What Might Have Been
The events surrounding the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and the ending of the war have been covered exhaustively in numerous books and articles. It is not the purpose of this work to delve into President Harry S. Truman’s motives in the final months of World War II. However, it is informative to assess the role of the LCS(L) and LCI gunboats had the invasion of Japan actually taken place.
By 1945, the value of the amphibious gunboats had been recognized and continuing conversions were ordered. This became particularly noteworthy during the invasion of Okinawa, and numerous conversions of ships into rocket and mortar versions were under way in the final months of the war. That they would have been in the first wave of any assault on Japan proper was a foregone conclusion. A cursory look at any amphibious assault plan indicated that the LCI gunboats and the LCS(L)s were the first line of attack in any landing.
A directory of amphibious vessels, including the LCI gunboats and the LCS(L)s, was put forth by the Amphibious Forces, U.S. Pacific Fleet on 15 May 1945 and listed sixty-six LCI(G)s, fifty-five LCI(M)s, thirty-four LCI(R)s, and ninety-nine LCS(L)s. This gave the Amphibious Forces a total of 254 amphibious gunboats available for the landings in Japan as of 15 May.1 Some additional gunboats were still on patrol around various bypassed islands but would probably have to remain on duty there to keep the Japanese troops under control. An additional forty-four LCI(FF)s were available to act as flotilla flagships. Other ships were en route to Okinawa even as the list was published. Back in the States numerous other LCI(L)s were being converted to bolster the numbers. Orders for new LCS(L)s had not been promulgated and the LCS(L) 108 was the last of the class, having been launched at Commercial Iron Works in Portland, Oregon on 10 March 1945.2
Although the end of the war was only months away, there was no way that the Americans could know that. The launch of LCS(L) 108 signaled the end of the run of 130 LCS(L)s, but it was also possible that more might be ordered. Conversion of LCI(L)s continued with a number not finished until after the war ended. Some, in the beginning stages of conversion, were cancelled. Continued changes in the armament and configuration of the converted gunboats was obvious. The final conversions had morphed into quasi-LCS(L)s mounting director controlled twin 40mm guns, as well as 20mm and .50 cal. machine guns. This last change reflected the need for additional anti-aircraft capability since the Japanese air attacks had escalated as the Allied forces approached the home islands of Japan. Lacking on these final versions of the converted gunboats were the Mk. 7 rocket launchers carried by all LCS(L)s and most of the LCI(G)s. Had the war continued, additional LCS(L)s might have been ordered and other LCI(L)s converted. How many additional gunboats might have been available for the invasion of Japan is open to speculation. Since the invasion of Kyushu would have seen some of the gunboats lost, it is possible that more might have been converted or produced.
As the war neared its final stages and modification of the LCI gunboats progressed, various changes took place. LCI(G) 538, shown here off Jacksonville, Florida, was one of the last conversions of the war, having been converted after LCS(L) gunboats had been placed in service. She closely approximates the LCS(L) in both her armament and profile. NARA 19 LCM LCI (G) 538.
During the war gunboat service had been hazardous with the ships subjected to attack from air, land, and sea. Their small size, maneuverability, and heavy armament had weighed in their favor. However, they had paid a toll. Statistics compiled after the war indicated that the LCS(L)s had a Rate of Ship Casualties calculated at .986. This was compared to the average of .56 for the combined ships serving in the Pacific Theater. No separate statistics were formulated for the LCI gunboats, but LCI(L)s overall had a rate of .66. Of the seventy-six ship types listed in the report, the only ships with higher rates than the LCS(L)s were: Patrol Craft YP (11.830); Ocean Tugs Old ATO (9.004); Patrol Gunboats PG (7.727); Fuel Oil Barges YO (5.218); Mine Layers CM (3.621); Ocean Tugs AT (2.635); Submarines SS (1.894); Heavy Cruisers CA (1.678); High-Speed Transports APD (1.116); and Submarine Tenders AS (1.075). These were ships heavily engaged in combat activities, hazardous assignments, or simply unequipped to defend themselves properly.3
The war had ended, but the forces of nature were always perilous. Typhoon Ida roared through Okinawa on 15–16 September 1945, causing significant damage to ships in the area. LCI(G) 67 was anchored in Nakagusuku Bay in seven fathoms of water on 15 September. There had been no warnings of a typhoon, and her commanding officer, Lieutenant (jg) G. L. Burris, had gone ashore at 1320 leaving Ensign Thomas F. Lerch as the O.O.D. At 2130 Lerch received a notice that a storm was heading in his direction and he took the necessary precautions to ready the ship for heavy weather. All loose gear was secured, and he inspected the ship and its anchor cable as the wind began to pick up. At 0530 on 16 September, the full force of the typhoon was on the ship. Buffeted by high winds and seas, the ship’s anchor cable parted about six feet from the eye and she began to drift towards a nearby reef. Lerch had the engines started and the anchor cable pulled in, but the force of the wind and waves was too much. LCI(G) 67 was pushed onto the reef at 0540, where she took a fifteen degree list to starboard. Within five minutes the list had increased to twenty-five degrees. Calls were sent out to the SOPA but no response was received. At 0900 the ship finally made contact with the salvage vessel Extricate ARS 16 which was standing by. However, the force of the waves and the close proximity to the reef made it impossible for her to help and she was called away to assist another vessel. At 0955 a large swell lifted the ship off the reef and set her on shore where her list was only ten degrees. Still another swell at 1015 moved her further inland and put her on an even keel. She was safe on shore, but her hull had sustained damage from being pounded against the reef. At 1120 her CO, Lieutenant (jg) Burris, was able to return to his beached ship. The sudden escalation of waves and wind had prevented his return during the storm. LCI(G) 67 remained high and dry for the next several months. On 31 December 1945, her commissioning pennant was lowered and she was officially decommissioned from the United States Navy. She was eventually scrapped.
LCI(R) 230 chose to ride out the storm with other ships of Group Twenty in Nago Bay. At 0029 on 16 September her anchor began to drag and she had to get underway. By 0400 the storm was at its height with waves of twenty feet and winds estimated at fifty knots. The confines of the bay made it difficult for ships to maneuver and many were either dragging anchor or underway. At 0420 she scraped up against LCI(L) 965 and then had to dodge an LCS(L) which was heading for her port bow. Her CO ordered her starboard engines to full power, but the wind and waves turned her so that her bow was again against LCI(L) 965. Another contact with the LCI was made and the 230 scraped her bow against the anchored ship before clearing it. Fortunately, there was no damage to either ship.
LCI(G) 67 hard aground at Baten Ko on Nakagusuku Bay, Okinawa. She was driven ashore on 16 October 1945 when the area was hit by a typhoon. It was not possible to pull her off and she was officially decommissioned on 31 December 1945. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
LCI(R) 337 (center) and LCI(G) 463 (right) were driven ashore in Nakagusuku Bay, Okinawa, during Typhoon Louise. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
In spite of competent ship handling, circumstances were beyond the control of the ship and its crew. It was maneuvering between two anchored ships at 0452 when it spotted a disabled LCI heading in its direction from off its port bow. Engines were backed at two-thirds to help clear the ships but the wind and waves were too powerful. LCI(R) 230 found her bow passing over the anchor line from LCI(L)776 and had to stop her engines to avoid fouling her screws. Within seconds her port side collided with LCI(L) 776’s port stern corner. The result was a three by four foot hole in the LCI(R)’s side which caused flooding in her A205L compartment. The amount of water entering the ship was too much for the temporary shoring that had been put in place, and the gunboat was in danger of sinking. To save his ship her commanding officer, Ensign J. H. Brown, Jr., decided to beach her. LCI(R) 230 headed for the beach at two-thirds speed. When it came time to drop her stern anchor, it would not drop and the gunboat had to beach without it at 0533. Within minutes strong waves pushed her stern around and she broached. It was high tide and the ship was able to kedge her anchor out and pull herself off after the storm had passed. No injuries had been reported and the ship survived a close call.4
Another Group Twenty ship, LCI(R) 337, found herself in a difficult situation. Her commanding officer, Lieutenant (jg) Wilferd H. Baum, had brought her to Coronis ARL-10 in Nakagusuku Wan for numerous repairs. Her port quad engines were not running and her starboard quad could only make 380 RPMs. A new pitch control shaft had just been installed and had yet to be adjusted, so her ability to put to sea to avoid the storm was non-existent. She was anchored next to the repair ship and began dragging her anchor at 0436. Her engines were started and she regained her berth. At 1010 her stern anchor cable parted and the ship was at the mercy of the storm. Once again her engines were started and the ship maneuvered about the harbor, barely avoiding collisions with other ships in the area. Finally, with no other prospect in sight, her CO decided to run her ashore next to the auxiliary floating dry dock AFD-13 which had been beached earlier. The gunboat tied up to the dry dock with the expectation that she would be safe, however, that was soon found to be in error. At 1303 the mooring lines parted and the waves pulled the dry dock off the beach, leaving the gunboat on its own. A barge used for living quarters for the crew of the dry dock was adrift and pounded the side of the gunboat as it sat on the beach. Lines from the barge fouled the gunboat’s propellers and she was damaged. At 1510 mooring lines were run from the gunboat up to another barge that lay beached so that the gunboat would not be pulled out to sea. The remainder of her anchor line was passed ashore and secured to the barge as well. The sleeping quarters below had been damaged by the pounding, and the Executive Officer with six of the crewmen went ashore to find shelter for the remainder of the storm.
The following morning a survey of the gunboat was made which revealed five large holes and a smaller one in the ship’s hull. Bent frames, submerged engines and other machines, along with general flooding throughout the ship had occurred. The pounding against the coral reef beneath her had bent both of her drive shafts and practically destroyed her twin screws and three skegs. Her rocket racks had sustained severe damage and the 20mm gun on her starboard side aft was destroyed. All manner of equipment, both personal and official, had washed out of the many holes in the ship.5 She was one more victim of the storm.
Less than a month passed before the next typhoon hit the fleet at Okinawa. Navy observers had identified its beginnings north of Rota in the Marianas Islands on 4 October 1945 and predicted that it would head toward mainland China north of Taiwan. However, storms are not always predictable. This one, named Typhoon Louise, turned north heading directly for Okinawa. The main anchorage for the ships by that time was Nakagusuku Bay, also known as Buckner Bay after the death of Army Lieutenant General Simon B. Buckner during the battle for the island. The bay was large and fairly protected from most minor storms, however, the magnitude of this storm was too great and would result in damage to numerous ships and shore installations.
Forecasts for this storm predicted sustained winds of sixty knots, gusting to ninety in the waters around Okinawa. The Commander In Chief, Pacific Fleet and Pacific Ocean Areas, later reported:
“Louise,” however, failed to conform to pattern, and that evening, as it reached 25° N (directly south of Okinawa) it slowed to six knots and greatly increased in intensity. As a result, the storm which struck in the afternoon of the 9th has seldom been paralleled in fury and violence; the worst storm at Okinawa since our landings in April.
The sudden shift of the storm 12 hours before its expected maximum, from a predicted path 150 miles west of Okinawa to an actual path that brought the center of the storm less than 15 miles east of Okinawa’s southeast coast, caught many craft in the supposedly safe shelter of Buckner Bay [Nakagusuku Bay] without time to put to sea far enough to clear the storm. The ninth of October found the Bay jammed with ships ranging in size from Victory ships to LCV(P)s. All units, both afloat and ashore, were hurriedly battening down and securing for the storm.6
The actual intensity of the storm, measured at its peak on 9 October at 1600, revealed sustained winds of 100 knots with gusts to 120. Seas measuring thirty to thirty-five feet were recorded in the bay, causing many ships to drag anchor or part anchor lines. The power of most of the smaller vessels was insufficient to maneuver under those conditions and a number were driven ashore.
The storm passed but the damage to the American fleet was severe. Had the war not ended and the storm struck earlier, it would have had a significant impact on any invasion campaign against the main islands of Japan. CinCPacPOA reported:
A total of 12 ships were sunk, 222 grounded, and 32 damaged beyond the ability of ships’ companies to repair. ComServDiv 104 under Commodore T. J. Keliher, was assigned to the salvage work. By 19 November, 79 ships had been refloated, and 132 were under repair. The remaining 53 badly damaged vessels still afloat had been, or were being, decommissioned, stripped, and abandoned. On 14 November, ComServPac, (Vice Admiral W. W. Smith) inspected the damage, and decided that only 10 ships were worth complete salvage, out of some 90 ships with major work to be done on them. This decision was made chiefly because similar types of ships were rapidly being decommissioned in the United States, and the cost of salvage would have been excessive for unneeded ships.7
Among the ships deemed unworthy of salvage were a number of LCI(L)s, LCI(FF)s and LCI gunboats.
Gunboats to China and Korea
The ending of hostilities was not the end of action for the amphibious gunboats. Numerous tasks had to be performed in the aftermath of the war, including the repatriation of Japanese forces to their homeland, the clearing of minefields, and covering the landing of American forces in various locales in Japan, Korea, and China.
From 27 September to 3 October 1945, Task Unit 78.1.7 operated in conjunction with the landing of the 1st Marine Division at Tientsin in North China. The task unit, under the command of Captain Rae E. Arison, consisted of LCS(L)s 27–29, 44, 46, 47 and LCI(L) 778 along with Mortar Support Division Six under Lieutenant H. M. Mattson, which included LCI(M)s 801–806.
Their primary mission was to furnish fire support for the landing of the Marines at Taku Bay, Tientsin, but their services were not needed and the Marines landed without incident. The gunboats remained in the area, covering the transit of LSMs up the Hai Ho River to the Russian Bund, where they stood by as the ships unloaded supplies. Swift river currents made anchoring difficult and the narrow river had numerous sand bars, causing some of the ships to run aground. Their mission was completed by 3 October and the gunboats withdrew.8
Mattson’s Mortar Support Division Six headed for Tsingtao to support Marine landings on 10 October and returned to Taku Bay on 15 October. Several of the ships were assigned to accompany the Kailan Mining Administration as they recovered a dredge that had been taken by the communists. Routine patrols and the transport of sailors from the larger ships on liberty runs occupied the ships until the end of November. Then they prepared to return to the States.
As the battle for Okinawa commenced, numerous gunboats began to arrive on the scene. Many were new conversions of existing LCI(L)s, and others were the newly designed LCS(L)s.
A surplus of these vessels, along with the need to give their crews some rest and relaxation from the battle scene, saw a number of them sent south to Leyte and other locations in the Philippines. There they would gather their strength for the final assault on the home islands of Japan. Fortunately this never came to be. They were in the Philippines when word came that the war had ended. Many were sent stateside and others retained in the Far East for a variety of duties. The first of the assignments was the occupation of Japan, and gunboats not headed for the States headed north to Kyushu, Tokyo Bay, and other locations in Japan. There they assisted in covering the landing of troops, served as troop carriers, mail carriers, minesweeper escorts, and any other duty that the Navy brass desired. In all, 354 ships were slated to join the occupation force, including LCI(G)s 438, 441, 450, 457, 458, 469, 726, 752, LCI(R)s 647, 649, 762, 763, 785, 1024, 1026, 1068–1070, and LCS(L)s 3, 61–69, 81–87, 89, 90, 92–95, 114, 115, 117–119, and 121–124.9 Acting as liberty boats for the battleships and other large ships was a common task. As many as 150 sailors could be carried on the decks of one of the gunboats. Upon landing, the MPs would search the men for contraband that might be sold on the black market. Once this had been accomplished, the MPs left the docks, leaving the gunboat crews free reign to wander about on shore without being searched.
As hostilities ended, a serious problem remained in the waters around the Japanese-held islands and, in particular, around the home islands. During the war, the Japanese had placed mines in a number of areas in order to thwart attacks by American warships. In addition, the Allied forces had mined Japanese waters to jeopardize their supply lines. The war had ended, but not the danger from the mines which had no ability to distinguish friend from foe. One of the tasks for the Allied forces was the sweeping and destruction of mines in numerous areas. It was common practice for minesweepers to be accompanied by several gunboats.
The standard minesweeping procedures used during the war continued. Minesweepers cut mines loose from the sea floor, the mine surfaced, and was taken under fire by the gunboats. In many cases regular rifle fire was used, but .50 caliber, 20mm and 40mm guns might also be used. Peter Elliot claimed that in the twenty minesweeping operations in and around Japan, a total of 11,200 mines were cleared.10
The only positive note about the post-war minesweeping activities was that there were no enemy gun emplacements on shore to fire on the minesweepers and gunboats as they pursued the task. The purpose of the minesweeping had also changed. Instead of clearing an area for invasion, it was now necessary to clear the waters around Japan so the Allied forces could be supplied and some normalcy returned to Japanese shipping. Supplies were desperately needed in Japan, and importing many of them was necessary. Japanese minesweepers were also put into use to clear the waterways.
The hazards of minesweeping continued. Charles Thomas, Gunner’s Mate 2/c on LCS(L) 35, wrote:
After several more days of sweeping, during which the 35 destroys two additional mines, we again head back to Kiirun. Back in harbor, when the 35 ties up alongside the 56, only inches separate the two vessels. Almost at once we sense a pall hanging over the 56. “Okie” Yost greets a big man who is obviously taking a break from his duties in the engine room. The big man in the grease stained dungarees slowly strolls along the deck of the 56 smoking a cigarette. Yost quickly determines the reason for our feelings of foreboding.
“One of our guys got killed a couple of weeks back,” the man from the 56 says. “What the hell happened?” Yost exclaims “Who was it?”
“Gunners Mate named John Cooper.” The crewman from the 56 says tersely. “Damn mine cut him right in two.”
“Cut in two! Jesus Christ!”
“Yes, the skipper pulled in a little too close when the sweepers cut a mine. John was in the port twenty gun tub in the waist waiting for the guys with the rifles to give up. All of a sudden the sonovabitch really went off.”
“Go On,” Yost says.
“John was standing in the gun tub leaning over the edge and watching. He would have been firing at it himself in another minute. Just then one of the guys hit it in the right place with a rifle bullet. When it went up, a big piece of flying steel cut John completely in two. The top half fell over the side—we never did find that part, and his legs scooted across the deck. His guts went all over the gun tub.”11
Cooper’s remains were stitched into a canvas bag, weighted down, and buried at sea. He had been due to return home to his wife shortly after the accident that caused his death.
Crewmen on board LCI(L) 88 fire on mines in Kii Suido Strait, Japan, on 13 February 1946. This was a common task for all LCI(L)s, LCS(L)s, and LCI gunboats during the war and in the post-war period. Official U.S. Coast Guard photograph NARA RG 26-G.
LCS(L) 27 and the LCS(L) Group One ships were stationed at Subic Bay in the Philippines undergoing training for the invasion of Japan when the war ended. LCS(L) Group One ships included LCS(L)s 8–10, 27–30, 48, and 50. They were ordered to Jinsen (Inchon), Korea, in September where they did routine patrol and mine destruction. In October their assignment changed and they were ordered to Taku Bay, China, to cover the occupation by the 3rd Marine Division. The Marines had already landed and were being shipped by train upriver to Tientsin. Their landing had been covered by LCI(M)s from Mortar Support Division Six. The gunboats headed up the Hai Ho River to cover them if needed. Tientsin was still in the hands of the Japanese who were awaiting repatriation. LSTs were in the process of repatriating them from the city and bringing them back to Japan. It was not unusual for the ships to go from Jinsen to Tientsin, or Shanghai and back. The areas were close enough so that they could easily make the trip if their duties were needed, primarily for minesweeping.
A major complication for the gunboats were the throngs of well-wishing Chinese who packed the river banks. Once at Tsientsin the docks were so crowded with onlookers that the ships had difficulty tying up. The city proved to be a good liberty port, with the gunboat sailors taking advantage of the opportunity. Unfortunately, not all were careful with their liaisons and came down with venereal disease.12 Sailors on some ships were particularly careless. D. Reid Ross, who served as Gunnery Officer on LCS(L) 58,reported that “During the two months we were in Shanghai one third of the ship’s crew contracted venereal disease, despite the fact that they couldn’t leave the ship without being given a prophylactic. Fortunately a Navy hospital ship was tied up immediately behind us, where a steady stream of our crewmen received treatment.”13 By December 1945 the ships were on their way home.
LCS(L) Flotilla Three Group Seven ships had been in Wakayama, Japan, performing a number of routine duties when they received word that they were being reassigned. On 24 October 1945 they left Wakayama and headed for Nagoya in company with six LSTs, five LSMs and an LCI(L). They were to land occupation troops there and perform additional duties as needed. This assignment lasted only about two weeks and, on 13 November, they departed for Jinsen, Korea. Included in the group were LCS(L)s 31, 34, 51, 52, 54, and 57, along with LC(FF) 484. They arrived in Jinsen on 19 November and came under the command of Captain Rae E. Arison who was serving as Commander Task Group 71.3.
Problems for the ships working around Jinsen included swift currents and high tidal falls. Once the ships had arrived, they were sent out on various tasks, most of which involved mine sweeping. Although previous practice had the gunboats working with minesweepers, this time they were on their own. Their task was to spot the mines and explode them wherever they could be found. Frank N. Farmer who served on LCS(L) 34 noted: “Equipment aboard was totally inadequate for this type of assignment. Lookouts stationed at various positions on the ship served as the only method of mine detection.”14 The mine total for the ships was not great, but every one destroyed eliminated a threat to other ships.
Finally on 10 December 1945 LCS(L) 34 and her companion ships received orders to head home. As Farmer later wrote:
But the days and months ahead were destined to be trying ones. Experienced personnel had left or were leaving at each step. Engines and other machines, built for but one operation, began to tell the strain of two major operations and a completed tour of the Orient. Each port found more work to be accomplished and less time; by inexperienced men and each period underway brought to light new difficulties to be reckoned with.15
The ships made it to Saipan for Christmas. From there they headed for Eniwetok, Pearl Harbor, and finally San Pedro, California, which they reached on 3 February 1946. While a number of the sailors were transferred off the ships in California, many remained on for the final voyage from San Pedro to the Panama Canal and then up to New Orleans where the ships were prepared for decommissioning. Once ready to be moth-balled, they were sailed to Green Cove Springs, Florida, to be part of the Reserve Fleet. On 6 May LCS(L) 34 arrived at her final destination. For her the war was over.
The high tidal range at Jinsen (Inchon), Korea, made it possible for ships to examine their bottoms and do repair work when the tide went out. LCS(L) 44 is shown grounded at Jinsen, Korea, in the fall of 1945. Courtesy Kenneth J. DeBoer.
LCS(L) 78 and the Group Seven ships left Okinawa on 17 November heading for Jinsen, Korea, where they arrived on 21 November. The few weeks on duty at Jinsen passed slowly with everyone anxious to head for the States as soon as possible. It was not a desirable place for the gunboat sailors. Merl L. Riggs, who served on LCS(L) 78, wrote: “Jinsen is a hell hole and I wouldn’t wish it on a dog to be stationed there. There is a treacherous tide that makes anchoring very difficult.”16 Here and there men with enough accumulated points were transferred off the ships and sent home for discharge.
U.S. Forces Assigned to China
The Commander of Task Force 73, Commander Yangtze Patrol Force, was Rear Admiral C. Turner Joy. His Cruiser Group (TG 73.1.1) consisted of two light cruisers, Nashville CL 43 and St. Louis CL 49, and two destroyers, Waller DD 466 and Philip DD 498. The remainder of Task Force 73 was made up of six AMs, eighteen YMSs, six DDs, one AOG, two PCs, two AGs, one APD, fifty LCI(L)s, six PCs, and seven PGMs. Within a short period of time, the force was bolstered by the arrival of a number of gunboats, including LCI(G)s and LCS(L)s:
Superimposed on the above was an additional outfit from Rear Admiral Bertram Rodger’s Seventh Amphibious Force, which had shotgun responsibility for lifting Nationalist troops and equipment downriver, setting to rights the scrambled or missing navigational aids, marking wrecks, and transporting United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency (UNRRA) supplies and personnel upriver. The “relief supplies” would be food and medical supplies that had been stockpiled for Operation Olympic, the invasion of Japan.17
Captain R. C. (“Zeke”) Pedin controlled the area from Shanghai to Nanking, a distance of 210 miles, while Captain Clarence E. Coffin controlled the area from Nanking to Chungking which was 1,115 miles in length. Coffin operated out of Hankow through August 1946 as CTG 78.2. His last mission was to transport a U.S. trained artillery regiment to Nanking in July 1946.
The end of the war did not mean the end of duty for the LCS(L)s and LCI gunboats. There were numerous tasks to be undertaken in China and Korea including mine destruction, the landing of Marine forces in China and Korea, and the repatriation of Japanese forces.
One of the interests that the United States had in regard to China was access to the interior by transiting up the Yangtze River. The Commander Yangtze Patrol Force determined that a survey of the river was in order. John Blish, a Coast and Geodetic Survey Vessel, was sent up the river from Shanghai inland as far as Hankow which lay approximately 650 miles upstream. Assigned to provide security for the survey ship were LCS(L) 75 and PC 1134.
The ships, operating as TG 73.6, departed Shanghai on 19 November 1945 when they left the Wangpoo River and entered the Yangtze. William B. Bell, who served as Communications Officer aboard the LCS(L) 75, recalled:
There was a strong feeling of apprehension as we left Shanghai and entered the Yangtze. What we knew was that on the north side of the river were massed upwards of 90,000 Japanese soldiers with full artillery who had not yet surrendered to anyone. This was within days of the peace signing on the Missouri in Tokyo harbor. And while the Japanese Army remained under excellent discipline they were only now being sent out in open railroad cars for repatriation to Japan. I will say that they showed admirable restraint in not firing, for example, a 150mm Howitzer at us. Of this they were perfectly capable, and it would have spoiled our trip right away. We saw them as only a vast Army which was completely obedient to its leaders and at no time did they do anything to threaten us.18
As the small fleet progressed up the river, they had greater problems with which to be concerned. Nationalist control of many areas had dwindled, only to be replaced by Communist control. The journey was uneventful and the ships reached Nanking. Progress up the river was slow. The current ran at four to six knots in many places, and the ships had to use the full power of their engines to make any significant progress.
When they reached Hangkow they found the city in relatively good condition, but it seemed devoid of people. It had been held alternately by the Japanese, the Nationalists, and was, at that point, awaiting the arrival of the Communist forces. At Hangkow a local warlord paid a visit to the gunboat with about twenty to thirty of his men. It was a cordial visit but ended with the warlord demanding that the ships accede to his demands for weapons and ammunition. The “order” was ignored and the ships departed for Shanghai, their mission completed.19 As a result of the survey mission, a Book of Sailing Instructions for the Yangtze was published and distributed to American vessels transiting the river.
Bumboats, Sex, and Souvenirs
In any area away from the immediate war zone, bum boats would appear. This was the term used to describe small boats manned by local natives who came out to trade for anything of value. For sale on the bum boats were various goods and services ranging from local fruit, alcohol, craft items, pets, Japanese left-over equipment, or women. Enterprising natives were ready to trade or sell basically anything they could to obtain American dollars or equipment. Trade items were generally allowed with the exception of alcohol, which was banned, and women, which were also not allowed. This prohibition did not prevent crewmen from making other arrangements.
At any location away from the immediate war zone, natives in local small craft swarmed around the gunboats attempting to sell or barter whatever they could to support themselves. The native boats were referred to as “bum boats” and were a common sight. Here sailors on a group of LCS(L)s tied up at port in Tsingtao, China, shortly after the war, barter with Chinese. The photograph was taken from the conning tower of LCS(L) 48. Courtesy Robert Amick, LCS(L) 48.
In areas where liberty ashore was permitted it was the usual practice to allow only half the crew off the ship at a time. Port and Starboard sections divided the liberty time allotted. It would not be prudent to leave the ship basically unoccupied or unprotected from thieves or bandits in a foreign country, particularly where there was little or no authority in control.
Where shore liberty was granted, sailors headed for bars and looked for women. Pimps were ready to oblige and it was not difficult to find prostitutes in any port town. Penicillin, recently developed, managed to stop most cases of venereal disease. It was administered by the Pharmacist’s Mate on board the gunboats. However, some cases were not cured so easily and it was not uncommon for men to be transferred to hospital ships for treatment.
Shanghai was typical of the liberty ports, and Raymond J. Ross reported that “Bum boats filled every available position alongside [LCS(L) 60] to sell their wares. Mostly junk jewelry and novelties. Many of the crew tried their watches at $2.00 to $5.00. Most of them turned out to be poor potatoes…. Shanghai is perhaps the most corrupt city in the world. Lots of fun on liberty here.”20 Shanghai turned out to be a good liberty port. There was relative order in the streets and numerous businesses were anxious to relieve the American sailors of their money. Good food, entertainment, and women were available for any who wished to pay the price. Most of the prices were relatively inexpensive, even for an enlisted man’s pay.
LCS(L) 35 had similar experiences with the Shanghai bum boats. Charles Thomas recalled:
On these particular “bum boats” the principal sales items were liquor and women: “Whisky for good time sailor! Best Scotch! Hay and Hay!” Other boats follow with the other principal item of trade. “Nice young Hong Kong school girl, Joe!” the boatmen call enticingly. Other boats offer all manner of services and trinkets: barbers, garbage collectors, dentists (how about a gold tooth sailor?), picture post cards, pornographic pictures, photos of the city, books, Chinese lacquer work, and hand-made silks. Several of the boatmen hawk cigarette lighters that turn out to be cheap copies of a Ronson, an expensive American cigarette lighter. These “Ronsons,” however, are stamped with the word “RANSON,” underlined by extending the line from the “R” beneath the word in the trademark style of the Ronson.21
Tientsin was not much different. Enterprising pimps worked out arrangements with sailors. When LCS(L) 27 anchored in the river on a dark night in October 1945, she was soon serviced by the locals. Harry G. Meister, Engineering Officer on LCS(L)27 recalled: “On the trip down the river we encountered darkness and had to anchor in the river. A sampan had come alongside with a whore. A number of the crew were lined up on the bow when someone yelled, ‘The Skipper.’ With that, one guy grabbed her feet and another her arms and threw her overboard.”22 It is not clear if the sampan returned in the following days. Bum boats also brought women to LCS(L) 35, where they were taken on board and serviced a number of the crew in the gun tubs and aft steering room.23Throughout the harbor this became a common occurrence unless the officers were on hand to put a stop to it. The smaller ships, such as the gunboats, were able to obtain the services of the prostitutes in this manner as their freeboard was not that high. Larger ships had a more difficult time bringing women aboard.
Almost as much as desiring women and alcohol, both of which were impossible to obtain in the war zone, the men longed for a good meal. Months of powdered milk and mashed potatoes, canned spam and other poor substitutes for food had left them with a desire for something much better, and the liberty ports obliged. Raymond J. Ross from LCS(L) 60, recalled:” Councilman and I went on liberty together. Shopped. Ate three dinners: Jimmy’s, Barcelona Club and Army chow. Met Sgt. Appert of Milwaukee at Army P.X. on Joffre Ave. Had Schlitz and Budweiser beer. 10¢ per can—best deal in Shanghai.”24
While on board their ships the sailors were well protected from disease. Their immunity inoculations for various diseases found in the Far East protected them in most cases. Once the war was over and the sailors began to move ashore, any number of problems with disease arose. Dysentery was endemic in the Philippines and China. In some cases men swam off the gunboats close to the beach. One crew swam in water near the outlet of a local river that was contaminated by heavy concentrations of sewage from villages along the shore. Many of them contracted dysentery. One could never feel safe in foreign lands where poor sanitation was the norm.
No matter where the gunboats landed, there were always the homeless and hungry. Many of these were children who had been abandoned or orphaned during the war. It was difficult to see so much misery knowing that little could be done to help. Any scraps left over from the meals were given to the people nearby who were begging for food. Most sailors did what they could, but there were always a few who refused to help.
Duty in China, Taiwan, and Japan was made difficult by the continual transfer of men. Many of them had accumulated enough points and were rotated back to the States for discharge. Some others were transferred to ships which were in need of their particular skills. Replacing them were new men from the States, many of whom were unfamiliar with the LCI gunboats and had to be retrained. Where the ships had been finely-tuned fighting machines during the war, now the crews were less confident. Men left ships and friends behind with little remorse. It was time to move on.
Disposition of the Gunboats
With the end of World War II, the need for the amphibious gunboats by the United States Navy came to an end. Other ships and craft would be developed and put to use in Korea and later in Vietnam. The LCI conversions were not seen as worthy of preservation, but the LCS(L)s survived longer. LCI gunboat conversions were sold off in the few years following the end of the war. Most were scrapped and a few were kept as fishing vessels. The LCS(L) fleet fared better. Of the 130 built in 1944 and 1945, 123 survived the war. Five had been sunk in action, one grounded and declared a total loss, and one damaged beyond repair. From 1946 to 1947 seventeen were sold off for use as commercial fishing boats or for scrap. By 1948, there were still 106 on the Navy’s list, some of which were in use as training vessels.
One of the LCS(L) gunboats, LCS(L) 39, had been sold as surplus to Martin B. Dahl of Seattle, Washington, in October 1947. It was destined for use in the fishing fleet and passed through several owners. Finally, she was used as a fish processing barge in the salmon fishing industry in Bristol Bay, Alaska, in the 1970s. Peter Benoit worked on her in the 1970s and became curious about her history. He discovered that she was the former LCS(L) 39 which, at that point, had been renamed the Maren I. Fortunately, Benoit was able to make a sketch of her which has survived. It showed the changes made to the former gunboat. By 2001 the ship was in a poor state of repair. She struck a submerged object and sank near Dutch Harbor, Alaska. She was subsequently refloated but in such poor shape that she was towed out to sea and sunk in 5,400 feet of water about twenty miles off Unalaska.
Benoit reported that there were a number of ships used in the fishing industry in Alaska in the 1970s to 1980s that obviously had LCI hulls. How many were former LCS(L)s or LCI gunboats is unknown.
In the late 1940s, the vessels formerly designated as landing craft were re-designated as landing ships. Thus the Landing Craft Support Large LCS(L) became the Landing Ship Support Large (LSSL).
Surplus ships were of interest to the allies of the United States. Throughout the world it became necessary for the United States to rebuild foreign fleets that had been decimated during World War II. The growing threat of communism made it imperative that America’s allies be well-prepared.
LCS(L) 39 is shown in her original World War II configuration. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
The majority of surplus LSSLs were sent to Japan to be used in coastal patrol and defense. This transfer took place under the Charter Party Agreement which took effect on 27 December 1952. Over the next few years, fifty-six of the ships were loaned to Japan. Most were not in good condition and refitting them was costly. Between 1958 and 1977, the ships were returned to the United States as they were no longer needed by the Japanese. Some were then transferred to Taiwan, Thailand, Philippines, and South Vietnam. Many of the remaining LSSLs had outlived their usefulness and were used for target practice by the U.S. Navy. They were sunk in an area about eighty miles south-southeast of Tokyo. The rest were sold off as surplus. Most of the ships remaining in foreign service had been struck from their naval files by the 1980s and scrapped. The sole exception was LCS(L) 102, which continued in Thai service until 2007 when it was transferred to the National Association of USS LCS(L) 1–130 for use as a floating museum at Mare Island, California.
This sketch of former LCS(L) 39 in Alaska in the late 1970s shows her reconfigured for use in the fishing industry. She was known at that point as Maren I. The ship was finally towed out to sea and sunk in 2001. Sketch by Peter Benoit, courtesy of the artist.
France and Vietnam
Many of the unconverted LCI(L)s were loaned to foreign navies but, of the gunboat types, only the LCS(L)s were deemed suitable for further use. They served in the maritime forces of the Ryukyus, Korea, Greece, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, France, South Vietnam, and Taiwan. Transfer of the ships was affected under the authority of the Mutual Defense Assistance Program and the Security Assistance Program. Many of the ships served in the navies in several countries. For example, LCS(L) 9 was transferred to France in 1950 under the MDAP and renamed the Hallebarde. After several years of service in French Indochina, she was transferred back to the United States in 1955 and then transferred to Japan in 1956 where she was renamed Asagano. In 1965, she was transferred to South Vietnam and renamed Doan Ngoc Tang (HQ 228). When South Vietnam fell in 1975, she escaped to the Philippines carrying refugees from the communist takeover. At that point she was transferred to the Philippine Navy and renamed La Union (LLF 50). She eventually was decommissioned and used for parts until her scrapping in the mid–1980s. Not all of the LCS(L)s served in this manner, but many did serve under more than one foreign flag.
The Mutual Defense Assistance Program was created in 1949 in an attempt to bolster America’s allies against the spreading threat of Communism. European countries faced with the threat of Russian expansion led America to transfer the gunboats to some of her allies. NATO signatories, Italy and France, were among the first to receive LCS(L)s. On 25 July 1951, LSSLs 34, 38, 62–64, and 118 were transferred to Italy where they were used for coastal patrol.
The most significant use of the LSSLs took place in Vietnam, first under the French and later under the South Vietnamese. The takeover of French Indochina by the Japanese during the war had broken the French hold in the area. Once the Japanese departed, a power vacuum was created, giving an opportunity for Vietnamese Communist forces to take control of the northern part of the country. To the north, the Chinese Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung had finally defeated the Kuomintang forces of Chiang Kai-Shek and driven them off the mainland to their last refuge on Taiwan. The government of North Vietnam, headed by Ho Chi Minh, was formally recognized by the newly-formed government of the People’s Republic of China. The French, making an effort to regain control of their colonies in Southeast Asia, called on the United States for aid and support. The growing expansion of Communism in the area made Indochina and the halt of Communist expansion a first priority. The Mutual Defense Assistance Act, which had set up the MDAP, had originally provided support for Western Europe. The new threat in Indochina provided the impetus for an additional $75 million for efforts in the Far East, aimed in particular at French needs which were estimated at $100 million for 1951. The French set about compiling military equipment lists for their efforts in North Vietnam, and the Bao Dai government in South Vietnam did likewise. Having been burned by Chiang Kai-Shek’s corrupt Kuomintang, the American government was reluctant to hand anything to the Bao Dai government in Saigon and decided to funnel their aid through the French.
LSSL 80, showing the French hull number 6, is shown patrolling on the Day River in North Vietnam, circa 1951.
A Vietnamese crew mans the 3"/50 bow gun on a French LSSL, circa 1950s. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Transfer of LSSLs and PFs in Yokosuka on 14 January 1953. At the top (not in order) are LSSLs 57 (Kiku), 104 (Ran), 107 (Yuri) and 130 (Hagi). Within the next few years Japan received an additional fifty-two of the ships. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
LSSLs HQ225 (ex 105) and HQ226 (ex 4) dock at Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in June of 1970. Army Signal Corps photograph.
Doan Ngoc Tang HQ 228 (ex LSSL 9), under the command of Lieutenant Hong Vo Duong, arrives at Subic Bay, Philippine Islands, with refugees on 5 May 1975. Her anti-rocket screens may be seen around the conning tower. A small boat with Vietnamese refugees is tied up in the foreground. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
As French power began to wane in Vietnam and the Vietnamese gained their independence, some of the ships were transferred to the newly-formed South Vietnamese Navy. The first of these transfers took place in 1954 with the transfer of LSSL 2. LSSLs 4 and 105 were transferred in 1955 and 1956. In 1965 and 1966, in order to bolster South Vietnam’s abilities, the U.S. transferred LSSLs 9, 10, 96, 101, and 129. Some of these ships had originally been transferred to Japan and then returned to U.S. possession.
Communist activity in Cambodia prompted the U.S. and South Vietnamese governments to exert a presence in Cambodia and Linh Kiem HQ 226 (ex 4) and No Than HQ 225 (ex 105) were sent up river to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to assist anti-communist forces. From 1970 through April 1975, the LSSLs were used to escort supply ships up the Mekong River to Phnom Penh. In that month the Khmer Rouge finally won their struggle and the Cambodian government fell, ending the supply runs.
The government of South Vietnam fell soon after. Escaping from Vietnam in 1975 were the remaining gunboats LSSLs 9, 96, 101, and 129. They headed for the Philippines heavily laden with refugees. However, while they were en route, the government of the Philippines officially recognized the new communist government of Vietnam which demanded the return of the LSSLs and other ships that had escaped their grasp. Quick negotiations between the American and Philippine governments took place, with the former South Vietnamese Navy ships being transferred back to United States’ possession in the middle of the ocean. An American officer was put on board each ship. Ammunition was dumped overboard, and the flag of the South Vietnamese Navy was lowered and the American flag was raised. The fleet of ships were once again American. They entered Philippine waters safe from the communists. The gunboats and some other ships were eventually transferred into the Philippine Navy. The LCS(L)s, which had been developed during World War II, were only in action for little over a half year. However, their combat role in Vietnamese waters had spanned twenty-five years under the French and later the Vietnamese navies. None had ever fallen into the hands of the enemy. Although the duration of their wartime experience in Indochina was great, only twelve of the 130 LSSL ships actually served there.
In the wake of World War II, it had been necessary to keep some elements of the Imperial Japanese Navy active. Their assistance was needed in the clearing of minefields left over from the war, as well as general coastal patrol. With the outbreak of the Korean War, the American Navy in the Far East was focused on the new adversary. Accordingly, the Japanese forces were needed to patrol their own waters in the wake of a diminishing American naval presence there.
The Mutual Security Act between the United States and Japan did not allow for assistance to the Japanese. To remedy this problem, the Charter Party Agreement was passed by the legislatures of both countries and took effect on 27 December 1952. Under this agreement patrol frigates and LSSLs could be loaned to Japan for a period of five years, renewable for an additional five years.
The largest number of LSSLs loaned to a foreign Navy were sent to the newly-formed Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. It seems odd that a ship designed to combat the Japanese would eventually be given to them, but the expansion of communism in the Far East made it necessary to keep our former enemies armed in the face of communist expansion. As a result, fifty-six of the ships were taken out of mothballs and sent to Japan. The condition of many of them was poor, and numerous repairs had to be made before they were serviceable.
Typical of the problems were the defects in LSSL 67. Lieutenant J. H. Sims took command of the newly re-commissioned gunboat in 1952. Problems with the ship were in evidence, and it had to be taken to Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina for repairs. From there the ship headed for Japan, but it had to stop for additional repairs in the Canal Zone, Long Beach, California, and Pearl Harbor. Sims noted six pages of deficiencies including leaking rudder posts, defective engine gears, inoperable guns, and dirty fuel tanks.27
Taking the LSSLs to Japan involved the use of “ferry crews.” These were regular U.S. Navy personnel temporarily assigned to the duty. In January 1952, Chief Bosun’s Mate Paul W. Boblette found himself assigned to the ferry crews at Astoria. The ferry crews were charged with the task of activating fifty-three LSSLs at Astoria before their transfer to Japan. Boblette observed:
Before me were 53 hulks, sitting alongside the piers. They were stripped; they were rusty; they were foul bottomed; they were a real mess. Slowly our crew began to trickle aboard. There were 5 snipes, 1 electrician’s mate, 1 Chief Quartermaster, 6 deck hands (four of whom were seaman seconds with hash marks), 2 radiomen, 1 first class motor machinist and 2 cooks. The skipper was a reserve lieutenant and the exec was a reserve JG. We enlisted would fill all the department head slots and do the work.28
Where the original ship’s complement was sixty-five men and six officers, the ships ferried to Japan had only two officers and nineteen enlisted men. Preparing the ships for the voyage to Japan was labor-intensive and required a number of spare parts. Many were delivered but of questionable use. The weather in Astoria proved uncooperative with constant rain preventing proper painting of the ships. About half had to await repainting until they reached Long Beach, California.
The shakedown cruise to Long Beach revealed the poor condition of the gunboats. Leaking hoses, generator power, electrical problems, and nonfunctioning radar were among the difficulties the gunboats faced. Many of these problems were supposed to be addressed either in Long Beach, San Diego, or Pearl Harbor.
From Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the ships headed to Midway Island, then on to Yokosuka, Japan. By that time many of the shortcomings of the reactivation process had surfaced. LCS(L) 83 made it into port with only one engine operable. Once they arrived in Yokosuka, they were relegated to back areas of the harbor. Japanese sailors boarded the ships and basically stripped off virtually anything that could be taken. Boblette reported that the fifty-three million dollars the United States had spent on refurbishing the ships had been a waste as only a few were in operation the following year.29
Ships transferred to Japan were LSSLs 3, 10, 12–14, 18, 20, 22, 24, 25, 27, 52, 57, 58, 60, 67, 68, 72, 74–85, 87–90, 94, 96, 98, 100–104, 106, 107, 109–111, 114–116, 118–120, 126, 129 and 130.30 In the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force they were designated as the Yuri Class.
The U.S.–Japan Mutual Defense Assistance Agreement of 1954 re-assigned the ships. However, the need for them decreased, and between 1958 and 1959, twenty-seven of the ships were returned. By 1977 all of the ships had been remanded to U.S. custody. Many were in poor condition and suitable only for target practice, while others were sold for scrap.
Korea, Greece, Taiwan, Thailand, Ryukyus
The division of Korea into North and South at the end of World War II made it necessary for the U.S. to bolster the small nation’s defenses. The U.S. sent thirty ships to Korea, among them four LSSLs, the 54, 77, 86, and 91. They remained on active duty until the early 1960s, at which time they were decommissioned.
Nakha (ex LSSL 102) is the last of the World War II gunboats. This photograph of her was taken at the entrance to Songkhla Navy Base in Thailand on 31 January 1997 while she was a part of the Royal Thai Navy. While in the Royal Thai Navy she was used for coastal patrol against pirates and smugglers. In 2007 she was transferred to the National Association of USS LCS(L) 1-130, which maintains her as a floating museum at Mare Island, California. Photograph courtesy NavPic Holland.
Greece joined NATO in 1952 and received two of the LSSLs, the 35 and 65 in 1957 and 1958 respectively. The ships were used for coastal patrol until they were scrapped in 1976.
Taiwan was the recipient of LSSLs 56, 81, and 95. They were transferred to them in 1954 after having served in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force. Two ships formerly used by the French, the LSSLs 2 and 28, were given to Taiwan for parts. Of the ships transferred to Taiwan, LSSLs 81 and 95 were on the active list until stricken in 1971.
The last major battle of the war had taken place on and around the island of Okinawa. In its aftermath the island was virtually destroyed and a large percentage of its population killed by both Japanese and American fire. Little of the administration of the island was in operation, and the Americans had to extend themselves in getting it back to some semblance of normalcy. In order to keep the coasts secure, LSSLs 54, 56, 81, 95, and 105 were loaned to the Ryukyuan Coast Guard between 1952 and 1954 and then transferred to other countries.
Only one ship was transferred to the Royal Thai Navy, the LSSL 102. She was originally transferred to Japan in 1953 and renamed the Himawari and then brought back to the United States in the mid–1960s. After that she was transferred to Thailand in 1966 and remained a part of her Navy as the Nakha until 2007.
Her duty in the Thai Navy included coastal patrols between the border of Cambodia and Thailand. At other times she served as a protection ship for the King and Queen of Thailand as they vacationed at Jlai Kangwol Palace, Hua Hin. The coastal palace had been built in 1927 and still serves as a summer palace for the king. Cruising off shore while the monarch was in residence, the gunboat was ably-equipped to ward off any terrorist who might wish to attack the king and queen. The Thais had added mortars to her armament and removed the barrage rocket launchers.
Adaptation and Change
The amphibious gunboats were a small but important part of the war effort. Their development and use corresponded to changes in the enemy’s tactics and strategies. After the ascendancy of American power rendered the transport of men and supplies in larger ships too hazardous, the Japanese began to transport them in barges. To answer this new threat, the Americans armed LCI(L)s with new weapons and converted them into LCI(G) gunboats. The first series of these gunboats mounted 3"/50 guns to combat the barges. The ease with which the troop carriers could be converted led to their use in amphibious assaults with another generation of the ships armed with 40mm guns and rockets. As the effect of the gunboats in amphibious assaults became evident, the Japanese adapted their tactics and began to move away from the shoreline. This necessitated the development of the mortar gunboats and longer range rockets that could reach enemy positions as far as 5,000 yards inland. As the American forces began to close in on the home islands, the Japanese began to escalate their air attacks in order to knock out the ships that caused their land forces such great losses. The newly developed LCS(L) gunboats arrived on the scene with twin 40mm guns, and many of those arriving for the conquest of Okinawa had a third twin 40mm in the bow. Other LCI(L)s being converted at the builders’ yards were also outfitted with the twin 40mm guns. This would allow them to combat the increase of kamikaze attacks against the American fleet which was preparing to invade Japan.
The adaptations of tactics and weapons on both sides gave evidence to the Darwinian aspect of war, with the stronger American forces ultimately winning out. Adaptation and change was only one element of the victory for the Americans, but it was an important one. The amphibious gunboats were only one aspect of this change and adaptation, but they stand as a notable example of how it worked.
Change for the gunboats did not end in 1945. LCS(L)s, newly designated as LSSLs, would continue in service in Vietnam, first with the French and later with the South Vietnamese Navy. The first adaptation came with the change in the bow gun. Of the LSSLs sent to Vietnam, LSSLs 2, 4, 9, 10, 28, 35, 65, 80, 96, 101, and 105, the majority mounted the preferred 3"/50 bow gun. LSSLs 35 and 65 mounted the interim 40mm single 40mm gun, and 96, 101, and 105 the twin 40mm. While the 40mm guns were acceptable for shore bombardment during an assault and anti-aircraft defense, they were not as good for close quarters combat on Vietnam’s rivers. The French and Vietnamese Navies changed the bow guns to the 3"/50, which was more useful against enemy positions defended by concrete structures. These included buildings and houses that were used for machine gun nests and other gun emplacements.
One of the hazards of close combat on the rivers and bays of Vietnam was the danger from snipers. The Viet Minh and Viet Cong had found that sniper fire directed against the gun crews was a good way to combat the LSSLs. They were eager to pick off the gun crews and personnel on the conning towers. To protect them, additional armor was mounted on each gun. Rockets and grenades were frequently launched at the conning towers of the ships from hiding places in the jungle. To thwart these attacks, screening was erected around the conning towers to deflect the rockets and rocket propelled grenades. These adaptations are visible in the photographs of the Vietnamese Navy ships in this book.
The rocket launchers mounted aft the bow gun were useful in beach assaults but were not of much use in Vietnam. The rocket launchers were removed and replaced with mortars, a far more useful weapon for the situation in Vietnam.
The Last Gunboat
November 10, 2007, was an overcast, drizzly day at Mare Island, California. However, it did not seem to matter to the two hundred or so assembled witnesses to the transfer ceremony. Dr. William J. Mason, a Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University, surveyed the crowd. In addition to the officers, board, and members of the National Association of USS LCS(L) 1–130 and their guests, the Royal Thai Navy had sent Rear Admiral Surasak Rounroengrom and a number of his staff to the ceremony. Representing the official arm of the United States government was Rear Admiral Mark W. Balmert. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman (1981–1987) was the guest speaker. Lehman’s father had served as the commanding officer of LCS(L) 18 during World War II. His brother Dr. Christopher M. Lehman, who served as Special Assistant to President Reagan for National Security Affairs from 1983 through 1985, was also in attendance. Both men had been actively involved in the quest to regain possession of the LCS(L) 102. For Mason, this was the culmination of many years’ work by him and others who had preceded him since the formation of the association in 1989. At its inception, the members had set as one of their goals the retrieval of an LCS(L) to serve as a floating museum in the United States.
Also present at the ceremony was Richard L. Jones who had served as the commanding officer of LCS(L) 102 at Okinawa. Jones was a Lieutenant at that time and had previously been commanding officer of LCI(G) 345 during the assault of Guam. His gunboat was covering UDT operations on 18 July 1944 when it came under fire from shore batteries. Jones and two enlisted men on the ship were wounded by shrapnel and transferred off the ship. After recovering from his wounds, Jones was assigned command of the new LCS(L) 102. He was awarded the Purple Heart for his wounds at Guam, and his ship, LCI(G) 345, was awarded the Navy Unit Commendation.
The actual ceremony at Mare Island was a re-enactment of the official turnover ceremony that had taken place on 22 May 2007 in Sattahip, Thailand.
LCS(L) 102 Returns
Efforts for the return of the LCS(L) 102 had some early success in the mid–1990s when Congress passed Public Law 104-201 in 1996. Section 1025 of the law read:
Section 1025 Sense of Congress Concerning USS LCS 102 (LSSL 102)
It is the sense of Congress that the Secretary of Defense should use existing authority in law to seek the expeditious return, upon completion of service, of the former LCS 102 (LSSL 102) from the Government of Thailand in order for the ship to be transferred to the United States Shipbuilding Museum in Quincy, Massachusetts.31
By 1999, progress toward retrieving the LCS(L) 102 had been made. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 contained a relevant Amendment (No. 511) which authorized the transfer of a Cyclone Class patrol ship to Thailand. It was understood that the transfer would basically be a trade for the 102.
Negotiations for the acquisition of the LCS(L) 102 continued throughout the remaining years of the 1990s. The return of the ship looked promising until 11 September 2001 with the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. As a result of these attacks, the thirteen Cyclone Class high-speed patrol craft were taken out of mothballs and transferred to the Coast Guard for use as coastal security craft. Gone was the bargaining chip that would have seen a Cyclone Class patrol ship traded for the LCS(L) 102.
This put a damper on the prospect of retrieving the gunboat from the Thai Navy. However, at the same time, another possibility presented itself. Another LCS(L) was found still afloat on the West Coast of the United States.
A number of the gunboats had been sold to fishing companies in Seattle, Washington. Among those were LCS(L)s 44, 50, and 51. LCS(L)s 39–43, 45–48, and 66 were sold to individuals in Seattle, Washington, and were probably destined for the fishing fleets as well. LCS(L) 50 had been sold to the Copper River Packing Company in Seattle on 8 October 1947. It had then been converted for use as a fishing boat and apparently passed through several owners. Researcher Ron MacKay, historian for the LSM/LSMR Association, had spotted her tied up at a pier in Seattle in 1995. Renamed the Seabird, she was in poor condition. Her guns and other military hardware had been removed and her conning tower cut off. Other modifications made her look very unlike a gunboat, but the hull and other features were still there, although she was rusting badly. Photographs of the ship were displayed at the LCS(L) Association’s convention in Virginia Beach in 2002.
The gunboat had been converted for use as a fishing vessel and was owned by New Hope Marine, Inc. of Seattle. In addition to her conning tower, many of her interior bulkheads had been removed and cranes had been installed on her deck, along with additional modifications. She would need work, but she was basically sound. It was rumored that the original conning tower was available and being used as a child’s playground in someone’s backyard. Further investigation indicated that it was not an LCS(L) conning tower, but that of an LCI(L). The owners were willing to sell the LCS(L) to the Association for $30,000 but were open to offers.
With the possibility of obtaining an LCS(L) closer to home and also available immediately, the Association set forth to produce a feasibility study. Chaired by Dr. William J. Mason, the LCS(L)(3) 50 Renovation Committee consisted of Medal of Honor recipient Richard M. McCool, former commanding officer of LCS(L) 122, Ray McDade, Felix Muldoon, Keith Reid, and Frank Simpson.
It soon became obvious that the ship was in need of much work. The committee suggested to the owners that they donate it to the Association in return for a tax write-off, which they eventually agreed to. An intensive survey indicated that approximately $500,000 would be needed to bring the ship back to its World War II configuration. The primary cost would be for refurbishment of the ship by professional ship building yards. Outfitting the ship would not be that expensive since many of the parts such as bunks, galley equipment and other ship’s furniture was available for free from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet in Benicia, California. Items that would be difficult to acquire were 40mm and 3"/50 guns, as there seemed to be no source available for them.32
Mrs. E. Nofke, daughter of the Leading Cupola Tender at Commercial Iron Works, Portland, Oregon, breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of LCS(L) 102 as part of the launching ceremony. In the later years of the war so many ships were being launched that virtually anyone with a connection to the Navy could arrange to christen one. Official U.S. Navy photograph.
LCS(L) 102, shown at Mare Island, California, on November 10, 2007. She had returned to the U.S. only a few weeks before from service in the Royal Thai Navy and still carries the hull number 751 and the name Nakha (Sea Serpent). The changes from her original configuration including the bow gun, enclosed conn, and hawse pipe are evident here.
Another problem did arise. The possibility of retrieving the LCS(L) 102 still existed. Over the years, much political contact had been made with various members of the United States’ government, and support had been given as evidenced by the bills already passed in the House and Senate, and the agreement to transfer a Cyclone Class ship as a trade. It was feared that if the Association were then to cast aside the possibility of regaining the LCS(L) 102, political support would be lost. This support might be needed in the future to find a location for the ship and other political considerations that might be needed by the Association.
As a result of the study, a comparative analysis of the two ships was formulated. As they were considering the possibility of obtaining Seabird, word came that the Government of Thailand had informed the United States that they were prepared to return the HTMS Nakha (ex LCS(L) 102) to the United States as a gesture of friendship between the two navies. This was the turning point in the process and, as a result, Seabird would stay in Seattle to slowly rust away or be scrapped.
The official transfer of the 102 took place in Thailand on 22 May 2007. For several months prior to that date, the ship had been disarmed for transfer with her gun barrels plugged. Admiral Sathiraphan Kaelyanon, Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Navy, signed the vessel over to Captain Walter B. Watson Jr., U.S. Naval Attaché and Dr. William J. Mason, who represented the National Association of USS LCS(L) 1–130.
The gunboat was towed to Hong Kong and placed on board a transport ship owned by National Air Cargo, which had become interested in assisting the veteran’s association. It arrived in San Francisco Bay in September of 2007, and work began to prepare the ship for its American ceremony. Able volunteers from the area have continued to maintain and improve the condition of the ship.
A tribute to their work was obtained on 22 January 2010 when the United States Department of State granted the Association’s request to convert the 102 from a stationary museum to a mobile museum offering cruises in the San Francisco Bay area.