World War II veteran as long-lived as his ship

MARYSVILLE — Sixty-five years ago today, on April 16, 1945, the USS Laffey was hit by kamikaze planes during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.

The destroyer did not sink. It has since been referred to as “The Ship That Would Not Die.”

Robert Karr of Marysville, a gunner’s mate on the ship that day, could be called the man who would not die.

Karr, who turned 86 on Saturday, was just 21 at the time of the attack. One of the Japanese planes hit within 20 to 30 feet of a 40 mm antiaircraft gun where he was stationed.

The plane smashed and bounced up as it hit the deck, sending debris flying, and flames from the crash detonated U.S. Navy shells stored nearby.

Karr was sheltered from that carnage by the large antiaircraft gun. Engulfed by smoke and fire, he crawled out on his hands and knees.

Later, during the 90-minute onslaught, Karr carried ammunition to another antiaircraft gun. A Japanese plane dropped a bomb that exploded in the water just off the ship’s port side.

Shrapnel killed one man nearby, and another had his leg torn off from mid-thigh down.

Karr was fully exposed to the line of flying debris. Again, he was not hit.

“The fellow who had his leg blown off probably was five feet behind me,” Karr said, his eyes brimming with emotion all these years later.

Thirty-two of the 336 men on board perished in the attack and 17 were wounded. Karr was not injured.

“Never had a scratch,” he said. “The good Lord looked after me all the way.”

The ship, positioned to the north of Okinawa, between the islands and Japan, was attacked by 22 planes. Three kamikaze pilots hit the plane’s stern, killing about 20 men there, Karr said. The one that hit near Karr’s antiaircraft gun circled over the ship and came back around. Another hit the ship’s mast, and an American Corsair fighter plane chasing that Japanese plane hit the mast as well, Karr said.

The ship also was hit by four bombs. The crewmen managed to shoot down 11 Japanese planes.

During the attack, Karr helped several of his fallen shipmates.

He grabbed a shirt and tied a tourniquet around the upper thigh of the man who lost his leg. Karr and a shipmate carried the man into the officers’ ward room, which had become the makeshift emergency room, but the man bled to death, Karr said.

He helped another sailor whose shoulder was bleeding profusely from a shrapnel wound, keeping pressure on the wound until a medic arrived.

As for the ship, it partially sank so the deck was only about a foot above the water level but stayed afloat, Karr said. It was towed to Okinawa to be repaired so it could move under its own power.

Karr’s stint on the Laffey began about a year earlier in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. Karr joined the Navy in 1943 at age 19; the ship was commissioned in 1944.

The ship was offshore during the invasion and provided support to Allied forces for about another month, Karr said.

At one point, a German shell struck the ship but did not detonate. It wasn’t discovered for about two hours, Karr said. A bomb crew had to be called in to remove the shell.

While the Laffey was sailing across the Atlantic on its way to the war in the Pacific, it hit a heavy storm near Newfoundland and encountered 50-foot swells, he said. The water came over the ship’s deck and caused extensive damage that had to be repaired on the East Coast before it could move on.

Karr and the Laffey spent about eight months in the Pacific theater and during that time shelled Iwo Jima prior to the U.S. invasion there.

After the kamikaze attack, the USS Laffey and remaining crew, including Karr, sailed to Seattle so the ship could be fully repaired. The ship was opened to the public and 93,000 people went aboard, according to a book about the ship, “The Ship that Would Not Die,” by F. Julian Becton with Joseph Morschauser III.

With the war’s end on Aug. 14, 1945 the ship and Karr were still there. In Seattle, Karr, a West Virginia native, met his wife, Ardath.

The two were married in 1947, had one son and now have three granddaughters and seven great-grandchildren. Ardath is 91 and the couple recently celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary.

Karr became a mechanical engineer, working 58 years for Smith Berger Marine of Seattle. The company made logging and other equipment. Karr had another close call on a logging job once, when he was whipped across the back by steel cable guidelines that had cut loose.

If the cables had hit higher, “it would have cut my head off,” he said.

Only about 40 members of the Laffey crew are still living, according to Daniel Carlsson, a World War II buff who lives in Irvine, Calif. He interviewed Karr about two years ago and wrote a short unpublicized account of Karr’s life and his stint on the ship.

Reunions of the crew are held every year, Karr said.

The Laffey served during the Korean War and was decommissioned in 1975. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986, according to Carlsson, and was taken to the Patriots Point floating museum in Charleston, S.C.

The ship remains there today. Its hull was recently refurbished.

Karr’s eyes well with tears when he contemplates why he survived the attack when others did not.

“He’s a good person,” his wife said.

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

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