Copyright © Frank O. Dodge. All rights reserved
I'll keep it short, but there are a couple of things you have to
know about me if you are to make any sense out of what follows. Just
bear with me, okay?
We declared war on December 8, 1941 and I was sworn into the Navy on January 12, a month and four days later. For the first two years the government let the Germans have a crack at me, then transferred me to the Amphibious Force and shipped me out to the South Pacific for the last fourteen months of the war. Aboard an LSM . . . a medium sized landing ship, smaller than the LST . . . I made five combat landings against Japanese-held islands.
I was discharged in 1946 and reenlisted in 1951 during the Korean war. I was again assigned to the Amphibs, and posted to an APA, an attack troop transport. The . . . I'll call her the 'USS Muletrain' . . . had seen heavy duty in South Pac during WWII.
At Okinawa she had taken a kamikaze directly on the bridge, killing the captain and all bridge personnel. The Exec, Commander Hawkins, had continued to fight the ship from Secondary Conn in the steering-engine room aft.
The old Muletrain made it back Stateside where she was repaired, but by this time the war was over, and the old girl was put in mothballs. The 'Police Action' in Korea broke out, and she was recommissioned. When Commander Hawkins, now Captain Hawkins, heard she was back in service, he requested her command.
On shipping over I had been returned to my WWII rate of Boatswain's Mate First Class. On my first visit to the bridge I was shown the brass plaque on the starboard wing that gave the date of the kamikaze attack and listed the names of those officers and men who had been killed.
The Muletrain was ordered to join an element of the Seventh Amphibious Fleet operating off Korea, and we had left San Diego for Korea via Okinawa. A day out of Oakie we were steaming west by north. It was the morning watch . . . four to eight AM. The wheelhouse was dark except for the light over the chart table and the glow from the binacle reflecting on the helmsman's face. There was the low murmur of voices as the watch changed. I checked the stations: forward and after lookouts, telephone talker, helmsman, engine-order telegraph operator, quartermaster, messenger, bridge lookouts, and reported to the Officer of the Deck that the watch had been properly relieved.
A short time later I noticed the starboard lookout talking to another sailor. This being a no-no, I went out onto the wing of the bridge. As I stepped from the wheelhouse the sailor went to the head of the ladder and descended to the O-2 deck. I approached the lookout. "You're on watch, Keene. You know better than to be batting the breeze with your buddies. Who was that?"
Keene gave me a strange look. "I don't know, Boats. I just turned around and there he was . . . Boats . . . ?" He hesitated. "He said something really nuts . . . ."
Keene shifted uncomfortably. "He said to keep a good lookout to the starboard quarter for Jap planes. They'll come out of the sun at first light, he said."
"That's what he said. Jap planes."
I felt a little shiver. "That war is over."
"This guy didn't seem to think so."
I didn't quite know what to say. "Well, whatever. Look sharp."
I returned to the wheel house. If you thought I was going to
report that crazy conversation to the O.D., think again. But I kept
checking the starboard wing and looking off to the quarter. And every
time I went out there I saw that brass plaque. That little shiver I'd
felt refused to go away.
Sunrise that morning was at 0516 hours according to the quartermaster, and the closer it got to 0516 the more I kept looking aft.
The sky was lightening in the east when the voice tube whistled.
The O.D. answered, "Bridge, aye."
"Bridge, radar. Sir, I'm getting a whole hell of a lot of bogies."
"Bearing? Range? Altitude?"
"Bearing one one zero. Range twenty-five thousand yards. Altitude six thousand feet."
"Very well. Keep me informed."
"Aye, aye, sir."
I shifted from one foot to the other. I knew I would be a candidate for a section eight if I said what I had to say. I went to the Officer of the Deck. "Sir, I think you should notify the Captain."
He looked at me. "Why, Boats? They can't be Korean this far out."
I took a deep breath and plunged. "Sir, they're not Korean . . . . They're Japanese."
"What?" He gave me the look I thought he would. I could see what he was thinking . . . . This guy's flipped. He thinks it's still WWII.
"Sir, believe me I know you think I'm crazy, but . . . ." I told him of the conversation with Keene. "Lieutenant, I'm new aboard, but Keene isn't, and he never saw that guy before."
Mr. Haney looked at me for a moment. "Talker," he said, "tell the starboard lookout to come in here."
Keene repeated what the strange sailor had said. I interrupted. "Sir, the guy said sun-up, starboard quarter, lots of planes . . . . Sir . . . ."
The voice tube squeaked again. "Bridge, radar."
Mr. Haney turned quickly. "Bridge, aye."
"Sir, the scope is full of bogies. No answer to my IFF." (Identification, Friend or Foe).
"Eighteen thousand yards and closing." (Nine nautical miles).
The lieutenant looked at me. "It's crazy."
"Messenger, notify the Captain, and ask him to come to the bridge."
The messenger went to the Old Man's sea-cabin just off the bridge, and a moment later Captain Hawkins entered the wheelhouse. "What's up, Mr. Haney?"
"Sir, something very strange is going on. Boats, tell the Captain what you told me."
The old man listened to me and Keene and turned to the voice tube. "Radar, this is the Captain. What have you got?"
"Captain, the scope is crawling with blips. No IFF."
The skipper looked at me. "Sound General Quarters."
"Aye, aye, Sir." I hit the PA and piped 'all hands'. "Now hear this. Now hear this. General Quarters. General Quarters. All hands, man your battle stations. Set Condition Alpha throughout the ship." I tripped the GQ alarm and the 'bong-bong-bong' shook the men out of their racks. I repeated the word and put on my lifejacket and helmet. There was a trample of feet as the General Quarters personnel relieved the watch. The GQ bosn's mate arrived, but the Captain motioned for me to stay. "What's your battle station, Boats?"
"Mount forty-two, Sir."
He turned to the other BM. "Man that station. I want this man up here."
"Aye, aye Captain."
For the next few minutes orderly bedlam prevailed. "Mount twenty-four manned and ready." "Very well." Mount forty-one manned and ready . . . ."
Number One fire room manned and ready . . . . Combat Information Center manned and ready . . . . Very well. Very well . . . . Damage Control . . . Fire rooms, engine rooms . . . . Secondary Conn manned and ready . . . . Very well . . . Very well . . .
The GQ Officer of the Deck reported, "Captain, all departments report manned and ready."
"Very well, Mr. Lawson."
The Old Man blew into the speaking tube. "CIC, this is the Captain. Report."
The radarman's voice bordered on hysteria. "Captain, the scope just went crazy . . . it's showing ships all around us! What's happening, Skipper?"
"Calm down, son. We see them. Concentrate on air defense."
"Aye, aye, Sir."
I was looking out a porthole at the sea around us that had suddenly filled with combat vessels of all kinds. Other transports, combat cargo ships . . . an aircraft carrier . . . destroyers, cruisers . . . LST's, LSM's . . . a whole task force!
The air defense officer answered his phone, "Air Defense, aye," He turned to the Old Man. "Mount forty-six reports heavy concentration of bogies coming in at one one zero. Elevation one zero. Range three thousand, Captain."
"Very well." The Captain stepped out onto the starboard wing and put his binoculars to his eyes. "Bosn's Mate . . . . What's your name, son?"
He handed me his glass. I focused on the incoming aircraft. Fixed landing gear. "Zeros!"
The Captain took his binoculars. "Yes." He looked at me. "I don't know what the hell is going on, but I fought this engagement once already."
We watched as the sky blossomed hundreds of black and grey flowers of ack-ack, and tons of tracer bullets spewed skyward. I'd seen it before in the Mediterranean and Philippines. It looked like not even a mouse could penetrate that wall of what looked like solid flak, but I knew those planes would come in like it wasn't even there.
As the skipper and I stepped back into the wheelhouse that damned brass plaque hit my eye like a fist. The first of the kamikazes roared overhead. His target was the cargo vessel on our port beam. He struck, and flames and debris erupted on the AKA's foredeck. Our twenties and forties were chattering, and the three and five inchers were blasting. Mount forty-one, the forty millimeter quad mount on the starboard bow homed in on a diving plane. It was close enough to see the pilot's goggled face before the 40mm shells tore into him and he exploded, scattering wreckage over our decks.
The Captain barked, "Casualty report!"
"One wounded in mount twenty-one, one in mount forty-four, Sir."
"Medic reports slight, Sir."
The Captain took a deep breath. "Very well. Structural damage?"
"Damage Control reports nothing serious, Sir."
The pounding of the guns continued as a dozen Zeros dipped and darted about us. We brought down four more, and the combined tons of steel and explosives the task force threw up seemed to be driving them off.
Neither the Captain nor I, nor any man on the bridge, could forget that brass plaque on the starboard wing. We all eyed each other and wondered which of the flitting planes would be the one.
One came zooming in from the port beam. He dipped and swerved, seeming to pass between the exploding ack-ack shells and the wall of tracers with a charmed life. "That's got to be the one," the Captain said calmly. "Not this time you don't, you son-of-a-bitch! Hard left rudder! Port engine back full, starboard ahead flank."
The helmsman spun the wheel, and the engine-order telegraph clanged.
"The rudder is hard left, Sir."
"Engine room answers starboard ahead flank, port back full, Sir."
The ship shuddered violently as the screws raced in opposite directions. She heeled sharply to starboard as her head swung swiftly to port. The diving kamakazi, taken aback, plunged into the water a scant few yards from our port side and exloded, showering the bridge with tons of water and flying shrapnel.
The Old Man braced himself. "Rudder amidships. All stop."
"Rudder is amidships, Sir."
"Engine room answers all stop, Sir."
"Very well. All ahead two-thirds. Steady on course three zero zero."
"Engine room answers all ahead two-thirds, Sir."
"Steady on course three zero zero, Sir."
For a moment it seemed that the wheelhouse was crowded with twice the personnel necessary, then the ungodly sounds of battle ceased abruptly. We looked out the portholes at the empty sea.
I looked at the Captain and he looked at me. As one man we stepped out onto the starboard wing of the bridge. The brass plaque was gone.
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