Lawrence Frazer of South Gulf Cove, Fla. was a 16-year-old sailor on the main number-2 five-inch gun aboard the USS Killen (DD-539), a Fletcher Class destroyer, during the battle of the Surigao Strait off Leyte in the Philippines on Oct. 25, 1944, in World War II.
The Japanese battle plan was to confront the American forces attacking Leyte in a pincer movement of battleships, cruisers and destroyers. The southern arm would attack the enemy at night through the Surigao Strait off the coast of Leyte and attempt to destroy the American fleet.
However, American forces spotted both prongs of the approaching Japanese attack. They were waiting for them in the strait when they showed up shortly before 3:30 a.m.
“We laid out there off Leyte with a bunch of old battleships and cruisers. Our battleships, that had been refurbished after being sunk at Pearl Harbor, were anchored and our cruisers were steaming in a circle in front of them. Our destroyers were in pockets all the way down the strait,” the 83-year-old former gunner recalled.
Destroyers Michishio and Asagumo led the Japanese column of ships followed by the battleship Yamishiro and Fuso. Bringing up the rear was the cruiser Mogami.
“We were sitting off the edge of the channel. In our squadron were four destroyers. There were four more on the other side of the channel waiting for them, too,” Frazer said.
“We made a high-speed run at the Yamishiro. I was looking out a porthole in our gun turret and saw the Yamishiro turn on a big search light,” he said. “I told my buddy in the turret with me, ‘We’ve got ‘em now because they turned on a spot light.’
“As we made our turn, just before we fired a spread of five torpedoes at them, we were only a couple of hundred yards from the battleship. It was pitch dark and they were shooting at us, but they had no idea what they were shooting at. We weren’t hit.”
One of the five torpedoes fired by the Killen hit the Yamishiro and forced her to reduce speed to five knots. When the battleship cut her speed the other American destroyers went in for the kill.
In 15 minutes the Yamishiro blew up, broke in half and sank to the bottom. Going down with the Japanese battleship was its commander Rear Adm. Katsukiyo Shinoda.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf, of which the shootout in the Surigao Strait was a major component, is considered one of the biggest and most important sea battles in World War II. It was an Allied victory.
“After the battle we headed back to Leyte. On the way into port, we were attacked by seven Japanese planes. We shot down four of them, but one of the fighters that was hiding in the clouds came in from the port side and dropped a 550-pound bomb that hit us at the waterline and set off our ammunition magazines,” Frazer said. “It killed all hands below deck and put a hole in the side of the Killen you could drive a truck through.
“As we limped back into Leyte, four more Japanese planes attacked us. We shot all four of them down just like that,” he said with satisfaction 65 years later.
About the same time the badly damaged destroyer arrived at the dock, a couple of maintenance ships dropped anchor. They sandwiched the Killen and went to work repairing the damaged “tin can.”
“They welded a big steel plate on the side of our ship to cover the hole from the Japanese bomb. While we were being repaired, a typhoon hit the area. We rode out the storm in between the two repair ships,” he said.
When the war ended, Frazer and the crew of the USS Killen was still in the Philippines fighting the Japanese in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s island-hopping strategy.
“We sailed back to San Francisco, I got on a train back home to Tennessee and was discharged in Memphis,” he said. After the war, he went in the printing business near Nashville and eventually owned his own print shop.
He and his wife, Dorothy, moved to South Gulf Cove, Fla. two years ago.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Thursday, June 25, 2009 and is republished with permission.
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