Herbert Houck, the World War II naval ace who directed the final attack on the battleship Yamato, the pride of the Japanese Navy, in the fighting for Okinawa, died on Feb. 24 in Cape Coral, Fla. He was 86.
Five days after American troops began landing on Okinawa, and on the day that kamikaze planes began crashing into American ships supporting the invasion, the Yamato was about to be hurled into the climactic battle of the Pacific conflict on what amounted to a suicide mission of its own.
On the afternoon of April 6, 1945, the Yamato headed toward Okinawa from its port at Kure, Japan, some 600 miles away. The Yamato, commissioned nine days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and its sister ship, the Musashi, weighing about 72,000 tons each at full load, were by far the largest battleships ever built.
But aircraft carriers, not battleships, proved decisive in the Pacific. The Musashi had been sunk the previous October. The Yamato, while seeing action in the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, had been used sparingly. Nonetheless, it was fitted with armor deemed virtually impenetrable, and it bristled with nine guns that could hurl 3,200-pound armor-piercing shells, the largest battleships guns ever to go to sea. It was to cross the East China Sea, arrive off Okinawa and fire upon American ships and troops battling for the island.
But the Japanese did not provide air cover for the Yamato, and it was believed to have carried only enough fuel for a one-way trip.
An American submarine and a scout plane spotted the battleship, and waves of fighters began attacking it 200 miles north of Okinawa in the early afternoon of April 7. The battleship took numerous hits from aerial-launched torpedoes and bombs, and it listed to portside. But it was still floating when Lieutenant Commander Houck, in command of more than 40 planes on the carrier Yorktown, went aloft in his Hellcat fighter.
His engines were balky, and he almost turned back, but soon he was over the Yamato with his torpedo planes.
He ordered that they adjust the depth settings for their torpedoes to ensure that they struck the huge Yamato low enough to avoid her armor, and six planes swooped down. Several torpedoes struck the Yamato. It turned over, and a huge explosion hurled its sailors into the sea or killed them outright as Lieutenant Commander Houck took photographs with a wing camera.
''It made a mighty big bang,'' he remembered. ''Smoke went up. The fireball was about 1,000 feet high.''
The Yamato sank with the loss of nearly 2,500 crew members, fewer than 300 having been rescued; a light cruiser and four of the eight destroyers accompanying it were also sunk. This was essentially the end of the Japanese Navy.
Herbert Norman Houck, a native of Minnesota, joined the Navy in 1936 after attending the University of Minnesota for three years. He flew in the lead wave of the first mass strike by carrier-based aircraft on Tokyo, on Feb. 16, 1945, and by war's end was a three-time winner of the Navy Cross, the service's highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor. He shot down six Japanese planes.
He was promoted to captain in 1956, served as commander of the aircraft carrier Shangri-La in 1960 and '61, and retired in 1968.
He is survived by his wife, Jeannette; a son, Robert, of Sunrise, Fla.; two daughters, Mary Tatman and Susan Houck, both of Denver; a sister, Darrel Alkire, of Naples, Fla., and five grandchildren.
The Yamato, bearing the ancient name for Japan, remained an object of fascination for the Japanese long after the war. In 1985, a submarine expedition financed by Japanese veterans' groups found the wreckage at a depth of 1,100 feet after a seven-year quest.
No human remains were found by the remote-controlled pincers. But 40 years after Japan's naval ambitions came to calamitous end, a ceremony was held on a ship above the wreckage. As Minoru Akiyama, an official of the expedition committee, put it, ''We want to console the spirits of the dead.''