American Merchant Marine Ships in Action in the Pacific During World War II

Odlin - Maritime 62

PR 2404 (W)


For Sunday Papers
October 14, 1945

Recovery of the Philippines, capture of other Pacific islands and final triumph over Japan involved heavy cost to the American Merchant Marine in ships and men that carried troops and fighting supplies to our armed forces, reports of the War Shipping Administration showed today.

A total off 44 merchant vessels were sunk in the Pacific, most of them Liberty ships of the fleet that carried millions of tons of military cargo during the global war. A majority were sunk by Japanese suicide pilots but ordinary bombing, shellfire and, torpedo attack also took a heavy toll. The Japs also sank American freighters in the Indian Ocean. There were also German attacks there.

Scores of other American merchantmen were extensively damaged by enemy attack but sailed on and landed their vital cargoes. Others had to be beached but their cargoes were salvaged while still others returned to the United States under their own power or were towed back for repair.

Of the contribution made to victory in the Pacific by the merchant fleet and its men General MacArthur had this to say:

“They have brought us our lifeblood and they have paid for it with some of their own. I saw them bombed off the Philippines and in New Guinea ports. When it was humanly possible, when their ships were not blown out from under them by bombs or torpedoes; they have delivered their cargoes to us who need them so badly. In war it is performance that counts.”

More effective protection afforded the freighters by their own guns and naval units as the push toward Tokyo expanded resulted in not one Merchant Marine vessel being sunk between VE-Day end Japan’s surrender. Many were attacked and damaged but all these managed to remain afloat and able to deliver their cargoes of troops and supplies although there were heavy casualties in some instances.

The encounters of our merchant ships with the enemy were not only many but varied and more than once they were victors as Navy armed guards assisted by merchant seamen shot down attacking planes or caused Jap submarines to flee. All reports of these vessels’ adventures in the Pacific are not yet available but typical are these:

The most expensive Pacific operation for the men of the U. S. Merchant Marine was the invasion of the small Philippine island of Mindoro. More merchant seamen lost their lives during this operation than did members of the Army or Navy who participated in the action.

Two Liberty ships were blown up by enemy attack off Mindoro with the loss of all on board. Sixty-eight merchant seamen were killed on the SS John Burke while 71 died on the Lewis L. Dyche. Both disasters occurred during the Mindoro operation.

A sharply contrasting picture is presented in reports on the sinking of the Liberty ship James H. Breasted. She weathered two bomber attacks on the convoy of which she was a part before she went down but she managed to land 600 troops on Mindoro before sinking. And so efficient were the Merchant Marine and Navy rescue operations not one of the seamen aboard was lost.

Before the sinking actually occurred, a Jap task force steamed into Mindoro under cover of darkness and, after illuminating the U. S. merchantman with flares, shelled her, shrapnel inflicting heavy damage on the ship’s superstructure. Under cover of the naval bombardment, the Japs landed paratroops on Mindoro and these subjected the vessel to concentrated strafing. With all guns firing both towards shore and sea, the James H. Breasted was finally bombed and sunk by Japanese planes.

After weathering air and surface fleet attacks on the convoy of which she was a part, the Liberty ship Hobart Baker, carrying steel landing nets to the Philippines was sunk by an aerial bomb off Mindoro. The vessel was abandoned with the loss of only one member of the crew.

Despite repeated Jap air attacks the Francisco Morazan succeeded in landing 10,000 tons of critically needed ammunition for American forces on Mindoro and returned to the United States for overhaul. Several attacking planes were shot down.

Although her mid ship section and superstructure were devastated by a Jap bombing attack en route to Mindoro, the William Sharon remained afloat and was brought to the United States for repair. Six members of the merchant crew were killed as were five members of the Navy armed guard and an Army security officer. Ten men were wounded.

During action off of Mindoro, the Liberty ship Juan de Fuca was shelled by the invading Jap naval task force, hit by a suicide plane, received a near miss from a bomb, was repeatedly strafed by enemy Zeros and finally mortally wounded by a Nipponese torpedo plane, whereupon she was beached by her skipper, Captain Charles Robbins of San Francisco, who later received the Merchant Marine DSM [Distinguished Service Medal] for his cool thinking under intense fire and his voluntary work in successfully salvaging the John M. Clayton. About this time John M. Clayton was struck by a torpedo, hit by a bomb, which ignited her cargo and destroyed half her superstructure, and beached. Captains and crews of both merchant ships received official commendation from General Douglas MacArthur, Lt. General Robert L. Eichelberger and Brigadier General W. C. Dunkel, who was in direct command of the Mindoro operation.

It was while the Mindoro campaign was at its hottest that General MacArthur issued his unprecedented command ordering merchant seamen off of ships anchored in the Mindoro area and into shore foxholes during the night for their own protection. It is a matter of record in WSA files that most of the mariners chose to stay with their vessels as long as the ships were afloat in spite of this order under the guise of “volunteer skeleton crews.” Commenting on the part the Merchant Marine played in the invasion of Mindoro, General MacArthur later said

“I have ordered them off their ships and into foxholes when their ships became untenable targets of attack. At our side they have suffered in bloodshed and in death. The high caliber of efficiency and the courage they displayed mark their conduct throughout the entire campaign in the Southwest Pacific area. I hold no branch in higher esteem than the Merchant Marine services.”

Another outstanding tragedy was the torpedoing in the Indian Ocean of the Liberty ship Jean Nicolet by a Japanese submarine. Only 25 out of a ship’s company of 100 merchant seamen, Navy gunners and Army and civilian passengers survived. Many of the Americans who had been taken prisoner when their lifeboats were shelled were brutally beaten on the deck of the submarine before it submerged without warning and they were drowned.

Other atrocities committed against American mariners by Japanese submarine crews include the sinking of the Richard Hovey, torpedoed in the Arabian Sea, which had her lifeboats full of helpless seamen who were strafed and rammed by the enemy sub with resultant lose of life while laughing Nipponese sailors took moving pictures of the incidents. Survivors spent 16 days before rescue.

Wounded and dead seamen were the outcome of the torpedoing off the Henry Knox, for, although all seamen got away safely, the Jap submarine surfaced, took most of the lifeboat provisions and broke the oars and one valuable container of water with axes. In the next 16 days before the drifting seamen were picked up, some of them died because of lack of water or food.

Lifeboats were shelled, run down and smashed and survivors were machinegunned as they struggled in the water by a Jap submarine which torpedoed the John A. Johnson between San Francisco and Pearl Harbor, one of the few attacks the enemy was able to make in the eastern Pacific. Several merchant seamen were killed or wounded in this instance of Jap cruelty.

In numerous instances the Japs paid dearly for their attacks on merchant vessels. Typical of this was the case of the Antoine Saugrain. Merchant seamen of the Liberty ship who manned her guns when nearly all members of the Navy armed guard were wounded during the attack of 35 Jap dive bombers shot down seven of them before an aerial torpedo sent the merchantman down in Leyte Harbor.

The WSA C-2 vessel Cape Greig was the first water craft of any kind to enter the Lae area before Australian soldiers had actually succeeded in conquering this Japanese New Guinea bastion. The merchant vessel was dispatched on a special and unescorted mission to supply the Allied troops with food and munitions of which their supply was almost exhausted.

To reach the Australian soldiers who were fighting inland, the Cape Greig had to navigate an uncharted, twisting river, sufficiently deep but so narrow the jungle brushed and over-hung both sides of the ship. This helped the freighter resist Jap mortar and snipers’ fire and plane attacks but one bomb blew a hole in the vessel’s stern.

The Cape Greig managed to reach her objective and, after the merchant crew turned to aid the Aussies unloading the vital cargo in three days, the ship, still under constant bombardment backed down the river. Once safe outside she was rewarded with a Jap flag the Aussies tore down at Lae and a letter of commendation from General Sir Thomas Blamey, commander of Australian ground forces.

The David Dudley Field was the first merchant ship to reach the Philippines when recapture of the islands began last October. She sailed the last 75 miles to Leyte unescorted and was the closest ship to the beach during the landings.

This Liberty ship’s guns shot down five Jap planes and damaged three more during the operation. A suicide plane bagged by the freighter’s guns crashed into the vessel’s flying bridge with some resulting casualties. Later, off Luzon, the ship was crash dived by another kamikaze.

Soon after the landings on Leyte the Augustus Thomas, carrying 3,000 tons of ammunition and 1,000 barrels of high octane gasoline, downed an attacking Jap plane. As the bomber crashed one of its bombs fell over the side of the Liberty ship and blew a hole in the hull which flooded the engine room and put most of the gear out of commission, necessitating beaching of the vessel.

Nearby was another Liberty ship, the Benjamin Ide Wheeler, which came alongside and piped aboard steam that made possible the unloading of the Augustus Thomas’ vital but perilous cargo. When this was accomplished the damaged freighter was abandoned and turned over to the Army for repair.

Later a suicide pilot drove his bomber through the side of the Benjamin Ide Wheeler, after dropping one bomb into the freighter’s No. 5 hatch. The plane itself crashed into the merchantman’s lower hold in which there were 400 drums of gasoline which was set ablaze but the ship was saved.

Some American merchant ships menaced with sinking as the result of Jap attack were saved by unusual and ingenious procedure. An anti-personnel bomb exploded off the port side of the Cape Romano when that vessel was anchored off the Philippines. Shrapnel pierced the ship’s hull and she started shipping water. Crewmen plugged the holes with wood and the freighter was saved. Three Jap planes were shot down by the vessel’s gunners, too.

“Skipper”, a Boston terrier and mascot of the Alcoa Pioneer played a part toward saving that freighter from destruction. When bombs fell on the vessel the resulting explosion, in addition to killing several of the ship’s company, knocked the vessel’s captain unconscious. Wounded himself by shrapnel, “Skipper” licked. his master’s forehead until he regained consciousness and was able to direct operations that prevented sinking.

The Liberty ship William Williams entered Suva harbor in the Fijis with her after gun deck awash and her bow sticking out of the water at a 30 degree angle as the result of a Jap torpedo. Her crew, performing what WSA officials at Suva termed “a miracle of salvage,” had succeeded in repairing water and electric light lines under water in the engine room, jury rigging a rudder and, by manning the pumps 24 hours a day, brought the stricken vessel 500 miles into Suva under her own power. The crew later volunteered to continue salvage operations, pumped the vessel out and accompanied her over 2,000 miles to Auckland where they continued to aid in the repair work. The damaged merchantman was then able to sail again.

The Liberty ship Nathaniel Currier was known as “the baby battleship” to the Marines of Guadalcanal. During the Japs’ last big air attack on the island this vessel shot down three enemy aircraft and received credit for five more “probables.” The vessel weighed anchor the next day and was the only vessel in the convoy of three ships to survive a sub attack which took place just out of sight of Guadalcanal.

Other ships were damaged and sunk by the enemy in Admiral Halsey’s Solomon Islands campaign. Typical is the case of the H. M. Storey, which, after frequent narrow escapes from the Japanese, was torpedoed en route home from the South PacifIc with loss of life among the merchant crew. An outstanding case in the theater was that of the John H. Couch which received a direct hit from an enemy bomb and was miraculously beached near Guadalcanal while flaming almost from stem to stern; because the crew stuck with the vessel and isolated turbulent fires in various parts of the ship, with the aid of fire hoses, salvage operations were later possible.

Six men aboard the SS Admiral Halstead received the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for defending their ship against hundreds of Japanese planes during the enemy’s attack on Port Darwin, Australia, which began on February 19, 1942. All except the six men mentioned above were ashore during the Jap raid which was to neutralize the port and were evacuated inland with the rest of the civil populace.

The Admiral Halstead, only ship of twelve in the harbor to survive the attack, daily fought off swarms of Japanese planes with two machine guns and by means of evasion taken in the stream, while at night she sneaked close inshore and floated badly needed drums of gasoline in on the tide to waiting Australian soldiers.

In six days she had completed the discharge of her vital cargo and fled down the coast of Australia to safety, surviving to participate in more Southwest Pacific campaigns than any other merchant ship. Hers is the only case on record in War Shipping Administration files where the entire battle complement of a vessel received the Merchant Marine DSM.

Early wartime Pacific maritime history was also made by the Coast Farmer, an American merchantman, which became the last vessel of any kind to make a successful run in and out of Corregidor. Carrying supplies for the embattled American doughboys on “the Rock”, this vessel successfully ran the Jap blockade of the Philippines three times, although she was bombed on the way in, while she unloaded at the dock and on the way out during each trip. Unfortunately the Coast Farmer, after successfully completing her last hazardous trip, was sent to the bottom a few miles from Sydney, Australia by a Jap torpedo about two months later.

The sailing days of some attacked merchantmen were ended as the result of damage inflicted by enemy attack but they were kept afloat and converted to other war service. An instance was the Gus W. Darnell. This Liberty ship was put out of commission by an aerial torpedo but she did not sink and became a floating storage for Army supplies in the Philippines.

The Otis Skinner survived the crash of a suicide plane that tore a hole in her hull 35 by 15 feet. Inside the Liberty ship the plane’s fuselage continued its course and exploded after going through the second deck. In spite of the blast there were no crew casualties and the freighter was able to return to the United States for repair.

Some merchant ships which survived German attacks in the European war theater also weathered bombing while on their new service in the Pacific. Notable among these was the Morrison P. Waite, which successfully resisted Jap air attack in the Leyte area. Her encounter with the Germans occurred off the Anzio beachhead, Italy.

Three of seven raiding Jap planes were shot down by the Liberty ship’s guns and two more were listed as “probables.” Twenty of the seven hundred soldiers aboard were killed and 40 wounded. Fires were started aboard the freighter but crewmen finally extinguished flames that heated the ship’s magazine and threatened filled gasoline tanks of Army trucks in the cargo.

Some encounters of other American merchant ships with the Japs include the following:

The exploding bombs of a Japanese plane started fires aboard the Liberty ship William S. Ladd that ended in the foundering of the freighter in Leyte Gulf. Six merchant seamen had to be hospitalized for wounds. The plane was shot down by the Navy armed guard.

The gunners of the Edward N. Westcott blew an attacking kamikaze plane to bits off Luzon but flying debris inflicted substantial damage on the Liberty ship and wounded six merchant seamen and seven Navy gunners.

The guns of the Liberty ship Gilbert Stuart shot the tail assembly from a suicide plane that attached off Leyte but the remainder of the aircraft crashed the vessel’s funnel and gun tub on the flying bridge, killing four and wounding nine crewmen. Incendiary bombs that failed to explode were tossed overboard by seamen who fought fire amidships for hours saving the freighter.

Seven merchant seamen were killed and the same number wounded when the Liberty ship Mary A. Livermore was successfully attacked and damaged by a kamikaze plane off Okinawa, also an expensive base for the Merchant Marine.

Owing to quick action by her crew in putting out fires resulting from ammunition ignited by a Jap kamikaze plane off Okinawa, only four seamen were killed on the Hobbs Victory, although many more were wounded and the ship eventually was lost. However, another ship, the Logan Victory, was sunk and had 11 deaths from an enemy suicide plane which struck during the same attack (April 6, 1945). Both the Hobbs Victory and the Logan Victory fought off enemy planes for three hours before the Japs got home to them.

Another Victory ship, the Canada Victory, went to the bottom from an aerial torpedo during the campaign. She was an ammunition ship and only the quick action of the master in getting lifeboats away from his burning, exploding craft in record time kept crew casualties at a minimum. During the same day (May 28, 1945) the Brown Victory was crashdived by a suicide plane, but her crew also kept the casualties down by putting out the fire caused by the flaming plane and its exploding bomb load.

Sometimes attacking Jap planes off of Okinawa found merchant ships to be expensive targets. The United Victory, which had formerly had her hull and midship house pierced by shells in fighting off a Japanese gunboat during the Peleliu invasion, shot down three enemy bombers.

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