by Frank D. Morris
COLLIERS MAGAZINE – November 11, 1944
The Elsies were weird and helpless-looking ships as they led our huge invasion squadron, but when the action started they packed a punch that surprised everybody--particularly the Japanese
A big naval armada was tossing steel bouquets at the Japs on Guam that morning of D-Day. Mighty battleships flung dozens of salvos, light and heavy cruisers added to the din and destruction with their five-, six-, and eight-inch guns. Landing craft loaded with Marines--Higgins boats, jeep lighters, amph-tracks, alligators--were darting shore ward from transports, and a group of LSTs joined the parade. The white wakes of these myriad vessels of war resembled a mass of mighty water-borne arrows aimed at the island target.
But what were those weird craft right in the van of the whole invasion?
From the bridge of our cruiser flagship, we watched them marching bravely, in company front, up to the Jap’s front stoop. Except for the Stars and Stripes streaming from their masts, they might have been mistaken for sampans designed by a Japanese Salvadore Dali. What on earth were those tubs doing in the most vulnerable and vital spot of the battle? We soon found out.
Just short of the foam-crested reef, these invasion leaders slowed their pace and finally stopped. Then , at exactly 8:21 o’clock, they touched off a spectacular fireworks display which even in broad daylight, was a riot of brilliance. There was a rapid series of blinding flashes, each accompanied by a deep suction sound as of a giant cork being pulled from a fifty-gallon bottle. Hundreds of rockets, hissing like huge snakes, took off over the bows of the strange craft, angling high into the air to describe a graceful arc at the top of their flight.
Then they showered down--like the end of the world--upon the entire beachhead area where the first assault troops were to hit solid ground nine minutes later. Then came roar after roar as succeeding waves of these fireborne arrows formed a roof of projectiles extending from ship to shore Yes, we saw what those funny-looking craft were doing in the invasion armada. And so did the Japs.
Like its companion weapon, the bazooka, the rocket launched by these assault ships had a flareback as fiery as a sliver of Hades. The heat of this flash was so intense it licked the paint off steel decks and bulk-heads, leaving hot, blackened scars. None of the crew dare stand in the rear of the rocket launchers in action. They don’t care to be converted to Melba toast. Hot, acrid fumes swept over the decks as the rockets were spewed out into space, and clouds of heavy smoke shrouded ship and men.
Ashore the effect was devastating. Palm trees were shattered, underbrush disappeared in shreds, and the concussion of the rocket bombs as they hit their targets rocked the entire beach front. Slit-trench defense positions caught the full brunt of the blasts, and any Japs unlucky enough to be within range were instantly liquidated.
It was a quick, awesome show. Several thousand rockets were hurled in less than a minute.
Reversing course, the rocket ships then headed back toward the open sea and, on the way, opened up with their 20 and 40 millimeter guns at positions flanking the landing areas to counter any attempt at enfilading fire by Japs in hidden gun positions. Then, their guns quiet for the moment, the crew watched follow-up waves of landing craft pass them going ashore. Marines in these barges and ducks and amtracks raised fingers in V-for-Victory salutes and clasped hands over their heads. It was their way of telling the sweating crews of the bazooka boats they had done a swell job.
Nothing Much to Look at
These makeshift gunboats--LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) converted to rocket ships--are our smallest seagoing landing craft. They’re 155 feet long, displace 300 tons, and in appearance are about as handsome as a garbage scow. Their twin screws turn up a top speed of twelve knots, which definitely takes them out of the greyhound class. The "Elsie" crews lovingly call their craft "the Floating Bedpan."
In construction, the rocket itself is just as elementary. The "motor" is a short length of threaded pipe filled with a chemical propellant charge. One end of the pipe screws into the body of the rocket, a bomb loaded with TNT. At the other end of the pipe, a circular band of sheet metal encloses fins to form the tail that keeps it on a steady course. The fuse, screwed into the nose of the bomb, has a propeller that starts to spin when the rocket is launched, and arms it when the missile is safely clear of the ship. On contacting the target, the whole business, including the motor, becomes shrapnel.
The versatile Elsies are going to be a big factor from now on in the Pacific war. They had several other front-line jobs to handle before and during the invasion of Guam and they polished each just as smoothly as they had covered the troop landings. For several days before D-Day, they ferreted out and destroyed enemy gun emplacements on the coast and they went in where destroyers and bigger ships feared to tread to make short-range jabs at other points of resistance.
Mine sweepers brushed their way into Apra Harbor under escort of the ubiquitous gunboats and the Elsies’ smoke generators were constantly manned and ready to throw up a covering cloud over the other ships in the invasion fleet in the event of a Jap air attack. But most of the time the Elsies seemed to be steaming boldly in column along shore, exposing their thin sides to enemy gunfire. It was a nose-thumbing operation, obviously intended to tempt the Jap coastal batteries to open up and disclose their position so that our own naval big-caliber guns could locate and silence them permanently.
The lure served its purpose. Several of the Elsies were fired upon during these maneuvers and there were plenty of casualties among their crews. Five men were killed aboard LCI 365, twenty-four were wounded including the division commander, Lieutenant Howard Rabenstein, who returned to duty a couple of days later aboard another ship in his group. LCI 469 was working in close to the beach when a Jap shore battery opened up on it. This fire was returned by the Elsie’s forties and twenties. When the smoke had cleared away, thirteen of her crew, including the executive officer, had been hit.
Ironically the Elsies were not designed originally for this type of combat. As their alphabetical name indicates, they were supposed to be used as landing craft for infantry. They could accommodate a full com-pany of troops, and their shallow draft allowed them to run up on a sloping beach where the two bow ramps were lowered, and the passengers walked ashore.
There were thirty-six LCIs in the first convoy that sailed from New York a year ago last winter bound for Arzeu, Algeria. The crossing took a full month, during which the usual run of Atlantic winter weather was encountered--gales, blizzards and high seas that threatened to end each Elsie’s war career before it had started. The thirty-six LCIs, somewhat battered, finally arrived in Arzeu however, to start a period of strenuous training for landings in the invasion of Sicily. During that campaign they landed assault troops in the first waves and later ferried support troops ashore.
LCIs Prove Themselves Adaptable
The first use of LCIs in the Pacific war came during the follow-up operations in the Solomons when army replacements took over from the Marines on Guadalcanal. Then, in the fall of 1943, they were given a new assignment. The Navy wanted a shallow-draft boat, with fair stability, to get close inshore and knock out shore batteries and mortars during landing operations. A three-inch gun was mounted on the bows of several LCIs, and the new gunboats were tried out at the invasion of the Treasury Islands. They came through beautifully, knocking out enemy mortars, so they were used again and just as successfully in the Green Islands and Empress August Bay campaigns.
Then the landing boat-gunboat-LCI entered an-other phase of its brief active life by sprouting rockets. These pyrotechnic weapons had been used to good effect in land warfare. Why couldn’t they be fired at short range from landing craft to cover the movement of assault troops storming a beach? They could.
Again the Elsies were converted--into rocket gunboats. This was a relatively simple operation. The two landing ramps were removed from the bow, and metal racks, called launchers, were installed in multiple banks on the well deck of the LCIs. The launchers, employing an extremely simple mechanism, were welded to the steel decks, an electrical firing system connecting with a control station on the bridge was installed, and the bazooka boats were ready for action. The entire conversion job required only a couple of days.
Japs defending the beaches at Kwajalein were knocked silly when our bazooka boats laid their first barrage of rockets at their feet just prior to the landing. The concussion of the exploding rockets near a pillbox or dugout was so great it stunned the occupants.
Only a small number of LCIs were tried out at Kwajalein and later at Eniwetok, but the tidy way they swept the beaches of Jap resistance clearly indicated that this new broom would be standard equipment in future landing operations.
At four o’clock one morning, two days after the original landings on Saipan, a flotilla of small boats was seen stealing out of Tanapag Harbor apparently loaded with Jap troops. They probably were going to reinforce another part of the beleaguered island but they never reached it, for an alert LCI skipper saw them first and, with a group of Elsies, closed in on them with guns blazing. Eleven Jap boats were sunk within a few minutes.
Another morning, at daybreak, four Jap soldiers in a catboat were intercepted by a patrolling LCI, as they were trying to cross over from Saipan to Tinian which was still in Jap hands. Taken aboard, they were relieved of the grenades they carried and now they’re sitting out the war in a prison camp.
Likeness to Fowl Symbolic
The day the Elsies arrived off Guam to do their stuff, the column of squat fat ships looked like a row of iron ducks marching on an endless chain across a shooting gallery backdrop. And there was more than symbolism in the resemblance, for during the entire Guam operation, the Elsies were shot at more than any other unit in the invasion fleet.
To get a closer view of the Elsies, I reported aboard one some days after the original landings on Guam. On Number 466, I met the group commander, LCDR William R. Mcaleb. He wasn’t in a very happy mood. Hobbling around his tiny cabin on a broomstick cane, he told us between cusses, why. "Slipped off a ladder and sprained my fool ankle. Slows me down and we still have plenty of work to do here."
Lt(jg) James J. Horovit, skipper of the 466, came into the Navy and LCIs via Boston Latin School and Harvard. Practically all the Elsie skippers are reserve officers. Their training is brief, intensive. A few weeks of indoctrination school, a midshipman’s cruise with an experienced LCI skipper, and they get a command of their own.
Two other Elsies came alongside and tied up to 466 for a skippers’ conference. From the open bridge of the 473, Charlie Fisher called that he would be over in a minute. Late in 1942, Charlie closed his desk in St. Petersburg law office, where he had practiced for sixteen years, to go to sea, and now he has a division of LCIs.
Fisher, dynamic and loquacious, hadn’t been aboard the LCI flagship five minutes before he was talking about the third skipper, Ed Taub, another jg.
"Do you know what that guy Taub did?" Fisher asked. "A few days before the landings here, his ship lost a screw and shaft. That cut his speed down to about five knots, and there wasn’t a chance of getting repairs around here. He was worried--worried that he wouldn’t be able to take her in with the rest of us the morning of W-Day."
"So what does he do? He sits down and writes out a message to Admiral Conolly asking permission to take the 467 in, anyway. He made it real pleading: said his men had been counting on this for weeks and it would be a great blow to their moral if they didn’t get to go. Yes sir. Captain Taub lade it on thick and it worked. The 467 went in with us to the point of departure that morning--on the end of a tow line. They cast her off then because she would have to slow down anyway to launch her rockets and, after the shooting she went out under her own power. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Probably the first time a ship has ever been towed into battle."
Captain Taub didn’t affirm or deny any of it. He was too anxious to tell us about his gunners. "If the ammunition would hold out, those boys would shoot until they dropped from sheer exhaustion." he declared, referring to the crews on the 20 and 40 millimeter mounts. "After so many rounds of rapid fire, you’re supposed to let your guns cool off. But they don’t shoot according to the book. They just keep blasting away as long as they have a target in their sights until the barrels are white hot. We’re on our third set of barrels right now."
As the doughty skipper talked, you realized the end of the war would be somewhat of a letdown for him if he decided then to go back to his peacetime job. He used to merchandise ladies’ ready-to-wear for a chain of departments stores in Detroit.
The Elsie skippers now got down to the business of the night. There would be the usual all-night patrol along the reef of Asan Bay. Then, just after dawn, a division of Elsies would close in for a rocket attack on a water-front area immediately north of Agana Guam’s capital city. Third Division Marines had planned an early morning advance upon the capital, and although Agana was believed to have been abandoned by the Japs, enemy troops might try a counterattack from the outskirts. The Elsies’ assignment was to pour rockets and gunfire into that area to discourage such a move.
It was captain Taub’s turn to lead the Elsies in for the morning attack and already his ship was "loaded for Jap." The banks of launchers on the 467’s well deck were filled with rockets, their fuses protected by safety wires, which would be pulled out just before zero hour. The steel frames of the launchers might be mistaken for bicycle parking racks, their design is that simple. A slotted space on one side of each launcher holds a dozen rockets which drop down, one by one, of their own gravity, into an inclined trough. Juice applied to a pair of electrical contacts at the bottom of the trough starts the rocket’s "motor" and sends it scooting.
"There’s no sight-setting or training to be figured out," Lt(jg) Edward Kase, gunnery officer explained. "We aim the rockets by aiming the bow of the ship at the target."
Rocket firing is time and laborsaving. No long drilling of gun crews in precision and teamwork is required. Two men load the racks, and the gunnery officer unloads them at the target by pressing a button.
"Don’t expect miracles of the Elsies and their rockets; the Navy doesn’t. The new weapon fits a definite purpose, but it has its limitations. The LCI rocket’s range is limited. There can be no precise aiming of rockets, and some of them prove erratic in flight, so they are fired in quantity to cover an area rather than a specific target. Finally, they can’t begin to match the penetrating power of a shell or an aerial bomb, so they are used primarily as antipersonnel weapons.
A Bombardment in Relays
The performance they put on early the next morning was just as convincing. Shortly after six o’clock we moved up to the firing range. Captain Taub, leading the column, brought his ship into position near the reef, and a few seconds later we saw his first range rockets dart out to measure the distance to the Jap target. Then the entire forward half of the LCI spewed rockets, and the target area ashore writhed under a man-made storm of thunder and lightning that repeated itself every few minutes for, as Taub’s ship withdrew, its rockets expended, the others following in column moved up in turn to take over.
If any enemy troops were massed in that area, they were now a large Jap omelet.
As we steamed back south parallel to the coast, we could see our troops ashore closing in on Agana. Before the sun had climbed very high, they were moving freely along the road leading into the heart of the capital. The LCIs steamed on toward their rendezvous point. They had accomplished their mission--a successful mission.