The Yamato was the largest battleship ever built. She had bigger guns and heavier armament than any ship afloat. Despite her size and fire power, the mightily leviathan’s hours were numbered as she and her small battle group steamed toward Okinawa on April 7, 1945.
They were on a suicide mission. The “battle wagon’s” gaggle consisted of herself, two cruisers and eight destroyers. The Yamato and her chicks were planning to attack the United States’ fleet – 1,200 ships strong — encircling Okinawa and die.
The U.S. Pacific Fleet was in the process of trying to annihilate the Japanese’s Imperial troops fighting on Okinawa. It was the last and largest island engagement before the Allied occupation of Japan itself. When the 82-day battle was over 11,933 Americans were dead and 31,312 wounded. The Japanese lost an estimated 109,629, plus 3,500 more died aboard the Yamato when she went down.
The Yamato didn’t have enough fuel to return to Japan if she survived the encounter with the American fleet, which wasn’t likely. Many of Adm. “Bull” Halsey’s carrier plans that attacked the giant enemy battleship would also run out of fuel before they made it back to the safety of their ships. Survival was a craps shoot for friends and foe alike in the pending battle.
“It depends on how well a pilot conserved his gas, ARM 2/C Phil Pitruzzello of Port Charlotte, Fla. said a lifetime later. “If a pilot’s engine ran on a rich gas mixture (that burned more fuel) he didn’t make it back. He ditched in the sea.”
Pitruzzello was one of the lucky ones. He flew with the late Lt. Jg. Joe Beaty in a Curtis Helldiver (SB2C) as tail gunner and radio operator. The Blairstown, Mo. farm boy at the controls of the dive bomber knew how to lean out his engine and stretch his gas to make it home again.
“Adm. Halsey came on the Yorktown’s intercom before we left and said, ‘We’re going to come after you full steam ahead so you guys can make it back.’ I think the Yamato was 300 miles away, which was beyond our range,” Pitruzzello said.
It was late afternoon before American fighters and bombers flew off the decks of the Yorktown, Hancock, Franklin and Hornet toward a couple of coordinates on a chart of the wide Pacific where they hoped they would intercept the Japanese battleship.
The enemy squadron was steaming in a diamond-shaped formation at full speed toward the huge American fleet at Okinawa. It was spotted hours earlier by an American observation plane. The enemy’s presumed new location was plotted on a chart for the fighter-bomber group to locate and sink.
Some 280 airplanes were zeroing in on the last giant Japanese warship. There were dive-bombers, like the one Pitruzzello flew in, and similar numbers of slow-flying torpedo-bombers and speedy fighter planes heading in the Yamato’s direction on that spring afternoon 58 years ago.
The Yamato could fire a 3,175 pound armor-piercing projectile 28.95 miles. Each of her three main turrets weighed 2,774 tons and she was protected by a 16.1 inch armored belt around her sides that was 63 feet deep.
Despite her fearsome fire power and massive steel-plated protection, the battleship had seen limited action in World War II up till then.
At Truk Island in 1942 and again in ’43 at Biak Island, in West New Guinea, and in May ’44 the Yamato escaped without serious damage. The giant ship was also in the battle at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines in late October 1944. She survived one more time.
East of Palawan Island, a few days later, the Yamato was attacked by U.S. bombers and took two direct hits. The next day the Battle of Samar Gulf began. The Yamato fired on the U.S. fleet at daybreak. Within 10 minutes her mighty main gun batteries hit the carrier USS Gambier Bay, two destroyers and a destroyer escort. They were all sunk by her devastating fire power.
Then, for some unexplained reason, Adm Takeo Kurita, the fleet commander who was aboard Yamato, called off the attack and headed home where she underwent additional rearmament and repairs. The battleship sailed to her demise on April 6, 1945.
“Our primary mission was to sink the Yamato. The flight was coordinated so that our fighters would strafe the battleship, first and try and get the enemy away from their anti-aircraft guns. Then the torpedo planes and dive bombers would come in at the same time and hit her,” Pitruzzello said.
“It was evening when we spotted the Japanese battle group and the Yamato. There was still plenty of light, visibility was good,” he explained. “We were flying over the target at approximately 15,000 feet carrying four, 500 pound armor-piercing bombs.
“We began our run and dove down to 2,000 feet when we released our bombs. Then we pulled out of our dive with a force of 5 or 6 Gs pushing us back in our seats. I think our bombs hit the battleship.
“After we made our bombing run we strafed the Yamato three or four more times,” he said.
“They were shooting everything they had at us. The flak was so heavy we could feel the concussion from the exploding shells that came so near they bounced our plane around. You were helpless to do anything but pray.”
As they watched, the Japanese battleship was dead in the water from the pounding she had taken in the attack. The Yamato had been hit by eight torpedoes on her port side and two on her starboard side. She could no longer maneuver. Moments later the mighty ship rolled over and exploded.
A huge plum of gray smoke erupted from the sea below. It reminded Pitruzzello of the atomic bomb blast over Hiroshima, but that was till four months away.
“’What do you think, Phil?’ my pilot called back to me.
“’How’s our gas?’
“’I think we better head back,’ Beaty said.
“He altered our course and then the hard part started. We had to find our fleet (in the dark) before we ran out of fuel. Three or four planes flew back together.
“Everyone was on the intercom interrupting each other about where they were and what they were going to do,” Pitruzzello remembered. “Ships were communicating with us too, but we couldn’t see a thing because it was pitch black. Finally one of the pilots yelled over his radio, ‘TURN ON THE DAMN LIGHTS OR WE’LL NEVER GET DOWN!’
“A minute later the whole fleet was lit up,” he said. “We couldn’t tell which carrier was which. So we just got into a flight pattern and landed on the closest one which happened to be the Hornet.”
It was the duty of the squadron doctors to hand out mini-bottles of whiskey to each air crew member that returned safely to the carrier’s deck. One per customer. That night, after they sank the Yamato, the doc said the bar was open. They could have as many bottles as they wanted.
Four months later a little known colonel at the controls of a B-29 named “Enola Gay,” for his mother, would drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. A few days later a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and a couple of days after that, on Aug. 14, 1945, the Japanese agreed to an unconditional surrender. World War II was over.
Phil Pitruzzello from Cromwell, Conn, had survived more than 60 combat missions and more than three years of war. He saw action in many of the major Pacific battles starting at the very beginning near Australia in 1942. That same year he was in one of the first carrier bomber raids over Tokyo flying off the carrier USS Lexington to attack an airplane engine plant in the capital city. He also flew ground support at Guadalcanal, the Gilbert Islands, the Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Truk, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Finally he helped sink the Yamato.
As he completed his war story, he looked at the gold ring with a black onyx stone on his right hand his wife gave him before they were married and he went to war.
“I wouldn’t fly without this ring,” he recalled as he twisted it around his finger and smiled.
In the Ninth Carrier Air Group’s book on the Second Pacific Cruise aboard the USS Yorktown and USS Lexington there’s a picture of a youthful Pitruzzello. He’s sitting in the back seat of a Curtis Helldiver, his gold ring with the onyx stone is displayed prominently on his right hand as he grips the side of his fighter-bomber.
The ring was his security blanket. It brought him good karma. Pitruzzello survived World War II without a scratch.
Name: Phil Pitruzzello
Age: 80 at time of interview
Hometown: Cornwell, Conn.
Address: Port Charlotte, Fla.
Discharged: September 1945
Rank: Aviation Radioman-gunner 2nd Class
Unit: USS Yorktown
Commendations: Distinguished Flying Cross, Four Air Medals, Commendation Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Medal, Philippines Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Good Conduct Medal
Married: Ann Labella
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. and is republished with permission.
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