Monday, September 30, 2013

September's routine repairs

In the month of September 1943, while stationed in Espirito Santo in the New Hebrides, in addition to extensive and/or emergency repairs to SS Matthew Lyon, SS W.S. RheemLST-354, LST-395, and the San Juan, Dad's ship, Vestal, tackled numerous routine repairs to various vessels of the fleet. In relative order of service and repair, these ships included: LST 448, TaganatCleveland, LST-446LST-447, MurzimLST-398, APC 28LST-399, Saratoga, Montpelier, Bright, in addition to other miscellaneous ship jobs and work at the shore facility.

At least 4 times this month the ship was ordered to general quarters, and at least once enemy planes were close enough to be spotted.

Source: USS Vestal War Diary, September 1943

Friday, September 20, 2013

POW/MIA Recognition Day

Established by Congress in 1979, the third Friday each September is POW/MIA Recognition Day. This day of observance honors prisoners of war and members of the military missing in action.

Incredibly, a total of 83,417 GIs are still missing in action:
  • 73,681 from World War II
  • 7,947 from the Korean War
  • 126 from Cold War actions
  • 1,657 from the Vietnam War
  • 6 from the war with Iraq and related conflicts.
The National POW/MIA Recognition Day is not a federal public holiday, but it is one of 6 days each year when the POW/MIA flag may be flown at military bases and federal buildings. The other 5 days this flag can be flown at those locations are: Armed Forces Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day.

Sources: Marine Times: "On POW/MIA day, a son remembers"; Defense Prisoner of war, Missing Personnel Office

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Battle of Chickamauga at 150

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Chickamauga.* Named for the creek which ran through the battlefield, it will become by far the bloodiest battle of the war in the West.** By its conclusion on the 20th, Gen. Braxton Bragg's Confederate Army of Tennessee, together with James Longstreet’s Corps from the Army of Northern Virginia, will defeat their Union opponent, General William S. Rosecrans and his Army of the Cumberland.

Photo by Mark Dolan, June 2010
Today, the park-like battlefield is very beautiful and serene. 150 years ago,
however, the scenes of carnage and devastation would have been unbearable.  

Following on his success in the Tullahoma Campaign in late June through early July, Rosecrans renewed his offensive to force the Confederates out of Chattanooga. Rosecrans split his army into 3 corps, setting each out for Chattanooga by separate routes.

In early September, Rosecrans compelled Bragg to pull his army out of Chattanooga and head south. The Union troops followed the Confederate army and skirmished with it at Davis's Crossroads. But Rosecrans didn't immediately recognize his peril and waited until mid-month to consolidate his forces scattered in the mountainous region of Tennessee and Georgia.

Bragg was determined to reoccupy Chattanooga and decided to launch an offensive against Rosecrans’s army, cut it off, then move back into the city.

Source: Cartography Services by Hal Jesperson

On the 17th, Bragg headed back toward the town, intending to draw Rosecrans into a decisive battle. As he moved north on the 18th, Bragg's cavalry and infantry opened the battle as the Confederates skirmished with Union cavalry and mounted infantry, which were armed with Spencer repeating rifles.

Fighting began in earnest on the morning of the 19th, on the west side of Chickamauga Creek. While Bragg’s men, including my great grandfather Nathan Oakes, hammered the Union line into the evening, they did not break it.

On the 20th, Bragg continued his assault on the left of the Union line. In the late morning, Rosecrans was informed that he had a gap in his line. In moving units to shore up the supposed gap, Rosecrans inadvertently created one, and Gen. Longstreet’s men promptly exploited it, driving one-third of the Union army, including Rosecrans himself, from the field. Union Gen. George H. Thomas took over command and began consolidating some of the retreating army on Horseshoe Ridge. Although the Rebels launched determined assaults on Thomas's forces, the "Rock of Chickamauga" held his ground until after dark, thus saving Rosecrans's army. Thomas then withdrew from the field, leaving it to the Confederates.

The Union army retreated to Chattanooga while the Rebels occupied the surrounding heights on Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain, laying siege to the city. This will bring on the beginning of the second phase of the Chattanooga Campaign.

* The name Chickamauga was Cherokee for "River of Death."

** Army of the Cumberland historian, Henry Martin Cist, noted: "All things considered, the battle of Chickamauga for the forces engaged was the hardest fought and the bloodiest battle of the Rebellion."

Sources: CSWSAC Battle SummariesThis Terrible Sound, Peter Cozzens; The Army of the Cumberland, Henry Martyn Cist

To view my blog about my great grandfather, Nathan Oakes, and the
32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment in which he served in the Army of Tennessee,

Monday, September 16, 2013

Work on USS LST-447

September 1943 was a big month for repairing LSTs ("Landing Ship Tank"). Dad's ship, USS Vestal, worked on at least 7 of them* this month.

On today's date in 1943, Vestal began repairs on LST-447, sister ship to LST-448, which Vestal repaired in August. LSTs were relatively large ships capable of shore-to-shore delivery of tanks and other vehicles, supplies, and personnel for amphibious assaults. These unique ships were designed with large ballast systems that could be filled for ocean passage and then pumped out for beaching operations. Over a thousand of these ships were completed in American shipyards by war's end and they played a significant role in the European and Pacific theaters.

These tank landing ships were constructed to carry multiple tanks, wheeled and tracked vehicles, artillery, construction equipment, and military supplies. Their design allowed for them to land their cargo on the beach. LSTs also could transport troops, with accommodations for 16 officers and 147 enlisted men in addition to her own crew complement of 7 officers and 104 enlisted men. Armed with 2 twin and 4 single 40MM, plus 12 single 20MM guns, LSTs had the capacity to defend themselves.

LST-447 was launched in 1942 and was the 447th member of her class commissioned into service with the US Navy. She entered service with the U.S. Pacific Fleet in December 1942, deployed to the South Pacific. Like many LSTs  that were rushed into service in the South Pacific at this time, LST-447 and her crew were given on-the-job training in ship operations while serving with the Allied force in operations in the Southern Solomon Islands in early 1943. It was during this period that the ship sailed into Espiritu Santo for "hull and engineering underwater repairs" by Vestal while in dry dock.

USS LST-447 unloading supplies at Bougainville
Source: NavSource Online

Apparently her repairs were not related to battle damage since LST-447's first amphibious landing was at Bougainville in November. Following that action, the ship went on to take part in the Bismarck Archipelago and Hollandia landings in the South Pacific through April 1944. Then, she shifted north to assault Guam in July through August 1944. Detached from frontline units after duty in the Marianas, the ship was overhauled at Pearl Harbor during the Philippine Landings. Following repairs at Pearl, LST-447 sailed in early 1945 for Ulithi Atoll where she joined the huge American Naval force massing for the planned assault on Okinawa scheduled for April 1st.

In late March, departing in a convoy fully loaded with men, munitions, and supplies, LST-447 was forced to wait offshore while other ships offloaded before she could beach and discharge their cargo on April 4th. By this time, the heretofore unopposed landings had turned into fierce fighting onshore, and an increasing number of Japanese kamikaze planes were operating overhead throughout the daylight hours. Despite these hazards, the ship's crew successfully off-loaded her cargo and debeached with the high tide in the evening of April 5th, before proceeding offshore to await orders. The next day brought reports of large numbers of Japanese aircraft approaching Okinawa, prompting the LST-447's crew to their battle stations to await the inevitable arrival of Japanese aircraft.

Closing ranks with other ships to combine firepower, the LST's crew was soon facing dozens of suicide attackers which began strafing, bombing, and diving all around them. Despite a valiant effort, the gun crews simply were overwhelmed by the mass attack. A single bomber dove out of the clouds, and despite taking several hits, its pilot slammed his plane into LST-447. The force of the crashing aircraft and the detonation of its full bomb and fuel load created a massive fireball and blew out the port side of the empty hold, causing fatal damage to the ship and numerous casualties. The LST’s captain quickly ordered the crew to abandon ship, but he remained onboard as the ship seemed to stabilize in the next few minutes. The stricken ship was placed under tow to more protected waters. The LST-447 almost made it to safety when she finally began to sink. Her skeleton crew was forced to abandoned her while the assisting tug pushed it out of the channel, allowing her to flood and sink.

USS LST-447 hit by a Japanese Kamikaze
April 6, 1945, off the Okinawa beachhead
Source: NavSourceOnline

For her actions on that day, the proud LST-447 earned her 6th Battle Star for WWII service. She also received the Navy Unit Commendation.

* In September 1943, Vestal repaired LST-354, 395, 398, 399, 446, 447, and 448, as well as numerous other Navy vessels.

Source: USS Vestal War Diary, September 1943

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Repairs to torpedo damaged SS W.S. Rheem

On today's date in 1943, crews from Dad's ship, Vestal, began emergency repair work on the tanker, SS W.S. Rheem. W.S. Rheem was near Espiritu Santo when it was hit by a torpedo the previous day, fired from the Japanese sub, I-20. Thankfully, there were no casualties to the 40-man merchant crew or the 25-man Armed Guard aboard. The tanker was able to reach port at Espiritu Santo on its own power. I don't know for sure that Dad worked on the Rheem, but it required extensive welding, just the sort of work that matched Dad's expertise. Vestal will work on repairing the massive hole on W.S. Rheem's port side until the 15th while completing simultaneous repairs to several other vessels.

The infamous submarine I-20 was commissioned by the Japanese Imperial Navy in 1940. By November 1941, the sub was conducting operations around Hawaii in connection with the planned Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I-20 was fitted with a top secret 46-ton 2-man midget submarine for a coordinated attack at Pearl with 5 other "mother" subs.

SS W.S. Rheem moored alongside another ship, perhaps SS Matthew Lyon.
Both ships were repaired by Vestal in Espirito Santo Harbor.
Torpedo damage received from the Japanese sub I-20

In early 1942, the I-20 patrolled the Pacific. Then for the rest of the year the sub operated in the Indian Ocean and the East Coast of Africa, launching midget subs and harassing British naval forces. She returned to the Western Pacific in August for the Invasion of Guadalcanal, then operated in the Solomons for the rest of that year where she again launched midgets against Allied ships.

I-20 continued to operate throughout the Solomons in 1943, covering operations and delivering supplies and ammunition in overnight runs down "The Slot" through the islands. Later, she patrolled the New Hebrides. On the last day of August, 10 miles north of Bougainville Strait, the I-20 torpedoed and damaged the W. S. Rheem. Her report was the last signal the Japanese command received from the I-20. The sub was about to have a run-in with the US destroyer, Wadsworth.

On August 31, the USS Wadsworth was sent out to hunt for the sub responsible for torpedoing the W.S. RheemWadsworth was not able to make contact with any submarines in the first area searched, but then it teamed with amphibious patrol planes to scour the seas to the south of Espiritu Santo and west of Nalekula Island. On today's date in 1943, Wadsworth picked up an underwater sound contact and dropped 7 patterns of depth charges, claiming unconfirmed damage to the sub. It's possible that I-20 survived that onslaught, but it never returned home. Records list her as "missing" as of October 10, 1943.

It is also possible that another destroyer, the USS Ellet sank the I-20. On September 3, Ellet was ordered to hunt for a reported submarine in the area. That night, the destroyer picked up a radar contact and challenged the unseen contact. Receiving no reply, Ellet dropped 20 depth charges in an attempt to hit her target. The next day Ellet discovered a long oil slick but could not confirm a kill of the submarine.

To make matters even less certain, the I-20 and another Japanese sub, the I-182, were both operating in the New Hebrides at this time. Neither submarine returned from its mission, so perhaps both destroyers may be credited with kills. The final result is that the enemy's loss of 2 submarines is great news for American and Allied sailors on the New Hebridean waters.

Sources: USS Vestal War Diary, August & September 1943; War Diaries for USS Ellet, and Wardsworth, September 1943; The Official Chronology of the U.S. Navy in World War II, Robert Cressman; Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; Imperial Japanese Navy Page

Repairs to USS Taganak

In early September in 1943, Dad's ship, Vestal, began repair work to the generator on the cargo ship, USS Taganak. This ship's history is interesting for both its war service and its many incarnations.

Built in 1917 as the commercial steam cargo ship War Shell, it was acquired by the U.S. Navy during World War I. Then commissioned as the USS Lake Shore, she carried a variety of cargo for the Navy from 1918-1919, including coal and ammunition. She survived this war and the next and was returned to civilian service each time.

In 1923, Lake Shore was sold to a private company and renamed Olympic. She operated along the Pacific coast until being withdrawn from service in 1940.

But at the outbreak of World War II, there was a severe shortage of Navy cargo ships. To cover the deficiency, the Navy acquired various ships and refitted them for carrying cargo. The Olympic was one of these ships reacquired in May 1942. Following repairs and refitting at the naval base at Mare Island, the ship was recommissioned as the USS Taganak in July 1942. By September, she sailed for the South Pacific. From Nouméa, New Caledonia, she made a run to New Zealand. She then shuttled cargo between New Zealand, New Caledonia, New Hebrides, and the Solomon Islands through 1943.

On one of those trips, in August 1943, Taganak was en route from Nouméa to Espiritu Santo with a cargo of ammunition when she was attacked by a Japanese submarine, I-17.* The convoy's escort ship,  HMNZS Tui, attacked the sub with depth charges, forcing it to the surface. American planes were signaled to assist in the attack, resulting in sinking the enemy sub. Apparently there was no damage done to Taganak in the attack, and she sailed on to Espiritu Santo without further incident. So, the work which Vestal performed on the ship from September 1-3, must not have been related to Taganak's brush with the Japanese sub.

Over the next couple of months, Taganak continued supply operations between Nouméa, Espiritu Santo, and Guadalcanal, before returning a load of cargo to the West Coast in November. While in Oakland, the ship underwent extensive overhaul and repairs.

February 1944 saw Taganak again sailing to the South Pacific to resume her duties as an inner-island cargo and personnel transport. Although the ship engaged in no enemy action for the next year and a half, it did share in the important role of consolidating the Northern Solomon Islands under Allied control. In February 1945, Taganak reported to Auckland, New Zealand for general overhaul, then returned to the Solomons where she served until Japan's surrender.

In October 1945, Taganak made its final trip to the U.S. after successfully completing 3 years of war service. The ship's history, written that month while en route to the states, reflects the pride of her crewmen:
While larger, faster, more modern ships had carried the war victoriously from Guadalcanal to the triumphant entry into Tokyo Bay just one short month before, the old steam schooner had plodded monotonously and undramatically through the role assigned it in the tremendous victory which has been attained. As she heads for home, the USS Taganak can reflect with pride and satisfaction upon a record in keeping with the best Navy tradition and upon a job well done.
The USS Taganak was decommissioned in March 1946, and sold later that year. Subsequently, the venerable ship saw service as an international commercial steamer under the names Glento, Pilhamm and Lulu. She was finally scrapped in 1961.

Source: NavSource Online

* The I-17 was assigned duty at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Its mission was to reconnoiter and engage any ships that tried to sortie from harbor during the attack. Perhaps its main claim to fame was on February 23, 1942, when it became the first Axis ship to shell the U.S. mainland in the little-known Bombardment of Ellwood, near Santa Barbara, California. Although causing only minimal damage to  the pier and fuel tanks, the event helped to trigger the West Coast invasion hysteria and influenced the infamous decision to intern Japanese-Americans (most were U.S. citizens) a week later.

Sources: USS Vestal War Diary, September 1943; Ship's History of the USS Taganak; NavSource Online