The USS Kidd is most remembered for its final World War II battle, and Maurice Clements remembers it well. But Clements knows everything the destroyer did during the war. He was there.
“I put it in commission and I put it out of commission, and I’m the only (such) man that’s still alive right now,” Clements said.
Clements, 91, is a lifelong Baton Rougean except for his time in the Navy, and much of that was aboard the warship now berthed against the levee in downtown Baton Rouge. He plans to be back aboard the ship Saturday when the 70th anniversary memorial tribute is held for the 38 seamen killed in the April 11, 1945, kamikaze attack.
“They were all my friends,” he said.
When the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor thrust the United States into World War II, Clements, then 16, operated the soda fountain at Dalton’s Drug Store on Plank Road. He was not attending school.
“I knew all the girls, and I was giving them sodas, and (his employers) were taking my paycheck to pay for them,” he said.
So, with his parents’ blessing, he enlisted in the Navy on Dec. 30 and, without attending basic training, was sent aboard the USS Arkansas, a World War I-era battleship that spent the first two years of World War II escorting convoys back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. That didn’t appeal to Clements.
“I wasn’t fighting a war, so I told my officer I wanted to go on a ship that fights,” he said.
Nine Fletcher-class destroyers were being launched in early 1943. The officer gave Clements their names.
“The Kidd was the easy one to remember, so I said, ‘Put me on the Kidd,’ ” he said. “So, they put me on the Kidd.”
Clements, a third-class bosun’s mate, went aboard the Kidd in New York about a month before most of the crew arrived. Having already served aboard a warship, Clements seemed like an old salt to his new shipmates, many of them new recruits.
The inexperience was demonstrated on a training cruise in which the Kidd returned and struck a pier, Clements said. But the Kidd would give Clements what he wanted — plenty of combat action.
The destroyer was involved in nearly every important naval campaign, including Tarawa, Guam, the invasion of the Philippines and, fatefully, Okinawa.
By that time, Clements had become gun captain of the rear-most 5-inch gun. Most of his gun crew were Louisiana natives. On April 11, 1945, the Kidd and three other destroyers were conducting radar picket duty when Japanese airplanes arrived. The Japanese military had begun kamikaze attacks — pilots crashing bomb-laden planes into Allied warships — the previous year, but at Okinawa, these attacks came in waves.
A lone Japanese plane came in low and attacked the Kidd. Because of the angle and direction of the attack, Clements could not fire his gun because the shells might strike the USS Black, so smaller weaponry tried to defend the ship. He watched as the kamikaze struck amidships. Sixteen sailors were killed instantly when the airplane struck below the main deck at the forward boiler room, scalding them with steam. The bomb passed through the hull and detonated. The attack killed 38 and wounded 55 of the ship’s 320 sailors.
“We were dead in the water,” he said. “We thought we were going to have to abandon ship, but they decided to stay on it. … They got the ship running again.”
Clements remained at his post, because more Japanese planes, attracted by the smoke, tried to attack the Kidd, but its gunfire and that of escorting destroyers drove them off. As the Kidd limped toward the island of Ulithi for repairs, the grim job of burying the dead at sea took place. Clements said one sailor had to be cut in half to be extracted from the wreckage.
“I watched that, too,” he said. “I’ve dreamed about that so many times, it’s pitiful.”
Clements remained aboard the Kidd as it returned to the West Coast for complete repairs and its return to Pearl Harbor. Japan surrendered, and the Kidd saw no more combat.
The ship was decommissioned in 1946, brought back into service during the Korean War and decommissioned for good in 1964. Twenty years later, Baton Rouge acquired it as a war memorial. Clements, who was a carpenter after leaving the Navy, built part of the structure that now holds the ship when the Mississippi River level drops.