PINE RIDGE—On April 16, 1945, at 8:42 a.m., off the coast of Okinawa, a Japanese D3A kamikaze bomber made a run on the USS destroyer Laffey. The 336 men on the Laffey were about to be subjected to the largest kamikaze attack of WWII. This particular bomber went for the biggest gun on the ship, grazing the top of the gun mount and starting a gasoline fire. All of those manning the 5”/127 mm dual purpose gun were burned, but despite his injuries, one remained at his post firing the gun, twenty-year-old James Lapointe, of Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
It is hard to say precisely how many kamikaze planes Lapointe helped down, but five D3A’s later, a kamikaze pilot finally got through, and scored a direct hit on Mount #53, Lapointe’s gun, and he was killed instantly.
Kamikaze means “divine wind” in Japanese. This was the name given to special suicide squads who would dive their plane directly into ships. The Japanese found that a kamikaze run was far more likely to sink a ship than conventional means. Almost 4000 kamikaze pilots died during the closing stages of the war, and their attacks killed more than 7,000 Allied sailors, mostly Americans, and mostly young men, like James Lapointe.
Frank Morrison is Lapointe’s first cousin. He is now retired and living in Idaho, but he reached out to NSNT, because he wanted the story of his cousin’s heroism and sacrifice to be told.
Speaking about his cousin, Frank said: “His mother and my dad were brother and sister. I can’t tell you too much about his younger days because he died before I was even born. I’m an old guy too, but not quite that old.”
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“(James) turned eighteen,” Morrison said, “and there was about seven of those young fellas (from Pine Ridge) went up to Rapid City and joined the military. They were just young whippersnappers, they didn’t really know what they were doing, but their country had been attacked and they felt they had better do their part to help save their country.”
Almost all of the boys from Pine Ridge enlisted in the Navy, perhaps they thought this would be the surest, quickest way to see the world.
“(James) was assigned to the USS Laffey,” Morrison said. “He was involved with the D-Day invasion of Normandy (June 6, 1944). They didn’t really get into any combat, but they were in support of it. Directly from there, they went to the Pacific and Pearl Harbor. He bounced around through the different battles, but then Okinawa was toward the end of the war and the Japanese were getting their butts beat, so they intensified their operation, and they were attacking anything that floated. That’s when they came up with the kamikaze pilots. The Laffey was radar picket #1, and what they did was screen for the aircraft carriers to shoot down enemy planes. They sent messages back to the rest of the fleet, so the kamikazes wanted to eliminate the very first ship. On that day 22 kamikazes attacked the Laffey. James was a gunner on Mount #53, which is the very back 5” gun, that’s the big gun on the back of the ship. I think it was the seventh kamikaze, grazed the top of the mount and started a gasoline fire which burnt a lot of the guys on that gun mount, and most of them went to get medical attention but James being the Lakota warrior he was, stayed at his post and continued to shoot down planes. The 12th kamikaze scored a direct hit on that gun mount and killed him instantly.”
Sailors returning from war have stories to tell, but Lapointe did not return and so his story must be told by others.
“His sister is still living,” Frank said of Lapointe. “(James) was her big brother and she said he was just a fantastic person, friendly, outgoing, always looking out for other people, and he did that to his last day. He helped save 300 people on his ship, 32 of them died that day, but because of his actions, 300 of them lived. After the fact, there was nothing left of him to bury so what remains they could find they buried at sea. He has a marker at Black Hills National Cemetery but there’s no body there. He was given two purple hearts because he was wounded once and then killed, and then he got the silver star (for gallantry in combat).”
Because the USS Laffey survived against impossible odds, she earned the nickname “The Ship That Would Not Die.” She was not decommissioned until 1975, and today is a National Historic Landmark, preserved as a museum ship at Patriot’s Point, Charleston, South Carolina. Her commander during the kamikaze attack, Frederick Becton, wrote a book about the Laffey, in which Morrison said James Lapointe is mentioned three times.