The USS Drexler in November 1944.

The USS Drexler in November 1944. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

(Tribune News Service) — The USS Drexler, gutted by suicide airplane attacks, rolled flat on its starboard side, heaving the bow of the destroyer skyward before it slipped into the Pacific, leaving behind a sheen of burning oil and terror-stricken sailors bobbing in the water, struggling against the whirlpool of the sinking.

Among those left treading water in the wreckage was Robert E. Feeney, who swore on that early Monday morning in 1945 that he’d give his life to Christ if he survived the ordeal. He died in Greensburg in 2004 at the age of 76 after serving 48 years as a Roman Catholic priest.

The sinking of the Drexler, which occurred 78 years ago Sunday, took less than a minute and killed 158 crew members, including three Pittsburgh-area sailors: Daniel Clair Boden of Wilkinsburg; John Regis O’Day of Brookline; and Edward Walter Akanowicz of Stowe.

Their bodies were never recovered.

“Dad said he served his country, gave his life,” said Robert Akanowicz, 71, an Aspinwall pharmacist whose father was Edward’s youngest brother. “Back in that day, everyone went. Some came home. Some didn’t.”

The passing years mean fewer Memorial Day stories of World War II valor as memories dim and family members, friends and lovers pass on. But the passage of time reveals some surprises, including how an assignment switch aboard the Drexler led to a surviving crew member’s decades-long search for O’Day’s family with a secret to tell.

Also revealed with the declassification of military records since the 1940s was the story of the 29-year-old Japanese air squadron commander, driven by the suicide of his young wife and the murder of their two young daughters, who led the attack on the Drexler that day.

The Drexler story, pieced together from historical research, military records, family members and first-person accounts, begins with the enlistment of the three local men. Boden, who was born in Johnstown and graduated from Wilkinsburg High School, was the first to join the Navy, in the summer of 1939, followed in 1942 by Akanowicz, whose parents were immigrants from Poland, and finally O’Day, the youngest of the three, a South Hills High School graduate and pitcher for the school’s baseball team, the Tunnellites.

O’Day signed up Feb. 12, 1944. Fifteen months later he would be dead.

The Drexler, coincidentally, was named after Braddock native Henry Clay Drexler, who posthumously was awarded the Medal of Honor for attempting to save a cruiser, the USS Trenton, from further damage after gunpowder exploded on the ship during a training exercise off the Virginia coast in 1924. The Drexler was christened in September 1944 in Maine. Empty, the football field-length destroyer weighed as much as 2,000 automobiles, but the ship was fully loaded the early morning of May 28, 1945, as it patrolled near Okinawa, protecting the USS Lowry landing craft, scanning the skies for Japanese bombers.

At 7:02 a.m., twin-engine bombers were spotted about seven miles away, screaming toward the two ships, which were sailing north of Okinawa, where intense fighting between American and Japanese forces was underway.

Germany had surrendered three weeks earlier; the war would end four months later with Japan’s surrender.

Leading the bomber squadron was 29-year-old Hajime Fujii, a first lieutenant and radio operator/gunner. Three months earlier, police notified Mr. Fujii that his wife, Fukuko, and two young daughters were found dead in the Arakawa River near an aviation school where Fujii taught.

His 1-year-old, Chieko, was found still in a pack on her mother’s back; 3-year-old Kazuko’s hand was tied with a rope to her mother’s hand. The three died after Fujii’s wife jumped into the icy water, freeing her husband to fulfill his dream of becoming a suicide bomber.

“Since you probably would be worried about us and not be able to freely carry out your duties because we are here, we go ahead before you and will wait for you,” she wrote in a letter to her husband that was found after her death. “Please fight without reserve.”

In a show of extreme remorse or atonement, Fujii cut off a pinky finger, according to some accounts.

Fujii was an instructor at Kumagaya Aviation School and he was popular with his students, often telling them, “if needed, crash your aircraft into an enemy camp or into an enemy ship.”

He’d applied twice to join the special attack force, but was turned down because he was married with children. His wife initially opposed her husband’s desire to join a kamikaze raid, but she finally relented.

Two months after the sinking, Drexler’s skipper, Cmdr. Ronald Lee Wilson, wrote that the first suicide bomber was shot down, but a second plane quickly appeared, diving at the Lowry before seeming to tumble into the Drexler in an effort to recover.

The plane crashed into the starboard side of the Drexler, ripping open the forward engine room and rupturing steam lines, which wiped out electricity on the ship. The crash just below the main deck ignited a gasoline fire, which the crew managed to put out, but the ship was crippled and had started to list.

Thirty seconds later, with steam hissing from the engineering spaces on the starboard side, a second bomber made a dive toward the Lowry. The plane was struck by gunfire, tracer bullets ricocheting off the nose, causing it to spin astern of the Lowry and splash into the ocean.

Then a third bomber, this one loaded with explosives, began a circling approach in a shallow glide, drawing fire from Drexler’s five-inch guns before crashing into the ship’s rear port side, rocking the vessel with an explosion that sent debris hundreds of feet into the air. Seamen scrambled for their life preservers to escape the groaning hulk, which quickly turned over flat on its starboard side before sliding stern first into the depths of the Pacific.

The sinking took just 49 seconds.

The crew of the Lowry helped pluck survivors out of the water, amid patches of thick flaming oil.

In addition to his family, Akanowicz left behind Dorothy Yeager, his steady girlfriend who also lived on Hober Avenue in Stowe, family members said. Ms. Yeager never married.

Mr. Akanowicz, the Aspinwall pharmacist, said he planned to spend Memorial Day putting flowers on his father’s grave in Kennedy and reminding his three grandchildren how many people have given their lives so others can live free.

“Eddie was a good guy,” he said, adding that his uncle turned 21 the day he was killed.

A note written in blue ink and neat cursive, tucked into the box containing the Purple Heart the family received, noted the coincidence of his birthday and death.

Brookline resident Kathy O’Day Amoroso said she was too young to know the man who grew up in the 1400 block of Creedmore Avenue whom she calls Uncle Jack, a gunner’s mate on the Drexler. Her grandfather became uncomfortable when asked about her uncle’s death, she said, and other family members didn’t talk about it much, either.

“It was always a mystery to me,” said Ms. Amoroso, a 78-year-old retired Pittsburgh police officer. “It was like he was a shadow in my mind.”

Only in 2010, 65 years after World War II ended, did the O’Days begin to learn details of Uncle Jack’s death, from another gunner’s mate on the Drexler, Gene Brick of Madras, Ore. Brick, who contacted the O’Days through a reunion group he formed, died in 2019, three days after suffering a heart attack at a Christmas Eve church service.

In a 2014 video, Brick said he’d traded gun-turret assignments with O’Day a few days before the attack, allowing him to survive, but costing O’Day his life.

It was a secret that hounded Brick for decades and fueled a desire to meet the O’Day family, according to Michael D. Smith, of Haymarket, Va., a reunion organizer whose grandfather Delmar Baily died on the Drexler.

“Gene always lived his life knowing that he was only here because O’Day and he had switched and he lived while John didn’t,” Mr. Smith wrote in an email.

In the video, Brick remembered his friend John O’Day.

“He asked if he could trade with me because he wasn’t getting along with the captain,” Brick said, solemnly. “They OK’d it. I left a lot of people over there that didn’t make it.”

(c)2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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