A U.S. Navy destroyer sunk in 1945 by a kamikaze aircraft during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II has been discovered by a group of civilian underwater explorers deep in the Pacific Ocean, the group’s leader said on Wednesday.
The U.S.S. Mannert L. Abele was the first warship hit by what was then a new Japanese weapon called an Ohka — essentially a flying bomb capable of reaching speeds of 600 miles per hour.
A group called the Lost 52 Project, which searches for Navy submarines and warships sunk during World War II, found the ship in December.
The U.S. Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, which is responsible for tracking the 3,000 ships and submarines the service has lost at sea in both peacetime and war, confirmed the discovery in April.
“The Battle of Okinawa was the biggest battle of the Pacific campaign,” said Tim Taylor, who leads the Lost 52 Project. “Fifty thousand casualties just on the U.S. side, so it’s a monumental find.”
“And it’s a very deep connection for me,” he added. “My dad’s ship was hit by a kamikaze just 10 days before the Abele was sunk in the same area — maybe 90 miles south of there.”
The small warship was one of many that encircled Okinawa during the campaign to take the island by force during World War II. It used its radars to spot enemy planes coming from the Japanese mainland and relayed information to aircraft carriers, which could then launch fighter planes to intercept them.
The Abele, pronounced ABLE-ee, fought off numerous attacks by Japanese kamikaze pilots, who flew suicide missions near the end of World War II. But it succumbed after two planes crashed into its starboard side and exploded, sending it to the bottom. Its precise location — until recently — had been unknown.
In all, 84 sailors from the Abele were killed by the twin explosions, the sinking of the ship or Japanese pilots who strafed and bombed the survivors in the water afterward.
Sam Cox, a retired Navy rear admiral who leads the Navy’s historical command, said that identifying the ship was fairly easy given the evidence the Lost 52 team provided.
The Navy considers the Abele, and others like it sunk in combat, a tomb and will leave the ship in place undisturbed.
Roughly a dozen Navy destroyers like the Abele were sunk during the Okinawa campaign along with other ships, killing about 5,000 sailors, Admiral Cox said.
The Lost 52 Project, which takes its name from the number of U.S. Navy submarines that went missing in World War II, has located a number of wrecks, including the U.S.S. Grayback — a submarine that sunk in combat off Okinawa the year before the Abele. Mr. Taylor has been using autonomous underwater vehicles to locate and survey the wrecks.
Family members of former crew members welcomed the Abele’s discovery.
“I think my father would have been extraordinarily intrigued and would have wanted to see every detail,” said Scott Andersen, whose father, Roy, served as a junior officer aboard the Abele. “But I’m not sure what trauma that might stir up.”
In 2007, Roy Andersen wrote a book about the ship’s wartime service titled “Three Minutes Off Okinawa.” He died in 2014 at age 94, his son said.
“He once told me he rarely had a good night’s sleep since the ship sank,” Mr. Andersen said.
The ship’s namesake, Lt. Cmdr. Mannert L. Abele, commanded the U.S.S. Grunion, a submarine that was lost at sea. He received the Navy Cross posthumously for sinking three Japanese ships in a single day during the war. The Navy commissioned a ship in his honor on July 4, 1944.
According to a Navy history of the Abele, on April 12, 1945, the ship “suddenly found herself surrounded by hostile planes” while patrolling 75 miles off the northern coast of Okinawa. At 1:38 p.m., the ship’s gun crews hit one Japanese dive-bomber, lighting it on fire and sending it crashing into the ocean. About an hour later, three Japanese Zero fighter planes approached. The Abele shot one down but a second crashed into the ship’s starboard side and exploded, killing nine sailors.
One minute later, the Abele was hit again, but this time by a rocket-powered aircraft called an Ohka, Japanese for “cherry blossom.” The Ohka’s pilot crashed into the ship, and the more than 2,600 pounds of explosives it carried detonated, breaking the Abele in two and sinking it in 4,500 feet of water.
The Abele and other Navy warships around Okinawa helped to draw kamikaze attacks away from troop transports and supply ships supporting the battle ashore, Admiral Cox said.
“The ships couldn’t run away,” Admiral Cox said. “They had to stay and fight.”