U.S.S. LCI 226
After her Pacific crossing and four actions this ugly craft becomes a real fighting ship
by JOHN HERSEY
The story of LCI 226 began at the George Lawley shipyards in Boston on the raw afternoon of Dec. 14, 1942. That was the day when she got her commission and her crew. A lieutenant commander to whom the commissioning of LCI’s by the dozen had become a dreadful bore stood before Ensign Henry Turney McKnight and Crew No. 3068. He mumbled formal words through blue lips, turned up his coat collar and hurried ashore. From that moment on, the 226 was on her own.
LCI means Landing Craft, Infantry. To muzzle up on the beaches and do her work efficiently, the 226 is flat-bottomed, many-cornered, a strange, floating strong-box. Yet she is a seagoing ship, battle-gray and hard steel. She is 158 feet long. She weighs 400 tons. She has quarters aboard for 25 crew and 210 troops. She does not splutter like a baby but hums along with adult Diesel noises. She has a bridge that looks like the conning tower of an old-time submarine. Two fretted ramps for disembarking troops lie ready at either side of her bow to be thrust forward and downward from the shell of the ship, like turtle limbs. She has guns on deck. She is not pretty but she has personality. Today she is all Navy, tough and proud. She has behind her a 15,000-mile, seven-month voyage from Boston to dreadful Cape Gloucester in New Britain, during which she developed from a hastily welded steel box into a veteran fighting ship.
But when this ugly little warship set out for New York and Norfolk on that cold day in December 1942, she moved with some timidity. She could not be very sure of her crew and they were certainly unsure of her.
The 226’s men were anything but seafaring. They included a truck driver, a drug clerk, a mechanic, a hillbilly farm boy, landlubbers all. The three officers were not exactly sea dogs. They had been briefly trained at Solomons Island in Chesapeake Bay. Skipper McKnight was an amiable but unsalty Yale man fresh from the advertising business.
But somehow the 226 carried these innocents safely from Boston to Norfolk. As she skidded through New York’s Hell Gate in a winter storm and on a rip tide, without a pilot and with no one on board who knew the channels, her quartermaster sang up through the command tube: "How’m I doin’, Cap’n?"
After some large-scale training operations in Chesapeake Bay the 226 stripped down and loaded up for the long voyage under her own power to the South Pacific.
Gradually a flotilla of LCI’s took shape. Their commander was a rugged, tireless regular-Navy officer who had been a boatswain in the last war. On Feb. 5, 1943 he called his skippers together, told them they were leaving the next morning, and said with hopeful boldness: "Goddammit, we’re going to take and get these ships out on time."
The next morning was all fog. The 226 crept at a miserable pace, for she did not know what the distant future held or where the immediate rocks were. As she moved out into Hampton Roads, the noises of bigger ships came up from astern. A bunch of destroyers was approaching the 226 and her companions at high speed. Seeing the leading destroyer, someone on the 226 suggested that they were going to have an escort after all and everyone felt better. But when a towering air-craft carrier came out of the mist and cut through at 20 knots, blasting her imperious bullhorn at the scattering LCI’s, the 226 felt very small and scorned.
She felt even smaller a few hours later. The LCI Flotilla spent its first night at sea in a Cape Hatteras gale. Cape Hatteras has very special gales, and to the land-loving men on the 226 this seemed like the last night of their voyage, as well as the first. It has been said of flat-bottomed landing craft that they do not cut through the water; they try to beat the waves to death. In the pounding that night a voice on the bridge said: "I sure hope those lady welders knew their stuff." Many were unashamedly sick. One member of the crew was so thorough about it that he also gave the sea his entire set of false teeth, which he was unable to replace until he reached Australia.
The next morning the Flotilla was scattered all over the choppy sea, for according to regulations the ships had been blacked out all night and the waves had separated and hidden their dark bulks. Finally in mid-morning the 226 found six other LCI’s. They had lost their group commander. They had no orders as to where to proceed. They drew close together and the ensigns shouted through megaphones.
"I think I know the way into Charleston harbor," one shouted. "Shall we go there?"
Another roared: "I’ve got a couple friends in Jacksonville. It’s swell there. Let’s go there."
The 226’s Skipper McKnight shouted: "I know some people in Miami and, besides, its warmer there. Let’s go to Miami."
The consensus seemed to be Florida, so the stragglers headed there. Sure enough, near Palm Beach they met up with the main body of the "Flot," as members of the Flotilla had begun to call their force.
The 226 and her companions passed through the Panama Canal and struck out across the Pacific. Day by day she grew to be more like a ship, her gang more like a crew. The ceremony of crossing the equator a few days out was symbolic of the ways in which this change came about. There was aboard the 226 a copy of Leland Lovette’s Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage describing the ancient line-crossing ceremonies, but she did not have a single "shellback" who had crossed before and so could qualify to represent King Neptune in initiating the "pollywogs." And so the men on the 226 celebrated their first crossing by lining their afterdeck rail and looking through binoculars at LCI 230, the Flot’s flagship. There the senior shellback was a Negro mess attendant who, dressed in the robes of a mock King Neptune, dealt it out to the pollywogs in no mean style.
Navigation by average
Each noontime all ships in the force – the flotilla of LCI’s, two LST’s and some little submarine chasers for escort – hoisted flags showing their respective quarter-master’s idea of where they were. An average of their opinions was taken to be the convoy’s position. On the 226, Quartermaster Reynolds’ eye shone with the magic of what he was learning to do. He had recently started at the very beginning of learning navigation, on page 1 of Navy brochure no. HO214. In the daily hoisting of positions he began to pride himself on being right, and when he found his calculations six miles different from the average, he would take down other ships’ figures and "prove" absolutely that the whole convoy was wrong, and that the 226 was right.
As every Navy ship must, the 226 had a scuttlebutt, or hot-dope artist. He was Ship’s Cook 2nd Class Frank Harris, and he always was positive (i.e., color-fully inaccurate in a loud voice) about everything. Harris claimed he had the low-down on time of arrival at the Flot’s first port of call. The whole ship laid bets on the landfall, and Harris as usual lost. The convoy hit the tiny island on the nose, to Quartermaster Reynolds’ delight.
The 226 pushed on southwest across a beneficent sea. The Flotilla called at some other small ports and then at a large base. There the 226 saw many veteran warships, and for the first time she had the sensation of being part of a vast irresistible fleet of some kind. She was beginning to get a personality too. She had a ship’s newspaper, the Weekly Blackout, which embraced everything from Keats to the Hit Parade. Her tiny wardroom, which was also the officers’ cabin, became extra tidy. There was such concern with table cloths, iced tea, butter plates and protocol that some of the men jokingly called the ship the "Stork Club." Below in the 23-ft. by 20-ft. compartment where 23 men bunked in three tiers, there began to be a feeling that the 226 and her crew were unique.
The 226 reached Sydney on a bright Easter morning. The trip had taken 79 days from Norfolk, and the men were ready for some fun. From the moment the 226 swung between the majestic green headlands at the harbor mouth, the place looked like Elysium. The 226, a ferry full of Easter picnickers and a sailboat packed with pretty girls squeezed through into the harbor together. "Here it was," Skipper McKnight later wrote his wife, "that we learned what a friendly people the Aussies are. The girls whistled back twice as loud as we whistled in the first place." As the 226 swung toward its mooring at Woolloomooloo, Skipper McKnight noticed the signalmen frantically wig-wagging signals in the direction of a park. The signal-men explained they had heard that many Australian girls remembered semaphore from Girl Scout days; they were trying to fix up dates. That night liberty had a capital L.
Then the convoy went north. On the way the 226 broke down. It took a month in an Australian port to fix her. By that time the men of the 226 liked their captain well enough to kid him. The pennant which Navy vessels fly to indicate that the captain is ashore is the black-and-white "third repeater." One day when Skipper McKnight went ashore for a party the men on the 226 hoisted a tremendous third repeater they had borrowed from a battleship. This, they said, signified: "The captain is really ashore."
Into seascapes of action
The 226 moved up to New Guinea and into the sea-scapes of action. Her first sight of the harbor gave her a sense of electric activity: a wild shore, a flock of ships and launches hurrying to and from the flagship of their amphibious boss, Rear Admiral Daniel E. Barbey. The skipper of LCI 344, whose ship had been there for some time, sent a mocking message to Skipper McKnight. "Welcome. See you at the officers’ club at 5 o’clock." There was no officers’ club in that place, no movie house, no dance hall, nothing but tools of war. The only possible amusement was swimming. The moment the anchor was down, the 226’s radioman asked, as he always did when arriving in port: "Can we take a dip, sir?" This was the first time Captain McKnight had anchored in the presence of an admiral. The flagship was off to port. He said, formally: "Swimming will be done off the starboard side only."
Here the 226 took on her finishing touches. The deck gang painted a pair of alligator jaws at the bows, and the boatswain would get out in a rubber boat with a can of paint and squint along the waterline to be sure it was straight. Skipper McKnight considered it his job to put finishing touches on his men. He briefed them and tried to keep them well informed. He even distributed 12 mail-order copies of One World.
In a few days the combat life of the 226 began. By chance her missions were in a gradual crescendo. In each she saw a bigger action and learned something new; in each she saw American fighting improve.
The first mission was simple, but it taught the 226 how to rise above the primary hazard of amphibious war in coral seas–the navigational hazard. The job was a secret errand to what was then a forward point at Fergusson Island, above New Guinea’s tip. Charts were incomplete and sometimes, as when going through tricky Jackdaw Channel, the Skipper had to con his ship simply by watching the shallow coral-and-sand bottom. The men had to learn the seamarks–here a patch of kunai grass on an island, there an old wreck. At Fergusson the men went ashore and found an arrow-shaped sign on a tree saying: "Nearest Jap–¼ mile." They were relieved to hear he was a freshly captured prisoner.
In her next task, the 226’s crew learned how to put troops ashore when a battle was already underway. This was in the battle for Lae, early in September. The ship had come back from the Fergusson Island mission just too late to go along on the first landing at Lae. She rode at anchor near Buna while Fortresses and Liber-ators roared out overhead to battle. The men waited with binoculars in hand for the task force to come back the next morning. When it did come they counted LCI’s – and two were missing. The 226 would surely ride in on the next wave.
The force moved against Lae by night. The men on the 226 were novices and did not know what to expect. The officers, remembering that two LCI’s had been lost the previous night, were perhaps a little too cau-tious. They were startled to hear a voice shout through a megaphone from astern: "Get going!" Captain McKnight shouted back: "What speed?" The voice roared: "Full speed, this is no funeral – I hope." The LCI’s ground onto the beach and troops ran ashore. The beachhead was already secure, so there was no enemy gunfire. The LCI’s reversed their propellers and pulled away. From this action the 226 learned that she could go into a fight and come out unhurt, and from then on her men were cocky and brave.
Next the 226 got her baptism in blood. This was at Finschhafen. The 226 carried Aussies, men hardened by long fighting who called themselves "The Rats of Tobruk." The LCI’s lay back while destroyers bombarded the beach. Then they stood forward into the range of sharp resistance. As the 226 moved for the first time under gunfire, Quartermaster Reynolds stood at the wheel singing into the command tube: "Sailing, sailing over the bounding main."
It was just before dawn. The 226’s station was at the extreme left of the designated beach. Among the group of men posted at the exposed bow gun was the ship’s hot-dope expert, Frankie Harris, who was supposed to keep his eye glued to his gunnery job. Just before the 226 beached, he could not resist looking up at the shore. There he saw dead and dying Japs. For once he was not positive about his advance dope. He asked wishfully: "Are all the Japs we see going to look like that?"
At the moment the 226 hit the beach her landing ramps shot forward and flopped down. The starboard one fell with a smack but the port one made no noise – it dropped squarely onto a Japanese corpse and squashed it softly. The Aussies ran ashore over the dead body of an enemy.
Some of them did not get far. One had a good part of his arm shot away a few feet up the beach, and his friends hauled him back aboard the 226. There Pharmacist’s Mate 1st Class Donald Macy took over. Macy had worked in a drugstore in Nebraska before the war and his medical experience aboard the 226 had consisted largely of treating athlete’s foot, sore throat and earache. Now he performed a major surgical job. He cleaned and dressed the leftovers of the Aussie’s arm. According to doctors later, the drugstore clerk saved the trooper’s life.
As soon as possible the 226 and her fellows backed off the beach and returned to Buna to pick up a second wave. This time the landing was on Langmark Bay at midnight. While the formations stood by the beach, flares blossomed in a bright square overhead. Then a Jap plane came in and bombed and strafed. No ships were hit, but the 226 had now tasted all the sensations of her game.
The commander’s Christmas party
She prepared for a climax of action. In the weeks of training that followed, all referred to the coming show as the commander’s Christmas Party. On the eve of this crucial action, the 226 was pretty nearly a fighting ship. Skipper McKnight had gained confidence. His men had come through many trials to respect him and to be glad that he was their captain. A signalman, in love with a stenographer in Broadcast Music Inc., New York, one day paid Captain McKnight this tribute: "Sir, I sure would like to get married at sea with you doing the splicing. Besides, it would save two bucks on the preacher." The men now knew each other, too. They played "Battleship," "Monopoly," and the usual card games together. They listened to Tokyo Rose and talked tough about Japs. They stood deck watches with no shirts on – but with hats on because Navy tradition calls for hats whenever side arms are worn. The cooks had learned how to wheedle delicacies from other ships. All hands were proud of their work. Once a personnel report came back to the ship from higher up with some mistake on it. McKnight told the ship’s yeoman that it was not too important. The yeoman said: "Yes it is, Captain. If we’re not careful, some-body’s going to ask you who keeps your books." But all hands had learned, too, that a ship is not a Navy ship without raillery, scuttlebutt, reminiscences and, above all, turgid and colorful griping.
At her New Guinea base the 226 saw an unprece-dented force gather. On Dec. 23, 1943 Commander McGee called all the officers of the Flot together. They sat in the forward well deck of LCI 28 sheltered by canvas from the midday sun. The Commander reviewed every detail of the coming show, ticked off every possible reverse, suggested every possible precaution. He told of Yellow Beach One and Yellow Beach Two and assigned battle stations. Then he said: "That’s all and good luck." Skipper McKnight and his officers returned to the 226 and relayed all that had been said to their whole crew, so that at the height of action even the engine-room black gang would know what was going on.
On Christmas Eve the 226 received by blinker: "Be prepared to get under way at 1800 Love [6 p. m. local time]." The 226 moved up to a nearby cape and took on her troops. These were 210 marines, veterans of Guadalcanal. One of the smartest fighters to come aboard was a handsome Alsatian shepherd dog, trained to sniff out and point like a bird dog at Japs 100 yards away.
For the benefit of the men of the 226 the marines were loudly nautical. When some of them taunted the LCI men with being greenhorns, a sailor of the 226 came right back: "Don’t forget, bud, the Marines lost Wake." The marines were in favor of killing the sailor, but superior authority held them back.
The LCI columns ran through the night – past pin-points on the chart called Point Mike and Point Nan – and as the hours grew small the marines lay around on deck, some dozing off, some talking quietly. A quartet sang barbershop songs. The night was warm and there were rain squalls. The crew of 226 moved among the marines like attendants in a hospital, passing out food, coffee and good wishes.
On the morning after Christmas the 226 took part in a nearly perfect operation. As the first light broke and the shore appeared out of the gray, cruisers and des-troyers opened fire. Then the planes put on a terrifying show, Mitchells first, then Bostons, Liberators, Fort-resses. They laid their separate puffs, and then the puffs merged until there was a thick cloud over the whole beach. Then brand-new weapons bit into the edge of the cloud – "rocket ships," small craft with large-bore rockets mounted on the bow. Each rocket explosion had the blast effect of a large artillery shell and the 226’s engineering officer said: "No use for us to go in; looks like they’ve sunk the whole damn beach."
Onto the beach through a fog
But the 226 did go in. The marines were now packed into the sweltering troop compartments below, cleaning their weapons and singing softly. The line of LCI’s cut into the man-made fog, unable to see the beach ahead, guiding on a prearranged bearing. The sun was just a little brown disc above the smoke. The talker on the bridge that morning was a 42-year-old seaman, who had been maître d’hôtel at the South Shore Country Club in Chicago. He took orders from the skipper with the subservient grand manner of a headwaiter and then passed them furiously on to the crew as if they were a bunch of laggard busboys.
The beach was nearly sunk. Like the atolls of the Central Pacific in later landings, vegetation was cut down as if by a giant scythe and the enemy was dazed. The 226 hit the beach within 10 yards of her appointed place. The marines ran off into waist-deep water and up the beach. There was sporadic machine-gun fire. The 226 backed off. Voices barked at high pitch on LCI radios: Sailor to Waxey, are you in trouble? … We are stuck on coral reefs. … Is it serious? … No, we can get off. … From Sailor: Expedite, expedite. … Roger …
And in a short time the LCI’s expedited the hell out of there. There was a brief airplane scare, but the roar of Thunderbolts drowned out the scare. Then, quickly, complete elation and relaxation swept over the 226 as she pulled away from the beach at Cape Gloucester.
That is how the 226 grew into a warship. She is just one LCI. Before this year is out she will have nearly 80,000 big and little sisters – LCI’s, LST’s, LCT’s, LSD’s, LCVP’s, LCM’s, LCR’s. They are all new ships, just as she is. When the war began most of them were not even designed. But now each one of them is becoming an integrated Navy vessel. Each has its own personality. Collectively they have already done a superb service all over the world and soon they must make possible the decisive battles of the war. But individually they will always be to their men what the 226 is to hers – a warship, a veteran, an angry little lady.
Transcribed by Ardie Hunt
© Time-Life Incorporated
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