It was November 5, 1944. Twenty-two-year-old Navy Lt. Bill Emerson didn’t yet know what the term “kamikaze” meant. But that didn’t change the fact that one of them was coming right at him.
“It was horrendous,” said Emerson, a former Columbia school teacher. “When I think about the moment that it hit us, there is no other word for it but horrendous.”
Emerson was a Helldiver pilot in World War II and operated “dive bomber” planes aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lexington CV-16. He was on the Lexington when a flaming Mitsubishi A6M kamikaze fighter came down from the sky and into his line of sight.
Emerson said he was in the pilot’s ready room underneath the flight deck with a “front-row seat” when he saw the planes coming. He and his fellow men had known that another carrier had just taken a bomb hit right underneath the flight deck, so they went into a secondary control room on the second deck, hoping it would provide safety. It didn’t.
“We were in the back end and he hit just outside of us,” Emerson said. “There was a tremendous explosion that blew steel shivers across the room. There were about 15 of us in the room. Five of us got out alive.”
Emerson stood proud and authoritative while he recounted the story Sunday at the Boone County Historical Society Museum, but a noticeable hint of somberness crept into his voice for this portion of the tale.
“The two people on either side of me died,” Emerson said. “I was burned badly, but the stanchion (large mast) in the middle of the room ended up saving me from the steel.”
The Kamikaze attack killed 47 men and injured 127. The Lexington was one of the first aircraft carriers to be hit by a Kamikaze attack. Emerson said he found out what the term meant when he was in the hospital being treated for the burn wounds from the attack.
“(It) came from a story about a typhoon saving a Japanese island from a Chinese fleet,” Emerson said. “Kamikaze became the Japanese word for wind.”
Emerson, who retired as a lieutenant commander, spoke of his experience in World War II Sunday afternoon as part of the Historical Society’s speaker series. About 75 people attended Emerson’s talk, after which he became a member of the society.
Emerson was born in Boston, but has lived in Columbia since 1967. He taught history at Hickman High School from 1967 to 1974. After one year as a member of the Missouri State Teachers Association, he taught at Oakland Junior High School for 12 years and retired from teaching in 1987.
Before the Kamikaze attack, Emerson took part in the attacks on Iwo Jima in August 1944.
“We were in the southern airfield just north of Mount Surabachi,” Emerson said. “I spotted a hangar and some aircraft and tried to hit it.”
Emerson’s dive through the air took him directly through the path of anti-aircraft fire. He said he never actually felt anything hit the outside of the plane. But at that point something went very wrong.
“When I finished my dive and put on my throttle to rendezvous with my men again, things went haywire,” Emerson said. “I’m guessing when I was going through the anti-aircraft fire something must have hit an oil line and cut it. The oil started to run up off the engine and the engine started to get hot. I had oil on the windshield.”
Emerson called his commanding officer and told him he was going to have to ditch, meaning he and his gunner were going to have to fly into the ocean and be picked up from a raft. Emerson said he was not nervous about ditching.
“We knew the sub was there,” he said. “You don’t practice ditching but I knew how to do it and it worked.”
Emerson’s gunner was able to assemble the raft and help Emerson, equipment and all, climb on. After three hours of bailing out water on the raft, they were rescued by the nearby submarine.
Following his time in World War II, Emerson served in Korea, but never encountered any combat there.
Emerson said it was an interesting transition going from the war to teaching history.
“As a history teacher, I found out a lot of things I didn’t know about that I was involved in,” he said.