World War II vet recalls battle at sea

Photo courtesy navsource.orgPhoto by Louis IsraelPhoto courtesy the Schlick familyPhoto courtesy the Schlick family
By: 
Louis Israel
Staff Writer

For Leonard George Schlick, the story ends well. Eased into a chair in his son’s house in Big Pine, encouraged by two of his seven children, he tells it again, or what he can remember of it. It ends well by virtue of the fact that his kids are there; that victory in Japan was declared three months later; that he went on to live a life so full since then, memories of the horrors of war long replaced by memories of a career in the antenna business, another as a bar owner, and yet another as a nightclub hypnotist.
The story of the battle itself, however, May 27, 1945 on board the USS Braine, doesn’t end well. Nevertheless his children, Kary and Kent Schlick, encourage the retelling. Perhaps that’s because with each retelling, Leonard Schlick is able to recall some new pieces, even if he forgets some others. Having heard it, they can fill more of the blanks that pop up each time around.
Or perhaps it’s for a simpler reason that can’t be precisely explained. Some human truth that it just feels good to hear the voice of an old man, reaching back through seven decades of faded memories, and telling the story one more time.
• • •
From his post reloading five-inch rounds into the 16-foot gun on the USS Braine, it was impossible to see. But he could hear. Kamikaze planes were coming in. The first two were shot down by the Braine and another Fletcher-class destroyer sailing next to her, the USS Anthony. The third one made it through to the Braine. It hit the forward portion of the ship, over the main deck, the plane shearing itself in half on the No. 1 gun and smashing into the No. 2 Handling Room, killing the gunners inside. The plane’s 550-pound bomb – rigged with a timed fuse designed to be delivered by suicide plane to maximize damage – slammed into the Wardroom and exploded a moment later, demolishing the Combat Information Center and killing all those inside: the executive officer, fire control officers, a repair party and men in the forward medical station including the doctor.
The next Kamikaze plane hit was even worse, striking amidships. The effect was severe. The ship may not have been cut in half, but it was close to it. The No. 2 Stack exploded into the sea. Sailors and medics in the area were blown into the water, bodies blasted apart by the force of the bomb. Fire raged, communications and control were lost.
Before the planes hit, the skipper had given the order “right full rudder, flank speed.” The order turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.
After the final hit, the rudder was locked in a full right-turn position, the propeller power locked on, and the ship began to drive itself in a continuous circle at 20 knots; a 376-foot destroyer swinging around in an unstoppable clumsy loop on the water.
Had the rudder not been turned, the ship would have sailed straight ahead, unimpeded. The LCS ships (Landing Craft Support ships, nicknamed “Pall Bearers”) running alongside would not have been able to keep up. Had those ships been left behind, a rescue would have been impossible. A blessing.
But for those who heard and heeded the “abandon ship” order after the second hit, they jumped into already choppy water churned even more by the circling ship. Some were caught up, unable to escape the ship turning back on them over and over. The water turned red. A curse.
Onboard, the situation remained grim. Fighting the raging fire ignited by suicide planes meant spraying it feebly with one small hose, the only one still intact. Worse, while the ship’s locked rudder saved it from running away from the fleet, at the same time it made immediate rescue impossible. The swirling destroyer was unapproachable, powering itself in an endless turn no rescue boat could near without a collision.
It would be hours before, by mercy of the diesel running out, the Braine lost its power, enabling a rescue, and it was hours after that before the fires were out and the survivors picked up.
As if things weren’t dire already with the Braine in flames and the abandon ship order given, the Navy boys on the accompanying LCS ships weren’t the only ones watching.
The choppy action and red water had put the sea on notice. The sharks had arrived.
Leonard Schlick’s memories are hazy when it comes to some moments of the war. Others he is able to convey with remarkable clarity. “They’d throw over like 15 people at once that were on fire. They’d jump over. It wasn’t particularly a shark area, but that brought them. I remember seeing a shark come up and grab a guy. They said sharks did as much damage as the Japanese …” he said.
It was hard for Schlick to get a handle on the bitter fact that the battle didn’t end with victory, or even defeat. “Usually when you get to an end like that you have something … but with this, the sharks took over and that was it.”
Of the men who went into the water, 40 were not recovered and were confirmed as Killed In Action. At least 67 were killed, and more than 100 wounded on the Braine that day. The USS Braine had suffered the highest casualty rate for any destroyer that was not sunk.
“You saw some things you never wanted to see.”
• • •
It’s safe to assume everyone on board the USS Braine that day has their own memories of the events. Today, on YouTube, there is footage taken from the LCS rescue ship which shows the Braine pouring off smoke, propelling in its unapproachable circle, all hands on a very crowded deck.
When Schlick watches the video he can tell you, he’s not in that crowd of sailors, he’s still below, in the gun turret housing, loading the monstrous shells into the gun. The shells dropped down from a storage magazine above his position. His job was catching them and loading them. Loading them, obviously, so the gunner could keep firing. Catching them? Schlick is in his chair, but opens up his hands to show. They dropped down from above, and catching the monstrous explosives was key. Letting them drop to the floor was known to set them off.
“My fingers were completely dead (catching) and loading the shells,” Schlick remembers. “It was kind of … fantastic … not knowing my hands were completely black and blue.”
His use of the word “fantastic,” applies an old-world definition. It doesn’t mean wonderful. But it’s the right word: a young man in a steel chamber, guns, planes and bombs hitting the ship, hot and inhaling smoke from the fire, numb and transfixed on the need to catch the projectiles falling from above at a 100 percent rate lest they explode, all the while unable to see or know what the gunner is shooting at, or the degree of damage and chaos on deck. Fantastic as in, blessedly removed from the reality of pain. A fantasy. Pouring sweat, working numb hands to fight blind in a battle of floating steel machines the size of skyscrapers was, fantastic.
From his post, Schlick didn’t hear the “abandon ship” order. At some point though, he emerged to the deck. “Word got around that the (rescue) ships would come out. We knew we couldn’t get it (the Braine) back again. ‘I’m getting the hell out of here!’”
• • •
When Schlick enlisted, he did so with a childhood friend.
Schlick wanted to be a pilot and began training. But his big feet and some disappointing readings on his blood pressure delayed the process. He was going to miss the war without serving. So, to get in the fight, he signed up for the Navy instead.
He was assigned to the Braine, which sailed out of Pearl Harbor. There the men saw the aftermath of the destruction the rest of America had only seen in newsreels, and spirits were high to fight back. That meant braving the South Pacific, and the island of Okinawa.
On May 25, 1945 the USS Braine and the USS Anthony arrived at Picket Station No. 5, along with the LCS-13, 82, 86 and 123 “Pall Bearers.” Picket Station No. 5 had taken an enormous number of Kamikaze attacks already. It was late in the war, deep in Japanese territory, and fighting was unbelievably ferocious. The three-month Battle of Okinawa, on land and at sea, killed more than 70,000 Japanese, 7,000 Americans, and by most reports, more than 100,000 Okinawan civilians. It was the site of more than 700 Kamikaze hits, and radar picket stations were a prime target.
At that point Schlick had had more training as a pilot than a sailor. “I had no special training. They grabbed you when they needed you for four hours or six hours.” On May 27, that was catching five-inch rounds.
• • •
Hours after the attack, when the Braine’s circling stopped, the LCS boats moored, and the Braine was brought back home to Boston, through the Panama Canal. Dubbed the “greatest damaged destroyer to return to port,” she was awarded nine battle stars in WWII.
She was recommissioned and sailed again, from 1951-71, before being sold to Argentina where she was renamed and sailed for a few more years. Eventually she was put out and sunk as a target.
• • •
Schlick didn’t attend the USS Braine’s reunions, or keep in touch with his sailing mates too much. He had a far different path to walk; he went on to a long and successful career as owner of Pacific Antenna, which handled the purchase and installation of rooftop antennas. He then became a bar owner and more bizarrely, a hypnotist, entertaining nightclub crowds with hypnotism shows. The memories of the war didn’t disappear, but they faded. He had survived, and there was living to do beyond the battle. “I don’t think it shaped my life,” he said.
It was 40 years later that he was contacted by an old friend, the one he enlisted with. “We met again and he asked, ‘Would you like to see the results of your battle? I’m the photographer.’ I went to school with him.”
And there it was: the friend who had joined him in enlisting had been on the LCS-86 “Pall Bearer” rescue ship that day, and had filmed the Kamikazes coming in. This is not the tape currently on YouTube, although Schlick’s children plan to put it online as well. This is amazing footage of the attack itself, including Kamikaze planes, low on the horizon, turning towards the Braine and hurtling themselves at it with no intent to return. Smoke and gunfire and even sharks in the water are all in the footage.
And it was all taken by the man who later sent Schlick a beautiful and unabashedly sweet hand-written letter making references to his crystal-clear recollections of their childhood friendship, “how powerful the memories of those early teen-age years.” Despite the gap of decades, it was all right at his chum’s fin¬gertips to remember, “waiting for you after work” at a grocery store, “riding around in your then car (me in the open back rumble seat),” and going “to Port Monmouth fish factory … to get bait for our crab boxes …”
Schlick had been there and loaded the bullets himself until his hands were black and blue all those years ago, but he hadn’t been on deck and he never seen this before, even as it had happened on that day in May.
He watched the footage with his daughter, Kary. She writes:
"Until now, I had never seen my daddy cry. As a matter of fact I never saw him as a vet, let alone a war hero. What I see in these short five minutes of his life is my country’s front-line of defense, the lucky few, and blood shed for democracy. At 92, my daddy recounts these times with humility and matter of fact. It is a glimpse in time before he was a father of seven, just a young man learning the discipline to keep fighting for my freedom and learning to maintain hope and faith in a time of darkness. Two generations later, the anniversary of this day would be shared by the birth of his last grandson, Nigel, who reaps the rewards of his grandfather’s service."
• • •
Standing out among the many remarkable aspects of the attack on the USS Braine is this chilling footnote; the remains of the Kamikaze planes and pilots were recovered, at least to some extent. In the second plane’s motor, which embedded in the deck of the Braine, the pilot’s wallet was recovered. In it was a photograph of the pilot’s wife and child. And where the first plane hit, the body of the Kamikaze pilot himself was found. He wore a regulation Japanese uniform, carried several ceremonial dolls, and on his feet ... a pair of Texas style cowboy boots.
Did the pilot keep the boots down in the cockpit, so he could wear them in flight unbeknownst to his compatriots? Was his American enemy also a hero for him?
• • •
As for Leonard Schlick, when he speaks about it now, it’s with the contemplative perspective of a man who’s lived 70 very full years after the event. But at the time, the battle left him wanting more. “I wanted to eventually return. They continued the war, so you were sort of left out of the fight. You think you’re going to get out again and get going. You have that grudge against the enemy.”
The way he says it lets you know it’s not a feeling, as much as a memory of a feeling. Sitting in the easy chair in Big Pine, telling his story again, Leonard George Schlick doesn’t seem like a man holding any grudges. He seems like a man who nobly risked his life for freedom, and made sure to value every bit of that freedom in the best possible way.
By living an amazing American life.

Additional sources for this article are ussbrainedd630.com, wikipedia.com, and “Kamikazes, Corsairs, and Picket Ships: Okinawa, 1945” by Robin L. Rielly, published by Casemate Publishers, 2008.

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