78 years after Joe Cooper survived a kamikaze attack, the Navy has identified his ship's wreckage
101-year-old Joe Cooper was a crew member of the USS Ommaney Bay, which was attacked by a Japanese suicide pilot in World War II.
The Navy has formally identified the wreckage of one of the largest U.S. ships sunk in a World War II kamikaze attack.
And the discovery – in the Sulu Sea off the coast of the Philippines – has special resonance for one veteran in western North Carolina.
After seeing a brief video divers took of a section of the sea life-encrusted wreckage nearly 400 feet below the the surface, 101-year-old Joe Cooper said only one word would do.
"It's a miracle," he said, after watching the video at the state veterans home in Black Mountain, N.C., where he now lives.
The last time he saw his ship — the USS Ommaney Bay — was Jan. 14, 1945.
Cooper, then 22 years old, was a gunner aboard the 512-foot-long aircraft carrier. It was part of a major flotilla steaming to support a planned amphibious invasion north of Manila.
About a dozen lookouts were scanning the sky for kamikaze planes, which had become a major threat.
"In October of 1944, the Japanese started deliberately flying kamikaze suicide attacks to hit our ships," said Retired Rear Admiral Sam Cox, the director of the Navy's Naval History and Heritage Command.
"By that time of the war, our anti-aircraft defenses had become so good that if a Japanese aircraft found a U.S. ship, (the pilot's) chances of survival were about one out of 10," Cox said. "So the Japanese pilots figured, 'If I'm going to most likely die, I might as well make it count.'"
This one did. The pilot dove straight out of the blinding sun, and the gunners aboard the Ommaney Bay didn’t have a chance to react.
"It was a very successful surprise attack despite everyone expecting something like that," Cox said.
It also was a rare early use of a bomber in a suicide attack. The pilot released two bombs just before crashing into the ship. One destroyed a key water line for fighting fires. The other punched through the flight deck and ignited an aircraft in the hanger deck, starting a huge fire that quickly engulfed much of the ship.
Cooper had just gone to take a quick shower and was deep in the ship.
"We just got down there and 'Boom! Boom!'" he said. "I thought two torpedoes had hit us. I didn't know an aircraft had dove into us."
The order quickly came to abandon ship, as bullets ricocheted from ammunition that was cooking off.
"I had to hurry, so I left my life jacket on the bunk," Cooper said.
He jumped about six stories into the sea. A nearby sailor had an extra life jacket with a broken buckle and gave it to Cooper. He clutched it tightly, desperately trying to swim away from the burning ship, but periodically freezing as sharks brushed past.
It took about five hours for rescuers to finally pull him from the water.
'A horrific experience'
Cox, of the Navy history command, said 93 crew members were killed in the attack, and two sailors from another ship died when torpedoes aboard the Ommaney Bay blew apart the rear end of the ship, raining debris on them as they tried to rescue swimmers.
Another Navy ship eventually finished off the burning carrier, firing a torpedo to sink it quickly because of the danger to other ships.
"It was a horrific experience for everybody," Cox said. "There's no sugarcoating just how bad that was."
And that was the last anyone saw of the Ommaney Bay for nearly eight decades.
The Navy knew the general location of the wreckage, but finding and identifying it took an array of players, starting with Microsoft founder Paul Allen, whose private research ship found the wreck in 2019, but didn't gather enough information to identify it.
Two years later, an Australian underwater survey company called Sea Scan Survey found the same wreckage, and this spring, a group of Australian divers chartered the company's boat to go back to the site.
They had deepwater technical skills, and they recorded good video. Neil Krumbeck, Sea Scan's lead researcher, said it was easy to match historical photos of the ship with the images.
"The wreck is inverted, upside down," Krumbeck said. "You can see the beams that supported the flight deck, and you can match it up quite easily with the bow of the ship."
The wreck was still periodically leaking bubbles of fuel. He said the divers also found official U.S. Navy china, as well as shoes – often the only remaining sign of sailors who went down with their ships in the war.
Archaeologists at the Naval History and Heritage Command used the images and historical evidence to declare the identification official.
Sunken warships in the region are often targeted by scrap metal hunters, and some have vanished entirely. Cox said knowing the location of the Ommaney Bay will help the Navy keep an eye on it.
Not only are such wrecks sovereign property of the United States, they're also considered grave sites.
"They're the last resting place of sailors who made the ultimate sacrifice, Cox said. "It's essentially the Navy's version of Arlington National Cemetery,"
Probably the last living survivor
Cox said it would be surprising if, besides Cooper, many more survivors of the ship's crew are still alive.
"He's quite likely the only survivor left," Cox said. "Most World War II ships are pretty much down to one or none survivors that are still alive."
He joined the Navy just days after Pearl Harbor. He had been turned away by the Marines because they said he was too small — 5-foot-6 and 110 pounds.
"They said, 'We don’t take kids here,' and told me to go grow up," he said. The Navy, though, accepted him and said they would feed him and pack on some weight.
After World War II, Cooper came home to Brevard, N.C. but couldn't find work. So he joined the Army, serving in the Berlin airlift and later fighting in some of the worst battles of the Korean War.
He said it's wonderful the ship was found, but he has tried to keep his mind off the fighting he saw aboard the ship, as well as the carnage he witnessed in Korea.
"You've got to put it out, just like a bad dream," he said. "I don't even think about it."
"A lot of them take it with them," he said of his fellow veterans. "Your buddies that get killed and everything."
Cooper said if he dwelled on the things he's seen and done, he probably wouldn’t have lasted so long. And lived to see his old ship finally found.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.