Kamikaze Attack on USS Mullany – A Survivor’s Story
Harlan G. Johnson was born August 3, 1927, in Monmouth, Illinois, to Harlan and Clytie Johnson. Harlan was on board the USS Mullany (DD-528) at Okinawa when it was struck by a Japanese kamikaze plane on April 6, 1945. Major Chris Heatherly recently interviewed him about his experiences. To read about his early experiences in the U.S. Navy, click here.
It was just a graveyard of ships. The guys that were killed were on the fantail in body bags.
Chris Heatherly – What was your reception like when you first joined the Mullany’s crew?
Harlan Johnson – I was completely ignorant of ships. The ship was in drydock at Bethlehem Steel Shipyards and being prepared to go out. I was assigned to chip paint, repaint and clean barnacles. We took a shakedown cruise to San Diego, which was the first time I got sea sick. I also served briefly as a mess cook in the Chief Petty Officers’ Mess. As a mess cook I had keys to the food lockers. Some of the crew had their wives follow them to San Diego and we used to give them butter and other items. I got seasick too much and was made a deckhand. After testing our weapons we were ready for deployment.
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CH – Did the Mullany head directly to combat?
HJ – No. We went to Hawaii next. It took seven days to sail due to the zigzag course. My friend Poling and I were seasick a lot. Destroyers are famous for rolling – it’s a rough ship. My bunk was so far forward that I hit my shoulder on the bulkhead when it rolled. We were there long enough to resupply and then headed to Iwo Jima.
CH – What was your impression of the battle there?
HJ – I wasn’t smart enough to be scared. We were there seven days waiting on the Japanese fleet before we fired a round. I was on lookout duty during the shelling and saw the Marines make their landing. We were aft of the USS Tennessee, and when it fired the sea would smooth out. Our ship fired at Mt. Suribachi, but we called it by its target name of "Hot Rock." One time, our target was a Japanese gun on rails that would come out of a cave and fire ,then return into the mountain. We fired WP (white phosphorus) and it went right into the caves. The crew cheered. It was like a movie to me. I didn’t learn how many troops were lost there until years later.
CH – Were you warned about kamikazes at Iwo Jima?
HJ – No, we never heard anything about them at Iwo although you always looked for enemy planes.
CH – Where was the Mullany sent after Iwo Jima?
HJ – We escorted a hospital ship from Saipan to Iwo. Our orders were to intervene and intercept any torpedoes. After that we went to Okinawa, arriving on the 1st of April for picket duty. Our ship had a public address system. It called the name of ships as they were hit by kamikazes and if they were relieved or sinking.
CH – The Mullany was nearly sunk by a kamikaze at Okinawa. Where were you when it happened?
HJ – The 6th of April was when we got hit. I was a machine-gun talker for the twin 40mm stationed between the starboard and port lookout. We spotted a plane and saw bursts. Over the headset I heard someone call the CIC (Combat Information Center) to request permission to open fire. There was no response. Only two men could give permission, the ship’s captain and our gunnery officer. The gunnery officer, Oliver Hazard Perry, was in the mess eating. Our captain, CDR Albert Momm, was on the bridge waiting to make a decision. Perry entered the CIC yelling to open fire. The plane hit us between the number three and number four gun mounts.
CH – What did you do after the plane hit?
HJ – We lost power. The CIC stopped. Everything stopped. We knocked down two other planes with the forward 5” and the two 40mm. A short time passed, and the captain ordered us to abandon ship. I went down two ladders to the spud locker and the XO (executive officer) was there. He ordered me to give a hand on deck. We began dumping potato crates for the sailors to float on.
CH – How did you get off the ship?
HJ – I had a Mae West life preserver on me. I had always wanted the belt-type life preserver as they were cooler, but they had pinholes and didn’t float. I don’t know how long I was in the water, I later told people six hours. Finally, an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) came to pick us up. It appeared to me as big as a battlewagon. They came under fire and had to back off. The LCI returned, and the crew threw the cargo net over the side. I couldn’t pull myself up the net. A big, burly sailor picked me up and threw me on the deck. We were given dry clothes. Where in the world they had all these clothes I’ll never know. Other ships were picking up our survivors and helped fighting the fires on the Mullany.
CH – What were your thoughts while you were in the water?
HJ – I thought about don’t kick your shoes off while in the water because you could cut on the coral and get gangrene. I must have swallowed about half that Pacific Ocean. I wasn’t too worried about sharks, but I wasn’t going to make any big splashes either.
CH – Your crew was able to save the Mullany from sinking. What happened next?
HJ – That ship was tore up pretty bad where the plane hit. I found out later that the crew from amidships back was unaware of the abandon ship order for some time because they were cut off. I rejoined the ship at Kerama Retto. It was just a graveyard of ships. The guys that were killed were on the fantail in body bags. I had to go back and identify my friend Poling from the guys whose bodies were charred. I had to stand watch because the Japanese were bringing suicide boats in there. Another ship with a hole in the side had Japs swim into it and kill a crewmember. I carried a rifle on the burial detail as the island was not secured yet. We were there for weeks while they made the ship seaworthy. I was amazed when they did. Only one screw worked, which hurt our stability.
CH – What was next for the Mullany?
HJ – We went to Enewitok for supplies and fuel and then headed back to San Francisco to Bethlehem Steel for repairs. We were refitted, had torpedoes removed and quad 40mm added. We headed back to Hawaii, picked up some SeaBees and went to Charleston, South Carolina, to be put into the mothball fleet.
CH – What was next for Harlan Johnson?
HJ – I was discharged shortly after in 1946. I was just luckier than hell.
Harlan later volunteered for the Army and was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division on occupation duty in Japan. He fought with the 1st/7th Cavalry from the Pusan perimeter to Pyongyang and was awarded the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and five battle stars for his duty in Korea. He left the military and returned to Illinois, ultimately settling in his hometown of Monmouth. He was a union official for 20 years before retiring in 1990. Harlan has been married to his wife Delores for 55 years, and they have three children. He spends his time golfing, attending Navy reunions and working for the Democratic Party. Click here to read his early experiences in the Illinois Militia and the U.S. Navy.
Click to read a review of the new documentary on PBS about surviving kamikaze pilots, Wings of Defeat.