Gene Roaf of Punta Gorda, Fla. was a plane captain who maintained a single Corsair fighter aboard the carrier USS Bennington during the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in World War II. He served as a seaman 1st class and part of the Essex class carrier’s deck crew.
“Before I became a plane captain I was in damage control,” he said. “I was on the island with the captain when this kamikaze flew over from bow to stern carrying a 500 pound bomb underneath, but he never dropped it.
“As he flew by I could see the ‘meatball’ on the side of the plane. Then I saw the Jap pilot. He was so close, just like I’m looking at you,” the 88-year-old local man recalled. “I think about that incident. If he had dropped the bomb that could have been it for me. The kamikaze pilot flew off, but one of our planes shot him down six miles from the Bennington.
“My buddy and I had another close call with a kamikaze. We were on the catwalk along the side of the carrier when a Jap plane flew in. One of his bullets hit the wooden flight deck right in front of us.
“Our anti-aircraft guns were really pounding him as he came closer and closer. Just before he hit the deck he blew up and scattered debris all over. I took a piece of the plane’s engine cowling up to the captain.”
Roaf began his career in the navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard when he boarded the carrier on its maiden voyage.
“We sailed to Norfolk, Va., on to Guantanamo, Cuba and then through the Panama Canal to the Pacific. Going through the canal we had to take the lifeboats off the side of the ship because they rubbed against the concrete canal walls,” he explain. “It was Christmas 1944 when we reached the Pacific and headed for San Francisco. From there we sailed to Honolulu and the war zone.
“We were part of Task Force 58.1 when we sailed for Iwo Jima. We were 90 miles off when the Marines hit the beach at Iwo on Feb. 19, 1945. We were next to the carrier USS Wasp when it was hit by a bomb from a kamikaze. The bomb went through the flight deck and into the hanger deck and blew up. It killed a lot of people.
“Then we saw the carrier USS Franklin that had been hit by kamikazes while conducting bombing raids off the coast of Japan in mid-March. She was badly listing on her way back to the U.S. for repairs,” Roaf said.
Two bombs from a kamikaze hit the carrier and one penetrated to her flight deck and exploded killing almost everyone working on the planes below deck. When the fires aboard ship were finally extinguished 800 of her crew were dead. It was the worst disaster on any American carrier during WW II.
Despite her losses and her damage the Franklin and what was left of her crew sailed back to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where she was refurbished and used until 1966 when she was sold for scrap.
“We got to Okinawa the day after the Marines landed on the beach. It was Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945 when they went ashore,” he said. “Our planes attacked the Japs on the island the whole time.
A week into the biggest fight in the Pacific, planes from the Bennington were sent on a special mission. Their objective: sink the Japanese battleship Yamato sent on a suicide mission to Okinawa. Scores of American fighters and bombers from all of the carriers caught up to the largest battleship ever built on April 7, 1945.
Despite her nine 18.1 inch main guns that could throw a projectile the size of a VW almost 30 miles and the fact she weighed 72,800 tons fully loaded, she was no match for the American fleet’s air power. After pounding from 280 planes and with five torpedo hits the leviathan rolled over, exploded and killed most of the 3,000 sailors aboard.
“Then we loaded up and Task Force 58.1 headed for Japan. We were off Tokyo aboard the Bennington bombing targets on shore day and night. Our pilots did a wonderful job, they were very good.
“Then they dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. We knew nothing about it until the captain got on the PA and told us the Americans had just dropped a big bomb on the city,” he recalled. “After the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki the Japanese surrendered.
“We were happy the Jap’s surrendered, but then we saw a MovieTone newsreel showing partying at Times Square and a guy chasing a girl up a flag pole. It made us mad we weren’t there, too.
“We were the first carrier to sail into Tokyo Bay. The crew of the Bennington stood topside ringing the deck with our Class-A whites on as she went into the harbor. It was quite a day.
“We passed by huge concrete gun emplacements on either side of the entrance to Tokyo Harbor.
“After the surrender we went ashore at Yokohama. I went into what was left of a bombed out department store and bought a baby’s bonnet, the only thing they had for sale in the store, and sent it home to my mother.”
Before the Bennington and its crew sailed for home each sailor received two Japanese Army rifles as war souvenirs. Before reaching home Roaf gave one of his rifles to another sailor who had had both of his rifles stolen. His remaining Japanese rifle was given to his eldest son.
After sailing into San Francisco Harbor, he took a six-day train ride back to Boston where he was discharged from the Navy three days later.
Roaf went to work on the line at a tricycle factory in the Boston area almost immediately after getting married. Eventually he started driving trucks for a living. His last 20 plus years in the job market he worked as a salesman.
He and his wife, Mary Ellen, moved to Florida in 1998 after they retired. They bought a home in unta Gorda Isles. seven years ago. They have two sons: Eugene and Bruce.
Name: Eugene Clinton Roaf
D.O.B: 7 Jan. 1925
Hometown: Newburyport, Mass.
Currently: Punta Gorda, Fla.
Entered Service: 6 Jan. 1944
Discharged: 15 April 1946
Rank: Seaman 1st Class
Unit: USS Bennington (CV-20), USS Hancock (CV-19)
Commendations: World War II Victory Medal, American Area Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Area Medal, 3 Stars
Battles/Campaigns: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, World War II
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 20, 2014 and is republished with permission.
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