Monday, October 27, 2014

Rescuing the USS Houston

By all accounts, the biggest repair job for my dad's ship, USS Hector, at Ulithi—or anywhere throughout the war—came on this date in 1944. The cruiser, USS Houston, twice torpedoed by Japanese bombers, was towed alongside for repairs. 

A couple of weeks earlier on October 14, USS Houston was attacked by Japanese torpedo planes off the coast of Formosa (known today as Taiwan), causing serious damage. Initially, the flooding was so severe that the crew was ordered to abandon ship. However, when further investigation showed that the ship might be saved, the commanding officer ordered all remaining personnel to stay on board. Two hours later the wounded Houston was under tow by the heavy cruiser, USS Boston.

For the next 2 days, the remaining skeleton crew pumped water, shored bulkheads, and fought fires while their ship continued to settle further in the water. They also found some time to burry 2 men who died of fatal burns from the torpedo attack. More burials would follow.

On the 16th, the tugboat Pawnee took over towing Houston to Ulithi for repairs. That afternoon a second aerial torpedo hit the ship, killing 55 crewmen and wounding many more. However, despite the terrible human loss and further damage to the ship, Houston's heroic crew fought to keep the ship afloat.2 The brave men of the Pawnee also never wavered in their task. Amazingly, both ships managed to make it to Ulithi on this date where the Hector was waiting.

The skeleton crew left aboard Houston managed to keep the stricken ship afloat
throughout its 14-day, 1250-mile tow to Ulithi. The first torpedo hit Houston amid-
ships on October 14th. The second struck the cruiser's starboard quarter while she
was under tow on October 16th.

Initially, Hector's crews spent a great deal of time and effort in clearing away wreckage, welding up holes, pumping out water, washing up oil and fuel, and otherwise readying the ship for extensive repairs. During this stage, there also was the grim task of removing bodies. The remains of 30 victims had to be recovered from the lower, flooded parts of the ship.

Dad was among welding crews completed myriad repair jobs, including the installation of more than 2,000 feet of T-bar to stiffen and reinforce the main, second, and upper decks. Houston's girders and plating were strengthened, and equipment was salvaged and repaired. Steering control to the bridge was also restored.

Hector's repair crews tended Houston from October 27 to December 14, 1944

Although interrupted by enemy sub attacks3 on ships in the harbor and hampered by a severe typhoon season,4 Hector managed to repair Houston by December 14, in addition to work on many other smaller vessels.

Houston next was towed to Manus Island for further repairs, and then headed back to New York Navy Yard in March 1945. Her permanent repairs were completed as the war drew to a close. Houston  remained in service until 1947, when she was decommissioned. In 1959, she was sold for scrap. 

The valiant USS Houston received 3 battle stars for her World War II service.

The resurrected Houston in January 1945, following emergency repairs by Hector

The cruiser, USS Birmingham, was another ship that came to Houston's aid after the attack. She acted as escort for the damaged ship and took on almost 200 crew members evacuated from Houston. Birmingham will again come to the aid of another critically damaged ship in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. However, tragically, on October 24th, Birmingham suffered extensive damage in the rescue attempt, and received 200 casualties among her crew.
Houston's War Diary for October 1944 is fascinating for its detail and description of the 14-day ordeal on the stricken ship.
On November 20, 1944, the Ulithi harbor was attacked by Japanese human torpedoes (kaitens) launched from 2 nearby submarines. The fleet oiler, Mississinewa, was struck and sunk. Guns were manned, and boats from Houston and Hector patrolled the water around these vessels. No contact was made, but sailors witnessed 2 underwater explosions in the atoll.
On November 5, Hector towed Houston to the southern part of the harbor near Pig Island for shallow water anchorage during the typhoon that hit from the 6th to the 8th. Wind and rough water caused additional damage to the ship. Houston remained there through the end of the month.

Sources: USS Houston War Diary, October-December 1944; USS Hector War Diary, October-December, 1944; USS Hector AR7- Ship’s Log (WWII)Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships; Naval Historical Center

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944

The naval Battle of Leyte Gulf, was fought from October 23-26 in 1944.1 Four major engagements took place in waters near the Philippine islands of Leyte, Samar, and Luzon between combined American and Australian forces of the Third and Seventh Fleets, and the Imperial Japanese Navy. It was the largest and most complex naval battle in history, and it ended as a massive American victory that effectively destroyed the fighting capability of the Japanese navy.

In late 1944, the Allies began a campaign to recapture the Philippines, lost to the Japanese in 1942. On October 20, ground forces commanded by Gen. Douglas MacArthur made a successful amphibious assault on the island of Leyte.

Expecting an invasion, Japan ordered its force naval force of 4 fleets to sea at the very first sign of Allied landings. One of these fleets, whose carriers' planes had almost entirely been destroyed in the "Marianas Turkey Shoot" of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, would serve as bait to lure the Third Fleet away from Leyte. The rest would approach from the west and destroy the U.S. landings at Leyte. Part of that force would move through the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait for its attack. The 2 other smaller fleets would move up from the south through the Surigao Strait.

In committing to this action the Japanese command was throwing into combat just about everything it had left of its navy and air force. It hoped to be victorious in a decisive battle against the United States Pacific Fleet as well as stopping MacArthur's army's advance at Leyte.

Two American fleets were stationed in the Pacific at that time: Admiral William Halsey's Third Fleet and the Seventh Fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid. Both shared significant roles in defeating the Japanese in the Naval Battle of Leyte Gulf. Kinkaid's 7th Fleet was assisting Gen. Douglas MacArthur's amphibious assault at Leyte by providing close support, while Halsey's Third Fleet provided cover further out to sea.

Battle of Leyte Gulf
Source: Wikimedia Commons
As the Japanese forces were converging into position southwest of Leyte, submarines of the U.S. Seventh Fleet discovered the first enemy attack force and sank 2 of its heavy cruisers in the Palawan Passage on October 23rd. A series of almost continuous surface and air clashes followed, especially in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea on the 24th. In those American air attacks, a Japanese battleship was sunk along with a cruiser. The light carrier USS Princeton was sunk and other American ships were damaged.

Meanwhile, Admiral Halsey had allowed his Third Fleet to be drawn away by the Japanese decoy force, leaving the San Bernardino Strait completely unguarded. This part of the Japanese plan seemed to be working.

On October 25th, 3 major engagements of the Battle of Leyte Gulf were fought almost simultaneously. At the Battle of Surigao Strait, battleships and cruisers from the Seventh Fleet destroyed one of the Japanese forces and compelled a second to withdraw. In the meantime, another attack force passed through the unguarded San Bernardino Strait and inflicted heavy damage on the Seventh Fleet escort carriers in the Battle off Samar. But, unexpectedly the enemy force withdrew just as it seemed ready to attack. In the Battle of Cape Engaño in the north, the Third Fleet sank 4 Japanese carriers, which had been acting as bait to lure the fleet away from Leyte Gulf. Except for some final air strikes on the retreating enemy on the 26th, the Battle of Leyte Gulf was over.

In the fighting the Japanese lost 4 aircraft carriers, 3 battleships, 8 cruisers, and 12 destroyers, as well as more than 10,000 killed. Allied losses were much lighter, about 1,500 killed in addition to the loss of 1 light aircraft carrier, 2 escort carriers, and 3 destroyers. Crippled by its losses, this was the last time the Imperial Japanese Navy would conduct large-scale operations.

The naval victory in the Battle of Leyte Gulf didn't immediately change the situation for the Allied ground forces. However, it did secure the beachhead on Leyte won by the invasion force on October 20th. It also contributed to the eventual liberation of the Philippines. And, Japan was soon cut off from its conquered territories in Southeast Asia, which greatly reduced the flow of supplies and resources it required to win the war.

During this action my dad, Frank Dolan, was at Ulithi with his repair ship USS Hector, tending to USS Houston, seriously damaged on October 14. During this part of the war, Hector supported Carrier Task Force 38, which was confronting the Japanese navy at Leyte on this date. Four months later, Hector will be stationed in San Pedro Bay in Leyte Gulf, repairing ships, while battles continue nearby.
When the Princeton was hit by a single 550-pound bomb the explosion quickly turned into a raging fire. Fire-fighting crews were not able to control the flames fast enough, and massive explosions ripped apart the flight deck. Other ships moved alongside to take on nonessential sailors from Princeton and to help pump water onto the ship. The light cruiser Birmingham was assisting alongside when Princeton's magazine exploded, sweeping Birmingham's deck. Hundreds of men were killed instantly or horribly wounded—over half of her crew. Because of its condition, Princeton had to be sunk. But, amazingly, the damaged Birmingham was still seaworthy. It carried the wounded to Ulithi where they and the ship were cared for.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf was Japan's first use of its Kamikaze Special Attack Force. During the battle, several modern day samurais piloted suicidal missions into American and Australian ships. The American escort carrier, USS St. Lo, was one of the ships sunk as a result of a kamikaze attack. To compensate for its losses, Japan will continue to use k
amikaze tactics, and by war's end the desperate empire will send over 2,500 suicide aircraft against American and Allied ships.

Sources: The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliot Morison; The Battle of Leyte Gulf, Thomas J. Cutter; Battles Lost and Won, Hanson W. Baldwin; USS Birmingham War Diary, October 1944; Encyclopedia Britannica

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gen. MacArthur keeps his vow | Battle of Leyte

After taking island by island across the Pacific Ocean in his inexorable campaign toward Japan, on this date in 1944, Gen. Douglas MacArthur stepped into the water and waded onto Red Beach at Leyte, fulfilling his 1942 vow, “I shall return.”

70 years ago today, Gen. MacArthur was finally able to keep his promise to return to liberate the Philippine people from whom he was forced to flee when his forces were defeated in May 1942. The landing on this date inaugurated the Philippines Campaign of 1944-1945. Of course, it was with a force of over 100,000 troops and 700 ships that made the invasion possible, the beginning of the end of Japanese occupation of the Philippines.

A famous photo was taken of Gen. MacArthur, members of his staff, and key Philippine figures upon his arrival on this date.* On the beach just won the general made a dramatic radio broadcast:
This is the voice of freedom, General MacArthur speaking. People of the Philippines: I have returned.
By the grace of the Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil—consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come, dedicated and committed to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring upon a foundation of indestructible strength, the liberties of your people. 
At my side is your President, Sergio Osmeña worthy successor of that great patriot Manuel Quezon, with members of his cabinet. The seat of your government is now therefore firmly re-established on Philippine soil. 
The hour of your redemption is here. Your patriots have demonstrated an unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom that challenges the best that is written on the pages of human history. I now call upon your supreme effort that the enemy may know from the temper of an aroused and outraged people within that he has a force there to contend with no less violent than is the force committed from without. 
Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on. As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike. Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearths, strike! strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike! Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of Divine God points the way. Follow in His Name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory.

The October 20, 1944 landing on Red Beach and Gen. MacArthur's
famously fulfilled vow,  is immortalized in this iconic photo.

Apparently, there is a little more history to this photo than it at first reveals. The original plan called for MacArthur to land at a dock, but none could be found that had survived the landing assault earlier that day. While still 50 yards off shore, the general's landing craft ran aground. The impatient MacArthur ordered the ramp to be lowered anyway. Then he stepped knee deep into the water and strode confidently toward the beach. His entourage was obliged to follow.

American troops battled for 67 days to subdue Leyte. The Japanese lost more than 55,000 soldiers during the 2 months of fighting and another 25,000 as the Americans completed their operations on the island in early 1945. By contrast the U.S. lost about 3,500 men.

On January 9, 1945, MacArthur's forces invaded the main Philippine island of Luzon. In February, his army cut off Japanese forces at Bataan, and captured Corregidor. In March, the Philippine capital of Manila was taken, and in June MacArthur announced his offensive operations on Luzon to be at an end. After entering Manila and being hailed by the surviving soldiers he left behind in March 1942, the general responded, "I'm a little late, but we finally came."

In 1981, a memorial was constructed to commemorate MacArthur's famous landing
on this spot and the liberation of the Philippines to follow. In November 2013, it was
seriously damaged in the devastating Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) but restored in time
for the 70th anniversary of the invasion.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

*Gen. MacArthur was transported by landing craft from his flagship, the USS Nashville, a cruiser that my dad, Frank Dolan, repaired during the first half of 1943, while stationed at Espiritu Santo on the repair ship USS Vestal.

Sources: Battles Lost and Won, Hanson W. Baldwin; The American ExperienceOlive-Drab

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Liberty on Mog Mog

Within a few days after the Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands was taken on September 20, 1944, advanced portions of the Navy's mobile service force, Service Squadron 10, began arriving to create an expansive anchorage for the fleet. My father's repair ship Hector, was one of the first ships of the squadron to arrive and begin initial work in the lagoon.

A few days later, a naval construction battalion of "Seabees" arrived to construct an airstrip on Falalop Island. The Seabees also went to work completing a number of uniquely designed pontoon piers, instantly increasing the harbor's function and capacity.

Within days, 6,000 ship fitters, artificers, weldors, carpenters, electricians, and other servicemen of Service Squadron 10 arrived aboard repair ships, destroyer tenders, and floating dry docks. Together they transformed Ulithi into the largest naval base in the world. It was an incredible feat.

Sailors arrive at Mog Mog Landing
In additional to other engineering and construction projects, crews also built a much-needed fleet recreation facility for Sailors and Marines who had been fighting and working nearly non-stop for months.

The tiny 60-acre island of Mog Mog was selected for the facility. It was at first an unsuitable area, swampy and mosquito- and insect-infested. But the swamp soon was cleared and filled in with coral, creating a spacious recreation area.

Construction began on this date in 1944. Several venues for sports, a bandstand, and beverage storage were provided. When completed in January 1945, the center could accommodate 8,000 men and 1,000 officers daily. A 1,200-seat theater, including a 25-by-40-foot stage with a Quonset hut roof was also created, along with a 500-seat chapel.

The intersection of "Hollywood and Vine,"
near the landing area at Mog Mog
Refreshment Stand on Mog Mog Island 
Beach Liberty

For several months in 1944-1945, Mog Mog would have been the only land that most sailors of the Pacific Fleet would have set foot on. As ships returned to Ulithi for replenishment, crewman were allowed a few hours ashore. Landing craft picked up the men from their ships anchored in the harbor, dropped them off for an afternoon ashore, then returned them to their vessels by early evening.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Battle off Formosa, 1944

The Battle off Formosa was a naval air battle that took place between October 10th and 20th, 1944, off the eastern coasts of Formosa, the Ryukyu Islands, and Luzon. Task Force 38 of the U.S. Third Fleet carried out the attacks to prevent Japanese aerial forces there from interfering in the planned landings at Leyte in the Philippines on October 20th.

The U.S. fleet launched carrier-based air attacks against Formosa (present-day Taiwan) on this date in 1944. The Japanese responded by sending waves of fighters and bombers against the attacking carrier fleet. On the 13th, the cruiser USS Canberra was seriously damaged by an aerial torpedo. For the first time in the war, the Japanese ordered suicide pilots into battle. One of these "kamikaze" strikes lightly damaged the carrier USS Franklin. The next day, the light cruiser USS Houston also was seriously damaged by an enemy torpedo.

Source: United States Army In World War II: The War In The Pacific
Overall, the battle was one-sided in favor of the Americans. The U.S. force dominated the air, and by the 14th, the aerial forces based on the island were all but neutralized. However, the Japanese initially misinter-preted the outcome. They mistook the American force attempting to withdraw dam-aged Canberra and Houston to safety as the fleeing remnants of the entire Third Fleet. So, with additional aircraft transferred from Japan to Formosa, the Japanese launched a new attack on the 15th. But the Americans successfully repelled it, inflicting heavy losses.

A final Japanese attack came on October 16th, but only 3 aircraft managed to get past the fighter screen. One of the enemy planes was able to launch a second torpedo into the Houston, but remarkably, the badly damaged cruiser remained afloat and, along with the Canberra, made a harrowing trip to reach safety at Ulithi.*

Other U.S. ships were damaged in the fighting. The carrier USS Hancock, the light cruiser USS Reno, and 2 destroyers also received damage. Eighty-nine aircraft also were lost. On the enemy's side, they lost around 500 aircraft and many ships, almost their entire air strength in the area.

Perhaps more importantly, Japan's ability now was seriously weakened for defending the Okinawa Islands in the upcoming campaign to take them. And, the Battle off Formosa also had a major impact on the course of the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944). The loss of enemy aircraft meant that the Japanese carriers had no air groups and could only be used as decoys. Therefore, the rest of the Japanese fleet lacked air cover, making it much easier for the Americans to find and attack it.

USS Langley leads a very impressive force returning to Ulithi in
December 1944, from strikes on targets in the Philippines.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison waxed prosaic in his description of the mighty and majestic fleet in 1944:
The modern age has afforded no marine spectacle comparable to a meeting of these big warships, which have become as beautiful to the modern seaman's eye as a ship of the line to his bell-bottomed forbears. The great flattops, constantly launching and recovering aircraft; the new battleships with their graceful sheer, tossing spray and leaving a boiling wake; the cruisers bristling with antiaircraft guns; the destroyers darting, thrusting and questing for lurking submarines, all riding crested seas of deepest ultramarine; the massy tradewind clouds casting purpleall together composed a picture of mighty naval power. It corresponded to a fleet of ships of the line with their attendant frigates and sloops majestically sailing cross the Caribbean in the eighteenth century.

*Houston's War Diary for October 1944 provides a fascinating account of the 14-day ordeal on the stricken ship. At Ulithi on October 27th, my dad's repair ship, USS Hector, received the damaged Houston alongside for repairs. Crews completed the work by December 14ththis in spite of a typhoon and suicide submarine attacks.

Sources: The Two-Ocean War, Samuel Eliiot Morison

Friday, October 10, 2014

Ship repairs after the October storm, 1944

One of the early projects that the USS Hector tackled at Ulithi was the salvaging of the Landing Craft Tank, LCT-1052. My dad, Frank Dolan, who was a weldor and certified diver on Hector, likely would have participated in recovering and restoring this vessel, which work was begun on this date in 1944.

The lagoon at Ulithi Atoll provided a natural harbor, which was soon to become home to over 600 ships. The northern and southern ends of the lagoon offered the smoothest water for anchorage. However, the lagoon had a serious drawback: It could not provide adequate shelter in stormy weather. The 40 islands surrounding it were barely above sea level, and they offered only slight protection from high winds.

USS LCT-1290, sister ship to LST-1052, beached at Ulithi
in 1944, and repaired by Hector
October was the middle of typhoon season in this part of the Pacific. On the morning of Tuesday, October 3, 1944, word came of an impending typhoon passing about 150 miles north of Ulithi. That evening Ulithi's lagoon was hit by 8-12 foot waves, which were enough to drown the engines of the LCT-1052, causing her to drift and then to sink. Her 14 crew members were rescued, but tragically her commanding officer was lost. Another LCT (LCT-1290) and several LCMs (Landing Craft Mechanized) were also damaged by the storm.*

A week later on today's date in 1944, Hector went to work salvaging the LCT-1052. Hector's diving squad patched leaks, sealed tanks, and by using compressed air was able to float the vessel enough to be towed. By attaching Hector's anchor chain to the LCT's stern, she was able to raise the LCT to a point where, with assistance from the USS Enoree, it was brought alongside and hoisted clear of the water. Hector's crews then went to work making the LCT-1052 watertight. Finally, they repaired and replaced all equipment, putting the vessel back into operation by December 7.

The bow of USS LCT-1052, victim of a typhoon near Ulithi, October 3, 1944,
recovered by USS Hector and returned to operation in December.

Of course, this extensive repair job was just one of many for Hector during October. The largest, by far, was the work done on the battle damaged cruiser, USS Houston, which was started on the 27th.

*According to Hector's War Diary for October, "Salvaged LCTs 1052, 1290 and several LCMs which had been stranded in recent storm.”

Sources: USS Hector AR7- Ship’s Log (WWII); USS Hector War Diary, October 1944; USS Aldebaran War Diary, October 1944

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Avoiding the censors at Ulithi

There was a lot of secrecy surrounding the U.S. Navy's forward operating base at Ulithi in the Western Carolines, and for good reason. By October 1944, it will grow into the hub for U.S. Navy operations in the Western Pacific, including key combat operations at Leyte and Okinawa. It will maintain that role for 8 months until the liberated Philippines replaces it as the new forward staging area. At its peak, during the staging for the invasion of Okinawa in May 1945, Ulithi will be home to 722 American and Allied ships.

In order to avoid betraying a ship's destination at Ulithi and other advanced bases by her mail cargo, numbers were assigned by Navy and Marine Corps. Mail going to Ulithi was designated "Navy 3011." And, for added security, return mail home was heavily censored.

Frank Dolan, Ulithi 1944
My dad, Frank Dolan, assigned to the USS Hector, always tried to write his family back home about where he was stationed and what he was up to. But the heightened secrecy about Ulithi meant that letters had to be cleverly written to avoid the censor's cut. When Dad wrote to his sister, Flora, he used a prearranged code. They had agreed that he would disguise his location in the second paragraph of his letters. He buried the name "Ulithi" in the first letter of each of the first 6 syllables: “Un-less I tell her I’m OK Mom will worry about me.” The message got through, although apparently in 1944, it was nearly impossible for the family in California to find a world map that included the location of the tiny atoll.

Source: Frank L. Dolan's personal remembrances