For three decades, survivors of the April 11, 1945, kamikaze attack on the USS Kidd have made the trek to Baton Rouge to remember the day when 38 of their shipmates were killed on a deadly sunny afternoon off the coast of Okinawa.
On Monday, the 71st anniversary of that Japanese attack, none were able to make it. There are five known survivors still alive. Living memory is fast giving way to recorded memory.
Tim Nesmith, ship superintendent for the USS Kidd, talked about each living survivor during the ceremony held Monday afternoon in the onshore museum; the 376-foot long Kidd floated nearby in the Mississippi River.
At least three survivors had hoped to attend Monday but couldn’t.
“That’s the story from of our World War II vets,” Nesmith said. “Those that are out there just can’t travel too much because of age and because of health.”
Alex Juan, executive director of the USS Kidd Veterans Museum, said several were able to come last year to the 70th anniversary remembrance. One was Harold Lamb, of Lakeland, Florida, who at 16 was the youngest of the 320 sailors serving on the destroyer that day. Lamb died in January at the age of 87.
Another annual visitor, Bill Barnhouse, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, expressed his regrets to Juan on the phone Monday morning.
“While he is very sorry that he can’t make it, he is very grateful that we continue to do ceremonies like this,” Juan said.
Another survivor, Maurice “Boy” Clements, who lives in Baton Rouge and is about to celebrate his 92nd birthday, had two of his neighbors, Bob and Toon McDaniel, come in his stead.
The 38 men who died during that suicide attack are memorialized in a plaque on display at the museum, a plaque created by Navy veteran Richard Ammon Jr., who served on the Kidd from 1959 to 1964. Ammon painstakingly tracked down pictures of 34 of the men and the museum has since located pictures of the four Ammon couldn’t find.
Ammon also collected many stories of the dead from that day, stories Nesmith shared Monday along with his own research.
One sailor, Nesmith said, claimed he went dancing with singer Lena Horne. One successfully led his protective mother to believe, to her grave, that he’d never had a girlfriend, hiding a long relationship with a girl in Chicago.
Many stories were sad. One, a baker, was celebrating his birthday that April 11 with a specially made chocolate cake meant to mimic the one his mother made for him every year. Another sailor had been scheduled to transfer to another ship two weeks before but stayed awhile longer with the Kidd to finish training his successor.
Nesmith told a story Monday that he said he has previously told only during special nighttime tours of the Kidd known as “twilight tours.” The story is about an African-American sailor, Charles Green.
Green was sick in bed with the mumps when the Japanese plane struck the Kidd. He had trouble getting out of his room because his way was blocked by the dead bodies of five of his shipmates.
“His eyes were wide and he was screaming coming out of the hatch,” Nesmith said. “They say he came down to the main deck, and dove over the side, probably thinking the ship was sinking.”
Nesmith had learned this story decades later from four white sailors, all with independent recollections. All of them swore Nesmith to silence, forbidding him to tell the story until they’d died: They didn’t want Green’s family thinking he was a coward.
The insistence on silence struck Nesmith.
“In an era where they probably wouldn’t give this guy the time of day on the street, he was their shipmate and they were looking out for his honor years later,” Nesmith said.