Last Vet Standing: Lucky LSM 13 (Part 1) - West Virginia Strong

Last Vet Standing: Lucky LSM 13 (Part 1)

LSM 13 landed wherever there was action: Wake, Enewetak, the Marshals, Guam, Saipan, Ulithi, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and our ship was the first boat to land in Japan.  For two years straight we never stopped. In all that time we never suffered a single causality. I'd say 13 was pretty lucky. But most boats suffered quite a few casualties, mostly from mines or aircraft.

My mom has been wonderful.  She loves this book. She's hooked me up with Glen Wise.  He's a guy in her church. I get there around seven in the evening.  He's got a table in the dining room strewn with books. Books about his war, about where he was, about his ship, and the ships like it.  Looking at Glen's table you'd think his ship carried the whole Pacific Theater. And in a way it did. LSM stands for "Landing Ship, Medium".  He hit the shores second. Anywhere the infantry landed, his boat came in next carrying the armor, the artillery, the supplies, and the ammo. He loved the guys that road into Hell on his boat, and always wanted to keep in touch, so much so that as the radioman on LSM 13 Glen secured the same radios the tanks carried so that he could keep in touch with the men as they battled it out in the Philippines, on Iwo Jima, and finally at Okinawa.

I say, as though it were not patently obvious, "So, you were in the Navy?"  And Glen swells with pride, he giggles a little, spreads his arms to draw my attention to the piles of memorabilia and says, "Yes I was, sir."  His pride sends chills up my spine.  He shows me a photo of his ship, in a book.

And of course there is a frame of medals on the dining room wall.

I never did get my medals until pretty recently.  I was discharged before they were awarded and so I had to write the Navy to get them.  The medals only begin to tell the story of Lucky LSM 13.  There's the China Medal, the American Defense Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Medal with two battle stars pinned on the ribbon for action in Okinawa and the Philippines, the WWII Victory Medal, the Occupation Medal for Japan, the Philippine Liberation Medal with two more little stars, the Philippine Independence Medal, the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, and the Amphibious Corps badge.  LSM 13 was busy during World War II. Glen starts rolling:

I was in the CCC in '41.  I was in Idaho when the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor, at the YMCA building, and I had to hurry back to my camp because of work.  I wanted to join up right then but I had to stay with the CCC until the next July. I'd been there since July '40. And then I had to go home and finish high school.  That was the only way my parents would let me go to war. So I promised I'd be home in time for school. I came home and finished high-school in 43. In the meantime, I volunteered for the Navy and they called me up as soon as I graduated.  I was 20.

I ask Glen why he was so eager, what drove him, and his reply is not so much bravado as it is duty.

Well, the war was going pretty good by then and I knew what I was getting into.

I ask Glen why he chose the Navy.

Well, I had a brother on a destroyer and I wanted to be out on the water too, on a destroyer or a battleship.  I really wanted to be a radioman and I got to choose whether I wanted to be in Air Operations, or Fleet. Like I say, I wanted to be on a big ship.

I was a radio operator on the U.S. LSM 7-13 and I was injured at Okinawa, but I stayed on the boat until the war was over. After my time was up they put me on a hospital ship, and then on the transport which brought me home.  But I bet you want to know more about my service than that.

I trained at Great Lakes, and then I was sent to Northwestern University where I took radio training.  I could have gone to Officer Candidate School while I was in training at Northwestern but I would have been there three to six months longer, and when you're young, you're gung-ho to get out there, get into the action.  It was great stuff, you know, when you're young.

So after Northwestern I was sent to Virginia where the Navy was assembling an amphibious force.  In Virginia I attended the Army School of Radio. I took an advanced course in radio operations, learning how to coordinate the Navy radios with the Army radios so my boat could stay in contact with the guys landing on the beach.  I was assigned to an LSM.

Now an LSM is a Landing Ship, Medium.  It's a little over 200-foot long, thirty-five foot abeam, and had a crew of four or five officers, and forty-eight men. We carried tanks, heavy artillery and cargo into the beaches.  I was with LSM 13 from the very beginning of its existence.

At that time I was a Third Class Petty Officer and a First Class Seaman making about $80 a month.  LSM 13 was being built at Brown Shipyards, in Houston, Texas. I was placed in charge of getting the necessary materials for the ship.  It was my duty to pick up and sign for everything that went onto that boat. Near the shipyard was T.C.I., or Tennessee Coal and Iron. This was a facility owned by Howard Hughes.  It was a huge, sprawling place. The building was big enough to fit ten football fields.

Throughout the building there were wire cages built out of 2x4s and chicken wire.  In these cages the Navy stored all the equipment needed to build all those LSMs at Brown Shipyards.  All day long things were going in and out of that place; gyro compasses, radios, navigational systems, you name it.  Well, I stayed up there all day and when they needed something for my boat I'd have to go get it. For everything I received I had to sign 30 copies of the same release form.  Everybody needed their copy and there was no such thing as a Xerox machine. Then, some other guys would take the needed equipment down to the shipyard and it was installed in our boat.

LSM 13 was powered by two 1800 horsepower Fairbanks and Morris diesel engines with twin screws, and we had a 3000-mile range.  We were not very fast, but we were steady. The LSM is a flat-bottomed craft with only a four-foot drag. In the center of the ship stood the conning tower, which was the Communication and Command center.  It housed the crew, the chart room, the helm, the control room, and the radio room. It was also where the officer stood duty. The boat was pretty well balanced, despite the conning tower. We lived on the boat all the time and it was OK, except that that boat took a terrible beating in typhoons, but we endured.

In Europe they had the LST (Landing Ship, Tank), which was larger, but they had an urgency for these LSMs in the Pacific.  The LSM was better suited for the Pacific Theater than the LST because our drag was so much more shallow. Because we were smaller we could get around sandbars and coral reefs, problems they just didn't have to deal with in the Atlantic.  We also had LCIs (Landing Ship, Infantry), which carried infantry. Those are littler ships that drove right up on shore and then lowered a ramp. The troops would run down the ramps onto shore. LSMs and LCIs got around the islands in the Pacific much easier than any LST ever could have.

There were 500 LSMs built, but very few of those ships ever came back. Our sister ship, the LSM 20, which was built just after ours, was lost in the Philippines when it was struck by a kamikaze. Glen flips to a page in one of his books.  There is a picture of LSM 20 going down.  And LSM 12 was lost at Okinawa. LSM 15 was broasted, that is, it was hit by another ship.  It suffered serious damage and eventually broke up and went down in typhoon. Then, after the war, the LSMs were sold of to foreign navies, or just scraped.

We didn't have guns to speak of.  LSMs weren't designed to pick fights.  The LSM had a .20mm gun on top that could shot over the door, and a .40mm for aircraft.  It was a defensive craft though, a hard boat. It could withstand the small stuff thrown at it on a beach head, but not the heavy artillery.  We were not heavily armed but we could lay a smoke screen from our smoke generators to hide ourselves if we needed. Sometimes you found yourself in a harbor with three or 4000 ships and enemy planes coming over.  The sky would be black with flak, but those Jap pilots would just fly right through and we made a good target.

I ask Glen if he thought it was bad luck to be on LSM 13.

Well, a lot of people thought it was, but you take what you get.  LSM 13 landed wherever there was action: Wake, Enewetak, the Marshals, Guam, Saipan, Ulithi, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and our ship was the first boat to land in Japan.  For two years straight we never stopped. In all that time we never suffered a single causality. I'd say 13 was pretty lucky. But most boats suffered quite a few casualties, mostly from mines or aircraft.

I had a whole bank of radios on that boat.  I had the radar for the ships, various radios strictly for Navy communications, radios to communicate with the aircraft, the same kind of radios they had in the jeeps, all the batteries, and the same kind of radios they had in the tanks.  We carried a lot of tanks and I kept that radio so I could keep track of, and in contact with, the guys in the tanks.

You know how it goes.  We load on the tanks with their crews to go into a battle and those guys would be on the ship with you for a few weeks.  It was a small ship and you could hardly help but became buddies. So I'd keep up with them as they drove around, find out where they were, and what was going on inland.  As it turns out, we had more Army radios on that boat than we had Navy radios.

There were also some non-issue radios that I brought on the ship.  I had bought a radio at a shop, found some tubes for it, and that radio picked up California stations.  I hooked it up to the public address system and broadcast music on the ship. I had a turntable complete with a jury-rigged amplifier that broadcast through the PA, too.  I always played the record No Mail Today.  I played it over and over.  It was a real sad song.

I also had a radio I had taken out of a crashed Jap plane. Our radios didn't pick up everything I wanted, like the World Series, but that Jap radio, I knew, would. Me and a friend found the wreck and I got up in the cockpit to disassemble the radio but just when I got to it, BAM!  A big arc came blasting out and I jumped the ten feet down to the ground figuring the plane was booby-trapped. It turns out that the guy I was with had just dropped a wrench on the batteries. But I got the radio and it picked up the World Series.

It took considerable training to know how to use all those radios and I was the main radio guy on LSM 13, with one guy under me. My rank was RM 2C.  That's Radio Man-2nd Class, which was more or less a step up from corporal.  If everything else failed and we had no other way to communicate on the boat, we had pipe that ran up and down the conning tower and we could talk through that.

I had to copy a circuit of messages and dispatches that came off the radios twenty-four hours a day.  The communications never stopped. The information came in at about twenty words a minute and we had to type it out on a typewriter.  All the while that was going on, I had to keep up with all our aircraft in the area and the other naval crafts. And I always kept the armor radio on so I knew what the tanks on shore were getting into.  I had a two-channel radio with a very short range that was used to help our navigator at night. We couldn't use a flashing light code because that could be seen for miles on the open sea but these radios only had a range of two or three miles, so we could all keep in touch without worrying about being overheard by the Japs.

In a convoy there'd be 500 or so ships.  Your ship, every ship, had to keep lined up and go the right way when it was time to zig or zag.  In the day we could use flags. You'd get a guy to give the signal through semaphore, he'd lift them flags up, slap them down, and just like that, everyone turns.  That was a defensive move against subs and such. But at night we couldn't do all that with the flags, we had to rely on that radio.

The LSMs were small ships, small fries in a convoy, so we didn’t have to worry about torpedoes very much.  The submarines wanted the battlewagons or aircraft carriers, the big stuff. A sub wouldn’t waste a shot on us. What worried us was aircraft.  We did see one German sub right after we left Texas, down by the Panama Canal, but he didn't do nothing to us. Instead, he got a tanker that was following us.

So anyway, we shook down in Corpus Christi and then went through the Panama Canal up to Long Beach, California, to be re-equipped.  From there we headed out to the war. We stayed in California long enough to have some fun though. I went to Hollywood to see the movie stars at the Hollywood Canteen.  I still have a post card with lots of autographs from the stars. One guy I met was Shelton Leonard, he was the creator of Lassie.

Another big thing for LSM 13 that happened while we were in California was that Walt Disney himself designed the picture of the black cat and the little rat that you see on the conning tower in the pictures of our boat.  One of our guys met him and talked him into designing us a logo, then we enlarged it and painted it up there.

Glen has a pretty clear photo of the painting in one of his books.  There is a large black cat with its back arched, about to pounce on a rat.  The rat is a product of 1940's America. It looks like a Japanese soldier, with a little brown uniform and horn-rimmed glasses.

Everybody loved it.  We kept it for the whole war.  At one point some tight-laced officer, a real spit and polish type, told us to paint over it, but instead we just draped a tarp over the painting until we left we for sea.  We never saw him again and the painting stayed. By the end of the war we also had a pet monkey on the boat, a rooster that wound up in the pot, and a dog. We were just like Noah's Ark.

We crossed the equator in November, 1944.  And we were everywhere there was action in the Pacific. The scariest time we had in the whole war was one night in the Philippines on the island of Dagupan.  We'd had a miserable night on the beach. We took in a load of heavy artillery and then went back out and grabbed a load of high-octane fuel. The Navy was building and airfield and they needed the fuel up the Guagua (best spelling I can find)  river.  We had to navigate up the river at night.  There was a sandbar we knew about and were worried about but since it was high tide we cleared it just fine. But as the tide went out the going got hairier and hairier, and we ended up stuck.

There we were, a 200 foot long, thirty-five foot wide boat loaded down with high-octane aviation fuel.  A giant bomb. All it would have taken to blow us sky high was a single rifle shot. We were stuck way up the river all by ourselves, just waiting for whatever was going to happen.  None of us slept much that night. In the morning a bunch of Filipinos, friendly to our forces, came down from the hills and rolled those barrels of fuel out of the boat. Man, were we glad to see them.  We traded them a bunch of supplies for their help and the next day a tug came and pulled us out.

Of course the biggest fight we were in was Okinawa.  The United States lost more men on Okinawa then in the whole war- in that engagement alone.  It's like they say, we saved the best for last. It's not hard to understand. We'd been squeezing the Japs for a long time and that island is only 600 miles from Japan, and a straight shot at that.  There was nothing between Okinawa and Japan. They knew they had to fight or die. Even though they were totally decimated, they made a ferocious last stand. They even took a lot of young kids, gave them what guns they could, told them it was a personal glory for them to die in battle or crash their plane into a ship.

You have to understand the Japanese people.  They're not bad people at all. We'd been out there fighting with the 'stupid slopes' without a moment's thought because we'd been oriented to fear and hate the enemy.  A lot of things go on when you're in the Service. There's the training, and the public opinion. They had to train us to do what we had to do; to kill the enemy. But the Japanese are a gentle people.  I mean we are all rational people, they had a job and we had a job. And there wasn't a coward in the bunch of them. They were very brave, just as brave as us. We were the winners. There had to be a winner and a loser, and we won.  There wasn't any choice, we had to fight them, I had to fight them, but I never had any animosity or hate.

I'll tell you what though, in 1987 my wife and I went to visit my daughter, who was in Morgantown, WV, at college and she had a couple of Japanese with her who were her music students.  Later she said, “At Christmas I want to bring someone home with me.” As it turns out, he was a Japanese guy. He was a nice guy, a real nice guy. She graduated, he went to Pittsburgh, she went with him, and eventually they got married.  His folks came over from Japan for the ceremony, very nice people. They live in Japan now. Very nice. Glen has a pile of photographs of his daughter and her husband, just like any father who is proud of his daughter and her husband.  He shows me every one.

Anyway, we carried the 37th Infantry Artillery onto Purple Beach II, at Okinawa.  We'd carried that same bunch onto Guam a year earlier. We were the first ones into Okinawa, carried in tanks, landed on the northern part of island, up toward an airfield.  Just north of us was another airfield, that's where Bill Sievertson went in. But it was pretty quite where we were.

To read the second half of Bil's Interview with Glen Wise, check back Monday! 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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