A Brief History of LCS(L) 51
Ship‘s company began assembling at Solomons ATB, Maryland around the middle of June as crew No. 3667, to be joined by the gunnery crew which had trained separately at Ft. Pierce, Florida. Ships officers were: Capt. Lt[jg] Howell D. Chickering; Exec. Ens. Warren B. Brockway; Engineering. Officer Ens. John Gospodarich; Deck Officer Ens. Thomas S. Miller; Gunnery Ens. Richard C. Wessell; Commun. Ens. Joseph J. Gebhardt. Much of June and July were spent on various training exercises, classes, etc.
On 4 August ship’s company entrained at Union Station, Washington, DC for Portland OR to pick up the 51 at Albina Shipyard where she was under construction. The cross-country trip took from 4 to 5 days, during which we lost only two crew members at one of the several pit stops en route. One of these stops was at Pasco, WA which resembled a boom town with beer served on rough boards placed across barrels. Much later I learned that Pasco was a railhead for Hanford WA, where the Manhattan atomic bomb project was well underway.
The rest of August and most of September in Portland were spent in drawing supplies and storing them in the Navy Building. Several of us were detached for training in various locations including Seattle. On 25 September the commissioning ceremony was held with the Rainier Ladies Club as special guests for their donation of various items for ship’s company. Of course we had a commissioning party the night before. We then departed for Coronado and San Pedro for training, particularly in maneuvering, signaling, keeping station, etc. No difficulties with the ship were uncovered during this shakedown. Around 12 November we left for Pearl Harbor along with 31, 32, 33, 35 and 36.
More training and practice with the rockets off Lanai – a lot of movement in and around West Loch for water, fuel, mail, supplies, etc. During one of these trips, a heaving line became entangled around the screws and instead of all back full, we went forward into the side of a cruiser after bouncing off a floating crane. This was passed off as a “hard landing” by the duty Commander on the cruiser, but we spent another week getting the bow patched up – and also replacing all the crockery.
Some time in January we set off for Iwo with the other five LCSs in our group via Saipan and more maneuvering – this time in the dark and rain with a group of LSMs.
Prior to the Iwo landing we acquired Lt. John Sweeney, USMC, as forward observer and spotter for the CL Vicksburg. After the landing and clearing beaches we moved in to watch for gun emplacements, smoke, etc. while Sweeney reported grid coordinates to the Vicksburg. At one point we moved in close to try to lob rockets over the cliff and behind, assuming the rocket flight was parabolic. Whether we did any damage wasn’t evident. Shortly thereafter, the enemy tumbled to the scheme and lobbed some heavy stuff at us, so we left. (Sweeney’s efforts were written up by Adm. S. E. Morison in his history of the Pacific War, Vol. XVI. I think Sweeney went ashore to join his outfit and survived.) All of Sweeney’s voice communications to the Vicksburg were copied by the 51 radio crew for his use. The remainder of February was spent patrolling, recovering stray Rhino barges and clearing beach debris. The weather was foul most of the time and turning beam on to the waves after each transit was thrilling to say the least.
After a few weeks of this we made for Leyte Gulf and stayed at the R&R center on Samar for a short time before leaving for Saipan to get ready for the Okinawa landing.
After the landing on 1 April, we made smoke for a short time and then were assigned to radar picket duty at Station No. 3 until LCS 33 (Capt. Boone) was sunk, at which point we took over Station 1. We joined the DD Laffey and another LCS (one of the 80’s I think). The flag was lowered to half mast when Pres. Roosevelt died. On 16 April we had a very active day starting shortly before 0800 as a large group of kamikazes ganged up on the Laffey. We managed to get six I think, but during this time, one of them exploded just off the port beam, sending the engine into the side of the ship, fortunately hitting on the deck bead which took up most of the impact. A bit lower would have holed us below the waterline and a bit higher would have taken out the radio shack. As it was, it wasn’t advisable to make any hard right turns or to move as fast as we would like to have. Imagine evasive action at 4 knots. The Laffey had taken terrible punishment. We picked up several of her crew, helped fight fires and stood by until a tug came out. Meanwhile a group of Corsairs had arrived and drove off the attackers. We put into Kerama Retto for repairs. About two or three hours with cutting torches and welders fixed things up.
The next job was to tow a “fire raft” that incoming kamikazes were expected to dive on, thinking it was a disabled ship – at night of course. The raft was about 4 feet by 4 feet and had a 55 gal. drum of mixed fuel and fog oil that we were to light off after the first wave went by. We did this for two nights, sitting there in the glow created by the fire, until fortunately, the raft was “lost.” Patrolling the anchorage, making smoke and riding out typhoons occupied us until we left, again for Leyte and R&R at Tacloban. There we enjoyed green beer and some basketball while awaiting the next batch of orders. These came and we were slated to land near Tokyo. However as we all know, the A-bomb went off on 6 August and on the 8th the war was over.
On 26 September we headed back to Okinawa for a brief stop before proceeding to Japan where we landed at Wakayama, entering the bay behind a group of old Liberty ships ballasted with cement and crewed by volunteers. Since we had shallow draft we followed them in hoping to be too shallow to hit any mines. At Wakayama we did screening for several large ships anchored nearby and rounded up fishermen who violated the rules on distance from the anchorage. During this time we received the Presidential Unit Citation for the action on 16 April with the destroyer LAFFEY, DD724.
On 25 October we left for Nagoya, by ourselves I think, where we managed to tour a bombed out “Betty” plant. On 16 November we were dispatched to Jin-Sen, Korea (now called Inchon) to pick up a liberty party and take them to Tsientsin, China, a job thoughtfully arranged for by Frank Zachara, Group Staff Communicator who had spent a good deal of time on the 51 as a working passenger. It was a nice trip. While at Jin-Sen we somehow drew an extra unit of supplies and spent an afternoon on voice radio looking for recipients. Finally at around 2100 we raised an Army group that had just been burned out of their barracks. They showed up, took the supplies, finished the coffee and emptied ship’s stores.
Inchon has a three-knot current and a 30-foot tide so we spent a lot of time chasing the anchor. We picked up the liberty party and headed across the Yellow Sea to Taku, the anchorage for Tientsin, several miles from the mouth of the Pei Ho River. Very shallow water and a shifting channel caused us to run up on a mud bar. By running all hands and passengers back and forth we managed to warp over the mud bars. After a few days we returned to Jin-Sen for Thanksgiving, picking up orders a few days later to proceed to Tsingtao to join a convoy headed for the States, leaving around 8 December.
The trip back took us to Saipan (25 Dec), Eniwetok (3 Jan 1946), Pearl Harbor (14 Jan) and eventually San Francisco on 29 Jan. Of the ships that left Tsingtao, around 36 or so I think, only 51 and 52 made it back without some sort of breakdown. As it was we were both smoking as we passed under the Golden Gate. We dropped anchor off Sausalito and were ordered to Mare Island shortly thereafter. I left the ship officially on 14 March. I understand 51 was sold to a commercial outfit to haul fish – an ignoble fate indeed.
Ensign Joseph Gebhardt, Communications Officer
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