On December 10, 1945, the largest naval battle ever to take place in the Pacific unfolded in the waters between Okinawa and Taiwan. But unlike World War II naval battles, this one was waged not by battleships, but by aircraft carriers, destroyers, submarines, and minesweepers, all with a single mission: to disrupt the Japanese plan to invade Taiwan. The invasion would leave more than 100,000 Japanese troops stranded on the island, the only major Japanese stronghold on mainland Asia. The battle was a naval war. It was naval intelligence that tipped off the U.S. Navy about the invasion fleet. It was a naval gunship that first saw the enemy ships. It was a naval torpedo boat that first found the enemy fleet.
After World War II ended, the men of the United States Navy were eager to return to the activities they loved so much. They wanted to go to sea again, and they wanted to see the world. This desire was fulfilled when the Navy was ordered to the Far East. The men of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were sent to the west coast of the United States for their training, and were then sent to the Pacific Ocean to serve the newly built U.S. Navy fleet.
In the early morning hours of the 3rd of November, 1945, a Japanese kamikaze force was on its way toward an American fleet of battleships in the shallow waters of the Philippines. The American fleet was already under attack by the Japanese air force and decided to avoid a pitched battle with the kamikazes. The American aircraft carriers only had anti-aircraft guns able to take the kamikazes down, and the kamikazes were not able to penetrate the thick anti-aircraft fire. The kamikazes were marked by a white circle and the Americans had rigged flares to mark the area with the aircraft. The first wave of kamikazes was intercepted by the American aircraft, which shot down most. Read more about navy slogan and let us know what you think.
The USS Astoria, captured by photographer Herman Schnipper, experienced a three-hour frenzy during the brutal battle for Okinawa.
THE OVERCAST DAWN OF APRIL 11, 1945, BRINGED NO VISIBLE SUNRISE, BUT IT DID BRING ANOTHER ORDER TO GENERAL QUARTERS. Men ran to their battle stations across the USS Astoria (CL-90), dubbed “Mighty Ninety” by the crew. Over the previous four months, such mornings had been the norm. A once-neophyte crew had become salty after covering the flattops of the Fast Carrier Task Force during airstrikes in the Philippines, the South China Sea, Iwo Jima, the Japanese Home Islands, and now Okinawa. Herman Schnipper, Photographer’s Mate Third Class, was ready with his navy-issued Graflex Anniversary Speed Graphic medium-format camera and plenty of film.
Action images would be forthcoming, based on the previous few days. Astoria and the fast carriers had been conducting offensive missions to suppress the Japanese response for weeks before the US Tenth Army landed on Okinawa on April 1. Airfields were bombarded, German planes were strafed on the ground, and enemy planes were intercepted in the air—everything was done to soften any resistance the landing forces could face. The assault, code-named Operation Iceberg, was unavoidable—and no surprise to Japan—because Okinawa was the final stop on an island-hopping operation that brought Allied forces to Japan’s doorstep. As a result, hostile planes attacked the Fast Carrier Task Force from the start. Suicidal kamikaze attempts aimed at sinking or damaging the aircraft carriers carrying so much floating airpower over a crucial island stronghold were becoming increasingly common. Men stood at their weapons, lookouts searching the skies, across the 30-odd vessels forming a formation around Astoria. Herman Schnipper’s job description also included pulling the trigger and shooting—photographs.
The wiry 21-year-old from Bayonne, New Jersey, stumbled into a photographer’s position when he joined the military. He didn’t go to any of the larger units’ photography schools; all he had was a 35mm camera and a basic understanding of how to use it. Soon after, he received his Speed Graphic and was assigned basic tasks as needed. Schnipper grew to appreciate his work as Astoria trained and joined the fleet. Capturing operational photographs was a welcome change from the mundane of shooting portraits for sailor ID cards and personal photo requests for a wife or sweetheart. The typhoon of December 1944, the shelling of Iwo Jima, even refueling operations—little Schnipper’s darkroom beneath decks began to fill with enlargements of favorites that he hung on the walls. He was continually looking for another photo that would be worthy of Our Navy magazine. Given the regular bombardment of counterattacks, Okinawa was proving to be different—and more exhausting.
Photographer Herman Schnipper captured the day’s chaos onboard the USS Astoria in this self-portrait. (US Navy/Herman Schnipper)
During general quarters, Schnipper had become accustomed to having complete control of the ship; he wasn’t assigned to a gun mount or any other specialized station. The fire control decks were far from ideal positions for photog work, as he discovered during training exercises and then in combat. While the five-inch secondary mounts just below them afforded extensive views and clear sightlines, they tended to shock a guy to his core and toss him around. Even the ship’s captain, George C. Dyer, expressed dissatisfaction with the Cleveland-class battery layout.
The photographer found a fitting alternative: he set up residence in the primary searchlight platform extending from the aft funnel of the Astoria. The platform was high in the superstructure, providing unimpeded access to vantage points port and starboard, as well as a safe distance from the weapons. Plus, he had it all to himself; no one was in charge of the 36-inch General Electric bulbs throughout the day. The forward stack’s exhaust fumes were a modest price to pay for not having to deal with muzzle bursts when framing a shot.
He didn’t mind being alone. His unique position on a ship of 1,300 men had already made him an outcast. Men brought their preconceptions onboard ship with their seabags, and some of the same seamen who chased him for images hurled ethnic slurs behind his back. The searchlight platform, like his darkroom chamber, became a haven for him. Even when ascending ladders, Schnipper had gotten accustomed to the weight of the camera beyond his gray-painted M1 helmet and sweaty, full-body experimental flak suit. The Speed Graphic felt like an extension of his arm after months in the theater. Schnipper would be ready to catch whatever happened from his searchlight position.
Schnipper’s favorite photography vantage point was Astoria’s searchlight platform (at arrow). (From the National Archives)
NOT THAT THE MORNING WAS EXTREMELY EXTREMELY EXTREMELY EX Heavy overcast, rain, and strong gusts made flying difficult for aircraft departing from the carriers. One could only capture so many photos of Corsairs, Hellcats, Avengers, and Helldivers taking off for perimeter patrols and strikes over target regions. For Schnipper, the novelty had worn off a long time ago, and the weather of the day sealed the deal. Even as the steady drizzle soaked through his suit, he waited.
If the last three weeks are any indication, there will be plenty of photo chances. The first phase of pre-invasion fast carrier operations, which began in mid-March, was aimed against weakening Japanese air capability from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s Home Islands. The carriers had to pay a high price for their efforts. The USS Franklin, which had been destroyed and gutted, has now steamed back to the United States for extensive repairs. The USS Wasp, which had been seriously damaged by bombing during the strikes, followed suit. Before even leaving the carriers’ harbor at Ulithi Atoll, more than 1,500 miles south of Japan, the USS Randolph had been hit by a kamikaze; after a month, it was just joining the fray. On March 20, a fourth fast carrier, the venerable USS Enterprise, was hit by friendly fire from another ship in Astoria’s task group, an occurrence documented on film by Schnipper. The Fast Carrier Task Force entered the April 1 Okinawa landings with fully one-quarter of its force projection capacity off the line as a result of these carrier losses.
Kamikaze attacks were heavily restricted by the American public even after six months of use. While the crew of the Astoria had first learned of the Japanese suicide strategy in December while en route to join the fleet, they had yet to witness it in action. Suicide planes had hit carriers during the early-year operations in the Philippines and Iwo Jima, but never within Astoria’s immediate formation of ships.
A battle station is manned by sailors below Schnipper (above). They hadn’t seen any adversaries yet, but history had taught them that they would. One line of defense was the men’s abhorrence of the experimental flak suits (seen below). (US Navy/Herman Schnipper)
(US Navy/Herman Schnipper)
Herman Schnipper had obtained photos of kamikaze planes plunging on the neighboring USS Essex and other carriers at Kyushu, all of which were knocked down short of their targets by antiaircraft firepower from the screen’s surrounding ships. Some of those photographs are now on display in his darkroom. Men slept and ate at their positions for days at a time, successfully repelling enemy incursions when they appeared. While fending off these attacks, Schnipper and his shipmates discovered a severe side effect of the low-flying Japanese planes: they were causing American ships to shoot into each other. Astoria had been hit by a five-inch round from a neighboring ship on the same afternoon that friendly fire had crippled Enterprise. Astoria’s bridge armor was breached, with metal splinters strewn across Captain Dyer’s flak suit. Despite this, there was not a single kamikaze attack on a ship in Astoria’s task group during the month.
This had changed five days before. On April 6, Schnipper watched a glancing kamikaze attack on the USS Cabot, a light carrier. During the engagement, the friendly fire effect continued when Astoria fired a round into the aircraft crane of sister cruiser USS Pasadena, killing a Marine. Even as ships sought to cut off their firing earlier, such events arose.
The next day, when a Japanese plane plunged at the USS Hancock, an agonizing tradeoff ensued. With no clean shot and their own ships in the line of fire, the Astoria and other ships stopped shooting at the kamikaze, resulting in a suicide crash that killed Hancock. Men across Astoria worried everything would be lost as the crippled Essex-class carrier maneuvered, surrounded in flames and smoke. Helpless shipmates could only watch and hope that the men of Hancock who had been blown into the water or thrown overboard by flames could be rescued by destroyers. Schnipper, sick to his stomach, snapped images for the ship’s action reports despite his lack of zoom lenses for the Speed Graphic.
Hancock’s fires were put out by its crew’s effective damage control, but the attack caused another carrier to retire at the cost of 62 men killed and many more wounded. Hancock was the latest casualty in a war of attrition in which a single man’s death might knock an entire aircraft carrier off the line, reducing American strike power by nearly 100 planes.
By April 11, Operation Iceberg was proving to be a drag, with practically daily attacks causing attrition, numbing fatigue, growing casualties, and friendly fire damage. Schnipper observed that their old friend Enterprise, the “Big E,” had just returned to join their work group last night, having returned from repair, as a bright point for the day. Astoria’s group was a strong force, with five aircraft carriers encircled by their protective screening cruisers. It was also a prime target.
Before the Japanese fighter slams into the battleship’s side, a photojournalist onboard the USS Missouri points his camera at a Zero. (From the National Archives)
EARLY IN THE AFTERNOON The overcast had dissipated, and visibility had improved, resulting in better flying conditions. Men had discovered that such progress was reciprocal, and shortly after 1:30 p.m., reports of a large number of possible enemy planes in the vicinity arrived. Carriers dispatched additional planes to intercept them beyond the range of the station’s two task groups.
A message came in shortly before 2 p.m. from the USS Kidd, a destroyer on a picket station 28 miles northwest of Astoria’s position: the Kidd had been assaulted, and “bandits” were on their way in. Men drew their weapons and prepared to fire. Lookouts noticed a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter approaching Enterprise from behind within minutes. Schnipper dashed to the starboard railing of the searchlight platform. The battleship USS South Dakota, which joined Enterprise in blasting fire at the diving plane, had the range to engage. The fighter came up short, crashing into the carrier’s starboard quarter. Under a sky studded with antiaircraft flak bursts, Schnipper snapped the shutter just as a water plume surged higher than Enterprise’s masts. He hoped he had a chance.
A second jet, a Yokosuka D4Y “Judy” reconnaissance plane, dove on the “Big E” less than five minutes later. While Enterprise was performing an emergency turn, the Judy collided with 40mm mount shields right off the carrier’s port side. One man was thrown overboard when the plane’s unreleased bomb detonated beneath the ship.
Astoria, in the distance, holds its fire to avoid hitting Enterprise as the USS Enterprise fires on a passing “Judy” dive-bomber. In defending against kamikaze attacks, friendly fire events were all too common. (From the National Archives)
The carrier USS Bunker Hill and the light cruiser USS Wilkes-Barre both brought another Judy to Astoria’s port side at the same time. The same pair of ships then shot down a dive-bomber right on the Judy’s tail, both planes splashing off Bunker Hill’s bow. Schnipper missed the action because a lone photographer couldn’t be in both places at the same time since he was stuck between port and starboard. Astoria would not have been able to fire from either side; it would have been firing at its own ships.
A fifth plane, a Nakajima Ki-43 “Oscar” army fighter, swooped in off Astoria’s starboard beam at 2:15. The “Mighty Ninety” screamed again, this time with range and a clear target. The trio tore the tail off the plane as they opened up with Pasadena and Essex. It hurtled to the water off Pasadena’s starboard beam, spinning out of control. Under the darkened heavens, another tremendous spray erupted. The shutter clicked shut. Schnipper thought he got a good photograph, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he processed the photos. He realized that war photographers on nearby ships had undoubtedly shot many of the same incidents from different perspectives.
A lull in the battle gave the photographer a chance to catch his breath, as more strikes launched from the carriers—and an unexpected guest to the searchlight post. Schnipper was taken aback when he recognized Astoria’s chaplain, Al Lusk, standing behind him. Schnipper had seen the tall, slim Baptist “jack of all faiths” during Friday night prayer services and recognized him right away. He also knew the chaplain had no business being exposed so far up in the superstructure, and the lieutenant wasn’t wearing any protective gear—neither a helmet nor a flak suit—to boot. The photographer’s first inclination was to tell the chaplain, but the “padre” was actually an officer. He was also a keen photographer who was eager to capture some action. The young enlisted man remained silent about the subject.
Instead, Schnipper took Lusk on a tour of his camera, revealing its complexity. As more inbounds came, their photography lesson was interrupted at 3 p.m. by the unsettling sound of nearby gunshots. Astoria jumped in, adding to the commotion. When Schnipper looked up in the skies for flak bursts, he noticed a plunging Judy heading back toward Enterprise. Like an umpire to a catcher, Chaplain Lusk positioned himself behind the photographer. The Judy dove aggressively and collided with Enterprise, scattering wreckage in the air. A delayed thunderclap alerted the two sailors, who noticed fires on the carrier’s forward flight deck, where two F6F Hellcats on the catapults seemed to be on fire. Enterprise was steaming farther away, and its emergency spins created a terrible angle for a photograph, so Schnipper grabbed a hasty photo. He knew he wouldn’t be able to capture anything from this distance.
The photographer and the chaplain then observed as another plane approached the “Big E” from the same direction, but it was forced away by antiaircraft fire and a chasing Hellcat. As the jet took off, gunfire from their ship shocked the two once more, this time sending them back to port. As it approached Bunker Hill, they crossed the platform just in time to witness a Zero receiving blows. As shots sprayed across the plane’s fuselage, white flashes flashed across the fuselage. The disabled plane swerved toward Astoria, much to Schnipper’s dismay. Schnipper, staring down a whirling propeller, had the same impression as most sailors and Marines in similar situations: he’s coming straight for me.
As the plane swirled and crashed, Bunker Hill continued to fire. Lusk plainly saw a muzzle flash from Bunker Hill’s forward five-inch mounts while Schnipper monitored its fall via the lens. The plane isn’t the only thing barreling toward us.
“Get down!” exclaims the speaker. Lusk yelled just as Schnipper pressed the shutter release. The photographer was dragged to the deck by the priest, who dove on top of him. The late round smacked into Astoria’s stack at high speed, exploding and scattering steel splinters. As Lusk rolled off Schnipper, the room was silent for a brief period. Schnipper regained his composure when he noticed Lusk was hurt, writhing and groaning. He leaped to the platform’s edge and yelled for a corpsman. Looking back across the ship, he noticed that Enterprise’s fires had been put out. Its crew had devised an innovative solution for the burning Hellcats: they released the planes into the sea with catapults.
While waiting for assistance, Schnipper put his camera down to console Lusk. Two more Zeroes screamed past him in quick succession, with Astoria’s guns, among others, blazing away at them. The starboard 40mm gun crews spotted their target and shot down the first jet, but no images were taken. In this case, Schnipper didn’t need one; he and others on board saw a vision that they would remember for the rest of their lives. The plane had been so close that they could see the Japanese pilot’s face peering back at them even through their flight helmet and goggles. They saw into the eyes of a terrified child who died moments later, far from the cartoon caricatures painted in the tabloids.
After he and Schnipper were injured by friendly fire, an Astoria corpsman takes Chaplain Al Lusk’s pulse on the searchlight platform. (US Navy/Herman Schnipper)
With his medical pack, a corpsman in full flak gear climbed the ladder. As Schnipper photographed the scene—an activity within the four confines of his duties—the corpsman removed his gloves and checked Lusk’s pulse. Only then did he discover he’d been hit as well, with steel splinters imbedded in his face. He regained his composure and extracted the little fragment.
Lusk wasn’t so fortunate; he took the brunt of the blow and had shrapnel stuck in his back. He could move his hands and feet because the bullet had missed his spine, but he would need emergency surgery. Another innocent bystander has died as a result of friendly fire. The first task would be to get him down off the platform. The corpsman built a rope seat for the wounded chaplain, and Schnipper assisted him in gently lowering him to waiting hands below.
During the five o’clock hour, more planes arrived. After suffering hits from multiple ships, the Astoria brought one down outside the formation at 16,000 yards, while another crashed into the ocean near Bunker Hill. Even if attacks continued, dusk made further photos difficult by 5:30 p.m. Schnipper took one last shot for the day before descending the ladder: Supply Division sailors cracking open cases of K-rations. There would be no activity in the messing compartments if the ship remained at general quarters into the evening. The staff would have dinner at their respective stations once more.
THERE WERE REPORTS FROM OTHER SHIPS. One of the passing Zeros dropped a bomb that narrowly missed Essex while Schnipper was tending to Lusk. It injured 20 soldiers when it exploded below the waterline. The picket destroyer Kidd, however, would not remain on duty. A suicide jet had hit it low to starboard, but it had successfully fended off a follow-up attack. Kidd would have to leave the ship in order for the anchoring to be repaired and taken back to the United States. The battleship USS Missouri, which was part of Astoria’s task force, had taken a glancing but horrific hit from the Zero, which shattered on impact and sent portions of the Japanese pilot onto the deck. As the crew of the Enterprise prepared to leave for repairs, they posed with a trophy: the wing of the third attacking Judy, which had been thrown onto the flight deck when the plane smashed against the ship’s side. One of Schnipper’s colleagues battle photographers snapped a photo of a shipmate standing next to the propped-up wing with the words “Hands off” written on it. For exactly one day, Enterprise had rejoined the gang.
A sailor aboard the USS Enterprise poses with a dreadful prize: the wing of an attacking Judy dive-bomber. (From the National Archives)
The task group of the USS Astoria was attacked by 13 Japanese kamikazes in a three-hour span on April 11, the largest concentrated assault they had yet experienced. Despite well-coordinated antiaircraft fire across the group, the day took out critical ships and drew others away to escort the “cripples” back to Ulithi.
Lusk, the Chaplain, was going to make it. The doctor on board Astoria judged that he could conduct the procedure on the ship. Captain Dyer, on the other hand, chastised his padre for going where he had no business, even in general quarters, let alone in active combat. The captain also knew he’d have to nominate Lusk for a Purple Heart, an unusual honor for a ship’s chaplain, much to his chagrin.
Herman Schnipper looked up late at night, after chow and on his way to his darkroom sanctuary, to see flares dropping from enemy planes all around the task force, following their progress. The five-inch cannons on the Astoria periodically fired in a radar-guided direction, resulting in magnificent flashes of light but little possibility for still photographs. He went to bed, knowing that morning would be shortly.
On April 14, Astoria retired three days later to meet its resupply group 250 miles southeast of the strike area. After five days on station, fueling and resupply gave no respite—just a new type of rigorous activity. For the next stint, the light cruiser would return to the operational area overnight. Schnipper hoped for film and developing supplies as nets of supply crates and boxes came across from the oiler alongside.
While recovering from surgery, Chaplain Al Lusk remained in sickbay. He also made it through the captain’s tongue-lashing. Despite this, when the crew learned on April 12 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died, Lusk insisted on leading the men in prayer from his bed.
Herman Schnipper processed his film as soon as he was able. Several photos came out good, but one in particular made him smile: he had captured the muzzle flash from the cartridge that impacted the stack just as the padre pounced.
The men at least got a hot dinner in the messing compartments in the evening. They’d be back in their quarters before sunrise, with no sign of an end in sight. ✯
This story appeared in the World War II magazine in June 2023.
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