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11/15/02 THE STRANGEST SHIP IN THE NAVY Charles R. Simcoe The United States Navy used many unusual ships during WWII, but none was as strange as the Landing Ship Dock (LSD). Part of the amphibious fleet, this was the largest ship used to carry tanks, equipment and men. The LSD’s did not run up to the beach as did many smaller amphibious ships and boats. They carried a cargo of preloaded landing craft tucked within the ship resting on what was called the “well deck”. The well deck was 45 feet wide by nearly 400 feet long. The structure was open to the sky in the aft section, and covered by the ship’s superstructure forward. As they approached the shore the LSD would take on seawater in internal tanks, similar to submarines. By lowering a gate at the stern, water could flow in and float the small boats. As the boats rose with the incoming water, they pulled out under their own power. Each LSD carried 18 boats with cargo, usually Marines or Army units and their tanks. They put the first armored equipment ashore during an invasion. They were moderately fast, capable of 15 knots, compared with freighters and other landing ships, so they often made numerous fast trips between the invasion beach and the rear supply base to bring in additional men and equipment immediately after an invasion. The LSD’s would anchor off the beach and served as repair stations for damaged or disabled boats and even small ships, such as minesweepers. That was the dock (for dry dock) part of the ship design. The crippled or sinking craft could be floated into the ship. By pumping out the ballast tanks the LSD would rise and the seawater in the well deck ran out the stern. The stern gate would close, and the repair work could be done on the craft now out of the water in the dry well deck. An LSD carried a crew of approximately 300 men. As was generally the case of amphibious ships, most of the men were naval reserve not regular navy. This included the officers, and even many of the captains. Among its regular crew compliment, an LSD carried extra welders and carpenters, along with supplies of steel and lumber to perform structural repairs. The biggest difference in life aboard an LSD, compared with other Navy ships, is the separation of port and starboard. For crew members to walk from one side of the ship to the other they had to go forward and up into the superstructure and back down the other side. These ships had only about 12 feet of space on each side. In this small area were engines, boilers, shafts, cranes, gun tubs, and numerous other pieces of equipment as well as workshops and storage. Since the well deck occupied most of ship’s length, numerous small compartments and companionways were located in these areas. The bulk of the ship’s company lived in the deck superstructure. There were living quarters for the officers and enlisted men, mess halls and galleys, and medical facilities.
The original LSD’s were 458 feet long with a 72-foot beam. They drew 16 feet of water. This increased to 26 feet when the ballast tanks were filled to take on or to discharge boats. They were armed with a single five inch gun, twelve 40 mm guns, and sixteen 20 mm guns. A 35- ton crane was mounted on both the port and starboard sides at midship. These cranes could lift landing craft aboard for storage or repair if necessary. The British designed and ordered the first LSD’s under the Lend-Lease Program in September 1941. Lend-lease was developed before the United States entered WWII to help the British war effort without actually selling them war material. It was nearly a year before the Newport News Shipyard Company laid down the first ship, and another year before it was completed and commissioned. Four ships were built at Newport News for the British Navy. When the U.S. entered the war, the U.S. Navy ordered eight LSD’s from the Moore Dry Dock Company in Oakland, California. The first ship there was laid down on June 22, 1942 and the other seven were all under construction within the next nine months. It required, on average, a year to complete each ship. These ships were Ashland, Belle Grove, Carter Hall, Epping Forest, Gunston Hall, Lindenwald, Oak Hill and White Marsh. Final commissioning was from June 5, 1943 to January 29, 1944 for all eight ships, which served in the Pacific Theater. They were joined later by Casa Grande, Rushmore, and Shadwell, all built at Newport News. Four additional LSD’s were built at Newport News and were commissioned before the war ended but they did not reach the Pacific in time to participate in action. Four LSD’s were built at the Boston Navy Yard. Two were commissioned in the final weeks of the war, and two others were built and commissioned after the war. Three additional ships were contracted for at the Gulf Shipbuilding Corporation at Chickasaw, Alabama. One of these was commissioned after the war in 1946. The other two were cancelled during construction, but were finished and used in sea duty but never commissioned as Navy ships. One lone ship was built at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. It was commissioned in April 1945 and reached Okinawa three days before the war ended. In all 27 LSD’s were contracted for during WWII. However, only 11 were completed in time for major operations in the South Pacific with the US Navy The first LSD’s to reach the South Pacific War Zone were Ashland, Belle Grove, and Charter Hall. They arrived in the Fall of 1943, about a year after Guadalcanal and nearly two years after Pearl Harbor. They arrived, however, in time to begin the long road that would eventually lead to Japan. The Carter Hall worked with the army in New Guinea for the invasion of Arawe, New Britain. The first action for Ashland and Belle Grove was in the invasion of the Gilbert Islands, including Tarawa. These early advances into Japanese-fortified territory provided the experience for LSD operations during the remainder of the war. By the end of the year three more LSD’s–Epping Forest, Gundon Hall, and Lindenwaldjoined the Pacific Fleet for the invasion of the Marshall Islands. The Allied invasion force captured the islands of Kwajalein and Eniwetok which served as bases for later invasions in the Central Pacific. Again the LSD’s played an important role, sending in
their small boats with tanks and crews in the early stages of the landing. Then they remained stationed near the beaches for small boat repair. The Marshall’s success moved the amphibious forces hundreds of miles northwest in the direction of the next major target, the Marianas--Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. The Invasion of the Marianas, with over 500 ships and 125,000 men, was the largest Allied operation at the time. Two new ships, Oak Hill and White Marsh, joined the fleet. The main beach at Saipan was assigned to Ashland, Belle Grove, Lindenwald, Oak Hill, and White Marsh. The other three were on standby for Saipan, but were used later at Guam. Most of the ships were on station for about a week after D-Day repairing the landing craft, LCVPs and LCMs. The capture of the Marianas was strategic for the Allies, putting U.S. B-29 bombers within range of the home islands of Japan. The Palaus Islands were the next stop on the road to the Philippines. They were invaded on the morning of September 15, 1944, just three months after Saipan. Only four LSD’s were in this operation. It was a smaller attack force and several of the first ships in the Pacific had put into Pearl Harbor for repairs. Only five weeks later, October 20, 1944, a great armada of ships signaled the US return to the Philippines. The Invasion at Leyte in the Philippine Islands was even larger than the Marianas, with 430 ships load with 174,000 troops and their equipment. Among these ships were ten LSD’s, the largest number to be assembled in WWII. Two new ones built on the East Coast joined the eight original ships. They were Casa Grande and Mount Rushmore. The LSD’s were used differently during this invasion. Leyte was not a coral reef nor a small volcanic island, but a substantial landmass. The greatest immediate need was for additional troops and equipment. The LSD’s were dispatched from the area during the first or second day to New Guinea to bring in reinforcements. The White Marsh experience was typical. She left on the day after the landing and eventually made four more round trips of eight sailing days each between Hollandia, New Guinea and Leyte in the next two months. At the end of December most of the LSD’s, including the newest, Shadwell, were assembled for the invasion of Lingayen Gulf, Luzon, the Philippine Islands (Carter Hall had to return to the States for major repair, and Rushmore was on assignment off the southern Philippine Coast). Again, after the initial invasion, they were dispatched to Hollandia, New Guinea to bring in reinforcements. On one of these trips Shadwell was hit by a Japanese aerial torpedo that tore a 60-foot hole on her starboard side. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. But Shadwell was taken out of action after her first invasion, and would not return for the remainder of the war. She was the only LSD to suffer major battle damage. By the effort of her crew she made it to a rear base for temporary repairs, and sailed back to the West Coast for major work. Landing Ship Docks were part of every major invasion in the march north through the Pacific towards Japan. The Ashland, Belle Grove and Gunston Hall were part of the task force at Iwo Jima, a tiny dot of an island that saw some of the toughest fighting of the War.
The next major landing in the Pacific was at Okinawa, located several hundred miles southwest of Japan. This was the last planned invasion before the Japanese homeland. The invasion force was nearly as large as that on D-day in Normandy. Because of the timing, as Okinawa was only six weeks after Iwo Jima, the number of LSD’s available was down to six. The Gunston Hall was the only ship that made both Iwo Jima and Okinawa landings. There were a total of 738 ships carrying 172,000 combatants and another 115,000 service troops with all of their equipment, and supplies. Seventeen big carriers, 6 battleships, 17 cruisers, and 64 destroyers accompanied this fleet. This represented more striking power than the force accompanying the troops at Normandy. All the experience gained since Guadalcanal in the fall of 1942 went into the planning of this massive amphibious landing. . In the Philippine Island invasions the LSD’s would leave the area as soon as they unloaded. This kept them from being targets for the Japanese Naval Forces or kamikaze attacks. At Okinawa, most of the ships, including all the LSD’s, stayed at the landing to help provide anti-aircraft cover for the Allied fleet. Many of these ships remained at Okinawa for two months or more. During this time hundreds of kamikazes flew in from Japan and inflicted tremendous damage, especially on the destroyer type ships that were set up on a picket line to intercept them. Over the course of the next three months, nearly 1500 kamikaze attacks rained down on the ships at Okinawa. These suicide attacks succeeded in sinking 34 vessels and damaged 368 others, many so serious that they required major repairs (some were so severe that the ships were kept out of action for the remainder of the war). The human toll was 4900 sailors killed and another 4800 wounded. This was the most difficult battle for the United States Navy in WWII. No one knew at the time, but this was to be the last action of the war. The August 1945 bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought an end to the conflict. By the end of the War most of the LSD’s were in need of major overhaul. The Carter Hall had already spent time in dry dock, and the Shadwell returned to the U.S. after taking a torpedo at Luzon. After Okinawa, most of the remaining ships were sent back to the United States for repairs, to prepare for the coming invasion of the Japanese homeland. The Epping Forest and Gunston Hall went to Portland, Oregon. The Lindenwald, White Marsh, and Casa Grande returned to San Francisco. All arrived for dry dock repairs between July 21 and early August 1945. Shortly after reaching the West Coast, the Japanese surrendered. The major dry dock repairs were completed on several ships, but most received temporary repairs and were sent to sea to support the occupation forces. With the war ending, ships were needed to bring the service men home. Over a period of six to eight months this massive movement of personnel was accomplished and the Navy started to decommission a large part of the fleet. Shortly after that, all eleven LSD’s that saw action during the war were laid up as part of the reserves. Even the LSD’s that were built, but saw no action, were decommissioned. It appeared that the strangest ship in the
Navy had become obsolete, as did so many of the amphibious vessels designed and built during the war. But the start of Korean hostilities, beginning in June 1950, saw the recommissioning of all 21 LSDs. They were again needed to carry preloaded landing craft to this new conflict. Some of these ships were stationed in the Atlantic Fleet, and served in hot spots in the Mediterranean and other areas of the world. Others were posted to the Pacific again, and along with the amphibious landings, they picked up new duties such as minesweeping and serving as landing pads for helicopters. The Gunston Hall, which was the most decorated LSD in WWII with nine battle stars, earned another nine stars for her service in Korea. She went on to serve in Vietnam and eventually had one of the longest careers in the navy. Several other LSDs were outfitted for Arctic duty and carried supplies and personnel to Thule, Greenland and to the DEW line stations that monitored Russian aircraft or missile activity by radar. A new LSD was designed and built starting in 1954. This ship had all of the features of the wartime vessels, but was more streamlined, bigger, and faster. Also, it was equipped with helicopter facilities. The hull was 510 feet (fifty feet longer than the original ships), and the beam was 84 feet. Eight Thomaston Class ships were built from 1954 to 1957. They were constructed by the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Adding these new ships to the 21 older ones made a total of 29 active LSDs during the late 1950s and 1960s. The Navy designed a new version of the LSD in the early 1960s called the LPD (Landing Ship Personnel Dock). This design combined some of the features of a troop ship with the Landing Ship Dock. They were even bigger than the Thomaston Class ships, but had much smaller well decks (only 168 feet long, compared to the 400-foot well decks of the earlier LSD’s ). Three of these vessels, called the Raleigh Class, were built in the early 1960s. The designed was enlarged further in the Austin Class, built from 1965 to 1971. Eleven of the Austin Class LPDs were built. The WWII vessels continued to serve the Navy through most of the Vietnam War. By the late 1960s they had served a quarter century in the Navy, and were being decommissioned again. The White Marsh was transferred to the Taiwan Navy, where she served until the 1980s. The Gunston Hall was transferred to Argentina and the San Marcos was sold to Spain. A third generation of the original LSD, the Anchorage Class, was designed and built from 1969 to 1972. Only five were built. In 1985 an additional eight ships of the Whidbey Class (#41 to 48) were built based on the Anchorage Class design. These Landing Dock Ships were replacements for the Thomaston Class, which was now 30 years old. The new ships were the first diesel powered LSD’s and the series was not completed until 1992. They included hulls named after the WWII ships such as Ashland, Gunston Hall, Rushmore, Comstock, and Tortuga. Four additional ships of this design, called the Harper’s Ferry Class (#48 to 52), were built from 1995 to 1998. These carried the old names of Carter Hall and Oak Hill and the new Pearl Harbor. All ships built since 1985
are 16,500 ton, 609 feet long and 84 feet at the beam. This is 7,000 tons heavier and 150 feet longer than the original ships built for the British and United States Navies. Among the Post WWII ships were well-known names like Plymouth Rock, Alamo, Hermitage, Monticello, and Mount Vernon.. The LPDs were named after cities, names that were previously reserved for cruisers. A new LPD version is now being built. It is 683 feet long, has a 104-foot beam, with a 170-foot well deck. It is a behemoth at 25,000 tons and will replace the previous LPDs and the Anchorage Class LSD’s. It is called the San Antonio Class, and the first two ships will be commissioned in 2003 and 2004. These ships, along with the LSD’s built in the 1980’s and 1990’s, will take the Navy well into the 21st century. Today the Navy has as many LSD’s in service as they did in WWII. This claim cannot be made for many ships where the fleet is only a fraction of what it was at the end of hostilities in 1945. About 3500 sailors served on the original 11 ships during WWII. With the number of ships increasing after the war, and the number of years since, approximately 150,000 sailors have served on an LSD or the modified LPD. And the strangest ship in the Navy will have a longer run than that old “battlewagon” line. Built from the early 1900’s until 1943, when the Wisconsin was built, the battlewagon lasted just under half a century. The LSD’s have already exceeded that and they are still going strong. • The author served on the White Marsh as a Shipfitter/Welder from April 1944 to November 1945.
LSD’s ACTIVE IN WORLD WAR II LSD # LSD, NAME NAMED FOR
1 2 3 4
Ashland Belle Grove Carter Hall Epping Forest
5 6 7 8 * 13 14 15
Gunston Hall Lindenwald Oak Hill White Marsh
Boyhood home of Henry Clay, Lexington, Ky Birthplace of James Madison, King George Co., Va Virginia home of a Colonial Governor Estate where George Washington’s mother was born, Lancaster Co., Va George Mason’s Estate, Fairfax Co, Va Estate of Martin Van Buren, Kinderhook, NY Home of James Monroe, Loundon Co., Va Birthplace of Dr. Walter Reed, Gloucester Co, Va Indian National Monument near Phoenix, Az Memorial in Black Hills, near Rapid City, SD Birthplace of Thomas Jefferson, Albermarle, Va
Casa Grande Rushmore Shadwell
Numbers 9,10,11, and 12 were transferred to England under lend-lease.
Sources The Pacific War 1941-1945, John Costello, Quill, New York, 1982. History of U. S. Naval Operations in World War II, Samuel Eliot Morison, Little Brown, Boston, Vols. 1-15, 1947-1962. Eagle Against The Sun; The American War With Japan, Ronald Spector, Free Press, New York, 1985. Mother of the Minesweepers, Popular Mechanics Magazine, Feb. 1952. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships The Second World War, John Keegan, Viking, New York, 1989.
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