Edson B. Cates, heroic Edgartown mariner

Wounded captain helped crew escape burning freighter at the Battle of Okinawa.

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Codenamed Operation Iceberg, the assault of Okinawa was the final battle of World War II, and the biggest fight in the Pacific. A fleet of more than 1,300 vessels closed in on the island on April 1, 1945. The subsequent invasion by the Army and Marines resulted in such horrendous slaughter, many historians argue it sped the deployment of the atomic bomb, for fear a ground attack on mainland Japan would be Okinawa writ large. 

The naval portions of the battle were brutal. “In the waters around Okinawa,” a U.S. Department of Defense remembrance site states, “the Japanese launched the largest kamikaze, or suicide, attack of the war.” 

One of the vessels in the vast U.S. fleet was the SS Logan Victory, one of a class of wartime freighters. The master of that vessel was Massachusetts Nautical graduate (now Massachusetts Maritime Academy) Edson Baxter Cates. Capt. Cates was from Edgartown, and had done considerable service to his country elsewhere in the merchant marines before the Battle of Okinawa. 

Author Walter Diamond, who served aboard the SS Kentuckian with Capt. Cates, described him as “genial and soft-spoken.” Cates worked for the American-Hawaiian Steamship Co. for 21 years. American-Hawaiian operated the Logan Victory on behalf of the U.S. Maritime Commission. On April 6, the Logan Victory was amid the Kerama Islands off Okinawa. In the cargo holds, according to author Robert M. Browning Jr., were 9,033 tons of “drummed oil” and explosives. 

“The vessel had only been at anchor for 20 minutes when approximately eight Japanese planes appeared,” Browning wrote. “Lookouts spotted one of those planes two miles away, zigzagging about 100 feet above the water. Most of the ships in the anchorage took this plane under fire, but it managed to get through the hail of gunfire …”

“Although the kamikaze was seen to be hit numerous times by the Logan Victory’s machine guns, they failed to disable the airplane,” an account from the American Maritime History Project states. 

The plane hit the port side of the Logan Victory, near the deckhouse. “Gasoline and incendiaries aboard the kamikaze caused the Logan Victory to burst into fire,” according to the American Maritime History Project. 

Engine Cadet William A. Lau, who stood near the vessel’s throttle when the kamikaze hit, stated in a report, “Flames and large pieces of white-hot metal came tumbling down on top of the turbines. The lights went out immediately. The only light came from the flames.”

When Lau made it topside, he found flames and debris. The portside lifeboats were ablaze. He, like many others, dove from the freighter. 

Author Robin L. Reilly wrote that the captain had given the order to abandon ship as fires raged out of control, and the threat of a “super explosion” loomed. 

“Despite the danger of a devastating explosion,” a citation read, “Capt. Cates remained onboard to release liferafts and assist his men over the side, although he himself had been struck by six machine gun bullets and a heavy piece of shrapnel.”

Fifteen people aboard the Logan Victory died in the attack. Later, so too did Capt. Cates.

“Captain Edson B. Cates, although seriously wounded by shrapnel, was the last to leave his ship,” author John Bunker wrote. “He died two days later on a Navy hospital ship.”

The burning Logan Victory also perished. Browning wrote that it was sunk with naval gunfire to “prevent a harbor disaster.”

Capt. Cates was posthumously awarded the Merchant Marine Meritorious Service Medal.

War Shipping Administration district manager Robert Harris presented the commendation to Cates’ sister, Virginia Crowell of Edgartown. 

Capt. Cates was also awarded the Merchant Marine Mariner’s Medal, the merchant marine equivalent of the Purple Heart. 

In a letter to Virginia Crowell written 16 days after Capt. Cates died, American-Hawaiian’s Atlantic operating manager was unable to disclose the circumstances of his death due to the sensitivity of war operations. However, he wrote that he knew Capt. Cates well, and commended feats of rescue he performed at other times in the war. 

“He was faced on many occasions with many grave decisions to make, and his judgment was always correct,” the manager wrote. 

“The Battle of Okinawa came to its official end on June 21,” author Alexander Burnham wrote. “Almost 5,000 sailors were killed, and 5,000 wounded. More than 7,800 Japanese aircraft, kamikaze as well as conventional, were shot down, and 36 U.S. warships were sunk and 368 damaged. On land, the Marines and the Army suffered a total of 7,000 killed while the wounded count soared to a devastating 32,000. As for the Japanese army, the battle was a descent into oblivion. Its force of 110,000 men was almost totally annihilated. In addition, the Okinawan people — a peace-loving race before they were absorbed by the Japanese in 1879 — became victims of violence. Close to 150,000 Okinawans died in the crossfire between the two armies.”

Capt. Cates’ decorations are enshrined behind glass at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, along with press clippings, photographs, and letters. 

“The sailors of the merchant marine faced a dual enemy: U-boats and kamikazes on one hand, wind and waves on the other,” Bow Van Riper, Martha’s Vineyard Museum librarian and historian, said. “They triumphed over both, and those who — like Capt. Cates — gave their lives in the process did so for a cause as old as seafaring: ‘That others might live’.”