Okinawa, the largest and most people-costly battle in the Pacific during World War II began Easter Sunday morning, Apr. 1, 1945. When it was over 82 days later on June 22 — 12,500 American Marines, Sailors, Solders and Airmen were dead and 55,000 were wounded on the 65-mile-long island.
The Japanese lost approximately 120,000 killed and 7,000 captured. Of the 300,000 Japanese civilians who lived on the island before the war, 100,000 plus died in the fight..
Nine weeks later Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from a B-29 bomber named for his mother, Enola Gay, and World War II was over.
Tom Martorana, who now lives in Venice, was a 17-year-old seaman aboard LCI-785 (Landing Craft Infantry, Rocket) almost hit by a kamikaze just off the beach at Okinawa in April 1945.
“We had 1,000 rockets aboard our 155-foot long ship with a 35-man crew,” the 89-year-old recalled a lifetime later. “We opened our bow and the rocket launcher ramp came out the doors.
“LCI-785 arrived off Okinawa a few days after the battle began. We were used as a mail delivery ships for the battle ships and aircraft carriers,” he said. “We were alongside the USS Birmingham, a cruiser, when she was hit by a kamikaze.
“All of a sudden this kamikaze came down and at the very last minute he missed our ship and hit the cruiser. It struck the number-2 turret and I think there was something like 87 people killed aboard the Birmingham,” Martorana said.
“When the kamikaze hit the Birmingham I was up on the conning tower of our ship. A 12-inch long piece of pipe just missed me and hit the binnacle right next to me. It wrecked the compass.
“We cut our lines, backed away from the cruiser and got out of there. We headed for Leyte where we stayed for a while,” Martorana recalled. “I was standing outside the radio shack when I heard the radioman jump up and scream, ‘The war is over!’ At that point everybody aboard ship put their lights on and the celebrating started. Someone starting shooting their guns in celebration. They were firing 20 and 40 millimeter guns into the water, but some of the bullets from these guns were ricocheting and I think seven people at Leyte were killed from the celebrating. We counted 16 bullet holes in the side of our ship.
“We left Leyte and headed for Japan. On the way we were caught in a hurricane at sea. What havoc it played with us. I think we lost four LCI ships in the storm and in addition three destroyers were also lost,” he said. “We were thrown all over the place during the storm. I was strapped to the helm while steering our ship. There was a 4 X 4 behind me with two arms I was strapped to it. I was up on the conning tower and when the ship rolled I could touch green water with my hand. That shows you how much our ship rolled.
“We sailed into Tokyo Bay on Sept. 1, 1945 behind a couple of mine sweepers that cleared a path for us. This was the day before the surrender was signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri. I became a representative from our ship aboard the Missouri to watch the surrender ceremony. I was standing on top of the Number-2 gun turret aboard the battleship watching the ceremony.
“After that we sailed for Yukoska to pick up some American POWs who were waiting on a pier. They were in sad shape. They looked like walking zombies. We loaded hundreds of them aboard our LCI and opened our galley for them,” he said. “We gave them anything they wanted to eat and took them to the nearest ship with a doctor. The doctor came aboard our ship and told us, ‘You close your galley and don’t give them anything, not even water. You can kill them by giving them too much food.’ “
After the surrender ceremony was over the government shipped most of the sailors home to the US, except for the crew of LCI-785. They became part of the occupation troops who stayed in Japan.
“When we got to Yukoska it was completely flattened by our bombs as far as the eye could see. The only thing that wasn’t touched was the emperor’s palace.
“They kept us in Japan until 1946 until we got orders to return to the states,” Mantorana said. “We sailed from Japan to Pearl Harbor that was still recovering from the Dec. 7 attack by the Japanese. “We sailed from there to San Diego and on to Key West and finally to Charleston, S.C. where our ship was decommissioned.
He was discharged from the Navy at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1946 and went to work for a trucking company in Bayonne, N.J. until the company had a strike. He re-upped in the Navy in 1948 and spent the next two decades in the service.
“I eventually became a quartermaster aboard a destroyer, the USS Taconic (AGC-17). I spent the next four years aboard the Taconic in Norfolk, Va. Then I was sent aboard the USS Adirondack (AGC-15) stationed in Naples, Italy. When my wife to be heard I was going to Naples she wanted to go with me to Italy so we got married before we left for Europe. “The Adirondack was the communication ship for NATO during the Korean War.
“After that I was sent aboard the USS Chevalier (DD-805) stationed in San Diego. She was a RADAR picket ship. I spent the next four years aboard ship and we were always out to sea. We were often out there as a plane guard with a carrier.
“I spent the next three years stationed in Hawaii. Then I was assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. I was in charge of the computer operation for the Joint Chiefs.”
He got involved with the USS Liberty incident in ’67. That was when Israeli jets attacked the US spy ship off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 Israeli War. The attack killed 34 crewman and wounded 174 more. The Israelis claimed they thought the Liberty was an Egyptian ship they had attacked.
It was Martorana’s job in the Pentagon to keep in contact with the Liberty and make sure she stayed out of the fight. Just before the U.S. ship was attacked he ordered the captain to move the Liberty 100 miles off the Sinai Peninsula.
“Right after the ship moved further off the coast I got a call from my boss, a general in the Pentagon, who told me to meet him in his office. When I got there he wanted to know why I hadn’t moved the Liberty. I told him it had been moved and he said the Liberty had just been torpedoed by the Israelis. I told the general I had recorded my instructions on tape. He said, ‘Bring your tape and come along with me to Secretary of defense McNamara’s office.’
“We played my tape for McNamara and then we left. The general told me, ‘You’re either going to get a medal or you’re going to be court martialed.’ I got a medal.”
In October of that year, 1967, Martorana retired from the Navy as a chief quartermaster. After his retirement he became a civilian who worked as a computer expert for the Chief of Naval Operations from his office in the Washington Navy Yard. He did that until 1982 when he retired for good. He and his wife, Dolores, moved to Venice in 1990.
They have two grown children: Margaret and Jeffrey who live out of state.
Name: Thomas James Martorana
D.O.B: 11 April 1927
Hometown: Trenton, N.J.
Currently: Venice, Fla.
Entered Service: 23 Feb. 1945
Discharged: 2 Sept. 1967
Rank: Chief Quartermaster
Unit: LCI-785 Pacific, WW II; USS Taconic-ACC-17; USS Adirondick -ACC-15; USS Cambria APA-36; USS Chevalier-DDR-805.
Commendations: Asiatic-Pacific Theater Ribbon, Philippine Liberation Ribbon, Occupation Ribbon (Japan), American Theater Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal, Joint Service Commendation Medal
Battles/Campaigns: World War–II Okinawa, Philippines, Occupation Japan.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, May 16, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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