LARGO – In Japanese, the word “kamikaze” means Divine Wind. But to the American sailors they targeted, there was nothing divine about the kamikazes.
They were fanatical suicide bombers who strapped themselves into rickety old planes with a 500-pound bomb and just enough fuel for a one-way trip to their target, hopefully an aircraft carrier like the USS Intrepid.
“The Intrepid was the most-hit carrier in the fleet that didn’t sink,” said Dean Lesnett of Largo, who served as a Marine anti-aircraft gunner on the 872-foot flattop during World War II. “We were in seven big battles.”
The most pivotal of those battles was at Leyte Gulf on Nov. 25, 1944. “That’s when we officially hamstrung the Japanese Navy,” said Lesnett, 84. “We sank the biggest battleship in the world.”
It was one of two Japanese battleships Intrepid destroyed during the war, along with more than 600 airplanes. It was also where Lesnett earned the first of his two Purple Hearts.
“We had been torpedoed before, but Leyte was the first time we had kamikaze crash dives,” Lesnett recalled. “I had 21 little shrapnel holes and blood running all over me, but I helped fill body bags. We were in the middle of the biggest bonfire the ocean ever saw. We had 69 men killed that day.”
The Intrepid, in which Lesnett sailed more than 174,000 miles, is now part of a floating museum in New York City that also includes a destroyer and a submarine. On Nov. 18 it will dedicate a 12-minute multi-screen “Kamikaze Experience” exhibit to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Lesnett, who has previously lectured at the museum, will be an honored guest. “We’d like to extend our special thanks to Dean Lesnett of Largo, Fl., for sharing his experiences as a USMC anti-aircraft gunner aboard the Intrepid,” said Andrew Yamato, the museum’s exhibits coordinator. “We were so impressed, in fact, that we’ve cast an actor to portray a young Corporal Lesnett as one of the show’s narrators.”
This isn’t the first time Lesnett has been featured in a movie. In 1942, he was one of 70 Leathernecks in “We are the Marines,” which was supposedly shot on Wake Island, but was actually shot on Plum Island, Maine. Some of Lesnett’s words from that movie will be dubbed into the new movie so they appear to be spoken by the 20-something actor portraying Lesnett.
Another actor will portray LCDR Dominic DiMarzio, the officer in charge of Intrepid’s firefighting team. Lesnett considers DiMarzio a hero.
“He and his firefighters saved the ship,” Lesnett said. “But a depth charge on one of the planes exploded and almost cut him in half.”
Lesnett’s war was ended by a Japanese bullet on April 16, 1945. After six months in a hospital, the former Pennsylvania farm boy tried a variety of civilian jobs: steel mill worker, game warden and banker. He doesn’t consider himself a hero despite his two Purple Hearts and six gold stars.
“We all got Purple Hearts,” he said modestly. “Purple Hearts were like aspirin in those days.”