By Robert E Wright Jr
I have often asked the question of the Association’s WWII Veterans “What did you do during the war?” That usually results in the same response, “Nothing special just did my job and tried to not to get killed.” It seems quite implausible that all of these men did little or “nothing”, but at the same time the Armed Forces of United States were able to defeat two of the most powerful military machines the world had known.
I feel that the words “I did my job” is an acknowledgement by these men that they were individuals, Citizen Soldiers of a democratic society, where no one man was more important than any other man. These individuals formed the crews of ships that were then part of the Divisions, Groups, Flotillas, Amphibious Forces and Fleets. All of these components of this total structure relied of the each individual to do their respective job, be it a Motor Machinist, a Gunner or the ship’s captain. For total victory, every individual was required to do their part.
This story follows only one ship and one man’s time aboard for 30 days. The ship had already been serving in the Southwest Pacific since 1942 as part of Flotilla 7 and had been involved in many of the invasions that had eliminated the Japanese threat in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. By doing “nothing special,” Chris and the ship were another part of the final chapters concluding World War II.
Day 1 October 2, 1944
Christopher Shelvik S2/c had received his orders, he was to report aboard USS LCI(R)-337. This was his first shipboard assignment and it was to be his last until the war ended. These first 30 days were just an introduction to what the next 11 months would bring.
Chris Shelvik had joined the United States Navy just 10 months prior to this assignment on November 26, 1943. He had said his good-byes to his brothers and sisters. Now a young man of 17 years and 9 months of age was just another of the 2 million men in a Navy uniform at that time. And he was headed for places that you could hardly find on a map, even if you knew where to look.
Chris lived in Hartford Washington in his early years and later moved to Lake Stevens Washington where he had graduated from high school. Both towns were just 45 miles northeast of Seattle. For Boot Camp he was sent to Farragut Idaho, where he spent the winter of 1943-1944. After completing basic training, he was given a 10 pass before reporting to Signal School. By May 1944 Chris had successfully completed the 16-week course where there was a 50% wash out rate. However the Signal Man rating was not to be, due to a “slight infraction of Naval Conduct.” The officer in charge thought that a Seaman 2nd class rating was appropriate considering the circumstance. A 10 day leave helped to relieve some of his disappointment.
He then reported for temporary assignment at Bremerton Washington where he was assigned to Gate Escort duty at the Bremerton Navy Hospital. Later with about 400 other men Chris went aboard the USS Attu CVE-102 for transfer to Alameda.
The USS Attu was built in 1944 in Portland Oregon. An example of the United States industrial capability, her keel had been laid on March 16, 1944 and was commissioned on June 30, 1944. On July 19, 1944 she docked at Bremerton WA loading the supplies of war, before getting back underway to Alameda, CA. For part of the trip from Washington they were provided an antisubmarine escort by a blimp that was based at Tillamook, OR.
Arriving in San Francisco Bay, Chris and the other in the group were disembarked at Treasure Island and later transferred to the adjoining Yerba Linda Island to await forwarding orders. Those orders arrived and on August 8 1944. He joined 2,866 Navy and Army personnel going aboard the USS Rochambeau AP-63, which prior to war, provided service as a French ocean liner.
In 1941 the Rochambeau was manned by supporters of the Vichy French Forces. It was berthed in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. A group of US Navy fliers from Patrol Wing 10 and French sailors not sympathetic to the Vichy Government took over the ship and sailed it to New Zealand and then to the US west coast.(but that is a whole other story)
After the USS Rochambeau was loaded, she set a course for the South Pacific on August 13. But the trip was cut short 12 hours into the trip, and the ship had to return to San Francisco for engine repairs. The excitement of returning home ended quickly. All hands were confined to the ship for the duration of the repairs, which took until August 17. The USS Rochambeau sailed immediately to the Southwest Pacific. They were finally off to the real War.
August 27 failed to occur that year due to crossing the International Date Line. Chris said that the traditional initiation into the Order of Neptune was a bit “rough”. Some men even barricaded themselves below decks to avoid the “ceremony”
Finally, on September 5, 1944, after travelling 6,247 miles, the transport arrived at Milne Bay New Guinea and debarked all passengers following 18 days at sea and an additional 10 days of loading and repairs at San Francisco.
Chris Shelvik was assigned to the Amphibious Base at Milne Bay. He volunteered for guard duty. His specific assignment was to TP detail, which was important because TP was a scarce and valuable commodity in the Southwest Pacific. From Milne Bay he was transferred to US Naval Base 3115 at Hollandia, New Guinea, which only months earlier had been seized from the Japanese. Chris remembered that this trip to his new base was pleasant, like you would picture, a tropical cruise.
Chris Shelvik is now 18 years old and is on the other side of a world from where he was raised. This begins the story of 30 days on a LCI.
Day 2 October 3, 1944
Day 2 Chris boarded his new ship the USS LCI(R)-337 and they were back at sea. Their destination was the large naval anchorage at Manus in the Admiralties 200 miles north of Hollandia, where the US Seventh Fleet had assembled. They were accompanying other members of Flotilla 7 LCI(R)’s 230, 34, 338, 340, and 341. During the trip he received instructions and practiced as an ammunition loader on the aft port side 20MM gun. All LCI crew members were expected to perform multiple jobs proficiently if the need arose. There were always more tasks to perform than the number of specifically rated and trained crew members. Now just days into this assignment he was a Signal Man and a Gunner. As he went to his rack in the aft troop compartment, he couldn’t help but notice that this war was being fought by a bunch of 18, 19 and 20 year old kids.
Days 2-11 October 3-12, 1944
After the planning meetings at Manus finished the 337 and the other members of Flotilla 7 returned to the Naval Base at Hollandia to prepare their ships for the next planned invasion.
Day 12–16 October 13-17, 1944
The ships of Flotilla 7 by Operational Plan 101-44 departed Hollandia. They included LCI’s 28, 447, 448, 361, 363, 364, 429, 71, 72,73, 74, 31, 34, 230, 331, 337, 338, 340, 341, 342, 343, 344, 430,29, 227, 228 and 432. Their destination was Leyte Gulf in the Philippine Islands, a distance of 1530 miles. It was the middle of typhoon season but the seas remained calm and the weather was sunny and pleasant. The whole cruise was remarkably uneventful, unlike what the next months would bring. The pre-invasion calm was only broken by the occasional air raid warning as the fleet approached their target in the Philippine Islands.
Day 18 October 19, 1944
It was early Thursday morning in the Western Pacific. Back home it was already Thursday evening. Wives, sweet-hearts, and family members were hurriedly mailing last minute Christmas gifts, in the hope that these presents would reach that special man in their lives before Christmas. They were completely unaware that this task was being made much more difficult for the Fleet Post Office to accomplish because the United States Navy was on the move.
A week earlier, the Seventh Amphibious Force had sailed out of their anchorages at Manus and Hollandia. They had become another part of the thousand ships that were part of Operation Musketeer-King II; whose purpose was take back the Philippine Islands, after they had been lost to the Japanese just 30 months earlier. The first landing targeted Leyte Island on its North East coast. General MacArthur knew that the Japanese were anticipating this invasion; he intended to strike them first where they were the least prepared. Now the experienced crew of the little Rocket Ship prepared as they had done so many times before.
Day 19 October 20, 1944
When the beach bombardment group of LCI Flotilla 7 entered Leyte Gulf it was 3AM. The Invasion was a go! By 6AM the Japanese Air attacks on the fleet had begun, but it has little effect on the movements of the ships of the Seventh Fleet. At 7AM the heavy bombardment by the battleships, cruisers and destroyers of the landing beaches and surrounding areas had commenced and continued until the landing craft were formed up and were ready for their assault of Leyte’s beaches.
USS LCI(R)-337 had been assigned to White Beach at San Ricardo in the Northern Attack area. They were supporting units of the 1st Cavalry Division. Earlier that morning, they had loaded 480 4.5inch rockets and at 9AM they formed up with the other LCI’s of Flotilla 7 and headed toward the target to deliver their deadly barrage. After the 1st rocket barrage they took a fire support position off White beach. But the landings for the most part were unopposed. MacArthur had been right on this point. By 11AM the initial landing was over.
But the Invasion had just begun!
Day 19-22 October 20-23, 1944
On Leyte, just southeast of the City of Tacloban, was an airstrip that the US Army wanted for air operations to support the troops that had landed. It was captured and air operations began almost immediately. The US operations from the air base attracted the attention of the Japanese and it became a target for constant night attacks. War time air operations often result in fire from burning planes and burning aviation gasoline. Chris pointed out that one of the items that is not normally loaded on LST and Attack Transports is fire equipment and firemen to fight those fires.
When the LCI’s of Flotilla 7 were converted to Rocket Ships in the Southwest Pacific, they also added additional firefighting and salvage equipment. One additional officer and 17 men were also assigned to the Flotilla who were fire fighting specialists. Their task was to train the men on how to properly fight various types of fires.
Then every night from October 20-24 the Japanese attacked the air field. Their planes always managed to start several fires. When the Army requested help from the Navy, the Navy would then order the Firefighting LCI(R)’s to the scene. The LCI’s nosed on to the beach adjacent to the airstrip and ran 2 ½ inch hoses to the point where they could fight these fires. Some nights it would take hours to bring these blazes under control. During that time the tide would fall and a few unlucky LCI’s became stranded until the next tide.
Day 24 October 25, 1944
At 0845 the morning of October 24, 1944, the fire fighting ships of Flotilla 7 were ordered to respond to the aid of the USS Sonoma (ATO-12). The fleet tug had been crashed dived by a Japanese BETTY bomber. The LCI(R)-72 was the first ship on scene and immediately began fire fighting and rescue operations. She was soon joined by the fleet tug USS Chicksaw (ATF-83). LCI(R)-337 came along side the LCI(R)-72 to provide assistance in caring for the wounded evacuated from the USS Sonoma.
Just on October 25, 1944 the ship’s logs record 3 separate air attacks on the ships of Flotilla 7. During the previous evening, all hell had broken out in the seas around Leyte Island. In the Surigao Straight to the southeast the old Battleships of the US Navy had retribution for their loss at Pearl Harbor by destroying an attacking Japanese battle fleet. That morning, northeast of Leyte, another US Navy Task Group comprised of escort carriers and their screening destroyers and destroyer-escorts, had taken on another Japanese battle fleet and turned them back. During that engagement 5 ships of the US Navy had been sunk.
Early in the morning of the 25th a request was sent up the chain of command to organize a search and rescue task group to find the any possible survivors of the ships that had gone down. It took a second request later in the day of the 25th before the orders were cut and Task Group 78.12 was formed. It consisted of 2 Patrol Craft (PCs) and 5 LCIs. The officer requesting the LCI’s as part of the task group, reasoned that the bow ramps on the LCI would be helpful in getting men out of the water, and the troop compartments would provide berthing for the wounded and other survivors. This was the Navy, and snafus had been known to occur. The LCI(R) attached to the search and rescue group had neither the bow ramps nor the troop compartments because they had been removed during their conversion to a Rocket Ships. At 1900 (7PM) the LCI(R)s 34, 71,337, 340, and 341 with PC 623 and 1119 set course for the area off Samar Island to look for the survivors.
Day 25 October 26, 1944
At 6AM the Task Group arrived in the area where they determined that the survivors would be based on the information that they had received. With 2000 yard intervals between ships they began a north south sweep at 10 knot speed for 25 miles before changing to the opposite direction. The process continued though the daylight hours. At 2127 LCI(R)-337 spotted debris and oil but no signs of life. They had been on this mission for over 24 hours. Any of the crew who were not on watch were topside peering out into the waves searching for any possible survivors.
Day 26 October 27, 1944
0055 the crew spotted their first survivor
0142 brought another survivor aboard.
0215 Life boat with survivors spotted and rescued
0654 4 survivors spotted and rescued
0745 58 Survivors from the USS Hoel (DD-533)
0840 Located additional survivor
0900 Rescued 1 from USS Johnston (DD-557)
0905 Rescued 5 from USS Johnston (DD-557)
0930 Rescued additional group of 85 men
During a period of 8 hours, 172 survivors were brought aboard the LCI(R)-337. 25 were stretcher cases from wounds that they received in battle. 60 others had other wounds ranging from major to minor and all suffered from exposure from the 2 days they spent in the waters off Samar after their ships sank. Even after giving up all the bunk spaces of the officers and crew on the ship, there still wasn’t enough bunk space to accommodate all the wounded. At 1000 the Task Group retired from the search and set course for Leyte Gulf. There were hundreds of survivors aboard the 7 ships that required immediate medical care. At 1840 (6:40PM) the LCI(R)-337 maneuvered along side of DE-47 to transfer their doctor to treat the more seriously wounded.
Day 27 October 28, 1944
LCI(R)-337 comes alongside the Hospital Ship LST-464 at 0850 and begins the process to transfer all the injured sailors and airmen that had been rescued. Following the evacuation the ship proceeded to the transport area to offload the remaining survivors. Then the crew turned to the task of cleaning the ship of blood, bandages, oil and sea water.
Day 28 October 29, 1944.
A “Moderate Typhoon” was predicted to arrive at the anchorage at San Pedro late in the day. By evening it was a full gale. “Ships in the harbor were slipping anchor and attempting wild maneuvers to prevent collisions with other ships.” It was a preview of events that would occur 1 year later at Okinawa.
Chris Shelvik was selected as the subject of this story because he is one of the oldest original members and the highest seniority in the USS LCI National Assoc. He has Membership #9, which was assigned originally by Tiny Clarkson, long before the days of computerized record keeping.
When I interviewed Chris, I asked what he was doing during all these events. He explained that he was a trained Signalman and was stationed on the Conn with the ship’s captain, just doing what he was ordered to do.
During the 30 days in this story, not a single member of the crew was cited for any action above and beyond the call of duty. Action Reports stated only, “Performance of the officers and men was of the highest order”. Just “Nothing Special” for a bunch of 18, 19 and 20- year old kids.