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Kamikazes over the fleet at Ormoc Bay

The USS Saratoga takes a kamikaze hit off of Iwo Jima

Kamikazes spotted

That was our destiny


Karr grew up in West Virginia in a little town called Mannington. His father and his relatives worked in the oil fields in West Virginia. He went to a school that was K-12. Karr graduated high school in the spring of 1942. He took a government sponsored course that trained him to be a machinist. Karr had a friend who he hunted with from his school. They were able to land a job in Connecticut. There was about 15 kids who went to the machinist school out of Mannington. They all went up to New Britain, Connecticut. Some of the guys went to work for Stanley Tools. Some went to work for Jacobs Chuck [Annotator's Note: Jacobs Chuck Drill Manufacturing], which was a company located in New Britain. Karr and Edward Sine, his friend who he ran around with, went to a couple's house and had a room there. They stayed up there and worked the night shift from 7 pm to 7 am. They usually worked 6 days a week, never 7. By April of 1943, both Ed and Karr received draft notifications. They went back to West Virginia to take their physicals. They took their physicals on the same day. Ed went into the Army and Karr was chosen to go into the Navy. They were able to determine, based on his work history, which service would be the best. Karr applied to be a machinist in the Navy. From there, he went to Great Lakes Navy boot camp. He remembers Pearl Harbor very well. His friend Edward and him had set traps that day to catch muskrat around their houses. They also trapped skunks and possums. Karr had just left the house, and was going to his trap line when he heard the news about Pearl Harbor. A few of his friends joined a few days after Pearl Harbor, a few of the guys were already in the service. His entire class was either drafted or they volunteered. Boot camp was a new and different experience for Karr. Some of his relatives were in World War I, so he had an idea about what it took to serve.


One of Karr's uncles was an original member of the American Legion when it was founded in Paris in World War I. Another uncle was prepped to go overseas but the war ended before he could go overseas. Karr was automatically selected to go to a different school to learn a specialty. He went to gunnery school in Newport, Rhode Island. They went to gunnery school in November of 1943. They were then sent to an advanced naval gunnery school in Washington, DC. Karr saw Roosevelt when he got back from the Tehran conference. Roosevelt got off of the ship which had sailed up the Potomac river. He received notification that they would be assigned to the crew of the Laffey [Annotator's Note: The Destroyer, USS Laffey, DD-724]. They were then sent to Little Creek, Virginia where there was a base. They were in Little Creek until the end of January 1944. From there they were sent to Boston. Some of the men went directly to Bath, Maine to pick up the ship. The guys who went up to Bath to pick up the ship where caught in a freezing ice storm. When Karr first saw the ship, it was covered in ice; his first job was to clean the ice off of the ship. Karr stayed in Boston for the commissioning of the ship. The Laffey then went on a shakedown cruise [Annotator's Note: Short cruise to test the performance of the ship] and after that they were sent to Bermuda. They got back from Bermuda in March 1944. When Karr was in Bermuda they went out on practice missions. The skipper constantly checked the ship to make sure it was seaworthy. They practiced rolling depth charges off of the stern of the ship. One of the depth charges ended up splitting the bottom of the ship near the stern. The skipper ran all sorts of different maneuvers designed to test the durability of the ship. The skipper was only 34 years old when he took command of the Laffey. When they were in Bermuda they got word that a flying boat had gone down in the ocean near them. Laffey was the first ship to arrive on the scene. They picked up a few of the survivors from the plane crash. Other ships descended upon the scene and got the other guys out safely. Everyone on the plane survived. Some of the guys were in life rafts and had been there for 3 days already.


It was decided that the Laffey was going to head to Washington, DC and be tied up next to the Naval Gun Factory. The Laffey was sent there so the media could see the new Sumner class of destroyers. During that time, Karr had been assigned to the deck watch with the officer of the deck. They were sent on different missions from the deck watch to make sure that people coming to see the ship saw it properly. Karr helped to keep the records of people who came on and off of the ship. He recalls that the WAVES [ Annotator's Note: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, female division of the Navy in WWII] came aboard the ship to check it out. Karr took a couple of them all around the ship. One of the ladies had her dress blown over her head as she attempted to climb down below. It caused quite a stir. Karr and the Laffey were then sent to New London, Connecticut. They were in New London for a few days then the Laffey was sent to Boston for modifications. From Boston they were sent to New York City to pick up a convoy and head to England. They ended up in the North Sea with the convoy. There was a submarine contact in the North Sea, so the Laffey was scrambled and they dropped depth charges. It turned out to be a huge group of fish. Dead fish were everywhere. They docked in the harbor at Plymouth. They could see the Germans firing V-2 rockets. They would pass over their heads. Whenever the rockets passed overhead, the air raid sirens would sound. One day a big British flying boat came into Plymouth Harbor and it hit a buoy when it attempted to land. The crew ran out and got on the wings and needed to be rescued. The flying boat ended up sinking. After about a week they brought a barge in to salvage the plane. When the plane got to the surface during the salvage attempt, it was full of water and as soon as it got out of the water, the lines snapped and the plane sunk back to the bottom. Shortly after that they were told they had to cross the channel to provide support for the invasion. They started out assigned to escort a group of LCT's [Annotator's Note: Landing Craft, Tank]. There were over a hundred LCT's the Laffey was assigned to watch over. They had to order some of the LCT's back because they were damaged or not working properly. Some of the crews got completely seasick and had to go back. On their way across the Channel, Karr witnessed a British troopship hitting a mine. It was the first combat they witnessed. The Laffey turned around after their escorting was done and they went to Waymouth, England. They stayed there for a night and the next day they escorted more landing craft to the beach. They shelled the landing beaches at Normandy for a week. During the Normandy landings, Karr was in the 40 mm director which was on the bridge. He was close to where the skipper manned the ship.


They were on General's Quarters [Annotator's Note: ready for battle] for 72 hours. The guys would take turns on their stations grabbing food or going to the bathroom. They stayed aboard their stations for 3 days. After the 3rd day, Karr was standing at his station and collapsed from exhaustion. He had fallen down and eventually he woke up on the deck. No one said anything to him. He witnessed numerous flights of planes flying over him heading inland to bomb targets. They also saw a few planes drop parachute infantry. The Laffey ended up spending all of its ammunition in support of the landings. After they had expended their ammunition they had to go back to England to resupply. The Laffey was along the picket line as ships were going in. One night, a group of German PT boats came and sunk a few ships. They had picked up the German PT's on radar so they went into evasive action. Karr recalls the Laffey firing star shells so that the German PT's were lit up. The Laffey was credited with sinking 2 of those German PT boats. On the 25th of June, the Laffey was assigned to escort the battleships and cruisers that were shelling Cherbourg. The minesweepers were ahead of the Laffey. The Germans held their fire until the ships were close to shore. The Germans began to fire and the shells went over the Laffey at first. Karr received an order to lay down a smokescreen. They laid the smokescreen down and the Laffey's batteries opened up on the shore. The Germans finally surrendered around 3 in the afternoon. The Army had come in behind Cherbourg and once the Germans realized they were surrounded they surrendered. Just about every ship going in was hit. Karr has a small piece of shrapnel that landed in his gun mount. They were on their way out, heading back to base, and they discovered that the system that demagnetizes the hull was not working. An 8 inch shell had penetrated the bow and messed up the demagnetization system. They were released to go back to the United States after they supported the landings. On their way back they stopped in Ireland. Their squadron met with Churchill and some of the other dignitaries in Ireland. From Ireland they did a speed run back to Boston. They wanted to see how fast the ship could travel. They approached Newfoundland and hit a storm with 50 foot swells. There was a million dollars worth of damage done to the ship as a result of the storm. Karr was in Mount #2 during the storm. It was a hectic experience. At one point there was 2-3 feet of standing water in the bottom of the ship. Karr was sent down to help get the water out and he notes it was the 1st time he ever got seasick.


Karr recalls having to go up on deck with buckets of water from down below. One of the times he went up to dump a bucket out and ended up throwing up from the seasickness. They got back to Boston and the damage that was done to the ship was assessed. The Laffey went into port with about 5 other ships from the same convoy. They all had similar damage done from the storm they passed through near Newfoundland. The other 5 ships were Sumner class. They spent the rest of the summer in Boston having modifications made to the ship. They were given a 2 week leave to go back home. They were then sent down through the Panama Canal. When they got to the Canal, a few guys refused to go back into combat. They remained in Panama and were eventually court-martialed. From Panama, they went to San Diego, and then on to Pearl Harbor. They got to Pearl Harbor in late September of 1944. They only stopped in Pearl Harbor for a little while. Most of the time they practiced with their guns. The Laffey was assigned to escort the battleship USS North Carolina to Australia. As they arrived at Eniwetok or Midway. [Annotators Note: Karr is not sure as to whether it was Midway or Eniwetok.] The Laffey's crew was preparing to cross the equator when they found out about the battle raging at Leyte. The Laffey changed its direction so that it could go rendezvous with the fleet near the Philippines. Karr never did cross the equator. They went to Leyte Gulf. In Leyte, it was the 1st time they had seen the kamikazes. It was a totally foreign idea and no one liked it. Karr had problems visualizing the thoughts that were required of a kamikaze pilot. Just about every day, he recalls seeing a ship coming in with damage from a kamikaze. They figured out that the kamikazes would attack the ships late in the evening, using the sun as a cover. Lookouts had to be very sharp. A lot of the guys were well aware of the Japanese strategy and how it made them look desperate. They stayed at Leyte until they got word to go to Mindoro. They escorted troops from Leyte Gulf to the other side of the island. The Laffey turned around and went back after they dropped the troops off. One of the escorting destroyers was the Cooper [Annotator's Note: USS Cooper, DD-695]. The Cooper was sunk by a torpedo; a lot of the guys from the Cooper were able to swim to a nearby island. Most of the guys were picked up and sent back.


They went directly into Ormoc Bay [Annotator's Note: Philippines]. Once the troops landed the kamikazes started to attack. The P-40's [Annotator's Note: Curtis P-40 Warhawk] were available for fighter cover. The P-40's looked a lot like some of the Japanese aircraft. When the P-40's first came in a few of the ships did not recognize that they were friendly and shot some of them down. They pulled the P-40's out and brought in the P-38's [Annotator's Note: P-38 Lightning]. The Japanese did strange things that afternoon. They sent the kamikazes in one at a time. They were moving out and moving along. As they were doing this they could see planes coming. Six P-38's went up high and when the kamikazes came in the P-38's would swoop in and shoot them down. Those 6 planes shot down a lot of the kamikazes. They then went to Mindoro, which was another island near Manila. They caught a Japanese freighter hauling troops near Mindoro. The freighter did not have any escorts and the Laffey ended up sinking the freighter. The Japanese were not used to the opposition. They went back to Leyte and they stayed there until they composed the fleet to go to Lingayen Gulf and Luzon. On the way up to Lingayen, they encountered a typhoon. It was a massive typhoon. At Luzon, they were assigned to an area that was 500 yards wide and 500 yards deep into the beach. Before any ships went in, they had a firing period of about 2 hours. They blasted everything on the beach and the surrounding area. The trees were leveled. They were close enough to see everything that was going on. The battleship West Virginia set up right behind the Laffey, they were firing inland about 9 to 10 miles. They set up rows of cruisers and battlewagons and destroyers to effectively cover all land from the beach to 9-10 miles inland. After the shelling, the troops would go into shore. The troops were able to advance rapidly onto the shore. In the 1st day the troops advanced to the air base and seized it. After the Laffey's job was done, they left and joined the sea command. They went on raids to Taiwan and different Japanese bases. They went to Ulithi Atoll and fired on targets there. Another task force was assembled to make a raid on Tokyo when the landings were taking place on Iwo Jima. The Laffey escorted 4 carriers. There were 5 task forces so there were 20 carriers total. There were about 1,200 aircraft available to be put into the air.


They were escorting 1 of the carriers and their flight crew. Their flight crew got caught out at night. They attempted to land in the dark, but a few guys bailed out in the ocean. The skipper on the carrier finally turned on the lights and they were able to land. They received orders to pick up downed pilots. One of the downed pilots was eventually transferred back to his carrier from the Laffey. The gunners had the responsibility of handling the lines when the ship tied up. Karr's friend, Larry, was assigned to handle the line throwing gun. The gun was fired to launch the lines where they needed to go. The goal of the gun was to fire the lines up to the carrier so that the 2 ships could moor together. The line firing gun kicked so hard that Karr's friend Larry would have a huge bruise on his shoulder. They went up and got within a few miles of Japan. The Laffey was sent to look for downed pilots and people lost at sea. They never did find anyone. They left the area around Japan and headed back for Iwo Jima. They never did get an assignment to shell the beach. The Saratoga [Annotator's Note: Aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, CV-3] was out, maybe 5 miles from Karr. The Saratoga was hit with a kamikaze; they could see the fire and the smoke. The damage was pretty severe. From Iwo Jima, they went back to Ulithi Atoll and joined the task force that was going to Okinawa. They got to Okinawa about 2 days before the landing forces landed so that they could shell the beach. The troops moved in and landed on Okinawa. They did not have any assignments for the picket stations. The kamikazes were damaging the ships that lined up to go in. One of the ships got hit and the fire director was picked up out of the water and brought on board the Laffey. They could see the ships that were damaged. It was one of those things that the crew of the Laffey saw and felt that their fate was resigned to that. They arrived off of Okinawa on Friday [Annotator's Note: 30 March 1945] and were hit on that Monday. They were well aware of the hazard posed by the kamikazes.


The ship that the Laffey relieved had been there a week and never got hit. They got off of the coast of Okinawa on a Friday [Annotator's Note: 30 March 1945] . Monday morning they received notification that there were kamikazes in the area, about 50 of them. The 50 planes were split into 2 groups. One group came after the Laffey. They figured there were about 25 planes that attacked the Laffey. The Marine Corsairs [Annotator's Note: Vought F4U Corsair] based on a carrier were launched to help combat the kamikazes. The 1st gun to fire was Karr's friend Larry's gun. The 1st flight of kamikazes was picked up about 8 to 9 miles away from the fleet. One of the 1st kamikazes to come at the ship was shot down. Sometimes 4 or 5 different gun stations were firing in all directions. This effectively split up the firepower of the Laffey. The fire control director had control of all of the 5-inch guns. They could bring those 5 guns to bear on 1 spot. As the battle progressed, Karr was on the 40-millimeter gun mount. Mount Number 43. A kamikaze was coming in just above the water towards the stern of the ship. The skipper had already picked up speed and began to turn. The 40-millimeter and 20-millimeter guns were the only protection they had available to themselves. The 5-inch guns were busy firing. Karr looked down and was able to see the pilot in the kamikaze. The pilot was attempting to fly the plane straight. Karr was able to shoot down a kamikaze at about 100 yards. The plane hit the water and blew up. Another plane lined up to hit the Laffey and the gunners were attempting to shoot the plane down. Mount Number 44 hardly got a shot off before the kamikaze hit the mount. The plane cartwheeled over the top of Karr's mount and as the plane passed over it spewed gas over everyone. The gas lit a few men on fire. His crew was able to jump out of the way and jump onto the main deck. Karr was not able to jump down immediately because he had headphones on. He was able to dive underneath the 40-millimeter gun. They took another hit and the ammunition started to explode.


K.D. Jones was Karr's pointer on the gun mount. Jones and Karr were able to get down and crawl out onto the deck. They stayed low because the ammunition was exploding in all directions. They both got out; but both men, especially Karr was shaken to the point where he could not talk. He took a moment to realize what happened and pray to God that he was going to do everything he could. From that time on, Karr had complete peace and took care of everything he had to do. He went down to the main deck. When he got down he discovered that most men were in a state of confusion. Karr saw his buddy Skee [Annotator's Note: Ski? - spelling unknown], a gun captain, coming from the other side of the ship. Skee had been blown out of his gun mount. At this time the planes were attacking the bow of the ship. Skee was manning the 5-inch guns. Skee was looking over the side of the ship to see his targets. A kamikaze ended up hitting the 5-inch gun and Skee was blown back towards the deck. Skee came up the deck and they said they were going to fill the 20-millimeter magazines. Skee was able to get the magazines full. Karr helped to carry some of the ammunition that was needed for the gun mount. Lieutenant Runk saw Karr and told him to go tell the skipper that they had taken a bomb in the steering control room. The steering control room was under water and the rudder was jammed. Karr took the message to the captain on the bridge and went back to grab more 20-millimeter magazine ammo. Karr turned around to leave and a bomb hit occured on the water near the ship. He had gotten downstairs and a man started yelling for help. It was his friend Burgess; the bomb had blown his leg off. Karr managed to grab him and was able to tie a tourniquet around his leg. Karr yelled to another guy to help him carry Burgess to the medical room. Karr was able to give the men artificial respiration. An officer came by and brought some morphine to the injured guys. The officer checked Burgess and his missing leg and informed the guys that Burgess was not going to make it.


It turned out that a small piece of shrapnel had severed Burgess's spinal chord. Burgess was 18 years old. Karr had just turned 21 on the 10th of April. Word was passed that everything on the ship, including the guns, had to be jettisoned because they feared that they were going to sink. The Laffey in the meanwhile had taken 2 bombs in the middle of the ship. The bombs ended up flooding all of the aft compartments. Control teams had set up pumps to get the water out. By this time a seagoing tug had pulled alongside the Laffey. The tug brought extra pumps to help get the water out. The battle had basically stopped at this point. One of the officers approached Karr and asked him to help 1 of the gunners mates, second class. The man had taken a piece of shrapnel to the shoulder and the artery was severed. Karr had to help apply pressure to stop the bleeding. He had not realized that they had been under attack for about an hour and a half. Time passed very quickly because of all of the tasks they had to do. There was no concept of time. The tug came and got the Laffey under tow. The tug was able to bring the Laffey back to port. Divers were sent over to asses the damage to the ship below the waterline. The divers were able to weld the hole in the bottom of the ship. They stayed in port for about 3 days. At night time they were getting raided. The picket stations were providing cover for the base. There were a lot of ammunition and troop ships staged in that area. Karr estimates that there were 10 different picket stations. He found out later that a lot of the kamikazes were coming from Taiwan. They ended up fixing the Laffey and she was sent back to the states for repairs. After the Laffey was repaired they were sent to Saipan. Karr had an uncle on Saipan. He got permission from the skipper to go on shore and meet his uncle. He still has a picture of he and his uncle on Saipan. The wounded were flown to Saipan and Karr was able to visit a bunch of the guys in the hospital. The Laffey then made port at Pearl Harbor. As they entered Pearl Harbor there was a carrier coming out. The skipper of the carrier had all of the men lined up to honor the Laffey. They stood there and saluted the men of the Laffey. There was a lot of feeling there with the crew. The skipper was then sent back to Annapolis [Annotator's Note: United State Naval Academy] to explain the methods the Laffey had used to survive. There had not been any other ship attacked during the war like the Laffey was attacked. The skipper and the gunnery officers performed well during the attack. Karr notes he did the things that had to be done automatically without thinking. The training had become 2nd nature.


Karr believed that Admiral Becton [Annotator's Note: F. Julian Becton was the Commander of the Laffey] was a very, very great man. He respected the seaman on the ship, as well as the officers. Becton expected the officers to respect the men. The officers did respect the men. Karr often wondered how much control Becton had over selecting the crew. Karr notes that most of the men were randomly assigned. About half of the guys who were killed were gunner's mates. The bombs that were dropped on the ship ended up killing about as many sailors as the kamikazes. The Laffey took in total 6 kamikaze hits. The bombs blew one of the 20-millimeter gun mounts out of place. They figured it was a 500-pound bomb. One of the gunner's mates was in Mount 2, which was a 5-inch gun mount. The gunnery officer was in charge of mount 2; he survived[Annotators Note: Karr proceeds to show the camera a reunion photo from guys who were aboard the ship].When Karr thinks about the day of the attack, he thinks about everything that happened. He can still see the shells coming at the Laffey. When he reflects on it he recalls that it was a confusing and terrifying period. Up until the ship got hit, Karr did not know what to expect. After the ship got hit, he had a sensation of peace; he knew what the worst was like. His gun crew survived. He still stays in contact with the guys from his crew who are still alive. Most of them are dead however. Karr's buddy Skee [Annotator's Note: Ski?] is still around.


Karr found out from the Laffey's newsletter that one of his buddies had fallen and broken his hip. Karr did not go to the reunion this year because he was attending a family reunion instead. The last reunion for the Laffey he went to was in Virginia Beach. His wife was one of the people who came on board in Seattle during the war; that is how they met. Karr's wife was working for the VA [Annotator's Note: Veteran's Affairs], which was about 2 blocks away from Pier 48, where the Laffey docked. The ship had an open house so people could come aboard. There was a long line of people trying to see the ship on Memorial Day. Karr's wife and a girlfriend were together attempting to see the ship. The girlfriend ended up meeting a guy on board and that is how he was introduced to his wife. It was love at first sight for Karr. Karr is extremely proud to have served on the Laffey. He thinks it is important that we have museums such as the National WWII Museum. People need to understand that there is a price for freedom. Freedom is not free. Karr came back to the United States and went to West Virginia University. He was an engineer for 58 years after the war. He helped to build logging machines. Karr actually helped to design some of the logging equipment. They built bridge cranes and gate hoists for the Columbia River.

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