Perilous Ordeal Off Leyte

By Joe Johnston

The sailors had been at general quarters so much the past few days that many of them remained and even slept at their battle stations, so the convoy’s guns opened fire within seconds of sighting the planes. The Reid turned to port to bring more guns to bear, and her forward 5-inch battery shot down two fighters. Another exploded about 500 yards off her starboard beam. A fourth fighter, damaged and apparently in a kamikaze dive, hooked a wing in the R eid ’s forward starboard rigging and crashed at the waterline. The explosion of its bomb opened some of the destroyer’s seams. A fifth Zeke crashed into the Reid ’s port bow.

The fatal blow came less than a minute after the attack started. A Zeke came in from astern, was hit by 20-mm fire from the next ship in formation, LSM-42 , and was belching smoke as its pilot steered for the destroyer’s aft smokestack. The fighter crashed in flames into her port quarter, its bomb exploding in the Reid ’s after magazine and cutting the ship almost in half. The destroyer lurched hard 60 degrees to starboard, back up to 30, then back to 90 degrees. She had been making 20 knots when her throttles jammed, and even as the ship was sinking she was making some headway, stringing her dead and wounded out in the sea for 300 yards. LSM-42 had to back down to avoid them and the Reid . Enemy planes, meanwhile, strafed the men in the water.

Reid Fireman First Class Arthur Anderson stayed at his machine gun, waist-deep in seawater, maintaining an effective fire until it was too late to save himself. Electrician’s Mate Third Class Alfred Howard Akers Jr. was at his battle station, the steering motor room, with water gushing through his escape hatch. He gave up the chance to save himself when he helped a wounded shipmate through the hatch to safety. Both Akers and Anderson would receive the Navy Cross posthumously for their sacrifices and were among 103 of the crew of 268 who went down with the Reid. As she keeled over, water poured into her stacks, and she went down by the stern less than two minutes after the fatal kamikaze blast.

Rescuing the Survivors

After only four months at sea, LSM-42 ’s crew found themselves thrust into a dramatic rescue while the battle raged around them. As the 42 left formation to rescue the Reid ’s survivors she passed directly over the sunken ship, and an enormous explosion erupted from the destroyer, raising the LSM’s stern out of the water, knocking her compasses from their binnacles, putting the gyro compass out of commission, and rupturing several lines in the engine room.

Compared with sleek destroyers that bristled with guns, the landing ship looked anything but heroic, with her high profile and well deck full of medical stores, rations, ammunition, and vehicles. Whatever her shortcomings, the LSM was highly maneuverable, and the 42 eased among the survivors, opened her bow doors, and lowered the loading ramp as her crewmen shouted encouragement to sailors struggling in the water. LCI(L)s548 and 661 and LSMs 38 and 39 also plucked survivors from the sea, along with two bodies. LSM-42 pulled in four officers and dozens of enlisted men, including four stretcher cases. Some 25 feet above the water, Motor Machinist’s Mate Second Class Cecil Ray Johnston, manning the LSM’s bow-doors motor, could only watch as one severely wounded man weakly clung to a life raft. “He kept yelling for help,” Johnston would later write. “But as I watched him his hands gradually gave way and he slowly went down.”

LSM-42 still had to complete her resupply mission. LCI(L)-661 transferred seven more stretcher cases to the 42 while the landing ship was steaming at eight knots to rejoin the convoy. Her crew gave the rescued men dry clothes and bunks, which soon became drenched with blood and diesel oil. The survivors’ burns, broken bones, and shrapnel wounds were treated by Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class Elwood “Doc” Martin of the 42, who had been an undertaker before the war; Chief Pharmacist’s Mate L. W. Brooks of LSM Group Six staff; and Lieutenant Richard H. Corales, the Reid ’s medical officer.

After dark, LSM-42 and the other LSMs and LCIs came ashore on Ipil Beach to deliver their cargo of supplies and reinforcements. The enemy was close enough that shells were bursting within 1,000 yards of the beach. American batteries and the escorting destroyers fired on enemy positions and engaged a Japanese transport attempting to land just up the shore near Ormoc.

At 0400, all of the Reid survivors from the other ships joined the ones on board LSM-42 , bringing the total to well over 100. Then, with the Ormoc supplies and reinforcements delivered, the convoy’s vessels were ordered to reform prior to returning to base in Leyte Gulf’s San Pedro Bay. LSM-42 , however, had become snagged on a sunken Japanese barge. Thus began a series of misadventures that would call on every bit of courage and creativity the 42’s crew could muster.

First Leg of Return Journey

LSM-316 was also stuck on the beach, and LSM-267 ’s stern anchor engine, needed to pull her off the shore, wouldn’t start. When it was finally repaired, the tide was so low that she was stuck. Time was critical, as the breaking day was sure to bring more enemy air attacks. Every pound counted in trying raise the ships’ bows, so ballast and thousands of gallons of extra fuel were dumped and ammunition and men sent aft. Of the three stuck ships, only the 316 was able to get off the beach.

She attempted to tow the 267 off, with bulldozers and tanks pushing against the bow doors, but the ship wouldn’t budge. The 316 next tried to pull the 42 off the beach. Just when she broke free from the sunken barge, the tow rope parted, and the 42 couldn’t stop in time to avoid backing over it, fouling the seven-inch mooring line in both her screws.

Some 110 enlisted men and 8 officers from the Reid were then transferred to LSM-316 ; the 11 most seriously wounded men, Corales, and one other officer remained on board the 42. As LSM-316 hurried to rejoin the convoy, LSM-42 slowly steamed away from the beach, able to make only about seven knots because of the rope tangled in her shafts. But she was the flagship of a man of action, Lieutenant Commander Everett E. Weire, commander of LSM Group Six, Flotilla Two, and previous commander of LST-460. He didn’t intend to endure the slow pace for long, and after an hour, he ordered the ship to stop.

Using an improvised diving mask and accompanied by Ensign J. W. Lawrence, he dove under the ship and cut away the fouled lines from the starboard screw. The 42 then continued south to Baybay Harbor, where the remainder of the Reid’s survivors were transferred to the U.S. 7th Infantry Division’s 71st Medical Battalion field hospital. While at Baybay, Weire, along with three ensigns, went over the side and cut the lines from the 42’s port screw. Meanwhile, LSM-267 had floated off Ipil Beach with the rising tide and rejoined her sister ship. In those dangerous waters, the men on board both LSMs were thankful for company and added firepower.

The 42 and the 267 were anchored near shore, intending to wait for the protection of darkness before proceeding. But they received word from the beach that they were near a Philippine guerrilla base that was bombed by the Japanese every day at about 1530, and the LSMs were ordered to move on. There would be no rest for the two ships, which got under way for San Pedro Bay around 1415; they would spend the next 24 hours hugging beaches to avoid detection, fighting off enemy planes, and nursing wounded men and damaged equipment.

Two Inviting Targets

At about 1430, Japanese scout planes and fighters appeared overhead, and the two ships, which were painted shades of green with black in a camouflage pattern, cut engines and drifted, hoping they’d blend into the nearby shoreline. It worked. But at 1700, eight enemy fighters, including Zekes, Ki-44 “Tojos,” and Ki-43 “Oscars,” appeared and circled to attack from port and starboard. Then, according to Motor Machinist’s Mate Johnston, “all hell broke loose.” The LSMs opened up with all their guns—40-mms, 20-mms, and .50-calibers. Maneuvering radically as close to shore as possible, they put up a vicious fight against the bombing and strafing enemy planes, but the landing ships were no match for the fighters. Fortunately, a destroyer on patrol relayed their distress call, and five minutes later a pair of P-38 Lightning fighters chased the enemy planes over the mountains.

When it was over, the ships had expended 2,400 40-mm and 20-mm rounds and each vessel had seven men injured, all but one by shrapnel (a sailor fell from the 42’s bow gun tub to the deck below, breaking a wrist). While the 42 sustained minor damage, the 267’s conn and bridge were wrecked and her radar, radio, and electric steering were out. Her executive officer took the helm in emergency steering aft. Shrapnel from general-purpose bomb near misses had punctured the 267’s starboard hull in more than a hundred places, and her starboard engine was knocked out. With only one functioning engine, the ship wouldn’t be able to make more than five knots.

To take advantage of the vessels’ camouflage, Commander Weire ordered them to beach on a coral reef a mile southeast of Green Point. There, with bow doors open and ramps down, sailors labored to get the stretcher cases loaded into rafts and taken ashore, a half-mile away. Others swam and waded for the beach, watching the sky with their life vests untied, ready to slip out of them and beneath the water to escape strafing if the enemy returned. Johnston would later write, “It was the longest walk I ever took.” Some 110 men spent a hot, frightening evening on the beach, waiting for the sun to set. A medical station was set up, and everyone with first-aid knowledge pitched in to help. Still, Yeoman Third Class Ernest L. Sigismondi of the 267 died from his extensive injuries.

Trip’s Final Frustrating Leg

By 2200 both crews had returned to the ships, and all the wounded had been put aboard the more seaworthy 42. She had taken care of the Reid ’s survivors and now found herself caring for a sister ship’s casualties, as well as her own.

The ships were ordered blacked out, which meant the holes in the 267 had to be plugged. When they had exhausted their supply of wooden plugs, crewmen used scraps of wood, shirts, and anything else they could find. To make matters worse, the 267’s fuel-transfer pump was out, and the men had to form a bucket brigade to transfer fuel oil to the day tanks. It was an almost impossible task in the dark, cramped passageways.

The 267 was rigged for towing, but right away the 42’s radar picked up a scout plane circling overhead. Fearing another attack, Weire ordered the towing cable cast off. The threat passed, but an hour later the 267, which had the use of only one engine and was being steered from belowdecks, collided with the 42, knocking wounded men from their bunks and ripping a 13-foot hole through her hull and into the sick bay from two inches above the waterline to the superstructure deck. Men scrambled to pump out the water that sloshed through the opening and to fill the hole with mattresses and shoring. The collision cut the 42’s electric and freshwater lines and jammed two hatches, making the forward port compartments inaccessible. It was one thing after another, and with conditions going from bad to worse, there was still nothing to do but keep pressing for port.

During the early hours of 13 December, the two ships repeatedly tried to rig for towing, but in the darkness it was impossible to get the crippled 267 into position. At 0800, when they neared the east side of the Leyte and things were finally looking up, the 267’s remaining engine quit. Puzzled engineers decided it was probably because the bucket-delivered oil didn’t go through the purifier, and impurities fouled the engine. Fortunately, the light of day allowed crewmen to rig for towing. Surely, they thought, nothing else could go wrong.

But just as the ships got under way, the towing bridle snapped. The only thing left to do was moor the 267 alongside, and so the two intrepid landing ships limped along—the 267 like a wounded warrior leaning against an exhausted buddy—at a ponderous six knots for the last 30 miles. There was sweet relief when they dropped anchor in San Pedro Bay at 1530, and LCIs came out to transfer the wounded to the hospital ship Bountiful (AH-9). It had been two days since the sailors of the LSM-42 and LSM-267 had slept more than a few minutes or had a full ration.

That wasn’t the last the men of the two amphibians would see of each other. The 267 was returned to service, and six months later she was reunited with the 42, practicing side by side at the partially liberated island of Morotai. There, Allied forces prepared for the last major amphibious operation of the war, Borneo’s Balikpapan, where Australians carried the fight, with the support of U.S. naval and air forces.


The Navy’s ‘Sandscrapers’

O ne of the plotlines of the Pacific war was the quest for the perfect way to get lots of men and machines onto sandy beaches. Every type of landing vessel—from small boats such as the LCVP (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) to the LCI (landing craft, infantry) to the LCT (landing craft, tank)—had advantages and disadvantages. There was a clear need for a well-armed, oceangoing, big capacity ship that could carry men, machinery, or supplies and drive right up onto Pacific beaches and get off again. Late in the war, previous designs contributed to the development of a completely new ship, just the right size, with just the right features. 

The first LSM (landing ship, medium) was completed in April 1944. Soon, six shipyards were producing one per month. More than 550 of them were launched in just over a year, each crewed by about 55 enlisted men and officers who were quickly but rigorously trained. The crews were tightly knit, as enlisted men and officers finished their training together at Little Creek, Virginia. 

They boarded a ship loaded with design innovations. The high bow housed doors similar to those on the LST (landing ship, tank), which opened to reveal a loading ramp on which jeeps, trucks, and tanks could drive directly from the ship’s well deck to the sand. LSMs were highly maneuverable, finding their way onto crowded shores amid wreckage and reefs, and their flat bottoms slipped across sand bars and beaches, yielding the nickname “Sandscrapers,” as the ships drafted only six feet at the bow when loaded. When an LSM approached a beach, the stern anchor, a feature adapted from the LCI, was dropped and the chain played out, helping her go straight into the beach. When the ship was ready to withdraw, the stern anchor was pulled in, effectively retracting the ship from the beach. 

Of course the flat bottom also made for a rough ride as it slapped waves, yet LSMs were among the most stable ships afloat. They had a low center of gravity and a high center of flotation, giving them a snap roll of about four seconds from full starboard to full port and back. 

What’s more, most were powered by a pair of Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines, bigger than the ones that powered LSTs, yielding a top speed of more than 13 knots. The LSM had a range of 4,900 miles. Just over 200 feet long, with a beam of 35 feet, she could carry five medium or three heavy tanks, or six tracked landing vehicles. And the LSM’s open well deck made her suitable for loading by hand or derrick. There were even a few bunks for a landing force. 

The first LSMs were armed with six 20-mm guns, and right away it was apparent that the bow needed a lot more muscle. A few, including  LSM-42 , had a single 40-mm at the bow, but most boasted twin 40-mms. The big guns couldn’t be trained down to repel small craft, so some crews added .50-caliber machine guns. Quartermaster Second Class Edward W. Keenneweg of  LSM-42  looked around port one day and noticed a pair of .50-caliber guns on wrecked Army vehicles, he traded supplies for them, and the weapons were soon mounted on the  42 , forward of the 20-mm gun tubs. The brave men who manned them didn’t worry about the fact that they had no shields. Some 40 LSMs were fitted as dedicated rocket-launching platforms, designated LSM(R)s. With a deck full of continuous-loading 5-inch rocket launchers, they brought awesome firepower to later invasions, including Iwo Jima.

LSMs sailed in western Pacific waters for months after World War II, transporting prisoners of both sides and returning displaced civilians home. A few LSMs went on to serve in the Korean War, and some were used in other operations, with the last one in Navy service being decommissioned in 1965. Some had long lives as merchants and salvage ships. They were designed to fill a special place among many other landing craft in World War II. And yet their role has never gone out of date, being filled in the present-day U.S. Navy by a new generation of technologically advanced amphibious-assault ships. 



Sources:

Action Report: “Ormoc Bay Resupply Unit Operation (Second Echelon), LSM-42 , 15 December 1944,” RG 38, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA), College Park, MD.

Action Report: “Second Resupply Echelon, Ormoc Bay, Leyte Island, LSM-267 , 16 December 1944,” RG 38, NARA.

Author’s interviews with S2C Estel Hamilton, LSM-42 , and MMM2C Cecil Ray Johnston, LSM-42 , and 26 September 1986 correspondence with F1C Kenneth G. Schoening, the Reid .

Richard Henry Corales entry, WW2 Awards.com, http://en.ww2awards.com/person/45374 .

Robert J. Cressman, The Official Chronology of the United States Navy in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

The Cruise of the LSM 267 , compiled and published by the crew of LSM-267 .

Deck Logs, LSM-38, LSM-39, LSM-42, LSM-316, Bush (DD-529), RG 38, NARA.

Rolf F. Illsley, LSM-LSMR: WWII Amphibious Forces (Paducah, KY: Turner Publishing Company, 1994).

“Leyte: The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II,” http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/leyte/leyte.htm .

Samuel Eliot Morison, Leyte: June 1944–January 1945, vol. 12, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, 1958).

USS Reid 369, www.ussreid369.org .

Robin L. Rielly, Kamikaze Attacks of World War II: A Complete History of Japanese Suicide Strikes on American Ships, by Aircraft and Other Means (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010).

 

 
 

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