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4 old sailors hold reunion, honoring crew mates who died on USS Emmons

Armand J. Jolly stood on the bow of the USS Emmons, looking for Japanese kamikaze airplanes.

He and the rest of the 300 sailors on the minesweeper had survived naval battles in the Atlantic and Pacific, and they could tell the war was nearing an end.

That afternoon — April 6, 1945 — off shore from Okinawa, Jolly spotted an enemy plane. Then dozens more.

The first planes rocked a nearby destroyer.

More kamikazes filled the sky and went after Jolly’s ship, a destroyer that had been converted into a minesweeper. The crew knocked down six but five planes got through and struck the Emmons, crippling the ship. Jolly, 22 at the time, suffered burns to his hands and face.

Sixty crew mates died and another 77 were wounded. A day later, the Emmons was intentionally sunk to keep it from drifting into enemy hands.

Photo Gallery: USS Emmons survivors tell their story

Jolly, now 94, recounted that battle and the end of the Emmons Friday as he sat in a folding chair on the deck of the USS Little Rock at Canalside. He had traveled from his home in Connecticut to Buffalo for a reunion of what is left of the crew. Just four showed up.

They held their memorial service on the Little Rock to honor those killed and remember shipmates who have died since. And they shared memories from that day in 1945.

Jolly’s voice held no animosity for the long-ago enemy pilots.

“That was their job, to get rid of us, and they did it,” he said.

Yu Miyaji, who reports for the national Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, was seated next to him and listened intently. She told Jolly that the Emmons is mostly intact, beneath 150 feet of water off Okinawa’s Motobu peninsula.

Miyaji is also a scuba diver, and she has dived down to the wreck a number times and written stories about it in her search for the remains of the Japanese warplanes.

“On the ship, you see the guns and the washrooms, and you realize that this is not just a chunk of metal. This is where people lived,” Miyaji said.

She said she was emotionally overcome during her first dive after the Emmons was discovered in 2001. A typhoon had churned up an oil slick from its engines, providing a clue that led to the discovery.

Jolly listened meditatively to her. He knew something about that oil.

After watching the kamikazes approach and dive into the nearby USS Rodman, Jolly said he ran for the compartment of his battle station, the “No. 1 Gun,” which fired 5-inch shells.

He and four other sailors started loading the long gun and firing, while machine gunners on the deck took aim at the enemy planes.

“The sky was full of kamikazes,” recalled Tony Esposito, one of the other three former sailors who showed for the reunion.

Esposito, now 93, came to Buffalo from Fishkill.

In quick succession at around 5:30 p.m., five crashed into the Emmons. Some struck the fantail, ruining the boat’s drive shafts, propellers and rudder.

Another plane hit below Jolly’s battle station.

“Flames shot up into our compartment and killed one of our crew. I operated the periscope to direct where we fired, and if my eyes hadn’t been up against the periscope, they would have been burned,” he said.

The vessel was powerless and ablaze as ammunition exploded. The order came to “abandon ship.” Jolly had no time to put on a life vest and leaped some 20 feet off the deck into oil slicked waters.

“I had oil all over my clothes and it kept me afloat,” he said.

Jolly isn’t sure how long he was in the water, 15 minutes, maybe 30. What he does recall is that he was alone and it was eerily quiet.

“I was not enjoying it. Then all of a sudden one of my shipmates grabbed me and put me in a lifeboat from the Emmons,” he said.

That was Esposito. He and three or four other sailors had cut loose a whaler boat from the destroyer’s deck.

“We were going around picking up guys. We took the first couple who were badly injured to a hospital boat and kept going back. We picked up maybe seven guys,” Esposito said.

During the rescues, he looked back at the Emmons.

“There was water up to the main deck and there were flames. Oh, man, my heart was breaking. It was like seeing my home go down,” Esposito said.

Jolly was taken to the hospital ship and later transferred to a hospital at Guam.

He remembers sitting bare chested and watching from a second-floor porch when an admiral, he believes it was Chester W. Nimitz, arrived to award Purple Hearts to the wounded.

“A nurse was looking for me and told me, ‘The admiral wants to pin a Purple Heart on you,’ and I said, ‘I don’t have a pajama top.’ I was shirtless.

“She said, ‘I’ll get you a shirt.’ It was just in time. The admiral came to me and placed the Purple Heart on my chest,” Jolly said.

Did he speak with the admiral?

“I didn’t say a thing. The admiral was too busy. There were a lot of people there that got hurt.”

The reunion at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park was a chance to remember the crew mates who died in the battle at Okinawa.

“I think about them 24 hours a day,” Esposito said.

Jolly says it’s the same for him.

“I think about them all the time. They are my brothers,” he said.

“Who wouldn’t think about them?” said Warren Sparks, 96, who served in communications on the Emmons. He traveled from Burlington, Vt., for the reunion.

Ed Krom, a boatswain’s mate on the Emmons, said he too thinks about those who died, but he could not resist relishing the moment when he arrived from Kingston at the sun-filled park beside the Buffalo River to honor his fallen shipmates.

“I feel fine,” Krom, 90, robustly called out, raising appreciative laughter from those around him.

There are other shipmates from the Emmons still alive, but not everyone was well enough to attend. Instead, some of their families attended.

“My dad Joe very much wanted to be here, but he has health issues,” said Mary Kay Mikuska, who came from Joliet, Ill., with her husband to represent the 95-year-old sailor. “There are about 15 shipmates across the country who were unable to come.”

In the last year, seven shipmates have died, according to Tom Hoffman, who led the memorial service. His father, Edwin, was one of them.

No sailors from the Buffalo area who may have served on the ship were present. But Hoffman said the late Frederick L. Igou, a Niagara Falls resident, had served on the ship and survived.

Jolly and many others at the memorial said that it is their responsibility to keep alive the memories of their fallen shipmates.

“We’re going to continue this as long as we can,” Jolly said. “And when we’re gone, our children will take over and keep it going.”

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