UNLOADING LST’s AND THE BATTLE FOR BOUGAINVILLE

Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 1st, 2018, 12:47 pm #1

6th Special N.C.B - November 23, 1943 – September,1944 - Bougainville, Solomon Islands

UNLOADING LST’s AND THE BATTLE FOR BOUGAINVILLE


On November 22, 1943, echelon one of the 6th special NCB followed the First Marine Amphibious Corps to Bougainville. After breaking camp and loading their equipment on an LCT, they picked up their helmets, packs and rifles and boarded LCI’s for the 170-mile trip from Vella Lavella to Empress Augusta Bay. As the Seabee stevedores of echelon one, and the LST supply convoy they were part of, sailed northward where the Third Marine Division was beating back the Japanese along the Numa Numa trails to secure ground for the two additional bomber strips called for in Admiral Halsey's plans.

Just before dawn on November 23, as 6th special echelon one's convoy drew up to Cape Torokina, an air raid alert was sounded. Anti-aircraft guns on the beaches opened fire, exciting the dim sky with the blazing streaks of thousands of tracers. The LCI’s and some of the LST’s slipped through the coral lined channel and quickly made their way to the beach north of Cape Torokina to discharge their cargoes. Other LST’s headed for the seaward side of Puruata Island, about 1,000 yards away. It took most of the day for echelon one to get into its temporary bivouac position. Before they left the beach they saw an LST get hit with mortar fire and their Marine neighbors shoot up some Japanese barges moving up on their left flank. Between these episodes of violence they discharged their equipment, piling it on the narrow beach feet from the bows of their landing craft. The LCT’s were unloaded easily, but negotiating crates down the steep narrow ramps of the LCI’s was more difficult.

The Seabees were assigned a bivouac area in front of the artillery batteries about 1,000 yards from the nearest point of the perimeter, a salient approximately four miles wide and four miles deep. No part of the beachhead was out of enemy gun range, and the Japanese had been busy moving artillery, up to 155mm, into the hills outside the perimeter to shell the American positions. In light of this, compared to the danger of enemy shellfire, rain and mud were minor concerns. The 6th's camp was nothing more than a couple of hundred foxholes dispersed among trees of an uncleared jungle. The stench of things rotten pervaded the jungle, especially after the daily rainstorm. The humidity and the insects made life even more unpleasant. It was preferable to sleep above ground rather than in a wet foxhole, so some men improvised sleeping platforms right over their foxhole shelters. During an air alert they could roll out of bed and into their foxholes. The 6th special men were technically behind the perimeter, but that perimeter had plenty of holes in it, and there was real danger of Japanese infiltrators, so guards were posted. It was an uneventful first night beyond wild shooting by nervous men on sentry duty and the unfamiliar sound of American artillery harassing the Japanese.

On November 23, as the Marines were finishing off the Japanese resistance to the northwest of the proposed bomber strips, the stevedores of echelon one were sent to the beach to assist Marine unloading details, while the 6th's maintenance gang got to work building their showers and galley. The returning stevedores found hot food and cool showers waiting for them when they returned from the beach, but not a good night's rest. The whistle of incoming artillery shells sent a cry through the bivouac to take cover. The men dashed for their foxholes and wished they had dug them deeper as Japanese shells exploded near their camp shaking the earth. Throughout the night the Japanese guns sent shells over their heads. The enemy lengthened and shortened the range unpredictably, apparently searching for some profitable target; perhaps it was the Marine artillery battery dug in 200 yards behind echelon one. Many of the shells fell too close for comfort and to compound the strain, Japanese bombers raided the area before dawn. Sunrise on November 23rd brought an end to the night’s mayhem, with no 6th Special casualties.

Though the historian can look back and calmly calculate that the Japanese air attacks on Bougainville were never of sufficient magnitude to threaten the success of the operation, the picture was much different to the men who stood on the receiving end of those attacks. The few planes that slipped past the airsols combat air patrols and the island anti-aircraft defenses were of great concern to the stevedores whose work was frequently interrupted by them. The prime targets for Japanese artillery and bombers were not the Marines and Army troops on the perimeter but the ships, supply dumps, and airfields on or near Cape Torokina where the 6th special lived and worked. Air raids and artillery attacks were so frequent in the first three months after the invasion that the Seabees had to wonder if it was less dangerous on the perimeter.

For the Seabees, working under the threat of Japanese attack made for exciting duty. On one occasion an LST beadefensive perimeter, but the stevedores gamely unloaded its cargo anyway. On Bougainville the 6th special was in the awkward position of being directly responsible for the timely discharging of the LST echelons but not having direct control over the units they were trying to unload. Getting the ships unloaded so they could get off the beach before deadline took tact and diplomacy as well as innovative stevedoring. All of the 6th special's stevedoring work on Bougainville before January 15, was unloading LST’s. The Seabees had experience in this line of work but on Bougainville it took a new twist. The beaches at Torokina were shallow causing LST’s to beach 75 feet from shore with three feet of water between their lowered ramps and the sandy bottom. This made unloading a problem. A vehicle driven off the LST ramp would disappear under the water at high tide and crash to the ground at low tide. Additional ramps were needed to bridge the gap between the LST ramp and the sand. In the strong surf, dirt ramps were quickly washed away, and coconut log ramps sometimes broke up under the continuous strain of supporting heavy vehicles. The Navy had a prefabricated ramp that held together well, but it took over an hour to assemble, an intolerable delay in light of the frequency of artillery attacks. For the sake of speed the 6th men preferred the log ramp. Bulldozers pushed it in place and then the LST’s own bow door anchor windlass was used to hoist the log ramp where it was secured. The whole operation was completed in 10 minutes. Even with the ramps in place vehicles could not always drive off under their own power if the water was too deep. When it was necessary to drive vehicles through deep water the 6th's stevedores preferred to deflate the tires slightly and remove the fan belts. If the fan belts were not removed from the engine it was likely to stall when the spinning fan blades hit the water as the vehicle rolled off the ramp into the surf. A vehicle stalled in front of the ramp was like a cork in a bottle. No other cargo could be towed or driven off the LST until a bulldozer pulled the immobile vehicle away.

The first LST echelons that the 6th discharged brought in men as well as supplies. Depending on the distance to the supply dumps, maximum cargo discharging efficiency required at least 16 trucks, eight taking on cargo in the tank deck while the other eight were delivering their loads to the supply dumps. Subsequent LST supply echelons brought fewer new troops and their related organizational gear and more of the aviation fuel and lubricating oil necessary to satisfy the needs of the three airstrips. Eventually each LST brought on 2,000 drums, about 500 tons, of fuel and oil. By this time the 6th men could discharge 2,000 drums from an LST in five to seven hours. Trucks greatly boosted the 6th's operational efficiency, but even without them, no LST that they were charged with unloading ever withdrew with its cargo less than completely discharged. This was at a time when LST’s were ordered to sail on an 18:00 deadline whether they had completed unloading or not, and many ships were leaving with cargo still on board. When they had no trucks the Seabees improvised. A 55-gallon drum of gasoline or oil weighs almost 500 pounds, which makes it very tiring to manhandle. The Seabees let the ocean carry the drums. The drums were simply rolled down the LST’s ramp and into the surf where the wave action washed them ashore. The men guided the drums through the water, swimming them in. To unload ammunition without using trucks the Seabees formed a human chain and passed artillery shells hand to hand. When there were no trucks available to take the cargo directly to the dumps, the highly explosive fuel and ammunition was simply piled on the beach. The supply-strewn beaches were inviting targets to the Japanese and a distinct danger to the coastal defense batteries. One night the Japanese artillery scored a hit on a big stack of aviation gas drums causing a tremendous explosion and spectacular fire the likes of which was rarely seen. Drums were blowing up and launching other hot drums hundreds of feet into the air, where they too would explode. There was no fighting the fire. When it finally burned out, it was discovered that 480 drums of fuel had been lost, and the intense fire had destroyed and adjacent 155mm Long Tom coastal defense gun, its melted barrel drooping like a wilted flower.

By getting the dangerous cargoes off the beach as quickly as possible they reduced the risk of losing to enemy action the supplies they had worked so hard to unload. They also eased the nerves of the 155mm gunners defending the beach, who were not enthusiastic about working in a powder keg. Work on the perimeter defenses and airfields were steadily progressing while the 6th special brought ashore the men and material to construct and sustain the beachhead. By December 15, the Army and Marine troops were finished fortifying their perimeter. The 1st MAC was relieved by the Army's XIV Corps, and the Marines contribution to the Bougainville fight began to close as newly arrived Army troops gradually relieved them all along the front line. The 6th men wondered if they too would be relieved, but it was not to be. They were attached to the XIV Corps.
The month of January brought more Japanese air raids. From Jan. 23 to Jan. 29, enemy planes attacked 11 times under cover of darkness, once hitting a ship in the bay. Red alerts caused the stevedores to lose 45 platoon hours of working time. In February, the Seabees experienced 11 more attacks over five days and lost another 40 hours to red alerts. The Seabees at least had the satisfaction of seeing one enemy plane shot down over the water. The last four attacks, which came on February 14, killed a few soldiers and showered shrapnel around the 6th's camp. In February, Japanese air and naval forces ceased to contest the American occupation of Bougainville, but the Japanese ground forces, estimated at 15,000 men, had no intention of giving up. Driving the American garrison off the island and denying them the airfields could have given Rabaul breathing space to build itself. The Americans expected the Japanese to attack. Enemy troops were on the move and barge activity was up. On February 1, several Japanese barges were sunk up the beach from the 6th's position. Rumor was that they were loaded with troops. On February 23, 700 of the 6th special men began training for emergency defensive operations. It was thought that the Japanese would attempt an amphibious landing, and the service troops would have to defend the beaches. During the March attacks, a "Condition Black", signifying an enemy amphibious landing was announced and the 6th men were sent back to camp for their rifles and ammunition. Foxholes and pillboxes were being built all over the beachhead. In their seaside foxholes they sweated out a Japanese counter invasion that fortunately never came.

The Japanese attack opened on March 8, just after dawn, when the Japanese opened up on all parts of the beachhead with artillery they had laboriously hauled up into the mountains outside the American perimeter. That night the Japanese broke through a part of the perimeter. The ground action was fierce, artillery shells were traded back and forth regularly. For ten days during the offensive, Japanese shells fell spasmodically all around the 6th's camp, blowing up an ammo dump on March 20. On the noisy nights of March 22, 23, and 24, the American gunners were trying to smother what would turn out to be the final serious attack of the Bougainville campaign. The last Japanese offensive cost the Americans 263 dead, and the Japanese more than 5,000 dead and more than 3,000 wounded. The Japanese ground forces were still an effective force, and there were a few more vigorous fights in store for the Americans in April, when they expanded the perimeter. In April the Japanese made their presence known to the 6th special with an artillery attack. The Japanese shelled the beachhead on April 10, 11, and 12, when they hit a fuel dump. After a final artillery attack on April 16, the 6th special was unmolested by the enemy.

Log from 6th Special NCB on Bougainville "1944"

AIR RAIDS ON BOUGAINVILLE
1/20 - Alert at 0400
1/21 - Alert
1/22 - Bombed @0430
1/23 - Alert @0430
1/25 - Bombed @ 0430
1/26 - Alerts @2200,2300,2400
1/27 - Alert @ 2030
1/28 - Bombed 0405 - Jap air raid Empress Augusta Bay. Our stevedores were working aboard the S.S. Bonneville, anchored near Puruata Island. At that time Puruata Island (Suicide Island) was used for our supply dump and had been bombed frequently by the Japs. 2400 - 0600 There were three crews working on the Bonneville, with Chief Dempsey in charge. Gamberg was in charge of one of the three working gangs aboard. The ack-ack flak was rather heavy from our own guns and three Jap bombs dropped quite close to the Bonneville. One bomb dropped close enough to wash her deck.
1/30 - Japs try to advance on hill 16 and are repulsed
2/4 - Bombed 2130 to 2300
2/5 - Alert 2030 to 2130 & 2230 to 2300
2/6 - Bombed 0015 to 0100
2/10 - Bombed 0200 to 0430
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 4th, 2018, 12:04 pm #2

LST at Bougainville photos.
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 4th, 2018, 12:15 pm #3

My Fathers Commanding Officer
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 5th, 2018, 8:02 pm #4

Seabee News Report at Bougainville.
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 6th, 2018, 12:10 pm #5

More Bougainville photos
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 6th, 2018, 12:53 pm #6

December 25, 1943 - Bougainville Solomon Islands. Caption on photo.

6th Special N.C.B.

Informal award ceremony of Purple Heart Medals for wounds received during the bombing of LST 448 at Vella Lavella. This ceremony was interupted by Japanese artillery fire. However since the shells were high and it was not thought their sights would be changed during the first 5 or 6 shells, the awards were completed before men were dispersed.
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 8th, 2018, 1:14 pm #7

Photos from my Father's scrapbook.

1. Unloading "LST" November 26, 1943 - Bougainville, Solomon Islands.

2. Helping unload Army Troops, Christmas Morning, December 25, 1943. Bougainville, Solomon Islands

3. "Bombs for Bougainville". - 1943.
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 9th, 2018, 8:32 pm #8

Bougainville landing operations, November 23, 1943 from the 6th Special "CB" archives
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 9th, 2018, 8:52 pm #9

6th Special N.C.B. - Unloading Drums on Bougainville.
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Joined: September 1st, 2018, 12:25 pm

September 9th, 2018, 9:15 pm #10

6th Special "CB" men helped man Defensive positions during 17 day Japanese counter-attack on Bougainville, March 1944.

Japanese War trophies - Bougainville.

Placing landing ramps for unloading on Bougainville.
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