Last Vet Standing: Lucky LSM 13 (Part 2_ - West Virginia Strong

Last Vet Standing: Lucky LSM 13 (Part 2)

If you haven't read Part One of Bil Lepp's "Last Vet Standing" interview with WWII Navy Veteran Glen Wise, click here. Part Two picks up where Part One left off, with Wise's LSM (Landing Ship Medium) carrying the 37th Infantry Artillery onto Purple Beach II, at Okinawa.

We were part of a simultaneous landing, with infantry and tanks.  The first run in was always nip and tuck but the Navy had prepared the island for invasion.  A few days before the landing aircraft bombed and strafed the beaches, then battleships and cruisers would bombard the island from about 5:00 in the morning until kick off.  They just blasted the dickens out of everything there was. There were craters all over the place, they shot up the caves, everything. It must have been pretty unendurable for the Japs, being shot at all night and then attacked.

The order in which we went in depended on the specific situation.  Sometimes the tanks went in first, then the troops. Once a beachhead was establish then more and more troops were brought in.  Obviously, the initial troops on any landing had it rough. First they had to get on the beach, then establish a foothold, then secure enough area for more troops to follow.  Only later would we carry the heavy artillery in since there was nothing to do with it until a beachhead was established. It wasn't appropriate to take all that artillery in the first day, I mean there was just nothing it would be useful for.

You see, we just dropped the materials and guys off on the beach and then tried to get out as fast as we could. We'd unload, put the boat in reverse and back out.  We'd pull back several miles off the beach, out to sea, out of range of the mortar shells, and wait to take something else in. We hauled everything in, supplies, carpentry stuff, we could carry three heavy artillery pieces and their trailers, plus ammo.  There was always quite a bit of stuff up there on the deck. We hauled stuff in for about the next thirty days. We sat offshore and watched that terrible, fierce battle for a month. We sat right off the coast, well we were never sitting-- we were always either working or under attack, but we watched the battle of Sugar Loaf.  Bill Sievertson was there too, at Sugar Loaf I mean. Oh it was bad. Yes, that was bad.

Where we landed on Okinawa there was nothing but a bunch of low lying hills and caves.  There was a little river running out, and two airfields near us. There was not much resistance north of us, or where we landed.  Most of the resistance started in the hills about three miles inland. There just was not much action on that beach except an occasional mortar shell.  It wasn't like in war movies. We saw a little resistance in the Philippines, and a little in Okinawa, but not much.

White Beach, on the other hand, got battered pretty good.  Half an hour after landing, 1000 Japs opened up on LSMs 127 and 219.  Six men were killed and thirty-one wounded. Later in the day LSM 269 was attacked at the same beach, with five dead and eight wounded.  We got nothing. That's how war is. Just the luck of the draw.

Our top speed was 14 knots.  We'd approach the beach at various speeds, depending on the presence of coral reefs or sandbars, or whatever might be there.  You didn't know how deep the bottom was. We'd get close, cut the engines, glide in, play out the bow anchor and, with luck, slide up onto the beach.  Then the doors open, the rack goes down, and the tanks or trucks just drive off.

We loaded them just the opposite way.  The doors open, rack goes down, things just drive on.  For equipment such as tanks and artillery we usually loaded directly from shore.  For example, the tanks we took into Okinawa were on-loaded near New Guinea. The crews drove them on and then we strapped them down for the voyage through the Philippine Straits.

So, like I said, you glide in, open up the doors, and drop the ramps. Of course the crews would untie the tanks, or whatever we were carrying, before we got into shore so they could just drive out.  I mean there was no fooling around. Sometimes you opened up the doors too soon and if the beach was contested, well you took your chances. We'd drop the ramps before we got in if the beach was contested. The Japs could see us coming in for miles and there would be shells bursting and small arms fire splashing the water all around us.  We were very lucky though on LSM 13 and very rarely ran into fire. For the most part we stayed out of the battles, especially the sea battles. Navy battles involve huge ships like the carriers, battleships and cruisers. We were tiny. We stayed out of the way.

But, we made a good target for the kamikazes and they concentrated on us if we were near an island or on a picket line.  Generally though, the kamikazes would pick the largest ship they could hit and so we were pretty far down that line. I remember clearly one attack.  It was sunset, Easter Day, 1945. We were off Okinawa and there was an APA (Army Personal Ship) which carried troops, near us. It was big son of a gun. During one of the heavy air raids a Japanese plane came in.  I don't know if he was hit, but he winged in. He lined up and tried to hit us but he didn't get low enough. I watched him go low over our superstructure. Right on the other side of us, about a 100 yards away, was that APA.  That kamikaze went right into it. We were standing there watching the whole thing. They were shooting at him with just about everything they had, but never got him. He went up a little and then right down the hatch. He dropped right in the hold and the ship exploded like a firecracker in a straw pile.  The rails of the ship were lined with troops. Hundreds of them were killed. That was the worst thing I ever seen. The ship itself didn't have much damage because the plane was small, but it hit had crashed into an ammo dump or something. Killed 'em. That was at sunset on Easter 1945. The worst thing I ever saw.

There is a pause in the room, as though the wind has died for an instant, as though suddenly it might rain.  Glen clears his throat. Looks away. When he turns back the storm is gone.

Arch Moore had told me that there are things veterans cannot share with those who were not there.  I expect Glen's buddies from LSM 13 saw the kamikaze hit the APA. I wonder what they would say to each other.  I wonder what they'd say to the guys on that APA.

After a moment I ask, "What's a picket line?"

A picket line is sort of a parameter, a big area we'd set up miles away from whatever it was we wanted to protect from incoming aircraft.  Maybe we'd set one up to protect a harbor, for instance. The Japanese would send in droves of planes to Okinawa to try and damage somebody or something.  Anything they could wipe out was obviously bad for us, as far away from our supplies as we were. We'd try to get all around the harbor so we could knock out the Jap planes before they ever got near the important stuff.  Near the end of one day they sent in 500 planes at one time. The sky was black with them. Coming in droves. We did everything we could, but they still got three ships.

I was injured once, not wounded, and it was during a raid when we were on the picket line.  I was trying to take evasive action against a kamikaze that was trying to crash into us. One of the .20mm guns was right outside of the door to my radio room, so generally one of the radio operators would be out there to man the gun.  I was qualified to operate the gun, I mean it was sitting right there outside my door. After a few years of it sitting right beside me, well, I got to where I could fire it. It was relatively small, so one person could man it. The bigger guns took more men.  A couple guys on the ship were classified gunners mates, but the cooks or deck hands could shoot it too. Me and the radio operators did it when we had too, but, well I mean during a red alert a cook could leave his post a lot easier than the radioman.

So anyway, we worked four hours on, four hours off.  During your four hours off you had to eat, sleep, everything.  It was just too hot to sleep below as there was no air-conditioning.  One night we were real close to shore and the Japanese planes were trying to hit something in the middle of the island, and trying to get into a ship.  They were coming from all sides trying to go into one particular ship. There wasn't a Condition Red, no battle stations called, just general quarters. I stepped out to see what was going on, saw all those planes and went for that .20mm gun.  I got there before the gunner got there and saw a plane coming right in at us. I was ready to take the shot, looked the guy right in the eyes, and then CRASH! I mean he hit right short of us, right at the water line. There was a huge splash of water and I dove off the gun into the well deck.  We only had a four foot drag, so the plane disappeared under the boat. It didn't do any damage. But I busted up my ankle. I thought it was just sprained so I wrapped it up and kept on moving. That's the way it was.

A few months later my ankle got real nasty and I found out that I had a fractured tibia.  I survived it, worked all these years on it, but then a few years ago it started bothering me.  I went to the doctor and he found three breaks, two in the ankle and one in the tibia.

Course not everyone was so lucky.  LSM 135 was one of our sister ships and had been with us throughout the war.   For whatever reason, it seemed like most people on the ship were Catholic, but I was Protestant.  When we got the chance, when things were slow, we'd get all the LSMs together and then some of the radiomen and crew could go on relief.  If you had a number of ships setting side by side than you only needed one guy at the radios of just one ship, then he could relay information to all the ships. So anyway, I had a good buddy on LSM 135 and he was a Methodist like me.  We both got leave one time and then went ashore, we weren't at Okinawa then of course, and we found a place to go to church. That was the last time I saw him. After that we started operating in another section.

Our tour of duty was just about done and we were on a picket line.  We'd been out thirteen days and we were pretty beat up, low on fuel, and tired.  We were ordered to pull out and were sent on our way. LSM 135 was sent out on picket line and they remained to assist a destroyer that was under attack.  135 picked up some of the survivors from the destroyer and then in came a Jap plane. It came in from the front. My buddy was one of ten guys killed. His brother sent out a letter in 1995 and wanted to know if anyone knew anything about 135.  I wrote him back.

After Okinawa we headed for Japan.  It was August 1945 and basically the war was over.  We thought we were going home. We pulled into Guam and I knew my cousin was over there somewhere. He lived with my family for a while after his mom and dad died. We were pretty close.  I went to my skipper and said, “I got a buddy on this island,” and the Skipper said “Go find him.” My cousin was a quartermaster and I started out to try and find him. There were a lot of construction guys all over the place and I saw a jeep with my cousin's unit insignia on it.  I hitched a ride with that fella until he pulled to a stop and said, “This is far as I'm going.” I thought I would have to walk but I was lucky enough to flag down a truck.

I saw the quartermaster's tents and headed over.  There was three clerks at three desks and I said, “Do you have a fella here name Ralph Wise?”  He gave me directions and as I was walking down the road I saw him on a forklift. Just like that.  There were a couple of guys from our hometown, we'd all lived on same street. I hadn't been home, or seen them in years, and then I met them in Guam.  I ate with them, played a little baseball, and then headed back to LSM 13. Then we headed up to Japan.

LSM 13 was one of the first ships to arrive in Japan.  We got there on the 27th of August, 1945.  The Peace wasn't even signed till September.  One of the first things we did was transported the prisoners of war out of Japan. We got them poor POWs to a larger ship.  They were in sorry shape. And we brought some film out with us. It turns out that it was footage of the bombing of Pearl- that's where we got all that film, LSM 13 brought it out.

We were in Tokyo Harbor with Japanese minesweepers that were clearing the bay. There were rats everywhere.  Most of the time we were dressed in shorts, skivvies, wooden sandals, and a helmet liner. When we hit the beach we took Sea Bees with us.  Their duty was to raise a huge flagpole. The Sea Bees also went to the huge Japanese Naval Academy and fumigated the barracks so Marines could come in and occupy.

I think I told you earlier, we had a dog on the ship.  It went through the Philippines with us, Okinawa too, but we lost him in Japan.  We were walking around a bombed-out Kodak film factory and the dog went to follow something on a dock.  We hollered at him but he turned a corner and was gone. I figure he wound up a feast for somebody.

My brother was on a destroyer for part of the war and then on a refrigerated ship. Through the course of the war he was in both the Pacific and Atlantic theaters.  I hadn't seen him for years and all I knew was that he was on the USS Malabar.  But he knew my boat and I knew his and I always kept an eye and ear out for it. Every ship had a specific call sign and I'd listen for his.  One night in the Tokyo Bay I heard it. I got permission to go over to his ship and we had a big time that night. I had to get back to my ship though and I figured I'd catch a ride with the mail ship, but dag-on-it if the next ship that pulled up in the morning wasn't LSM 13.  They had been assigned to get some fresh food from my brother's ship. We hadn't had fresh food in a long time. Well, my brother ran the crane to drop the stuff into our ship and those guys loaded us up good. You never saw such food. Yes sir, they loaded us up good.

We were on duty in and around Tokyo Bay from 27 August 1945, until sometime in February of '46.  LSM 13 was only 400 yards starboard of the Missouri when the Peace was signed.  And that was about it for LSM 13.  I was transferred to a hospital ship because of my ankle and the rest of crew was sent here and there.  That was it. LSM 13 never came back to the States. It was decommissioned in Shanghai, sold to China, then, in October of  '49, to Taiwan. It was used by the Taiwanese Navy as a reclassified Coastal Minesweeper and in 1972 it was scraped.

I brought a bunch of souvenirs home with me.  I have an armband that I took off a dead Japanese soldier and I have a Japanese rifle upstairs.  I had a hard time getting it home but I got special permission and I still have it to this day. A lot of times the authorities filed them down or disabled them but I managed to get it here in good working condition.  I took precautions bringing it all the way from the Pacific and the only thing that got damaged was the sheath around bayonet. I took it deer hunting with me a couple of times. It's a .31 caliber gun but it shoots .30 caliber just fine.

I got out of the Navy on March 23rd, 1946.  I briefly thought of making a career in the Navy but decided against it.  When I got home I worked at Fostoria Glass because that was about the only thing there was up here.  I worked there for about four years but couldn't advance because the long time glass workers had it wrapped up.  Then I worked in the steel mill, and then chemical plants. I rose to General Foreman and eventually to Area Supervisor.  I did that for 33 years. I retired in 1983 and they called me back two weeks later because they were having a lot of trouble. Here Glen smiles and giggles a little.  I worked a bit, retired again, then went back to work for a while.  During that time I had a heart attack and so I retired. He laughs again.  I was  back at work though in 1988 but just for 8 or 9 weeks.  Then again in '89, from March until June, but it took away too much from my Social Security.  I worked that issue out, went back to work little longer, and then retired again. After that I never went back.

I've tried to stay in touch with the guys from LSM 13 and some of the other ships.  We have a reunion every year and we go all over. I've been to Washington, Williamsburg, Las Vegas, San Diego… Our 2000 reunion is scheduled to be in Omaha.  We are going to celebrate at Freedom Park were there are a number of World War II ships dry docked.

All of us LSM veterans got together and raised about $300,000 to buy a World War II LSM, to serve as sort of a monument.  There is no LSM in any WWII museum or Navy museum. The one we bought is the last one from World War II still around, as far as we know.  A guy spotted it while he was traveling in Greece. We bought it from the Greek Navy where they were still using it in 1993. It's still in decent condition but our Navy wouldn't let us man it and sail it over here like we wanted to so we had to have it towed.  It'll be the only amphibious vehicle of significance in the park. That particular LSM didn't serve in any illustrious battles but we're proud to have it around. In fact, it doesn't have any battle stars at all but then that's probably why it's still around.

I'm still a radio operator, too.  I have a HAM radio downstairs. As far as I know only one guy from my ship still operates a radio.  He lives in Texas now where he used to run an auto shop. I found out about his HAM interest back in 1984.

Glen digs through the piles of books and papers on the table and pulls out a big picture of the crew of LSM 13.  He points to each man and tells me his name. The names are listed at the bottom of the photo, but Glen is reciting them from memory.  He knows them all. He points to one guy and says, This is Little Joe.  I wanted to try and find him a few years back so I wrote the Department of the Navy to ask for his address.  The Navy, I found out, won't give out addresses. They won't let you know where a guy is even if he saved your life. What I had to do was write the letter to Little Joe and then send it to the Navy.  Then the Navy forwards the letters. So I wrote a letter to Little Joe. I got his phone number and called him up. He was out but he called me back and we ended up getting together for the first time since 1946.  I've written to other people too, but don't often get a response.

I notice that some of the names on the ship's roster are highlighted in yellow and Glen explains that those are the guys that have died since the war.  Though none of the crew died during the war, Time has not been so kind. There are a lot of highlighted names.

Finally, I ask Glen if he thinks World War II changed his life.  He smiles and says,

Sure it changed my life.  I'm sure it did. Anyone that tells you it didn't is out of their head.

To read more of Bil's "Last Vet Standing" interviews with West Virginia WWII Vets, click here

Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content click here. 

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  • Martha Robertson
    commented 2020-07-07 09:55:09 -0400
    Thank you for this! I feel like I had another visit with my Granddaddy, Richard (Dick) Craig who sailed on LSM 13. This is priceless.