower decks. She departed from her berth on the morning of 10 November 1944 – the Marine Corps’ birthday. As Delbert would later say, she left “for parts unknown.” After a refitting stop at Pearl, the Morton sailed on westward. She arrived off Lunga Point, Guadalcanal at 1:27 in the morning on 29 November.

Training of the new marines began almost as soon as their feet hit the sand, along a stretch of beach that abutted a then abandoned coconut plantation. Delbert and his comrades were designated the 22nd Marine Regiment of the newly formed 6th Marine Division. No longer draftees or replacements but marines through-and-through. The division’s other regiments included the 29th and the 4th (the latter formed from the old Marine Raider battalions). The 4th was the only battle-tested regiment in the division.

Once training on the latest gun directors and the gamut of naval guns was completed on the east coast, a small crew of sailors and their officers gathered for a train ride which would span from one shore to the other. Laton Burns and Clements Keith had somehow managed to fly under the navy’s radar (a new and secret weapon of the U.S. Navy, by-the-way), as later maneuvers would take-on the saying. They and their train companions had been assigned a brand new type of navy gunboat, called a Landing Craft Support Ship or simply LCS.

The LCS was designed to fill the time gap between when the battle wagons (battleships) and the tin cans (destroyers) had to cease their support fire for the amphibious landing forces, who were assaulting island beaches across the Pacific. When the big guns stopped, the Japanese defenders appeared from their labyrinth of caves and bunkers to rain fire down on the landing crafts and the assault troops within.

The LCS was capable of going onto the beach (if need be) and then backing off again. The LCSs were armed with medium size weapons from front to back: three 40mm guns, six to ten 20mm guns, numerous .50 caliber machineguns and a rack of 4.5-inch rockets. They could accompany the landing crafts into shore and laydown continuous support fire unavailable from the bigger ships.

When the men arrived in Portland, they found their ship, LCS 52, not quite complete and certainly not ready to fight. The boys made the best of it, enjoying the hospitality of the local citizens. When the news came in September that the ship was ready for her test runs, leaving the luxury of friendly Portland made the going that much harder. On 4 October 1944, LCS 52 sailed out into the open sea and toward the reckoning that Laton had sworn for the Japanese as a fifteen-year-old boy. He and Keith were assigned to the gun crew of the same forward 40mm. He would have never admitted it on a basketball court, but as they headed toward battle, Laton confessed that Clements was the better shot on the guns.

Assigned as a replacement for the battle-hardened 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 7th (Hourglass) Infantry Division, Ambrose linked up with his permanent unit in the closing days of the battle for Leyte, Philippine Islands. Ambrose soon learned that a man could – and some did – get killed during “mopping-up” operations. He was assigned to G Company as a 60mm mortar man, however, he always understood when things got hot in battle he was a rifleman by proxy.

The island of Leyte was declared secure on 26 December. Ambrose did not disembark until 4 January 1945. Patrols went out every day, though, and were usually accompanied by dogs trained to sniff out Japanese holdouts. Despite the searches, the Philippine Islands are so vast and uninhabited that Japanese soldiers continued to fight the war, refusing to believe rumors of long-past surrender, for years after. The last Philippine Islands holdout surrendered in 1974 at the urging of his former commander. It is impossible to say how many died, hiding out in jungles and on forgotten islands before they could surrender.

While looking for Japanese stragglers, the 7th Division began gearing up and training for their next assignment, as well. Few, if any, soldiers of Ambrose’s rank could even guess what that might be. For both the 22nd Marines and the 32nd Army Infantry their participation in Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa (Japanese soil), was predestined. It would be one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War.

For months, LCS 52 had been training with marine units off the Hawaiian Islands and then Saipan. The gunners had learned how to spot targets and decimate ingeniously camouflaged pillboxes and cave openings. They hoped and prayed it would be that easy in real combat. They also worked closely with marine forward observers and mastered answering call-for-fire missions as perfect as humanly possible. It seemed they had run training landings so many times that they could perform an entire invasion in their sleep.

On 14 February, Laton made a brief note in a small journal he kept tucked secretly away. It reflected that his ship and crew had pulled away from Saipan that afternoon and were headed for a strangely-named island called Iwo Jima. There was no more bravado in letters home and no longer bold posturing. Laton and his shipmates tried to mask their fear with brave words but everyone pondered their own mortality.

The morning of 19 February was tranquil, except for the battleships and carrier based aircraft taking turns pulverizing the pork chop shaped island. Once the big guns fell silent, it would be the LCSs’ turn to roll toward the beach with the marine landing force. In hindsight, the light resistance by the Japanese defenders toward the first waves of men and equipment made tactical sense. Once the marines were piled up on the narrow beachhead, the enemy let loose with all they had.

As LCS 52 made its second rocket run, the men were close enough to shore to see the slaughter. It was horrific. Within minutes of the first-wave landings, the marines were pinned down and being blown to bits. They were unable to extract their wounded and even the stretchers laden with the critically injured were being targeted. By sheer determination, one by one and then in small groups the marines began to move forward toward enemy emplacements.

By the 23rd, things looked more promising; the marines were here to stay. LCS 52 had just completed a call for fire mission and was turning to move to another location. Just like on shore, nearly everyone on the top deck of a ship caught Old Glory being raised on Mount Suribachi (codenamed Hot Rocks). For the marines aground, it was motivational. For the navy men it did not really register. No one would know for several days that they had witnessed one of the most historic and awe-inspiring events of the war. Years later, none would fail to mention in casual conversations, they were there.

The USS Monrovia conducted training landings with the 22nd Marines during February and every day through 6 March. Routine had been since the beginning to land the landing force and then leave them on the training beaches overnight. That morning, the Monrovia received orders to re-embark the 22nd Marines and return to Guadalcanal. She would not disembark her human cargo again until 1 April 1945. After a stop for refueling, and refitting the ships with ammunition, from 21-27 March at Ulithi Atoll, Caroline Islands, the Monrovia and her convoy set sail for Okinawa.

The army was not the amphibious branch that the marines were, but they had learned on the job. However, it was not until 14 March that the 32nd Infantry boarded the USS Lamar and got underway for their rehearsals and training for the forthcoming mission. Whereas the marines had trained for the Okinawa invasion for weeks, the Army’s 7th Division, got five days. The Lamar refueled and refitted at San Pedro Bay, Samar, from 24-27 March. At 10:48 in the morning she weighed anchor and headed out to sea.

LCS 52 was ordered back to Saipan on 8 March for refitting. On the 25th she too joined a convoy sailing toward Okinawa. She would not see the actual beach landings scheduled for 1 April on the Hagushi Beaches, western Okinawa. Instead, the 52 would be protecting the 2nd Marine Division as they acted out a decoy landing off the southeastern beaches of Okinawa. The most important aspect of the ruse was that it had to convince the Japanese defenders to pull men and weapons away from the actual landing beaches.

Easter Sunday, 1945, off Okinawa: it was the largest gathering of Allied ships thus far in the Pacific War. The only landing that would exceed it in men and ships – if it came to that – would be the next, the planned invasion of Japan proper. The assault troops, both marines and soldiers, were awakened before dawn. They were greeted in the dining halls of their respective ships with the traditional D-Day breakfast, steak, eggs, ice cream and gallons of coffee – some referred to it as a condemned man’s last meal. Based on the carnage of prior landings over the last three years, many of the men did not believe they would see a sunrise after that Sunday.

At 05:00 the Lamar lowered the assault landing boats over the rail. Soldiers made the precarious journey down the cargo nets and into the bobbing boats. The first wave of 32nd soldiers headed toward the line of departure at 08:09, followed by the next wave roughly every two minutes. Ambrose’s eighth wave, the last assault wave, turned toward the line of departure at 08:22. Once gathered, the landing craft began to form a circle and await the call to proceed at full speed toward the beaches. All the while, the navy armada poured unrelenting amounts of shells and rockets onto the inner coastal areas.

At 05:36 the Lamar began hoisting its landing craft out. The marines of 1st Battalion, which included Delbert’s B Company, made their way to amphibious tractors. The landing craft made their way out to the line of departure. By 07:05 the last wave of assault troops was aweigh.

The main objectives of the day were the two airfields just inland from the landing beaches. If there was such a thing as a good landing schedule, 1/22 (1st Battalion, 22nd Marine Regiment) landed behind its sister battalions on Green Beach 1 and 2, just north of Yontan Airfield. To the south of the marines, 2nd Battalion (including G Company) of the 32nd Infantry landed to the right of their 1st Battalion, Orange Beach 1 and 2, respectively. Orange 2, where 2nd hit the beach had Kadena Airfield to its direct front.

Except for sporadic mortar rounds fired at the landing craft, it was eerily quiet. The first waves to land discovered only vacant beaches and distant farms with small horses seemingly oblivious to the naval bombardment which had preceded the invasion. Veterans began to wonder; where were the Japanese?

Commanders wasted no time pondering their thus-far great fortune and directed the lead companies to make haste toward the airfields. As lucky breaks went, Ambrose was granted none, he took point and marched, M-1 carbine at the ready, toward where Kadena should be.

Just as Ambrose entered the airfield, he encountered a small hut, which he approached with great care. Care was necessary, as the hut housed an intact Baka suicide plane. Knowing that the intelligence officers had briefed everyone about the need to see one before it was in a million pieces, he hurried back through the line of approaching men to find his lieutenant.

The 22nd Marines also headed inland to their objective. In spite of two battalions to their front, Delbert and his company soon spotted five Japanese soldiers exit a cave, firing as they ran toward the marines. It was the first time he had seen an actual enemy soldier and his first time pulling the trigger at a human being. Like their army counterparts, the marines made their objective and took it with no resistance.

The marines were to move with the army and cut the island in half. Once reaching the eastern shore, marine infantry would push through the north, where the greatest resistance was expected. The army would turn and attack south. It was soon revealed that the main Japanese defenses were in the south and the army was being stalled to a halt on every crag and hill. The infantry of the 7th, 27th, and 96th Army Divisions began to throw themselves against the well-prepared Shuri defense. A line of honeycombed underground fortifications stretching for miles and branching out from the ancient Shuri Castle.

The toughest fight for the first nineteen days after landing for the 32nd Infantry began on a craggy mountain chain called Skyline Ridge. The length of Skyline ran in a general westerly course from the coastal village of Ouki (east) and Ouki Hill (west), approximately 1200 yards. On the evening of the 18th, G Company, 32nd, rested at the base of Skyline. G Company 184th took up a position to their right flank, both companies facing Ouki Hill. Nothing moved along the coast without eliminating the defenses on Skyline Ridge

Units of the 32nd took the village of Ouki with the support of tanks and artillery on the morning of 19 April. On the right, G Co. 184th led the assault on Skyline, followed closely by their sister company of the 32nd. By noon, both companies had been halted by such devastating interlocking fire that they were pinned-down. They called in a flame-throwing tank to try to gain some ground. The hour between 15:30 and 16:30 was the worst. Both G Companies were bracketed by enemy 81mm mortars and, while unable to move forward or escape, took heavy casualties.

The following day, a full battalion from the 184th and G Company, 32nd (G/184th, nineteen men left from the day before, became an attached platoon in her sister company) skirted around Skyline and attacked Ouki Hill. The defenders threw a wall of lead at the attackers, again halting them with little gain. With a barrage of chemical mortars and smoke covering the enemy’s observation, the soldiers attempted to crack Ouki Hill.

The men clawed up the hill in another afternoon attack, and then pressed themselves to the ground, no longer able to move against the fear. At that moment a platoon leader and his platoon sergeant rose from the ground and urged men to move forward. As they set the example, men flung off their fear and rose to follow. Ambrose followed too.

Lieutenant John A. Holm and Staff Sergeant James R.W. McCarthy had instructed and pushed Ambrose since their meeting in the States. He admired both but he loved and modeled himself after his respected platoon leader, Holm. John A. Holm Jr. was from Pensacola, Florida. Holm was a thin young man whose slim frame, wavy hair, protruding ears and blue eyes made him appear related to Ambrose. Holm was only a few months older than Ambrose, but he summoned courage far beyond his years.

Even with their brave efforts, the attack failed and Holm and McCarthy fell some distance to the front of the once more unsuccessful advance. The unit had gained only two-hundred yards as payment of many loses. Official reports stated that both Holm and McCarthy died that afternoon during the assault. Ambrose carried a different account and the nightmare of the truth with him for the remainder of his life. He was huddled behind a rock formation several yards below where Holm went down. Ambrose was unable to get to his beloved lieutenant but was tortured throughout that bleak night with the cries for help by Holm. Sometime in the night, alone and unanswered, Holm’s pleas faded to silence. Ambrose would never be able to overcome the guilt of that death.

On the 22nd after seemingly endless attempts by G Company and their support, the 32nd held the forward face of Skyline Ridge. They were given enough of a break that Ambrose wrote his parents. The letter was filled out on a V-Mail form and later reduced to the now-familiar four-inch-long note-size photocopy. In spite of the censorship, it was telling. “I’ve been mighty lucky, and I can say that the Lord has been mighty merciful to me so far. Maybe I can be home again someday to live in peace and quiet again.”

Ambrose’s company was close to combat ineffective. Casualties filled the length of morning reports, causing the administrative clerks to use two and three forms to include the list of WIA (wounded in action) and KIA (killed in action). During the night of the 23rd, the Japanese defenders on the far side of Skyline took advantage of a heavy fog and a heavier artillery barrage to retreat further south into the Shuri line. During the artillery bombardment Ambrose was hit in the lower back by shrapnel; it missed his spine by centimeters.

It was impossible at that point to evacuate the wounded. In their effort to relieve the pinned-down troops on Skyline, the army began firing white phosphorus rounds on what they believed was the forward edge of the American advance. It was off by several hundred yards. Ambrose was once more hit, causing his pants to catch fire and the fragments of WP (white phosphorus) to burn so quickly through his pack that he could not get it off before it reached his skin. His sergeant used his bare hands to rip the burning pants off. Ambrose’s war was over, or so he thought.

The 6th Marine Division was stopped in their eastward march only by the sea. On the morning of the 5th, only four days after landing, they had cut Okinawa in half. Facing only spotty and small pockets of residence from the Japanese, the marines took the port town of Nago on their push north. With Nago secure, supplies: beans, bullets and Band-Aids, all the things that keep marines doing what they do best, could flow in and be on hand as needed.

The bloodiest fight for the northern two-thirds of Okinawa was Mount Yaetake (Yaetake Peak). The battle for the Peak lasted from 11-17 April. Close to 350 Japanese defenders died attempting to hold the strongpoint, mostly in hand-to-hand, one-on-one engagements. Delbert had gained an unfortunate expertise with hand-to-hand combat. He had entered, what he thought to be an already cleared cave to relieve himself. In the process of the personal mission he was attacked by a Japanese soldier. In close quarters there were few options aside from punching, kicking, gouging, stabbing and biting when available. Delbert would later employee the euphemism, he “dispatched” the enemy and returned to his unit.

Although they were aware of quite factual reports that the army was running into unprecedented opposition in the south, rumors drowned the facts. The scuttlebutt (naval slang for rumors), was that the 27th Division, steeped in a venomous bad reputation, was falling behind the other divisions. The scuttlebutt proved out, at least in the minds of the marines, when their orders to move south and replace the 27th on the frontlines came through. When the marines were passed by the soldiers of the 27th rolling north in trucks to take over their hard-fought territory as, quasi, garrison troops, a loathing was bred that would last until death.

Historian and 29th Marine, William Manchester, in his book Goodbye Darkness stated that what objective was in front of your unit determined what it was nicknamed or how it ended up captioned in history books. To the 7th Division and its GIs, the first Japanese defensive barrier was Skyline Ridge. To the 1st Marine Division it was the Shuri Line and to the 6th Marine Division, it was the Machinato Line. It was all the same pie and everybody got their own hideous, deadly slice.

The 29th and 4th Marines had taken the lion’s share of the Peninsula with the 22nd patrolling and terminating resistance in the remainder of the northern section of the island. As the marines faced the first strongholds in the south, it was fitting the 22nd would be called on, as the most rested regiment, to take the point.

In the late afternoon of the 8th the 1st and 3rd battalions relieved the 7th Marines who had replaced elements of the Army’s 27th Division on the line. The 9th was then spent patrolling and feeling out where the enemy strongholds across the Asa River might be. During the night, and under artillery and small arms fire from the enemy, engineers worked to build a small (single-file) foot bridge across the Asa.

On 10 May the lead elements of the 22nd crossed over to the southern side of the Asa River. The crossing went easy for the first three companies (3rd Battalion) with 1st Battalion in support. Left of the bridge, 2nd Battalion established an over-watch near Uchima. Suddenly two Japanese soldiers with satchel charges strapped to their bodies rushed onto the bridge and blew themselves and the bridge to splinters. It seemed a ridiculously futile maneuver, other 22nd Marines simply waded across. The following night (10/11) engineers worked to almost completion on a Bailey bridge capable of supporting tracked vehicles. However, before it saw the first armored vehicle cross, the assault platoons of the 22nd stepped off in their part of a Tenth Army-wide advance.

Delbert’s 1st Battalion advanced in front of an abandoned sugar mill complex. The main buildings had been reduced by naval gunfire but two brick chimneys remained intact. Both the chimneys and ruble below were being used by Japanese snipers and machinegun crews. By 06:00 1st Battalion had advanced to some higher ground just south of the mill. They remained in the middle of the regimental assault, with the 3rd on their right next to the coast.

The landscape beyond the Asa River was blanketed with an early morning fog and further obscured by a smoke screen laid down to cover the 22nd’s movement. Poking just out of the fog was a small hill, a knob, as one commander referred to it, made of decayed coral limestone. At any other time, the coral knob would not have caused a marine walking up it to be slightly winded. Throughout the day, the knob of coral deflected attack after attack. Companies A and C began their work against the hill in early morning. Delbert’s Company B began making their way up the hill in the early afternoon.

Delbert’s platoon leader was Lieutenant James K. Latham of Alton, Illinois, only five years Delbert’s senior. James had lost his brother, Rex K. Latham Jr., a captain in the Army Air Corps, in an air accident in March of 1943 over Arizona. James and his older brother Rex had both attended the same military high school in Alton. James was married prior to being sent overseas. James had a degree in Liberal Arts and Sciences. He was a well-liked officer and certainly so by Delbert. As James led his platoon up the slope of the hill, a sniper singled him out. James was hit “in the face and fell almost at my feet,” Delbert later said. The attack was halted for the night and 1st Battalion dug in about 350 yards from where they had started the day.

 

Ambrose was pulled off the line after being wounded on Skyline Ridge. Like all wounded, he leapfrogged from the battalion aid station until he was finally loaded for movement to a hospital ship anchored off the original landing beaches. He was placed aboard the USS Comfort, a well-marked, easily identifiable hospital ship that had just returned from dropping off casualties in Guam the same day that Ambrose was wounded.

The Comfort headed for Guam with a full contingent of wounded on the evening of 28 April.  The moon was full that night and the sea was tranquil. Visibility was excellent. At approximately 8:41pm the ship’s watch observed a Japanese plane looking them over. The pilot flew his plane from one side of the ship to the other, twice at 500 feet, barely clearing the masts. He turned and then appeared to guide his plane deliberately toward the large Red Cross painted on the side of the ship. The plane pierced the skin of the ship and exploded as its velocity carried it into interior operating rooms, instantly killing doctors, nurses and patients within those compartments.

It was probably the morphine given liberally to the wounded, beginning on the frontline and slowing down onboard the hospital ship that kept Ambrose unconscious through the attack. Morphine was the only treatment that reduced the pain to a manageable level, and he was suffering greatly from the extensive burns and penetrating wounds. The Comfort was in no danger of sinking from the attack but she was bruised and battered. She had more than 30 casualties from the attack and had lost many of her prime surgeons and medical staff.

Ambrose was roused from his sleep by some unknown stimulus. It was many hours, possibly days after the attack, he would never know for sure. An orderly tending the ward happened by and took note of Ambrose’s stirring. The orderly thought it almost amusing to share the events of the voyage with his patient. Particularly of interest was the basketball sized protrusion above Ambrose’s pillow. Now Ambrose was curious too. No one else had a custom made bulkhead above their beds. As the story unfolded, the orderly described the miracle which caused the kamikaze’s engine to skid to a halt, stopped only by a thin steel bulkhead not built to withstand the impact of a speeding bomb. Nevertheless, Ambrose could thank the U.S. Navy, or better the shipbuilders of America, for saving his life.

The hill was the same pimple that had sent the 22nd Marines reeling back on their heels the day before, the same hill that had killed Delbert’s lieutenant. It was the 11th of May and the day would begin for Delbert and the remaining men of Company B as it had ended, with an assault against Japanese defenses. Under heavy mortar and against a ceaseless wall of machine-gun fire, Company B rose in the attack. The fight toward the crest of the little hill was barbaric. Marines collapsed as if they were grass being mowed down by an invisible blade. The screams for “corpsman” reverberated over the din of expositions and shroud of cordite smoke hanging thick in the air. So many fell, it would have taken a company of “docs” (navy corpsmen) to locate and treat half the causalities. Delbert clawed and fought his way to the top of the hill, having only an instant, a blink of the eye, to gaze at the landscape below before a mass of Japanese soldiers counteracted. The few surviving attackers were left to fight hand-to-hand just to escape the onslaught and retreat.

As the marines tried and tried again to dig a toehold atop the hill, more men dropped from sight. Delbert was on his way back up when a pain like none he had ever experienced rolled down his leg from his hindquarters and through his calf. It immediately took his feet from under him and he suddenly shared the ground with dozens of dead and wounded comrades. It would be hours before he was discovered and carried back to the rear for medical treatment. A piece of shrapnel had entered his leg below his rear pocket and travelled the length of his leg, taking with it: meat, bone and muscle, as it exited his calf. He would traverse the same path that his army cousin had made days earlier. He would, however, be spared the trauma of having his hospital ship attacked.

The same day that Delbert was wounded, LCS 52 drew another tour on Radar Picket duty. The skies were filled with “hordes,” of kamikaze, as one naval officer called them in his action report. It was the task of the LCSs, destroyer escorts and destroyers to eliminate the horde before they could break into the back areas where transport ships were providing: replacements, food, water, medical supplies and bullets to the soldiers and marines struggling for every inch of contested ground on Okinawa.

The suicide pilots came in low over the waves, avoiding radar detection and hoping to get below the elevation limits of the larger antiaircraft guns on the destroyers. In the prior two months, these techniques had sent many destroyers and their crews to the bottom. The well-armed little LCSs were a different nut to crack, though. Their guns could drop as low as the suicide plane could fly and chew into the cockpit and fuselage with little effort. Laton and Clements on their forward 40mm took their fair share of bites out of several attackers. The captain had the symbols of their victories painted on the side of the pilothouse above the bridge.

During the day of the 11th, a sister LCS to 52 lost the crew of her aft 40mm gun when an enemy plane dropped a bomb directly into the gun tub. The 52 was outside of 500 yards from that explosion. One of her crew was unfortunate enough to be struck in the face by a piece of flying debris. His eye was saved but the laceration was severe enough to cause him to be evacuated, never to return to duty on the ship.

Anytime that a comrade falls in combat, it is a blow to morale and affects the operation of the unit. On the 52, the men fought harder – revenge being a great motivator. On the 27th of May LCS 52 was once again on RP (Radar Picket). Kamikaze activity was heavy again.

Laton was the only Clay County cousin left standing. Darkness began to overtake the waters north of Okinawa. The radar men soon picked up an enemy plane, which circled the 52 just out of gun range and with what could only be assumed as a malicious interest. The pilot seemed to be building his courage for a suicide attack. When he finally made his run at the ship, it came at the aft 40mm gun and the engine room right below that gun tub. The gun crew fired at the plane until they were shooting pointblank into his turning propeller blade. Some of the gun crew claimed to have ducked their heads to prevent being decapitated by the wing. The plane somehow missed its target but exploded just as it passed the ship. Two sailors died from the attack and several others were seriously wounded. Laton and Clements were, by the grace of God, at the far end of the ship when the plane exploded; both remained uninjured.

With the attack and the end of their RP duty, LCS 52 was pulled off the line and soon after would retire to the Philippines to refit for the invasion of mainland Japan. That invasion force would never sail, thanks to the persuasion of two atomic bombs. The men of LCS 52 would see Japan but as an occupying force – more tourists than foes. Their occupation duties would take them and their ship from China to Korea before the crew began to muster-out for home.

Both Delbert and Ambrose spent the better part of the next year in military hospitals recuperating from their wounds. Delbert, as many Clay County students know, returned to college and then to teaching in the county school system. His drafting classes were very popular, it is rumored. With the Japanese souvenir so close to Ambrose’s spine, doctors refused to remove it for fear of permanently paralyzing him. He was unable to return to the road as a Highway Patrolman, unlike his former partner, Walter Woods. Ambrose worked for the agency as a dispatcher but left to return to college. After he completed a business degree he left Clay County for a job offer in the north. He never lived in the county again. Laton too, never came back to Clay to live. He bought a farm in Crab Orchard but with a growing family, it failed to provide the income he needed. He moved north, as so many postwar Eastern Kentuckians were doing, and took a job in the burgeoning factories.

Laton Burns passed away on 7 September 1970. He was followed by Delbert Hensley who died on 21 July 2001. The oldest, Ambrose Burns Jr., passed away on his 94th birthday, 11 September 2011. Like so many Clay County men, they answered the call when their country needed them. And like all of the men and women of the Greatest Generation, they returned and made the United States into the greatest nation on earth.

 

For more information on Walter E. Woods, see the Spring/Sumer 2016 issue of the Clay County Ancestral News.

For further reading on Landing Craft Support 52, Laton Burns, Lloyd C. Keith and the crew, see the book Shipmates: The Men of LCS-52 in World War II. Shipmates, by Gary Burns is produced by McFarland Publishing and can be preordered from the publisher at the present time.