Minesweepers and transport ships didn’t normally attract kamikazes. The Japanese suicide pilots aimed for war ships, the biggest ships for the ultimate sacrifice.
Marvin Hoflund usually worked below deck. But on Jan. 6, 1945, he came up top to see the action.
“Like a fool,” he said.
A kamikaze plane barreled down on his ship, the USS Brooks, even as the sailors tried to shoot it from the sky. As others bailed over the side, Hoflund, a bulky man over 6 feet tall, hit the deck.
Hoflund was the 11th of 12 children born in Wellington, Colo. He grew tall early. At 14, he worked as a funeral escort, riding a motorcycle ahead of the motorcade to stop traffic at each light. Because of his size, his boss mistook him for an adult and gave him the job.
Soon after, Hoflund moved to Hanna to live with his sister and worked in the coal mines.
The draft was inevitable and Hoflund didn’t want to be in the Army. In 1943, he enlisted in the Navy.
“I didn’t want someone sneaking up behind me and stabbing me with one of their knives,” he said.
The Navy assigned him to the USS Brooks and made him a gyrocompass engineer, fixing problems with the ship’s directional system. He sailed for the Pacific.
The USS Brooks was a minesweeper and transport, a converted four-stack destroyer, seasoned from fighting in World War I. Its crew numbered less than 200 and it carried an underwater demolition team, now known as the Navy Seals.
Its job was to transport people and goods between larger ships and islands during battles. It also cleared shallow-water mines by cutting the mines loose from the ocean floor. The Brooks helped in the capture of Saipan and was one of the first ships involved in the battle for Leyte in the Philippines. It continued on into the Lingayen Gulf, a strategic point between the Japanese and American forces that the Japanese had occupied since 1941.
In January 1945, the Sixth Army, led by General Douglas MacArthur, attacked by land and sea.
Sailors on the Brooks fired torpedoes at the submarines. Their three-inch shells were too small for long distances and didn’t damage many of the planes. But, caught in the middle, they did what they could.
Hoflund came on deck after lunch and watched as Japanese planes circled in the gray sky and fired at the American ships below.
In front of him he saw the kamikaze barreling down on the Brooks. Sailors fired back, unloading everything, hoping to stop the plane before it hit.
It kept coming.
Impact inevitable, everyone hit the deck.
Hoflund, flat on his stomach on the ship’s starboard side, looked up one last time. The kamikaze careened toward the ship’s port side. Hoflund feared the worst.
But the kamikaze was too high. Instead of plowing into the middle of the Brooks, puncturing a hole into its side, the plane scraped against the top. It hit one of the ship’s stacks and burst into flames.
Hoflund jumped up and ran over to the wreckage to help the wounded, those either hit by parts of the plane or burned in the fire. Amid the chaos, he saw a buckle from the dead kamikaze pilot and part of a glove.
“I don’t know why I picked them up but I did,” he said.
“They were still smoking.”
Fire crews on the ship extinguished the flames. It didn’t sink, though three of its crew died and 11 were wounded. Other ships rescued the sailors who bailed and were bobbing in the ocean in their life jackets.
An Australian cruiser called the H.M.A.S. Waramunga took the rest of the Brooks crew. They went to a warship and eventually the Philippines to wait for transfer back to the U.S.
The U.S. won the battle in the Lingayen Gulf, but Japanese kamikazes helped sink 24 ships and damaged another 67.
The S.S. Watch Hill towed the wounded Brooks back to the U.S. where it was decommissioned and sold.
Hoflund wound his way home on a British ship, and spent the rest of his Navy career, a little more than a year, working on a refrigerator ship and decommissioning another. Tired of death and fighting, he decided not to re-enlist.