One second, Elmer Hoke was climbing the ladder from his cabin to the flight deck, rushing to general quarters — battle stations.
The next second, he was standing at the bottom of the ladder. The concussion had knocked him back to where he started.
He climbed the ladder again. By the time he reached the deck, the kamikaze had already exploded into the 20 mm guns, carving a hole 20 to 30 feet wide in the left side of the ship.
“People were on fire and they were running, those kinds of things,” Hoke said. “It wasn’t a good scene. People burning. Parts of bodies here and there.”
Hoke, born and raised in Casper, was in high school when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. For three years, he and his classmates read about the war and watched news reels in movie theaters. When the aircraft carrier USS Lexington sunk in May 1942 at the Battle of the Coral Sea, it was big news because three or four Casper boys died on the ship. Hoke and his classmates knew what was coming when they turned 18.
Hoke hoped to play basketball one more year and thought he had it all figured out: He was one credit shy of graduating and could play on the team if he came back to school.
But the war didn’t wait for high school diplomas then. Hoke enlisted in January 1944, and, by May, he was sailing to the Marshall Islands instead of graduating.
“Actually, it’s kind of sad. A lot of buddies I went to school with, when they turned 18, they were gone. A lot of them got killed. By 19 and 20, their lives were over.
“That was an awful short life for those guys, but that’s the way it was.”
Hoke served on the flight crew of the USS Essex, an aircraft carrier similar to the Lexington. He was an airdale, the nickname for a seaman who worked with Navy planes.
He started on a crew with the job of securing planes by putting blocks under the wheels, securing the plane from rolling on deck. As far as Hoke was concerned, it was one of the worst jobs on the ship.
“These were all propeller planes. These were not jets. Besides all that air that could knock you off your feet, you had all these propellors back there too. If you lost your footing, you better keep your head down.”
Propellers on dive bombers extended to just 14 to 16 inches off the deck. Falling near one of those, you had to lie flat, or it would chop you up.
Hoke saw two guys lose their lives this way: “The one guy, he just walked into it, that’s all there is to it. If they are spinning fast enough, you might not see them. You might hear them, but you might think it’s the one over there.
“The other guy lost his footing and wound up in one.”
Without another crew to relieve the airdales, days on the flight deck were long — 14 to 16 hours. Dawn was the best time to attack — or to be attacked — so they woke before the sun to launch the Navy planes — or to man the battle stations against Japanese planes.
The pace of war had so accelerated by 1944, with the Allies charging toward Japan, the Essex engaged in dozens of skirmishes, including 10 major invasions and battles. In February 1945, the Essex sailed to Tokyo Bay to prove to the Japanese people that the American Navy was out there, and it was coming, despite what the Japanese government might have been telling them.
Hoke had a front-row seat to all of it. Later in the war, he saw kamikazes sink several American ships.
Hoke’s crew was assigned to man the 20 mm guns during battle. He liked the gunnery practice, but one time he fired at five Japanese planes and they just flew on by.
Oh, don’t worry about it, a commander told Hoke. By the time they get to you with that gun, it’s probably too late.
About two weeks before the kamikaze attack, a commander reassigned Hoke’s crew again. Their new battle stations would be on the flight deck, getting those planes in the air. For the first time, a group of black sailors — usually relegated to duties below deck — would fire those 20 mm guns in an attack.
Hoke knew several of the black sailors. At port, the sailors used to hang some sort of rim on whatever they could find. They’d play basketball without a backboard, and Hoke asked if he could join. Willy was their commander. At Pearl Harbor, he reportedly shot down a Japanese plane with a 20-mm gun, and the ship commanders figured he and his men could handle the eight 20-mms on the ship.
On Nov. 25, 1944, it was these men Hoke saw burning when he made it up the ladder. Fifteen men died in the attack, 44 were wounded.
One of the injured was Hoke’s good friend, a man named Heber. They met in line because their names were so close alphabetically. They stood in lines at boot camp, while getting shots, while shuffling through all sorts of administrative business for the U.S. Navy. Eventually, they got to talking.
Heber was a fireman on the Essex. At the time of the attack, he’d been off-duty, trying to escape the stifling heat below deck by hanging out in a cat hole. Firemen often holed in these compartments below the flight deck to write letters, just to get some fresh air.
Heber was badly burned in the explosion. Hoke went to see him a couple of days later.
You know I can’t let you in, said a Marine standing guard outside of sick bay.
Well, he’s a very good friend of mine, Hoke answered.
I can’t let you in, but I do have to go somewhere, the Marine said. I’ll be gone for about three minutes.
Heber was wrapped head to toe, with slits for his eyes and nose. He died a few days later on a hospital ship.
Willy died instantly in the attack. His body was never found, just parts of what may have been him. After the war, Hoke tracked down Willy’s family and wrote them a letter. He told them what had happened to Willy and other sailors manning those 20-mm guns.
“They had the same situation they got now, there were kids that were born that never met their dads,” Hoke said.
Hoke got an answer to his letter. From Willy’s son.