This is the story of an ugly duckling, and unlike most stories that start in this vein, this particular duckling does not become handsome and stalwart in the end. If anything, it becomes battered and has all it can do to keep itself together. Yes, today I gazed into the calm waters of Sasebo Ko and looked unwinkingly at the reflection. What a shape! She’s long enough but her broad beam gives an unforgettable first impression of squattiness. There are no classic lines in her build and her bow is simply a horrible snow- shovel snout that cannot cut the water but pushes the foam ahead of her. Most old fighting ships can look back on a youth when they were fresh and glamorous (a term that better befits a ship than the Hollywood starlets), but not this tub. She has had this build since ’way back when she was born, and it really is her birthmark. Of course, she is not alone in her misery for she has many twin sisters and she carries herself better than most of them.
As years go, she is a veritable youngster for she was born at Seneca, Illinois, in 1943. She is not a child of love, but of necessity. When the slant-eyed minions of Tojo secured for themselves a ring of island defenses, it became apparent that a new type of ship would be of inestimable value in cracking the chain and digging deep into the homeland. Whose brain child she is I do not know, but someone breathed life into a blueprint and it was translated into actuality at the shipyard.
The day her crew arrived was a sad affair for both ship and men. These lads had joined the Navy itching for a fight, and it is no secret that she was a disappointment to them. No great, thundering, flame-belching main batteries were mounted on her main deck, nor did she boast of a flight deck from which winged stars went careening into the blue overhead. Her best weapon was a 3-inch fifty mounted on her fantail, and the crew was highly doubtful of the efficacy of that.
When it cracked, the length of the ship would shudder and many a seaman shook along with the frames. She had no speed. The crew would laugh contemptuously when they thought of those fast 11 knots that was billed as flank speed. These boys had dreamed of battlewagons, carriers, or cans. They hated to face both reality and the enemy on such a “large, slow target,” as the term LST was expressed in popular jargon. Her first trip was one that many Americans had taken before her. She followed LaSalle and Mark Twain down the Mississippi. River pilots were at the helm and had charge of running the ship down to New Orleans. Meanwhile, the crew stood watches and began to get the feel of what they termed the “scow.” A gunner’s mate, who had been profanely comparing her very disadvantageously with a “can,” began to admit some pleasant features when he conceded that at least she had plenty of room in which to take a breath. An ensign from a “wagon” discovered that here he could afford to leave his cabin without glancing nervously in all directions to avoid running errands. With the whimsical fatalism of their background, the boys were shrugging at the faults of the ship and beginning to take a real pride in her. She was their ship and it was up to the both of them to get out there, dish it out, and return to that happy reunion with loved ones that seemed an eternity in the future. Maybe she couldn’t hammer enemy shore installations and batteries to shreds, but no one ever took an island from the Japs by bombardment alone; it would take the foot soldier to win the land, and this was the “scow” that could bring the “dogface” or “gyrene” to the land.
All hands had an emotion of pride and satisfaction when the day of commissioning arrived. Those who griped the most, now had a frog in the throat and dust in the eye, when the flag went fluttering up the mainmast. For all her blunt nose and ugly body, she was a member of the greatest fleet on earth. The flag of the free with its red bars and white stars flew over her and she had a date with destiny to keep that flag flying through whatever perils might lie ahead. She was new from the shipyard but ancient traditions were a part of her.
Always have free men gone to the sea to defend their homeland and never has the sea turned them back. At Salamis, Lepanto, off the cliffs of Dover, and near the island of Midway: the aggressor has never been able to utilize the sea as a means of conquest against a free people that loved the sea and were willing to do battle on it. Atomic bomb or no, the basic strategy of warfare will remain the same, and it will be a sad day for America if she forgets her heritage of the surf and foam and leaves her great ocean bastions unfortified.
Yes, this new ship had superb history in her blood. Down through more than a century and a half came the sonorous voice of John Paul Jones, “We have not yet begun to fight.” Lawrence would never die on her main deck but his blood had helped to create it. It is difficult to put in words how the men and ship felt. Let a cook striker say it for both, “Bring on the yellow bastards.”
It was at shakedown that she received her first test along with the men. And it was then that she beached for the first time. That first beaching was a trial for all hands. It outrages every sense of nautical decency and violates every tenet of seamanship to deliberately send a ship on the shore. It has been done in the past solely as a desperation measure to escape capture or purposely destroy the ship. Don’t bother to point out that we are considered as a landing craft in some ill-informed circles, for we have always regarded the LST 222 as a ship and bitterly resent another description. This was a ship we were sending on the beach and we had plenty of qualms about the entire business. Swoosh, we nosed into the sand and recoiled to a halt while throwing waves over the beach. Like a trip to the dentist, it was nowhere near as bad as expected. But with every beaching to the present day, there has been anxiety; traditions of centuries of seafarers are not wiped out by a blueprint and we still cannot feel it is right to beach a ship.
After venturing out into the Pacific, our first stop was the island of Kaui in the Hawaiian group. We put into the beautiful little bay of Nawilawila, which means “No, No.” In a cliff overlooking the bay there is an indentation in the rock which resembles the face of a man. Legend has it that once there dwelt a gorgeous native maiden, who was pursued by an unpleasing old man who did not have quite the correct intentions in mind. She ended up on the precipice and the aged one was breathing heavily when the stone profile chimed in with a stern “no, no.” Hence the name of the bay.
Here we joined in with dress rehearsals for the invasion of the Marshalls. There was great trepidation about this attack. Of its success there was not much question, but rather a good deal of speculation about the price which it would be necessary to pay. Tarawa, only two months earlier, had been costly in blood and effort, and if the same fate were to meet us in the Marshalls it would have a decided effect on our campaign of island hopping. It would not only disturb morale in the fleet but would give the pacifist school of thought a weighty argument for peaceable settlement of the war.
We went in at Roi Namur and they tell us now that it was easy. Yes, it actually was, from the perspective of history. But when is it ever easy to travel in convoy with the known presence of enemy subs, and lookouts constantly vigilant for the red sun flashing high on wing tips in the sky? Easy, indeed! Is the gray dawn of invasion morn ever easy? Ask the pits of the stomachs that are tensed; study the uneasy smiles and listen to the bravado in voices that is just a bit overdone. Actually, nothing of real import happened. There was one bombing raid that did not come close and we launched our LCT on schedule by putting an 11-degree list to star- board and cutting loose the securing lines.
From the Marshalls, it was back to the Hawaiian Islands with runs and mock invasions between Maui and Hilo. That was the interlude, for then we were off to the Marianas, or more specifically, Saipan. We were combat-loaded with LVT’s on the tank deck and an LCT on the main deck. At D-day we pulled in as closely as possible to the reef off the now famous sugar mill, which was badly hit and burning furiously. Our bow doors opened and spewed forth the first wave of LVT’s that raced in over highly dangerous coral reef to the shore.
At fifteen minutes after noon that same day we launched our LCT for the second time under combat conditions. The great surface and air support that was given us prevented any fire from the shore bothering us greatly in our assigned tasks. The next day we pulled back and spent the following week in and out on retirement plans. Our closest shave came on June 25, ten days after the initial date of invasion, when a Nipponese plane dropped a bomb close by the bow that stove in the forward ballast compartment, and the damage included two slightly wounded men.
A trip to Eniwetok gave us a breathing spell before we returned to Saipan and loaded marines for the conquest of Tinian, hardly more than a stone’s throw from Saipan. Tinian was deceptive. It was much flatter in surface than its neighbor and had been under constant bombardment and many bombing raids for weeks. Yet, when we neared the beach, the shore batteries opened up for keeps. Fortunately for us, they were hunting bigger game, and the Colorado, in particular, had a time for herself. Some small stuff sprayed around us but we reached the beach unscathed, did our job of unloading, and got the hell out of there.
This was followed by another period of quiet activity and we found ourselves in the Solomons, making those “milk runs” familiar to any member of the amphibious forces. Ours is not the job to keep the constant heat and pressure on the foe. While others do that, we busy ourselves with the unexciting but necessary task of keeping logistics on an even keel; of seeing that island garrisons are supplied and carrying out troop movements of the rear echelons. It is dull work but passes the time quickly and is better by far than merely dragging anchor in some harbor for weeks without end. As the summer came to a close, so did our “milk runs.”
We once more combat-loaded, this time at the Russell Islands with marines headed for the winning of Peleliu. That living hell of an invasion, a nightmarish desolation of an island, was made even more hellish by a tropical sun that shone with pitiless fury upon men already strained to the breaking point. It was bloody and garish; underbrush, caves, and the usual fanatic resistance tested the invaders to the utmost limit of their endurance. We, personally, did not have to undergo that. But, oftentimes, what are termed passengers in the log are individuals to the ship. Men that we had known by the calendar for short weeks but by the spirit for a lifetime, had gone ahead in that inferno and were suffering and dying. It would have been unworthy of us if our hearts had not been there with them.
As it happened, that was our last invasion. We were at Guam and loaded for Iwo Jima when we lost an argument with a coral reef at Telefofo and ruined our screws. We were unloaded and towed around the island where we gained a melancholy distinction. There was a new battleship dry dock at Apra Harbor and we were the first LST to take advantage of it. A temporary patchwork job was done and we next hit Saipan. There we loaded marines, and this time it was on a happy journey for we were headed eastward to Maui, where we dropped the marines off for a well-deserved rest. We continued on to the Pacific coast and got ourselves a thorough overhauling at the salty paradise of San Pedro and Long Beach. A happy farewell was given to the 3-inch fifty on the fantail when it was replaced by twin forties, for to tell the truth, that damned gun had never been of any use.
Heading westward once again, we were midway between the States and Pearl when Hirohito decided that enough was enough. But it was not over for us, for we were given another job that was most pleasant and highly interesting. We were to head the first convoy of LST’s to arrive at the former Jap naval base of Sasebo in northwestern Kyushu. It was made directly from Pearl and took the better part of a month, 24 days to be exact. We will offer a challenge that it was the longest nonstop amphibious haul of the war. It was deadly monotonous until the last five days, when we partook of a guessing game with a typhoon that seemingly could not make up its mind in which direction it would curve. We were lucky that it chose the opposite direction for its swing. When we passed through the Ryukyus and into the East China Sea, we were thankful for the atomic bomb. Let the professional pacifists moan about the inhumanity of it all. The “Three Deuces” would have been in the thick of the proposed Jap homeland invasion, and after a good look at the numerous islands we would have passed en route, we were more than thankful for the atomic bomb. It is a certainty that to have reached the vicinity of Sasebo, we would have encountered fierce opposition from Kamikaze, torpedo boats, and midget subs. The atomic bomb is a devastating weapon, inhuman in its implications, but so would have been the bodies of many Americans who must, otherwise, have died in the waters and on the shores of Japan.
So we led the parade of LST’s into Sasebo Ko and that has been our home port for the past two months. Now the “Three Deuces” swings at anchor and shifts with the tide. She is old for top efficiency and is slated to be sold. It will not be long before her commission pennant comes down and a good deal of her heart will go with that pennant. Whose flag she will fly when she is purchased we do not know, but earnestly hope it is the same flag that she has carried into battle and still flies, unvanquished, on her mainmast. She has no fame, but she is an American ship of war, and when her time comes to take a last breath she will form in column with her mighty predecessors. She will man the rail and return passing honors to the Bon Homme Richard, the Maine, the Helena, and will tell the old-timers that “Old Ironsides” still snorts at the newcomers and mutters to herself about the good old days of wooden ships and iron men.
So long, Three Deuces, and well done!