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The Navy has found a U.S. ship sunk in a World War II kamikaze attack

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Navy has formally identified the wreckage of one of the largest U.S. ships sunk in a World War II kamikaze attack. The discovery off the coast of the Philippines has special resonance for one man in North Carolina. WUNC's Jay Price reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: After watching a brief video divers took of the wreckage, 101-year-old Joe Cooper said only one word would do.

JOE COOPER: It's a miracle now.

PRICE: On January 4, 1945, Cooper, then 22 years old, was a gunner aboard the USS Ommaney Bay. About a dozen lookouts were scanning the sky for kamikaze planes, which had become a major threat. Retired Rear Admiral Sam Cox is director of the U.S. Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command.

SAM COX: By that time of the war, our anti-aircraft defenses had become so good that if a Japanese aircraft found a U.S. ship, its chances of survival were about 1 out of 10. So the Japanese pilots figured, if I'm going to most likely die, I might as well make it count.

PRICE: This one did. The pilot dove straight out of the blinding sun, and the ship's gunners didn't have time to fire even once. The pilot released two bombs an instant before crashing into the ship. One punched through the flight deck and ignited the fully fueled aircraft in the hangar deck. Below that were crew quarters where Cooper, a native of the North Carolina mountains, had just gone to take a shower.

COOPER: And so we just got down there, and boom, boom. And I thought two torpedoes hit us. I didn't know aircraft had dove into us.

PRICE: The surviving sailors tried to fight the fire, but the order came quickly to abandon ship.

COOPER: And I had to hurry. So I left my life jacket on the bunk.

PRICE: He jumped 65 feet into the sea. A nearby sailor had an extra life jacket with a broken buckle and gave it to Cooper. It took about five hours before rescuers finally pulled him from the water. Ninety-five sailors were killed. A Navy destroyer eventually had to finish off the Ommaney Bay with a torpedo because of the danger to other ships. Then in 2021, an Australian company called Sea Scan Survey found wreckage it thought likely to be the Ommaney Bay. Sea Scan's lead researcher, Neil Krumbeck, compared it with historical photos.

NEIL KRUMBECK: And the shape of the bow - and you can see the beams that supported the flight deck, and, you know, you can match it up quite easily.

PRICE: Now archaeologists at the Naval History Command have confirmed the identification. Sunken warships in the region are often targeted by scrap-metal hunters. Cox says knowing exactly where the Ommaney Bay is will help the Navy keep an eye on it.

COX: These wrecks are war graves. There's no headstones at sea. So the ship is considered by the Navy a fit and final resting place for the sailors who went down with it.

PRICE: After World War II, Cooper came home to Brevard, N.C., but couldn't find work, so he joined the Army and fought in some of the worst battles of the Korean War. Cooper, who now lives in a veterans home not far from Brevard, says it's wonderful the ship has been found. But over the years, he's tried to keep his mind off of war.

COOPER: I don't dwell on that stuff. It's just a lost memory. I don't even think about it. That's like a bad dream, like it never happened.

PRICE: He says if he had dwelled on the things he had seen and done, he probably wouldn't have lasted so long and lived to see his old ship finally found.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Black Mountain, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "SIDE BY CLACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.