Kamikaze Hits the USS KIDD

Kidd at sunsetThe USS Kidd is now a war memorial and naval museum in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

By George Morris

On April 11, 1945, Maurice Clements was in charge of one of a Fletcher-class destroyer’s largest guns as it cruised the waters 90 miles east of Okinawa. Yet, when a lone Japanese plane came in low and headed for the ship’s starboard side, there was nothing he could do.

So, he had a front row seat for a sailor’s worst nightmare late in World War II — a successful kamikaze attack.

In this case, it was the USS Kidd. The attack killed 38 and wounded 55 of the destroyer’s 320 sailors. As fate would have it, the Kidd would eventually be turned into a naval museum on the Mississippi River in Clement’s home town, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He attends memorial services held there, including one held on the 70th anniversary of the attack in 2015.

“They were all my friends,” he said.

Clements, after all, was one of the Kidd’s original crew members, and he sailed with the ship until its post-war decommissioning.

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Clements, then 16, was a drug store soda jerk and was not attending school. His parents gave him permission to enlist in the Navy on Dec. 30. With no basic training, was sent aboard the USS Arkansas, a World War I-era battleship that escorted convoys across the Atlantic Ocean. After two years, he was bored.

“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. Clements, a third-class bosun’s mate, boarded the Kidd in New York about a month before most of the crew arrived. The destroyer was named for Rear Adm. Isaac Campbell Kidd Sr., who was killed aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.

The Kidd would give Clements the combat action he wanted.

The Kidd functioned in rules typical of destroyers, including anti-submarine picket duty, picking up downed pilots, shore bombardment and anti-aircraft platform. She escorted the carrier task force which launched air raids on Wake Island, Rabaul and Bougainville, saw action at the invasion of Tarawa, in the Marshall Islands, the landings on Leyte and the invasion of Okinawa.

On that fateful Wednesday, the Kidd’s crew saw a dogfight between Japanese aircraft and the fighters of the combat air patrol. An enemy plane descended to near water level, leveled out and headed for another destroyer, the USS Black, which was 1,500 yards off KIDD’s starboard beam. Instead of ramming the Black, the pilot pulled up, passed directly overhead and took off toward the Kidd.

Maurice Clements (Photo by Heather McClellan, published April 8, 2015, used by permission of The Advocate.)

Clements was gun captain of the rear 5-inch gun.  Because of the angle and direction of the attack, Clements could not fire his gun because the shells might strike the Black, so smaller weaponry tried to defend the ship. He saw the kamikaze strike 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.

“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 stayed at his gun as other Japanese planes attacked 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 went to the West Coast for complete repairs  and returned 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 to where the Kidd can no longer float.

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