Heart of Louisiana: USS Kidd

Baton Rouge -- This aging World War II destroyer has a story to tell. Built in 1943 during the industrial frenzy of war, the USS Kidd sailed to the Pacific to fight the Japanese Imperial Navy. Its crew earned a total of eight battle stars.

"That means nose to nose, or eyeball to eyeball or dirty fighting, you know, for three or four hours, and somebody's going to get killed on here," recalls Leroy Jenkins, who served on the Kidd in the 1950's. He remembers the first time he saw the crew hoist the Jolly Roger.

"I get on this ship here and all these guys look like pirates themselves, you know, these guys had long beards, big knives on their sides, I couldn't believe it, you know," Jenkins tells us.

And the ship's mascot, the notorious pirate Captain Kidd was painted on the smoke stack. But the destroyer is really named after Navy Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, the commander of the battleship Arizona, where he died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Throughout his years of service on the Kidd, Jenkins never heard the story about the attack that nearly sank this destroyer in the Battle of Okinawa.

"I was scared. I wasn't nothing but a young boy. All my gun crew was crying," says Boyd Clements, who will tell you he was the third crewman to board the Kidd in 1943, and the last man off after the war ended. He still wears a ring with a skull and crossbones.

At battle stations, Clements was inside the rear 5-inch gun turret. He was here during the Battle of Okinawa, when the Japanese air force began sending thousands of suicide pilots against American ships in kamikaze attacks. He remembers watching the aerial combat in the skies above the fleet. And then he spotted a lone plane that was heading straight for the Kidd.

"When the 40's started shooting at it, it was getting pretty close," says Clements, "then when the 20's started shooting, it was really getting close, and that's when she hit."

As the suicide plane was streaking toward the Kidd, ship's doctor Brooks Garrett was on the main deck with a camera. And he snapped a picture of the kamikaze just seconds before it slammed into the ship, right below where he had been standing.

The fighter crashed through one side of the ship, then exploded out of the other side of the hull, smashing through the ship's galley and its boilers.

"Some of them boys was coming up the ladder trying to get out of there and that steam killed them right away," Clements says.

The single kamikaze crash killed 38 of the Kidd's crew. The explosions and the gaping holes nearly sank the ship, which struggled to get back to port.

"All them boys, my friend… we was all close together, you know," says Clements.

Clements is proud of the six years he spent on the Kidd. But he is still haunted by what happened on that fateful day, 66 years ago. "My wife says I talk in my sleep. I don't believe I can, I don't know if I talk in my sleep. I have bad dreams sometimes. None of my dreams are good though, never no good."

The battle scars on this ship have been healed. It now stands as a museum on the Baton Rouge Riverfront, telling a story of heroism, of the young men who served under its famous flag.

You can visit the USS Kidd, take a stroll around the historic ship and get an idea of what it was like for the 300-plus sailors who manned its guns during numerous World War II battles in the Pacific. The destroyer and museum and open daily. For more information, go online to www.usskidd.com.