LET US KEEP THE MEMORIES FOREVER
This is a story of a small ship called the LCS(L)-61 that fought in one of the last and greatest battles of World War II. Very little has ever been written or heard about these little ships, so I offer this bit of history.
During the period of 1942-1945, many invasions of islands in the Pacific were planned in an island-hopping campaign against the expanded Empire of Japan. There was an urgent need for a gunboat that could support the troops in such invasions and one that was able to beach itself. The craft would be armed with three 40mm, four 20mm, four 50 caliber machine guns, plus 10 rocket launchers with 12 rockets in each. 130 of these crafts were hurriedly built and were called LCS (L) - Landing Craft Support (Large). Each craft had a crew of 65 seamen and 7 officers. (1)
I was 18 years old when I enlisted on March 13, 1944, along with my 2 older brothers who served in the Army in Europe. I chose the Navy. I lived all 18 years on a farm in upstate New York before my training at Solomon’s Island, Maryland during the period of June to September of 1944. After training, I boarded a steam engine train in Washington, D.C., along with approximately one thousand seamen and officers on our way to Portland, Oregon. It was five full travel days of soot and noise that we all thought would never end. Being seasick was something we all knew, but train sick was something else.
At the Albina Engine And Machine Works in Portland, the LCS(L)-61 was first launched on October 14, 1944, for the Pacific. I was a crewmember of that ship.
Receiving her supplies of fuel, food and ammunition, the 61 first set out for a “shakedown” cruise to San Diego, California, under the leadership of Captain James Kelley, to learn the basic drills and training of sailing our ship. From there, we joined up with other LCS crafts and set sail for Pearl Harbor. Entering Pearl, we saw the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga being towed into the port with heavy damage it received at the Philippine Islands. Sadly, with only the mast and upper parts of her guns out of the water, we could see the sunken battleship USS Arizona where she rested. The harbor was full of other ships that were heavily damaged and under repair. This all gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead of us further to the west into the Pacific
In February 1945, the #61 with six other LCS crafts were escorted by 36 LCT’s (Landing Craft Tank) from the Johnson Islands (west of Hawaii) to Guam. The top speed of our LCS(L) was 16 knots, but the LCT’s top speed was only was 8 knots. It was a long trip since the average speed was only 4.5 knots. Because of this longer than expected journey, we missed the battle of Iwo Jima, but heard the stories of the raging battle that ensued there. We then diverted to Okinawa with five other LCS crafts, two destroyers, and an ARD and ARL (cement dry docks used for ship repairs) (2) with their tugs towing them.
We arrived at Okinawa as the battle was just starting. One of first battle episodes of the war I experienced was seeing two suicide planes that came in low (about 10 feet above the ocean) straight at the two destroyers we were escorted with. Both planes were painted white with red trim and their engines were bright yellow. The destroyers opened with their guns, setting both planes on fire but they continued on; hitting their targets. I later learned that although much damage was done to both ships, fortunately, no one was badly injured on either ship. The 61 had its first encounter of the war ; a strange and gruesome aspect that was far beyond any of our expectations, and an indication of what was to come.
During its training, the 61’s gunners were rated as having the best anti-aircraft record in naval history. Very soon they would be put to the test. At Okinawa, our main duty was to go onto picket patrol about 80 miles around the island. The Kamikaze planes would fly low so that radar would not be able to see them as they entered the battle; to be engaged by our fighter planes. Our job was to sight these planes and engage them out at sea, as a first line of defense. The sightings were reported to our Navy air cover, who would direct the Corsairs and Hellcats to take them out before they could reach the main fleet nearer to the island. There were 14 picket stations that surrounded Okinawa. Each one would be manned by at least three destroyers and four LCS gunboats. The 61 patrolled Picket Station #7 or Picket Station #15 which were the ones the Kamikazes seemed to favor, as these stations were between Formosa and the mainland of Japan. The 61 shot down five planes and damaged many more. Three of the downed planes were Kamikazes coming within yards of our ship and the other two were "Betty" Bombers.(3) The bombers were dropping fragment bombs to deter the picket stations. We were attacked by two such bombers. The LCS behind and in front of us were both hit. The 61 set one bomber smoking as it went over the horizon. It was later confirmed by another station of going into the sea. The hit gunboats had at least 10 men killed and 15 wounded each. A few days later, another “Betty” came upon us and made a run at the 61. Our gunners hit it many times and set it on fire. Still navigable, the pilot of the bomber steered to ram our ship. Captain Kelley ordered “hard to port” to avoid the oncoming plane. As it was diving upon us, our rear 40mm gunner shot it again in its left engine, which then made the pilot lose control. The plane hit the water and cart wheeled toward the side of our ship. We rammed the bomber and its entire tail section flipped aboard our ship, including its rear gunner. Everyone on the outer part of the ship was covered with gasoline from the plane. Luckily, the fire went out and the gasoline did not ignite. One of our crewmembers was hurt by the tail section and the bomber’s gunner was washed overboard by the wake.
The Japanese would send as many as 400 fighter planes and bombers in order to get their kamikaze through. Dogfights were frequent over the 61. The destroyers would tell the gunboats that many planes were coming. The gunboats would ask how many, they replied “many, many, many”. They knew that they were in for a long night. Kamikaze planes always came two at a time, low over the horizon. When they were sight an alarm went out with two minutes to get to your guns. The planes would be in firing range for less than 20 seconds during which time you had to shoot them or they would have you. Once while getting supplies and ammo, the 61 was near the battleship, New Mexico, when two planes circled at a great height. The sky was black with so much gun fire. The two seemed to take their time and then flew straight into the New Mexico behind her smoke stack. A total of 60 men were killed and many more were wounded.
On the evening of May 4th, while the 61 was at radar picket station #7, the aircraft carrier USS Sangamon (CVE-26) was hit by two suicide planes and caught fire. We assisted in fighting the fire as the carrier’s ammunition exploded over the course of the four hours it took to get the fire under control. This put the USS Sangamon out of the war, although under its own power. For these efforts, Captain Kelley received the Silver Star.
Through the battle for Okinawa which lasted over 90 days more than 4,000 Kamikaze planes and as many fighter and bomber planes were sent into the battle. A total of 34 ships were sunk and over 365 ships were damaged in the battle for Okinawa. In the midst of the battle, the 61 had been strafed, bombed, and attacked by hundreds of planes, with, luckily, only one casualty of a crewmember hurt. The only other incidents were two men sent home with battle fatigue from the shock of the fighting. During the battle, the 61’s reporting of over 1,000 enemy plane sightings resulted in the saving of many of our fellow servicemen lives. While at its picket stations, the 61 saw at least eight destroyers hit by Kamikaze planes.
The land battle on Okinawa was finally over in early July, 1945 and the Kamikaze attacks stopped. There were no need for the LCS crafts to stay at Okinawa, so the 61 and many of the others set sail to the Philippines for a much needed R and R, which soon translated to Repair and Rearm !
During any invasion, the gunboats (LCS) were always sent in first with the troops. This gave them added fire power after the larger gunships had to stop their bombardment of the landing area. The crew of the 61 was told that its chances of survival during the invasion of Japan’s mainland were only 50% in the first wave. What we saw at Okinawa was only a glimpse of what was to come. While we were getting ready to sail towards Japan for the invasion of the mainland, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the war was announced over. There was much joy and crying from this good news which seemed all too good to be true. We were prepared to shortly fight in a battle much worse than what we experienced at Okinawa, with great odds that we would not survive. The news of the war’s abrupt end brought us total unexpected jubilation.
On September 5, 1945, the 61 sailed into Tokyo Bay, but a typhoon made the trip to there quite uncomfortable. Being that it had a flat bottom for beach-landing purposes, it was like a floating cork and not made to sail stable in rough seas. Needless to say, I got seasick.
We docked at Yokosuka Naval Base, which was empty except for a sunken heavy cruiser and the Japanese Battleship, Nagata, anchored in the middle of the bay. We could see it was badly damaged by the many visits the U.S. planes made during the war. There was little to be seen between Yokosaka and Tokyo except for the missing buildings and all the craters that the bombing raids had made. The Japanese people we encountered were friendly, but had very little food. The entire area surrounding the naval base was devastated and no cargo ships were able to arrive to Japan with food and supplies during the war’s ending months, However, with the war’s end and soon after our arrival, cargo ships were arriving and unloading; and people were going about their work as though nothing ever happened.
On September 18, 1945, the USS LCS(L)-61 became the flagship for both the 3rd and 5th fleets. Admiral (Bull) Halsey and his staff came aboard from the USS South Dakota (BB-57). From the USS New Jersey (BB-62) it picked up Admiral Spruance and his staff. With over 70 high ranking officers aboard, the four star flag flying from the 61’s mast, it proceeded to the H.M.S. King George V for Vice Admiral Rawlings farewell party. It was also noted that Halsey gave Admiral Spruance command of the 5th fleet so that he could come stateside. The only way that the admiral’s and staff’s could board and leave was for a wooden plank to be placed upon the LCS(L)61’s upper 20mm gun shield and then to the battleship. Only on the LCS(L)-61 was it even noted in history that two high ranking admirals and their staff were made to walk the plank. The next morning it was quite difficult after the party to get them aboard and back to their ships. Admiral Halsey was asked if the crew should wear whites or blues. He said “you are the Dungaree Navy and that’s what you wear”. He also praised Captain Kelley and the crew for all they did during the war and that the 61 made a good cup of Joe (coffee).
December 3, 1945, the ship left Tokyo Bay and headed to Saipan. While at sea, we encountered the worst typhoon in all the time they were in the Pacific. A LCS is only 159 feet long and 23 feet wide with a flat bottom so they could beach. The crew had a hard time getting their sea legs and not be seasick. From the island of Saipan, we sailed straight back to San Diego, California, USA, then, through the Panama Canal to New Orleans, Louisiana.
March 5, 1946, it went to a staging area at Green Cove Springs, Florida. March 20, 1951, it was towed to Hoboken, New Jersey and was scrapped. This is how the story ends but it should not be forgotten. It should be remember for ever because it played a large part in ending World War II and held her officers and crew in her arms safely.
Tokyo Rose referred to us as “Baby Destroyers” and said that they would destroy every one of them. There were 130 of these crafts in the Pacific with as many stories. We were called “The Mighty Midgets” or “The small ships that cast a big shadow”. We came back as a vessel that had only a number and no name. The 61 was OUR Guardian Angel. She gave us a chance to fulfill our destiny. Never before in history was there a battle such as this, ever. Nor will there ever be another.
Three of the LCS crafts were sunk and over 18 were badly damaged during the war, the 61 was able to be blessed not to be hit through the efforts of our crew. As of today, two officers are still known to be alive: our captain and executive officer; as are 10 of the original crew. My prayers are with those that passed away to sail forever.
I was a cook and 2nd loader on the aft 40mm gun mount. I also was the one who served Admiral “Bull” Halsey his cup of “Joe”. I was, from the start to the finish, a proud crew member of the LCS(L)-61.
SC 3/c Joseph H Staigar
February 24, 2013
(1) A "craft" is of a size between the usual meaning of a "boat" and a "ship".
Whereas a boat is to be carried by a ship and not intended for traversing the open sea ; the LCx designation
for Landing Craft overlaps this definition. A Landing Craft is a flat bottom vessel intended to run into a beach. We usually think of a landing craft as boxy boat carrying a platoon of men from ship to shore. A landing ship, as the famous LST, is size of a destroyer escort, but has a flat bottom bow to hit the beach. But there was a design in WWII, LCx (L), that was larger than a typical landing craft and smaller than a fully ocean capable ship. These were the LCT, LCI, and LCS -- Tank, Infantry and Support. The LCT was to put a tank ashore; over 1,400 were built. The LCI(L) was slightly larger. About 1,109 saw service with about 30 each of several gun/mortar/rocket variants before settling on the LCS design with the same hull, but configured differently inside, specifically for shooting rather than carrying.
LCS(L) -- Landing Craft, Support (Large)
Length : 158'5" ; Beam: 23'3" ; Draft: 4'6" forward, 5'10" aft
(2). Yes, these were made of concrete. See Concrete ships.
Twin diesel engines ; Speed: 14 knots
Armament : 10 - Mk. 7 rocket launchers firing 12- 4.5" barrage rockets from one rail in about 4 seconds to a range of half a mile.
3 - 40MM twins controlled by Mk. 51 directors.
Complement : 5 officers, 68 enlisted
4 - 20MM.
4 - .50 cal MGs.
Mission : Support the boat group throughout an amphibious landing of troops. The LCS' would lead the landing craft, begin firing rockets at 1000 yards continuing into 500 yards, let the landing craft pass while providing automatic gunfire support. Then move to the flanks to furnish anti-aircraft screens for the radar pickets.
(3). A "Betty" is a Mitsubishi G4M twin-engine, land-based, medium bomber used by the Japanese Navy throughout the war with 2,435 built. It is roughly comparable to the U.S. B-26 Marauder. The Betty had a crew of 7, was 65.6' long, 87.6' wingspan, 265 mph (196 cruise), 5 guns and carried either one torpedo or one ton of bombs.
URL : http://ww.ww2pacific.com/sc3.html
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