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A BRIEF HISTORY OF U.S.S. LCS(L) 61by
Powell Pierpoint, LTjg. USNR, Executive Officer
The ship in itself is nothing. She is unlovely to look upon and has neither grace nor speed. She has not even the dignity of a name. The most that can be said for her is that she looks more like a ship and is a little more handsome than her other cousins in the Amphibious Forces – LCIs, LSTs and LSMs. Her history comes from the men who are in her and the job they did with her.
Properly speaking the history of U.S.S. LCS(L)(3) 61 begins in Solomons, MD, though she herself never saw that "gemlike isle", and probably never will. Here it was that her crew was assembled and trained, here the business of making sailors out of landsmen was begun in earnest. For the first time some of the men saw the sea, and still more of them went out upon it in a ship for the first time. There were a few old salts amongst them – men who had seen the beaches of Sicily, Salerno and Normandy. When they condescended to leave their sea stories and their coffee these veterans could be helpful. Their ribbons and stars were impressive, but still more impressive, they knew how to run a ship.
Among the plodding LCI boys at Solomons the crews that were to get LCSs were the glamour boys. Theirs was to be a fighting ship, with guns and rockets. No bow doors, no ramps, no cargo holds; just guns and rockets, a small galley, and 71 men and officers. The first sight of the training LCS confirmed the envy. Lofty beside the squat LCIs and lopsided LSMs she simply bristled with guns.
On November 3, 1944 the training was over and our crew left to "pick up our ship". The gunnery gang had come up from Florida for the final cruises and it was with profound regret that all hands bid farewell to sunny, friendly Solomons. The trip west to Portland, Oregon, where the ship was built, bore no resemblance to a Sunday School picnic. The Captain confiscated enough bootleg hooch to set up a small, well-stocked night spot, and the rumor that officer personnel drank it all is believed to be unfounded.
About Portland, the less said the better. The tellers of tales should not be handicapped by having their stories of conquests and liberties set down on paper and thus solidified. Suffice it to say that Portland was hospitable to an unprecedented degree. The authorities cooperated by giving even the occupants of the brig liberty every third night.
The 61 became a ship of the Navy on the 29th of November 1944. The commissioning ceremony was brief, damp and unimpressive, but U.S.S. LCS 61 was born. On December 12 she sailed for San Diego for operational training, shakedown and such outfitting as had not been completed in Portland.
The first trip to sea was notable chiefly for the waste of our food provisions and effort by the ship’s cook. The trip was not too rough, but performances by various members of ship’s company at the rail were gaudy to say the least. San Diego was a round of inspections, training and working parties. The Captain got married and was seen infrequently.
On January 12, 1945 the ship sailed for Pearl Harbor, and all hands started counting the days and weeks and months, confidently expecting to be home again in 18 months. Once again the production of second-hand lunches over the railings was prodigious. It was on this trip that our first crisis was successfully met. About six days out of San Diego, C.R. Wise, F1/c came down with an acute case of appendicitis. After taking doctors aboard underway in fairly heavy seas, the Captain received permission to leave the convoy and head for Pearl Harbor at flank speed, arriving on 21 January. Wise was transferred to the hospital and rejoined the ship a few weeks later, sans appendix.
All hands fought the battle of getting a small boat in West Loch at Pearl, with the exception of one short pleasant period of availability in Kewalo Basin, with a bar across the street and Waikiki a mere hop, skip and jump away. At Pearl, also, most of the people who couldn’t take the life aboard an LCS were transferred and the crew which was to acquit itself so well in action was virtually complete.
And so the LCS 61 went to war. On February 16 she stood out of Pearl Harbor to be greeted by LCTs, hundreds of fat little LCTs (Landing Craft, Tank: 115-foot long "lighter-like", open well decked troop and tank carriers), as far as the eye could reach, all waiting to be escorted to Guam at the terrifying speed of 4.5 knots. As a matter of fact there were only 36 of them, with an escort of six LCSs (the 61, 81, 82, 83, 23 and 25), four YMSs (mine sweepers) and six LCTs for column leaders, but at the time it seemed like more.
The first stop was at Johnston Island, a minute sand spit entirely covered by an airstrip. We anchored in its lee the night of 22 February, and sailed for Majuro in the Marshalls the next day. Majuro, where we arrived on 5 March, was a very fine little atoll. The Naval garrison was extremely friendly, there were trees, a little grass, and even a USO show. It didn’t look like much at the time, but we were to come to look back upon Majuro as an ideal spot among atolls we would see.
The next port of call was Eniwetok, a forbidding, barren, sun-baked wasteland that we endured from the 15th to the 21st of March. Guam came next, and though it was big and had trees, no one got ashore except the working parties. We sailed on the first of April, after only three days, for Ulithi. It was at Guam that we left our little friends, the LCTs. Their performance had been remarkable. During the entire trip they had only one breakdown, kept excellent station and rated cheers from all hands for a difficult job well done.
Ulithi, where we arrived on the 3rd of April, was another Eniwetok, only worse. Rumors about our ultimate destination were so thick the mess cooks demanded a six-man working party to help down in the chow hall. We had missed Iwo Jima completely and it looked very much as though we had missed Okinawa. LCTs were cursed fluently and frequently by all hands. At Ulithi we had a few days availability alongside the USS MINDANAO and acquired a Group Commander, Lt. Commander Vogelin of Group 12, Flotilla 4. The news, when it came, that we were to sail for Okinawa, did not particularly impress anyone. The invasion of Okinawa had taken place on April 1, and though we saw a few damaged DDs that might have been at Okinawa in Ulithi, barge-busting looked like the duty we were slated for.
We sailed on the 7th of April in company with two DDs, an ARL (Landing Craft Repair Ship), and an ARSD (Salvage Lifting Vessel) with two tugs to tow it. The trip was quiet and uneventful. Our destination was Kerama Retto, a group of islands off from Okinawa, and our first indication that the laughs were over came as we steamed in. Without any warning two bogeys (enemy planes) came out of a cloud and made a suicide run on one of our escorting DDs. She got them both, but one of them almost got her, shrapnel and flying debris killing four men and wounding others aboard.
We had had our first serious G.Q. (call to battle stations), seen our first suicide attack, and were to have a few more of the same, "thank you", before we said goodbye to Okinawa. That was the afternoon of 16 April. We spent the night snug in Kerama Retto, whiling away the time by looking at all the damaged destroyers scattered here and there about the harbor, and firing at a little grass shack on the beach.
The next morning we sailed for the Hagushi Anchorage, off the assault beaches of Okinawa. As we steamed in, the cruisers, battleships and destroyers were pouring shells into the hills south of the beaches. The first thing we saw was a fire-blackened LCS, down by the stern and towed by a fleet tug. Later we went alongside LCS 84 to greet our regular Group Commander, Lt. Commander Montgomery, and for the first time heard of Radar Picket Stations. The sea stories were strange and wonderful to the ear. Suicide planes, suicide boats, suicide swimmers, more suicide planes, salvage and survivors. For a fact the laughs were over.
The first night in the anchorage held its first taste of action. We dutifully started our smoke generators to cover the larger anchored ships from the enemy planes and lay at anchor, smoking for dear life and hoping for a bogey. Finally one was caught in the lights and we fired on him. The range was extreme, however, and he flew off unscathed. Another came out of the smoke over our stern and was gone in an instant – no chance to fire. In the morning we got our orders – to Roger Peter Two (Radar Picket Station #2), "Suicide Gulch", with nothing but water between us and Japan, and bogeys as thick as flies.
Aside from the main drama of attack and maneuvers, radar picket duty brought with it a minor show that was played on the voice radio circuits day and night. The destroyers we worked with, we knew only by their voice calls. Their official names were for the log only. Each ship and station took on the personality of its radio talker. In the case of the DDs, there were two of them, one on the I.F.D. (Intercept Fighter-Director) circuit and one on the private circuit for the station. If the talkers were hesitant, or didn’t speak well, the destroyers went down in our estimation. If they spoke well and had a sense of humor, it went up. The I.F.D. circuit was fascinating. It was the lifeline of the picket stations and it lived up to the drama of its task. Over it passed the orders, instructions and information which implemented the coordination of plane and ship, picket and anchorage. Through it we heard of friends in triumph or trouble and were warned of trouble to come to us.
Roger Peter Two (phonetic language for Radar Picket Station Two) was relatively tame after the buildup it had been given, but it carried promise of things to come. There were raids all around us and the DDs frequently opened fire at night at targets we could not see. On April 19th we saw our first Jap, floating in the water with his legs nibbled off by sharks. On the 20th we found another one, in better condition, but he carried no papers and after a few of the crew had cut buttons off his coat for souvenirs, we then threw him back to the sharks. On the night of the 21st we chased an elusive radar target but had no luck – he was much too fast for us. The next night we went off by ourselves to patrol around Iheya Shima, a nearby island, and had no excitement beyond a few alerts.
On April the 24th in the afternoon the USS BENNION, which was to become one of our favorite destroyers to work with and which already was one of the most successful DDs on the picket line, suffered a very near miss by a suicide plane. Her starboard motor whaleboat, in fact, was caught by the wingtip of the attacker and was smashed. Close, very close indeed. We were ordered back to the anchorage on the 25th and the same night were sent to Roger Peter One.
The first few nights we spent on a little patrol of our own about two thirds of the way out to the main station. Just after midnight on the morning of the 28th of April a bogey made a run on us from dead ahead. He passed over the ship and was driven off by the after 40MM gun but the whole thing was over so quickly we could not tell whether we had hit him or not. At first light we joined the formation at the main station. That night we shot down our first bogey.
Roger Peter One had been alerted for a good part of the night and the DDs had taken bogeys under fire several times. It was an active night all over the picket line, and we had been at Red & Green battle conditions for a long period. Our private bogey had not been reported to us by any source until our own Radarman, A.H. Bleiler, RdM2/c, picked him up and tracked him in. LCS 61 was second ship in a column of three and the bogey was closing from ahead, from right to left at an angle of about 20 degrees to the axis of the column. The lookouts and fire controlman sighted him visually while he was still on the starboard side of the column and started tracking. Fire was not opened until he cleared the ship ahead. The number two 40MM gun with Larry Fabbrone, FC2/c at the director, was right on from the first shot.
As soon as he realized he was being fired on, the Jap turned in toward the 61, but he was much, much too late. We had him on fire before he fell within 100 yards on our port beam. Eighteen rounds of 40MM ammunition were expended, and that was that. The OTC (officer in charge of the picket station) investigated the wreckage, discovering two bodies. Just as easy as falling off a log. We had visions, in our talking, running into the dozens. We were soon to be disillusioned, but our first conquest gave us a world of confidence. Bring on the bogeys. We were ready and waiting for them.
On April 29th we were relieved and went back into the Hagushi anchorage for a period of smoke duty, logistics and anti-skunk patrol. The 61 found skunk patrol extremely dull, mainly because she never found any skunks. It was definitely a chore, with minesweepers, cruisers, destroyers, LCI(G)s and all manner of other small craft to dodge, not to mention the natural hazards of the course such as shoals, sandbanks and buoys.
And so, on the first of May we went back to the picket line, to Roger Peter Seven. This station had a spotty reputation. It had had its share of action, but it was not the bogey highway that some of the others were. In the first few days it lived up to its reputation. We had alerts, and even raids, but all around us the other stations were catching unadulterated hell. During evening twilight the ships of Roger Peter Seven retired from their daylight position to one closer to Kerama Retto. On the evening of 2 May, as we steamed into our night station, the USS SANGAMON, a CVE, with two destroyers, sortied from Kerama Retto. We were at G.Q. at the time, there being bogeys in the area. Just at dusk two of the kamikaze boys rode their divine wind down on the carrier. One of them was knocked down early by five-inch fire from the DDs, but the other, despite a fountain of automatic weapon’s fire, hit the SANGAMON dead-center, at the base of the island.
The ships of Roger Peter Seven immediately headed for the carrier at flank speed to render assistance. When we arrived she was ablaze from stem to stern, with ammunition, pyrotechnics and bombs exploding, and debris flying everywhere. As the 61 came up, a DD went along the starboard side of the SANGAMON to put water on the hangar deck. However, damage control parties on the flight deck were pushing burning planes overboard, and one of them landed on the fantail of the destroyer and she immediately moved clear. Another jettisoned plane narrowly missed us as we moved in to replace the DD, and we too were forced to stand off a short way.
At this time our own damage control parties had the 61 in maximum condition of readiness to assist the CVE. All fire lines were streaming, and we were ready to handle survivors. In this connection it should be noted that until the ships from Roger Peter Seven arrived on the scene men were abandoning the SANGAMON. However, when help arrived they gave us a cheer and we saw no one else go over the side.
After our first attempt to get alongside we went under the SANGAMON’s stern and found that the damage control parties there had no contact with the bridge. Accordingly we went up the side of the carrier to the spot in which the Captain of the SANGAMON had set up his command, the bridge being gutted by the fire. There, we were requested to try to get water on a fire under the bridge. Once again we came alongside, but the bridge was now on the leeward side and the smoke was extremely heavy, too heavy for us to see enough to direct our water effectively. By this time the men of the SANGAMON had gotten the terrific fires on the flight and hangar decks partially under control, the explosions were much less frequent, and we stood off about fifty yards from the carrier to render any assistance she might ask for. The last job we did for her was to read and report her draft. The men of the SANGAMON did a truly magnificent job. When we first came up to her no one would have bet a nickel on her chances of survival, but her crew stuck to her and with stubbornness and guts, saved their ship. It was a grand and inspiring performance.
After the SANGAMON was safely on her way back to harbor, LCS 61 went back to Roger Peter Seven. The night of May 3rd was a busy one – G.Q. all night and the destroyers firing off and on throughout the night. We got no shots at the attackers however. Until the tenth the station was relatively quiet – never more than two attacks per night and three hours of sleep in a night was getting to be a treat. On the evening of May 10th, just after dark, a Betty came past us very low and regretted it. We took it under fire, scored many hits, and though we did not see it go down, one of the destroyers on the station did and we got credit for our second kill. We were then relieved and went in for an engine overhaul.
During this period in the anchorage we saw the USS NEW MEXICO take a suicide plane in the gun tubs under her stack. The personnel losses were very heavy although the damage was relatively light. One other plane was shot down in this raid, but no planes came in range of our guns. After our overhaul period (all two days of it) we went skunk hunting with no result until we shoved off for Roger Peter Fifteen.
We got to our station on the evening of the 20th of May; from the time we got there until the time we left we were under almost constant attack during the hours of darkness. It was without doubt the warmest station we ever inhabited.
One of the roughest nights was the 23rd. Our Fighter Director destroyers, equipped with air search radar, gave up trying to spot raids and simply told us in a weary voice, "Many, many bogeys". We were steaming in a diamond formation with three other LCSs, and the one behind us, LCS 121, suffered a near miss by a fragmentation bomb. We had the bogey under fire and assisted the 121 in splashing it. Two men were killed and more wounded on the 121 and she went back to the anchorage to get emergency treatment for her casualties.
The 24th was the same thing all over again – many, many bogeys and the DDs firing overhead all night. We fired at anything we could see, which wasn’t a great deal as it was the blackest sort of a night. At one time there were seven raids directly above us and the number one director was endeavoring to keep three planes under fire at the same time. It was a wild night and lots of planes were shot down – quite a few by our night fighters. Whether we got any or not we shall never know, and none of us cared much. We were still in one piece, which for the moment, seemed sufficient.
On the morning of the 25th one of the destroyers, USS STORMES, took a kamikaze on its fantail but extinguished the fire very rapidly without requiring any assistance. It was a sudden, unexpected attack, out of range for us, and very few shots were fired. Needless to say, however, the incident did not act as a sedative for the lads on the 61.
On the 26th the rains came and we got twenty-four hours of blessed peace. The fighter planes attached to our picket station (our C.A.P.) got a few kills but nothing came near us and we actually got some sleep. The 27th, however, was a different story. Once again it was many, many bogeys, and once again the 61 had its horseshoe along. It was a night few of us will forget.
The victim this time was LCS 52, not 150 yards ahead of us in formation, who was nearly missed by a suicide plane which we assisted her in splashing. As we moved up to aid her, another bogey closed us flying low and we fired every gun on the ship at it to drive it away. The 52 had suffered both material and personnel casualties and we were ordered to escort her back to the anchorage.
There were bogeys all around us during the trip back, and as we approached the Hagushi area one came at us from ahead very low. It was a Betty and we took it under fire as it passed down our port side. It turned and made its run on us from astern. At the last possible moment the Captain put on hard left rudder at flank speed and the bogey fell not more than twenty feet on our starboard bow. At first everyone was sure we were hit as we had a high list from the turn and there was water and gasoline all over everything. Joe Columbus, BM1/c was knocked down and out by a piece of the tail surface of the plane.
The pilot’s parachute we found still in its pack on the foredeck. If we had turned to the right, or not turned at all, we would have been hit dead center. If the plane had carried a bomb, the 61 would have been minus a bow and her casualties would have been heavy. As it was, we had one Bosun’s Mate with a bad bruise on his back and the 61 had another plane to her credit. The bogey had been hit repeatedly by our after 40MM gun and was on fire as it passed over the conn, but it had kept coming.
We had another bogey closing us that morning before we reached the anchorage, but he stayed out of range and we got in without further incident. After that night the rest of the Okinawa campaign was anticlimactic. We went out on other Radar Picket stations, and saw other bogeys, and saw another ship hit, but never again did we get a chance to fire our guns in anger.
On the 1st of June LCS 61 went east around Okinawa to Buckner Bay for anti-skunk patrol and general anti-aircraft duties. Excitement there was limited. On the 4th of June we sent a landing party ashore on a small island in the bay, along with men from the LC(FF) 786 (Amphibious Command Ship), to search for a Piper Cub pilot reported to be forced down. Some of the party was fired on and the search had to be abandoned on account of darkness. We were not permitted to land again.
After her tour of duty in Buckner Bay, LCS 61 took a short side trip to island of Iheya Shima, spent a day on radar picket duty with a destroyer, found another pair of dead Jap pilots much the worse for wear, for they were floating in the water, and went back to Hagushi for maintenance and drydocking for repairs to one screw.
On the 25th of June we went back to picket duty, this time on Roger Peter Five. Our C.A.P. shot down some bogeys here but the ships never opened fire, though we were at General Quarters almost constantly. It was while here that the Okinawa campaign was declared over on the 22nd of June.
On the 10th of July we sailed in company with the rest of Flotilla Four for Leyte in the Philippines for beer and liberty. A recap on our achievements of Okinawa is, perhaps, in order. Out of a little less than three months there, LCS 61 spent forty days on the radar picket line. She shot down five enemy aircraft and damaged others. She assisted in saving lives of the USS SANGAMON. In recognition of her services, she was recommended for the Navy Unit Commendation by the Commander of Flotilla Four, and her Captain, Lt. James W. Kelley, USN, has been recommended for the Silver Star by the Commander of LCS Group Eleven, and the Commander Carrier Division 22.
On 15 August 1945, the day the Japanese first announced to the Allied powers that they were willing to surrender, USS LCS(L)(3) 61 was anchored in Leyte Gulf completing availability and overhaul after the arduous Okinawa campaign. The announcement was the signal for a colorful celebration by the ships collected in the harbor. Searchlights played on the clouds; whistles and sirens sounded for hours and all ships made earnest efforts to expend their supplies of pyrotechnic ammunition.
A press announcement that LCS 61 was to be among the ships to take part in the initial occupation of the home islands of Japan started the rumors of imminent departure flowing from numerous sources.
In the interim, the 61 marked the end of our stay in Leyte by winning the softball championship of Flotilla Four. The series was hard fought from start to finish, and in the final games we were called upon to face an aggregation made up of the best men from all the ships of Group Twelve. The trophy, a handsome plaque, was well and truly earned.
On the third of September we took departure from Leyte, in company with the rest of Flotilla Four, for Tokyo Bay. The eight-day trip was uneventful except for a typhoon scare which never materialized. Upon arrival in Tokyo Bay we were assigned duty carrying liberty parties to and from the battleships and cruisers anchored off Yokosuka.
The 61 was assigned permanently to U.S.S. SOUTH DAKOTA, Admiral Halsey’s flagship, as long as she was here, and then to other ships in the Bay. It was while we worked for the "Sodak" that we had one of our biggest thrills of the war.
At 1045 on 18 September 1945, U.S.S. LCS(L)(3) 61 became flagship for both the Third and Fifth Fleets. Admiral Halsey and his staff came aboard from the U.S.S. SOUTH DAKOTA and Admiral Spruance and his staff from U.S.S. NEW JERSEY. Then, with the four star flag fluttering at our truck we got underway to carry the Admirals to HMS KING GEORGE V for a farewell party given by Vice Admiral Rawlings, R.N.
Officers and men from the 61 were invited aboard the British battleship and were treated in the most hospitable fashion imaginable. The trip back to the American ships was marked by high good spirits on the part of all ranks and rates.
Later, over coffee in the flag quarters aboard the SOUTH DAKOTA, Admiral Halsey told the Captain and Executive Officer of the 61, in reference to her action at Okinawa, to "break out your blue jerseys. Your boys are first string." This is the highest compliment we could get.
As I have said, the history of the ship is the history of the men in her. I have purposely avoided, except in a few instances, mention of specific personnel, for to an unusual extent every man aboard was responsible for the record of the 61. However, it is fitting that a few of the boys be mentioned by name: Larry Fabroni and "Junior" Chambliss on the #1 director; Mola and Fred Berter on the #2 director; Scrom, Shellenberger, Shropshire and Martin on the 20MM guns; Jumbo Miller with his Dead End Kids on the #1 40MM; and Art Bleiler on the radar. These are the boys that did the damage. There were many ships which shot down more Japs at Okinawa then the 61, but I do not believe that there is any LCS which saw more night action, or got as many under the difficult conditions of night firing as did the 61.
And so we reach the end of the story. The war is over and most of us will soon be going home. With us we can take the assurance that when, in future years, we start off our sea stories with "Well, when we were on the picket line at Okinawa" we will speak with authority, and also with the knowledge that we will be heard respectfully.
Acknowledgment is gratefully made for the use of material supplied by Lawrence Katz, RM2/c; Robert Rielly, QM3/c; and Simon Kaplan, RM2/c in the preparation of this history.
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