Figure 1: S.S. John Burke on 10 May 1944 off the coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The ship was owned by the US Department of Commerce and operated by the Northland Transportation Company. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 2: The pictures that follow were filmed on the morning of 28 December 1944 from the destroyer USS Bush (DD-529), which was escorting a convoy of transports and cargo ships bound for Mindoro Island in the Philippines. S.S. John Burke was part of that convoy and was carrying a full load of ammunition. The following pictures were filmed with a 16-mm camera from the decks of USS Bush by the ship’s medical officer, Lieutenant George Johnson. During this mission, the convoy found itself under intense Japanese air attacks from kamikazes and other aircraft. This photograph was taken shortly after 1000 hours, when John Burke was hit by a kamikaze aircraft. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3: Another ship is about to be hit by a Japanese kamikaze. The ship that was hit was another cargo ship, S.S. William Sharon. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: The cameraman, Lieutenant George Johnson, then swings his camera back towards John Burke. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 5: Lieutenant George Johnson’s movie camera captures a gigantic explosion. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 6: S.S. John Burke disappears. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 7: A gigantic cloud rises from where John Burke used to be. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 8: The size of the blast is readily apparent when contrasted with the ships in the foreground. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 9: Inside the Combat Information Center on board Bush, former executive officer Tony Lilly recalled, “The shock was so fierce that I thought we had been hit.” Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 10: The other ships in the convoy are caught in the smoke caused by the enormous blast. Click on photograph for larger image.
Named after the tenth governor of North Dakota, the 14,245-ton S.S. John Burke was a Liberty Ship cargo vessel that was built by the Oregon Shipbuilding Company at Portland, Oregon. The ship’s keel was laid on 20 November 1942 and only 33 days later, on December 13, the hull was launched. After fitting out over the next ten days, John Burke was handed over to the US Navy on 23 December, such was the speed with which Liberty Ships were built during World War II. John Burke was approximately 422 feet long and 57 feet wide, had a top speed of 11 knots, and had a crew of 68 officers and men (40 ship crewmembers and 28 from the US Navy’s Armed Guard, assigned to man the ship’s guns). The ship was armed with two 3-inch guns and eight 20-mm guns.
After being handed over to the US Navy, the Navy placed John Burke under charter to the Northland Transportation Company. John Burke transported war materials and made numerous trips between the United States and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; Australia; Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands; and New Guinea.
In early December 1944, John Burke left Seattle, Washington, for the island of Guam. Once she arrived there, ammunition was loaded onto the ship for the American invasion of the island of Mindoro in the Philippines. John Burke left Guam with a 100-ship convoy and arrived off the coast of Leyte in the Philippines on the night of 27 December 1944.
Japanese aircraft based in the Philippines spotted the convoy’s arrival shortly after dawn on 28 December 1944. Six Japanese kamikaze aircraft were launched from Cebu Island in the Philippines and directed towards the convoy.
At approximately 1000 hours, the six Japanese planes arrived over the convoy. Through holes in the clouds, the Japanese pilots sighted the large American convoy and dove in for the attack. One of the pilots chose John Burke as his target and made his final suicide run into the ship. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire from the convoy, the kamikaze crashed into John Burke, plowing deep into her hull.
A brief flash of fire emanated from John Burke and was visible to most of the ships in the convoy. For several seconds, only smoke could be seen billowing from the stricken ship. After a few more seconds, a huge pillar of fire shot out from John Burke’s cargo hold, followed by an immense cloud of white smoke. Within seconds, all eyes in the convoy were drawn to John Burke and then an enormous fireball erupted as her entire cargo of munitions detonated, instantly destroying the ship and vaporizing the crew of 68 officers and men. For several seconds, nothing was visible under an enormous mushroom cloud of smoke, fire, and explosions.
Several ships that were steaming near John Burke were damaged by the force of the blast and by flying pieces of the disintegrating cargo ship. A massive shock wave rocked the entire convoy so hard that several ships reported that they had been torpedoed. A US Army transport just aft of John Burke was severely damaged by the blast and sank before it could be identified. As the smoke gradually cleared, nearby ships steamed into the area searching for any survivors from John Burke. They didn’t find a trace of either the ship or her men.
The Japanese attack that morning was just the beginning of a series of attacks on this convoy, which cost several more ships and hundreds of lives. The cargo ship S.S. William Sharon was also sunk by the same group of planes that destroyed John Burke. But despite almost constant air attacks, the convoy reached its destination of Mindoro on 30 December and was able to supply the American troops fighting on that island with badly needed food, fuel, and other vital equipment, not to mention additional munitions to carry on the fight.
The loss of John Burke and her entire crew showed how unbelievably dangerous it was to transport munitions to a war zone during World War II. But if armies are to win wars on land, they need a steady stream of munitions, usually supplied by ships. Incredibly brave men sailed on those ships, knowing that at any moment their lives could suddenly end in one, blinding, flash. For the people on board John Burke, that’s exactly what happened.