La Grande World War II veteran Dan Kramer does not remember the exact time, but he will never forget the sight — an image of almost certain death raining down from the sky.
The date was April 3, 1945, and Kramer was aboard a Navy cargo ship, the USS Algol, just off the shore of the Japanese island of Okinawa, when he saw a Zero Japanese fighter plane directly overhead. The plane’s pilot was diving toward Kramer’s ship from a height of 13,000 feet.
“Usually Kamikazes came at ships from the side, but this one was coming straight down,” Kramer said.
The USS Algol’s crew opened fire on the plane, but kept coming straight at the ship until it veered away about 2,000 feet above the ship, crashing into the ocean about 80 yards away.
The plane’s drop from 13,000 to 2,000 feet had taken mere seconds, but not in Kramer’s mind.
“It seemed like a half hour,” the Navy veteran said.
The Zero aircraft became a ball of fire after crashing.
“It was loaded with charges and exploded,” Kramer said.
Had the Zero hit the ship, the resulting fire would have been devastating for its crew, who had been unloading many large barrels of gasoline from the deck into smaller boats.
“It would have been a bonfire that wouldn’t quit,” Kramer said of the blaze the plane would have caused.
In the aftermath of the Kamikaze attack, a name tag from the pilot’s uniform was found floating in the water. Kramer was given the name tag and still has it today. The cloth tag, now in a frame, displays the name of a boy who was just 13 years old.
“Someone offered me $3,000 for it several years ago. It is worth much more than that,” Kramer said.
The attempted Kamikaze attack on the USS Algol was one of many Kramer saw near Okinawa in early April 1945.
“We saw six or seven a day (against other ships),” he said.
Several of the Kamikaze attacks hit their targets, including one that crashed into a hospital ship.
“(The Kamikaze experience) was a nightmare. I can talk about it now, but I couldn’t for many years,” Kramer said.
The USS Algol remained anchored off the shore of Okinawa for several days, while its crew loaded 21 boats with supplies and equipment for troops sent to the island. It was a precarious situation for the American ship.
“We were lucky,” Kramer said. “Beaches on both sides of us were hit (by enemy fire), but not ours.”
Kramer’s ship was spared attacks by Japanese guns and artillery, but not the horrifically turbulent waters caused by two typhoons in the Pacific. So rough were some of the waters that Kramer’s ship was once tilted at a 38-degree angle, two degrees past its capacity for rough seas.
“I don’t know how (the storm) didn’t break our ship in half,” he said. “Typhoons wrecked a lot of ships.”
So high were some of the waves the USS Algol was subjected to that the crew could not see over them.
“You could not see ships that were close to you,” Kramer said.
There was little the crew could do in such rough waters.
“You couldn’t buck the storm,” he said. “You just had to go with it.”
Kramer was a radio operator on the USS Algol, recording the Morse code signals he received from shortwave radio. The messages were a series of letters that seemed random until translated by a code breaker machine on the ship. Recording Morse code signals was an intense experience, Kramer recalled.
“Two hours was the most you could (work) at one time. After that your brain would be going in all directions,” he said.
In addition to military orders, the ship received news from the United States by Morse code, which Kramer helped share with the rest of his ship’s 440-man crew.
“We printed our own newspaper,” he said, referring to a newsletter printed with a mimeograph machine, which was distributed on board. It was a popular publication.
“Everyone wanted to know about the news,” the WWII veteran said.
Kramer, like everyone else on the USS Algol, was thousands of miles from home. He spent much of his childhood in North Dakota and later moved to White Salmon, Washington, with his family. There he finished high school, graduating in the middle of his senior year, after which he enlisted in the Navy.
He joined one day before his 18th birthday, which was not an accident. Kramer explained that at that time anyone who joined the Army before he turned 18 could choose the branch of service he would serve in. Those who had not enlisted by age 18 would be drafted and not be able to choose their branch of the service.
Kramer, who was honorably discharged from the Navy a few months after WWII ended, moved to
La Grande six years ago from Medford to be near his son Ted, former editor and publisher of The Observer.
Today, at 94, Kramer is a picture of health and has a youthful spring in his step.
“I’m fortunate. I have longevity on both sides of my family,” Kramer said.