Sunday, July 2, 2017

Alfred Crooks: A Sailor Lost at Sea

Through my journeys into local history, sometimes I find stories hidden within plain sight.  This was the case when I took one of my usual walks in Owingsville Cemetery not long ago.  While casually looking at the names of veterans who are buried there, I noticed  a large tombstone with a flag posted next to it that just kind of stood out from the others around it.  I read the inscription on the stone and noticed it read "Alfred Newton Crooks III, BM2C, USS Saratoga.  Born Nov. 21, 1923, died in the service of his country Feb. 21, 1945.  Buried at sea". 
I snapped a picture of Crooks' grave and set out to research him and the circumstances in which he was taken at such an early age.

Alfred Crooks was born in Bath County, the son of Robert B. Crooks, who was a deputy sheriff.  He entered military service with the United States Navy, being placed aboard the aircraft carrier Saratoga.  The Saratoga was a battled-hardened ship that had already seen action across the Pacific Theater of Operations by the time Alfred Crooks boarded her.  The ship was nearly sunk by a Japanese torpedo attack in 1942, but was repaired and returned to service shortly afterward.  The planes from the aircraft carrier were successful in vital missions in Guadalcanal, The Solomons and the Indian Ocean. 
In February, 1945, U.S. Forces began the Iwo Jima operation.  The U.S.S. Saratoga was dispatched to the area to provide air cover for the landings on the tiny island that would prove to be a bloody and hallowed ground for the U.S. Marines.  Alfred Crooks was a Boatswain's Mate, 2nd Class, performing general duties aboard the aircraft carrier and served as chief of a damage control party. 
The USS Saratoga during the Japanese Kamikaze attack
On February 21, 1945, the Saratoga and three escort ships broke away from the fleet anchored off Iwo Jima to set up night patrols for the landing parties.  Suddenly, around 5 p.m. local time, a squadron of Japanese planes began attacking the Saratoga, scoring five bomb hits within three minutes.  Damage control parties, including Crooks' crew, were alerted to try and put the fires out and save the stricken ship.  During the fighting, three Japanese kamikaze pilots intentionally dove their planes into the Saratoga, blasting through the starboard side, the flight deck and starting a huge fire in the hangar deck.  During this phase of the attack, thirty-six aircraft were destroyed, the flight deck was heavily damaged and 123 sailors, including Bath County's Alfred Crooks, were killed or listed as missing.  Another 197 were injured during the attack.  Two hours later, as the crew tried to mitigate the damage aboard the Saratoga, another Japanese kamikaze attack rained Hell upon the ship, further damaging the flight deck and rendering the carrier inoperable for the remainder of the Iwo Jima operation. There is a survivor's account of the attack that can be read at, and provides a great amount of information about the attack and aftermath.
The bodies of the sailors killed aboard the USS Saratoga being prepared for a burial at sea.
While in transit for repairs the next day, the remains of the dead sailors were ceremoniously buried at sea.  This was customary during times of war, and a long held Navy tradition.  The Crooks family was notified of their son's loss by the War Department and decided to place a marker in the family plot at Owingsville Cemetery.  Even though Alfred Newton Crooks III lies beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean, his memory is etched in his hometown and also at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.    
Fleming County's Franklin Sousley is no doubt the most famous Kentuckian who participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima; he was one of the men who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi and is part of one of history's most iconic images.  Nearby in Owingsville, the marker of another Battle of Iwo Jima hero stands nearly inconspicuous as  a testament to the courage, valor and sacrifice he and other fellow servicemen made to secure the Pacific during World War II.  

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