In Harm’s Way
At 1201 on 21 January 1945, near Formosa, a Japanese Kamikaze pilot crashed his “Zeke” plane through the flight deck of the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14). Just short of an hour later a second suicide plane crashed into Ticonderoga’s super-structure. Despite 337 casualties, of whom 144 were killed or missing, all fires were under control by 1437 (2:37 PM) – without fire-fighting assistance from other ships.
On this day morale on the “Big T,“ or the “Queen of the Fleet” – both names the crew called her – was high. The crew and the ship had been victorious in battle. Then, a minute after noon, out of the sun and through a cloud bank, came a single-engine Japanese plane. Bomb and plane crashed through the flight deck. The bomb exploded between the gallery deck and the hanger deck, which was packed with aircraft being refueled and rearmed. main girders near the bomb explosion were twisted by the blast and heat. The fire, fed by gasoline, spread swiftly to the wardroom passage and to staterooms. Officers and men fought the fire as they had planned and trained for.
“Ti” on fire and listing
“Ti just after being hit
This ship was the fourth on the United States naval list named “Ticonderoga.” It was first designated as the “Hancock” when she was laid down on 1 February 1943 at Newport News, Virginia, by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Company; then was re-named “Ticonderoga” on 1 May 1943. Ms. Stephanie Sarah Pell, the grand-daughter of Stephen H. P. Pell, who restored “our fort” ~ Fort Ticonderoga christened her with vintage champagne; however, it took two swings at it to accomplished the task.*
* This writer shares excerpts from a “remembrance” letter written to him speaking about her efforts at this task:
“What a thrill to hold in my hand the envelope post-marked February 7th, 1944 from the Portsmouth, Virginia Navy Yard! What a lot of memories this brought back of long ago!
“I had received a confidential letter from the Navy Department on November 19th, 1943 informing me that I had been designated the Sponsor of an aircraft carrier to be named “Ticonderoga” still under construction, but with a probable launch date of Februrary 1944. The day and time were withheld due to wartime restrictions, and would be forwarded to me within six days of the actual launching.
“Can you picture my state of mind when this news sank in?! Nothing in my life up till then had prepared me for such an honor……
“Time came for the BIG DAY. My grandfather and I boarded a train at Pennsylvania Station (NYC)… My father, Robert Thompson Pell, joined us in Washington, DC …the three of us arrived in Newport News, Virigina, where we were met at our hotel lobby by two representatives from Ticonderoga. One was Grant Johnson, then mayor of Ticonderoga…(and) Stephen J. Potter..(well know businessman and benefactor of the “Potter Foundation” who to this day contributions from this trust provides financial assistance to area schools and organizations – including the Ticonderoga Historical Society.)
THE ACT ~ “..the Navy band struck up a tune, we placed ourselves besides the ship’s huge bow, Admiral Le Breton handed me a bottle of champagne which dangled on a long rope and advised me to think of it as base-ball bat and “aim” at the same time calling out “I christen thee Ticonderoga.” Well, I had been well-trained by my Grand-Father who insisted that “to be agreeable Dear, means to agree.” I knew right and then I would miss the ship. I had been raised in Europe where young ladies didn’t play base-ball. I had never in my life held a base-ball bat. So, with a fanfare blasting, I called out the words I had been instructed to say, swing the bottle and….missed the target by several feet. The awful silence that ensued was deafening.
“…followed by a collective gasp from the crowd reaching out desperately in search of oxygen. The bottle flew gracefully through the air past the spectators, past the Chaplain’s nose missing it by an inch, past the row of midshipmen frozen into rigid attention which their eyes focused from left to right concentering on the projectile. When it reached the end of its rope it boomeranged back with deadly speed aiming at the thin line of horror stuck officials.
Stephanie Pell as a French Nurse
“Stephanie Pell, what have you done “was all I could think.” You have not only disgrace yourself, you have embarrassed your Grand Father and your father, you have let down the entire population of Ticonderoga, and you have brought impending doom on the ship and its crew. I am not going to let this end this way. Forget the Admiral’s advice, and the baseball at bat and being agreeable.” I picked up the skirt of the dreadful black dress, and as the mighty ship broke away from its cradle and slipped toward open water I grabbed the bottle in mid-air, ran after the moving hulk, and smashed it against the bow. A huge sigh of relief rose from the crowd, the stricken faces were immediately replaced by broad grins.”
During World War II, the “Big T” was assigned to the Pacific. Early in November 1944 “Ticonderoga” joined the Pacific carrier task force (#38). Before that fateful date of 21 January 1945 she had sailed deep within the perimeter of the Japanese South China Sea, her wartime operations area; and had sunk: one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser, two destroyers, four destroyer escorts, four large oilers, fourteen miscellaneous craft, 207 aircraft, supported the invasion of Luzon (Philippines) and attacked the island of Taiwan.
Early in the morning of 21 January the ship’s aircraft attacked airbases at Taiwan and other area targets. At the same time the Japanese had launched a kamikaze attack on the task group. The first of the two kamikaze planes crashed through her flight deck and the aircraft’s bomb detonated just above the hanger deck. Captain Dixie Kiefer immediately, as previously planned out for situations such as this, immediately changed course to prevent the wind from aiding the fire and to prevent smoke from entering the ship’s ventilation intakes. Magazines were flooded to prevent detonation of explosives. Other compartments were flooded to overcome the list to starboard (right) and to give the ship a 10 degree list to port (left). Crew members poured water onto the flames to carry the fire overboard and away from the hanger deck.
The second kamikaze plane, about one hour later, hit the forward section of the “island” (super-structure) and the falling debris started a fire on the flight deck. The Captain continued with his maneuvering which, assisted by the list, helped rid the decks of burning gasoline, and to aid in the ability to shove aircraft overboard. It also provided an aid for the rescue of trapped airmen in the gallery deck ready rooms. (This action helped with rescue of all airmen.)
To keep casualties at a minimum, all unnecessary personal had been ordered into protected areas. Of the 337 casualties (144 killed or missing) some of those succumbed in their efforts to save shipmates from smoke which was so thick that no one without special breathing apparatus could fight the flames.
Although after the attacks the ship remained able to launch and land aircraft the damage was so great it was ordered to Bremerton, Washington, for repairs. It was reported that 155,000 man days were used to make the repairs to the ship. The “Big T” was returned to the Pacific war area in May 1945 and participated in the bombing the Japanese mainland including the bombing of Tokyo in August 1945.
Captain Dixie Kiefer
Captain Dixie Kiefer, (AKA – “Indestructible Man”) commanding officer of the USS Ticonderoga since its commissioning had lived through ten major wounds in two wars and was hit 65 times by shrapnel during the attack; and, had remained in command to direct the fire fighting efforts after the attacks, met an untimely death in November 1945 when his Navy plane, on a routine flight, crashed near Beacon, NY.
One area seaman, Andrew Kordziel F (fireman) First Class, from Witherbee, , a crew member from the commissioning, 8 May 1944, was on board the ship during the attacks.
Stephanie Pell Dechame was born in Paris, France, and at the age of 19 became an “Infirmiere de la Liberation” – a nurse in the medical corps and married, in 1945, Roger R.P. Dechame of the French Navy. In 1947 she and her husband came to Ticonderoga and raised their family. They devoted there lives to the fort and to the community. She died July 2012.
In memory of those crew members who were aboard the USS Ticonderoga (CV14) on this fateful date ~ 21 January 1945 and to Stephanie Pell Dechame, a good friend.
2015 is the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II. The Ticonderoga Historical Society is planning exhibits and programs at the Hancock House to remember this time from both the perspective of the war itself and those who did so much on the home front for the war effort. The Society welcomes all those who have an interest in this era and would like to share any aspect of this period. Period donations to assist in telling this story will be very much appreciated.