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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sunday Ship History: The Original LCSs


You might have missed a little story about some Navy veterans assembling their own memorial to some valiant service - the story reported as, with a great lead paragraph:

WWII gunboat brought home by vets from Thailand as memorial:
The last warship from World War II came home Tuesday to the United States.

It was not a proud battleship, not a mighty aircraft carrier. It was the former LCS(L) 102, a gunboat, a ship so small it didn't even have a name. They called ships like this "mighty midgets" - gunnery support ships that served with honor in the last battles of the war in the Pacific. A San Francisco man and his shipmates saved the little ship and plan to make it a memorial.

The ship sailed through the Golden Gate as deck cargo, riding piggyback aboard a much larger freighter on a 7,900 mile voyage from Thailand.

The mighty midget is too old - it turned 63 this year - and too small - it is only 158 feet long - to sail across the Pacific under its own power.

The LCS was tough enough when it was new. Bristling with guns and rocket launchers, the gunboats were used for close gun support in invasion landings, or as picket ships to protect the fleet from suicide bombers in places like Okinawa.

Now the LCS 102 will be a memorial at Mare Island in Vallejo, the last of the little ships that played a big role in the war.

It was saved for preservation by Bill Mason and his friends, who served on ships exactly like the LCS 102 and never forgot. Mason, who is 82 now, is an emeritus professor at San Francisco State University. He served aboard an LCS for nearly two years, a wartime experience seared in his memory.

"We are not here to glorify what we did," he said. "But we just don't want our ship to disappear."

Mason stood at Lands' End at the San Francisco end of the Golden Gate for four hours to watch his ship come in around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. The mighty midget was aboard the Da Fu, a heavy-lift ship that flies the flag of Panama, has a Chinese crew and is owned by a company in the Netherlands.

"It was great to see it," said Mason, chairman of a group of LCS veterans who found the last of the little ships, got it turned over to them, and arranged for transportation to the United States.

He likes to talk about the ships. There were 130 of them, all pretty much identical.



They were all built in the last two years of the war and were designed for close inshore artillery support during island invasions. They carried anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and 10 rocket launchers. They were small enough so they could go in close to shore and tough enough to drive off bigger ships.

They served in the Philippines, in the invasion of Iwo Jima, and most notably in the Okinawa campaign.

Tokyo Rose, the famous Japanese radio broadcaster, called them "miniature destroyers." The American Navy called them "mighty midgets."

Mason served on LCS 86. "When I first saw it, I thought, 'It's awfully small. Are we gonna take this thing across the ocean?' "

In truth, the LCS gunboats were smaller and slower than most San Francisco Bay ferryboats.

"We had 65 enlisted men aboard and six officers. We were from all walks of life. I have never been closer to anyone than I was to those men."
***
By the summer of 1945, the LCS ships were on duty on the farthest edge of the U.S. fleet, attacking Okinawa. The Japanese were desperate to stop the Americans, so they threw kamikaze suicide planes at them.

Mason can still see those planes coming, can still feel the 20mm guns firing, can still see the burned, dead men on a ship hit by a kamikaze. They had gone alongside to help put out the fires. "I still see those dead guys, frozen in position," he said.

Mason and his shipmates not only had affection for each other, but for their ship.

The ship was their home, the place where they fought, their life. " 'This is our ship,' we thought. 'It's gonna take care of you. It's gonna get you home.'

"That's why they call ships 'she.' It's like your mother."

After the war, life went on for the sailors. They had yearly reunions, but they never forgot those ships. Eventually, they found the LCS 102, serving in the Thai navy.
***

These little ships were meant to do close in support for landing Marines and soldiers. Flat bottomed to allow them to beach and provide direct fire support for the troops going ashore. Not much remembered by the modern Navy, they were the real ancestors of today's Littoral Combat Ship, albeit slower, cheaper and much less expensive (by any measure).

They had a remarkable history, well set out at the "Mighty Midgets" web site here (the site also has excellent photos here) and in articles such as this one written by Gordon Gregory and found in the pages of Sea Classics:
They were ugly as sin and cramped as a monk's purse, but, pound for pound, they packed more wallop than anything afloat," recalls former bluejacket Adam West, Jr., of Knoxville, Tennessee. West was of course referring to one of the oddest fighting vessels to emerge from WWII - the flat-bottomed mini-gunboats known as the "Mighty Midgets," more officially as LCS(L)s, a latewar derivative of the widely used troop hauling beachable transport - the Landing Craft Infantry, or LCI.
***
The need for a close-fire support vessel was demonstrated during the assault on Tarawa on 20 November 1944. After the larger ships had shelled the beaches and landing zones to disrupt enemy defense efforts, the landing craft headed for shore to deliver the troops. During the interval when the Naval bombardment had stopped and the troops had landed, the enemy often had time to regroup, and the effect on the Marines was deadly. In order to deliver consistent fire support to protect them, a new type of vessel was necessary. This required the ability to get in close to shore (shallow draft) and sufficient armament to support the landings. Experiments were begun using LCIs with additional guns and rockets. These improvised forward-area modified LCI(Os and LCI(R)S proved to be effective but were only an interim solution to the problem. Fortunately, a more advanced gunboat had been in the planning stages as early as 1942, and the first contracts for the new fire support vessel had been awarded in 1943.

The first of these gunboats, the LCS(L)-1, was launched on 15 May 1944 at the George Lawley and Sons Shipyard in Neponset, Massachusetts. Using the existing plans for the LCI hull, the Lawley yard had designed a new fire support ship, one that was not a modified troop carrier but a true fighting ship. The result was the Landing Craft Support (Large) or LCS(L). Packed with firepower, the LCS(L)s had two twin 40mm guns, four 20mm guns, and four .50-cal machine guns. Mounted in the bow was one of three guns, either a single 3-in/50, a single 40mm, or a twin 40mm. Just aft the bow gun were ten Mark 7 rocket launchers. One writer described LCS(L)s as the most heavily armed of the WWII gunboats, and still another claimed that they looked like the Fourth of July fireworks when they were leading an assault.

One hundred thirty LCS(L)s were produced by three shipyards. In Neponset, Massachusetts, the Lawley shipyard produced 47. In Portland, Oregon, the Albina Engine and Machine Works produced 31, and Commercial Iron Works produced 52.

LCS(L)S were usually involved in the initial beach assault. Attacking the beach in a line, they made two runs, firing multiple salvos of deadly rocket barrages at 1000-, 800-, and 500-yds. After the third rocket barrage, they turned broadside to the beach and fired on targets of opportunity before heading seaward for the next run. On the third run, they were followed by the landing craft. As they approached the shore, they slowed to allow the troopladen boats to pass by and deposit their men on the beaches. The LCS(L)s then continued to fire over the heads of the troops and remained inshore, firing on targets as they became available. On some occasions, they took Marine artillery spotters on board for assistance in locating enemy targets on shore. The Mighty Midget LCS(L)s were active in the campaigns for the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and Borneo.

In the Philippines, the LCS(Ds attacked shore targets and aided Philippine rebels. Their most disastrous night came on the evening of 16 February 1945, when LCS(Ds 7, 8, 26, 27,48, and 49 were anchored across the mouth of Mariveles Bay, near Corregidor. The ships were attacked by about 20 Japanese suicide boats and suicide swimmers from Corregidor. LCS(Ds 7, 26, and 49 were sunk and LCS(L) 27 damaged.
***
"Keep in mind that these bantam warships were emergency-built vessels that totally lacked the armor and survivability features of major warships like cruisers and such. One direct hit could settle our hash in a hurry and down we'd go like a sinker in a tin can. Though we often added portable armor plating around the gun tubs to cut down on casualties when the fun started, believe me, there were a lot safer places for a swabbie to be than on the deck of Mighty Midget when we began our run to an enemy-held shore. Our best defense at that juncture was the howl made by the whooshing rockets we fired en masse in hopes of at least scaring the hell out of the enemy on the beach."
***
LCS(Ds were largely involved in leading the assault on the landing beaches at Hagushi, Okinawa, on 1 April 1945. After the initial phase of the invasion had been completed, the ships had two main duties: Skunk patrol and radar picket duty. Skunk patrol involved intercepting Japanese suicide boats that were attempting to ram American Navy ships. Many of the suicide boats went to the bottom under the guns of the Mighty Midgets. The most hazardous duty faced by the LCS(L)s involved radar picket duty. The Navy had set up a ring of radar picket stations around the island, each manned by one or more destroyers, one of which was equipped with a Fighter Director Team. The mission of the picket ships was to pick up incoming air raids from Japan and Taiwan and vector the Combat Air Patrol to intercept them. LCS(Ds were assigned to the radar picket stations as fire support for the destroyers. Soon the picket ships became targets themselves. While serving on Radar Picket Duty, LCS(Ds 15 and 33 were sunk by kamikazes, while 25,31,51, 52,57,88,116,121, and 122 were damaged. LCS(D 119 was hit by a kamikaze while retuning from a radar picket station. LCS(L)-37 was also disabled when she was attacked by a suicide boat.
More on radar picket duty here.

Their tale has been told in books Mighty Midgets At War: The Saga of the LCS(L) Ships from Iwo Jima to Vietnam (UPDATE: Excerpts available here - and you gotta like a book about Navy ships that begins, "It was the year AD 1260 and the monk Nichiren wandered the countryside in Eastern Japan ...") and Fighting Amphibs: The LCS(L) in World War II (excerpts here). From a review of the former:
During the Battle of Okinawa, several LCS(L)(3)s rescued survivors after kamikaze attacks that sank or heavily damaged other ships. For example, on June 10, 1945, after the destroyer William D. Porter (DD 579) was hit by a kamikaze plane and started to sink, LCS(L)(3)s tried to tow the ship to port but failed. The destroyer, which sank about three hours after the kamikaze plane crash, lost no men due to the superb rescue work of the LCS(L)(3)s.***

Even though William D. Porter lost no men, LCS(L)(3) 122 was hit the following day by a kamikaze plane and lost 11 men with the number of wounded totaling 29.
Photos of the Porter rescue can be found here and here with pictures of the damage to LCS(L)(3) 122. Photos of life in the old LCS Navy here.

And, as to the quality of men who served on these fighting ships, here's an example:
World War II Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient

Lt. Richard M. McCool Jr., US Navy


World War II Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient Lt. Richard McCool Jr. US Navy

CITATION:

Rank and organization: Lieutenant , U.S. Navy, U.S.S. LSC(L)(3)122. Place and date: Off Okinawa , 10 and 11 June 1945. Entered service at: Oklahoma . Born: 4 January 1922 , Tishomingo , Okla. Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. LCS(L)(3) 122 during operations against enemy Japanese forces in the Ryukyu chain, 10 and 11 June 1945. Sharply vigilant during hostile air raids against Allied ships on radar picket duty off Okinawa on 10 June, Lt. McCool aided materially in evacuating all survivors from a sinking destroyer which had sustained mortal damage under the devastating attacks. When his own craft was attacked simultaneously by 2 of the enemy's suicide squadron early in the evening of 11 June, he instantly hurled the full power of his gun batteries against the plunging aircraft, shooting down the first and damaging the second before it crashed his station in the conning tower and engulfed the immediate area in a mass of flames. Although suffering from shrapnel wounds and painful burns, he rallied his concussion-shocked crew and initiated vigorous firefighting measures and then proceeded to the rescue of several trapped in a blazing compartment, subsequently carrying 1 man to safety despite the excruciating pain of additional severe burns. Unmindful of all personal danger, he continued his efforts without respite until aid arrived from other ships and he was evacuated. By his staunch leadership, capable direction, and indomitable determination throughout the crisis, Lt. McCool saved the lives of many who otherwise might have perished and contributed materially to the saving of his ship for further combat service. His valiant spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of extreme peril sustains and enhances the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
Lower photo shows damage to LCS 122.

A small salute to the brave men of the LCS(L) ships - giants who manned the "midgets."




For a listing of the LCS(L)s see here.

Wikipedia article here.

Next time I'm near Vallejo...

UPDATE: YouTube video of welcoming LCS 102 to Mare Island -after some preliminary Boy Scout and Sea Scout intro:


Local Vallejo coverage here. Some info on Mare Island Historic Park Foundation here.

UPDATE2: Photo caption:
Ex-HTMS Nakha (LSSL-751) (NB E1: LCS 102) after completing her transit from Thailand to the United States is tied up at the seawall at Mare Island, Vallejo, CA. in October 2007.
From here. Thailand farewell here.

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