Thursday, November 4, 2010

sea stories II

This is another story from my father's career at sea.

My dad took me aside on the night before my first trip to sea, and warned me not to drink too much when I went ashore. He didn't want to see me make the same mistakes he did, like when he and his friends got drunk and tried to steal the yacht belonging to the richest man in the world.

My dad had done his four years in the Navy, and had gotten out- being an orphan, without family, he turned towards the only organization that had ever taken an interest in his well-being. He became a novice Franciscan monk at a monastery in the Mojave desert.
Luckily (for me), a little over a year later, the Korean war broke out, and my dad got itchy feet. He rejoined, and was immediately assigned to a shitbox WWII destroyer in convoy duty off of Korea.
The ship was a bad-luck ship. On her first port-of-call after the start of the cruise, the ship was hit by a tsunami. A standing wave caught the ship unprepared, and washed several dozen men over the side. My dad was outside having a smoke after lunch. He suffered nothing more than some road rash after having been washed half the length of the ship and getting tangled in the rails. He was lucky, compared to the guys with broken arms, noses or legs, bobbing around in the water. On the way out of port, the ship collided with a tanker, ending the career of the captain.
Eventually, repaired and re-officered, the ship left to join the fleet. An interminable period followed, where the ship was periodically dispatched to escort other ships, and occasionally would join in a battle group and run close to shore while the heavy cruisers and a battleship would engage in shore bombardments. My dad took part in a couple of shore assaults, where his destroyer's shallow draft would allow them to get close to a beach and discourage any resistance.

One such shore assault ended very badly for my dad's ship. Unbeknownst to anyone on our side, the Koreans had installed a shore battery on the plateau of a mountain overlooking the beach that the Marines were taking. The jungle very effectively provided cover for a large number of gun emplacements An shell can wreak havoc on small ships, and the battle group scattered, as they couldn't spot the guns effectively with their own, and couldn't sight the batteries from the ocean.
My dad's ship was pinned on the beach. They were the only ship in the shallows, and also the only one that was under the minimum elevation of the battery. The shells sent their way overshot the ship by about 100 yards. The destroyer was being peppered with small arms and machine-gun fire from the jungle, and the ship returned fire at a constant rate.
An aircraft carrier was part of the battle group out to sea. The mountaintop was well-defended with an AA battery as well, but the planes were able to discern the scope of the gun battery.
About 3 hours after the shore assault was called off on account of having brought knives to a gunfight, my dad's ship was a miserable place to live. The sound of small rounds plinking and denting the ship (and penetrating, up on the bridge and a few other key locales) had everyone aware that they were coming in second place. While all this was going on, however, the fleet's largest battleship (USS Massachusetts, I believe) got into position, 12 miles offshore, and a plan was formed for a response. Rather than shoot at the battery and hope for the best, it was decided to take the top off the mountain and remodel the whole plateau with a general bombardment.
If you're a naval buff like me, you'd know that the 16-inch battleship shell was referred to as a "Cadillac" by the gun crews, as a single shell weighed in at over a ton. According to Wikipedia, a single shell can create a crater 50-feet in diameter and 20-feet deep.
Anyhow, it would take almost a full minute for the shells to land after being fired. My dad was in the engine room for the most part. He had to run and do a few electrical repairs and run-arounds, as part of damage-control. He had to subsist on a blow-by-blow report passed to his station, for the most part.
In the end, the shelling started with a single shot that was well-sighted, and passed over my dad's ship- "like a low whisper" as he was told. After that, a full broadside was presented "like a pretty girl had walked through a crowd of teenagers." A few minutes later, the shelling stopped. The mountain was obscured by the dist cloud.
Not much remained of the shore battery. The Marines were reinforced, and the area secured. The ship left the next morning for a refit.

The days of shore bombardments are over. The battleship era is passed into history. The shore assault, too, for the most part, although somehow the Marines keep getting new aircraft-carrier-sized assault ships built. My dad was part of the last generation to ever storm a beach as a regular naval operational tactic. I suppose that, given time, this practice will be as difficult to imagine as a bayonet charge, or a line of battle.

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