USS Plunger SS-179, our LCI was stationed in a natural deep water lagoon off the island of Peleliu. We were a “gun boat,” designed to come close to shore and fire “grass cutters” – bombs that would hit the Japs just behind the shore where they were hiding to fire on our men as they were coming ashore. Our LCIs had no names, only numbers. We were the flagship of “Flotilla 13,” the lucky “Black Cat Flotilla.” Our orders were to stop the Japanese from infiltrating from the surrounding islands. We did a pretty good job of it. We had destroyed barges carrying the enemy, low in the water, or spotted them for the Marine pilots to destroy.
USS Plunger alongside the USS Fulton, July 24, 1942
By the fall of 1944 there had been no more attempts to infiltrate for some time but we stayed vigilant. Every night we had the OD and two lookouts on the bridge. The bridge of an LCI is something like a submarine’s, being very small, only about 6’ x 6’. As the Quartermaster, I spent most of my time on the bridge as well.
Constantly scanning the water with binoculars, the lookouts were supposed to report to the OD any sightings and he had to decide what action to take.
This night a lookout reported seeing something in the water, and the OD ordered our search light turned on. Then all hell broke loose!
There were dozens of Kamakazi swimmers in the water, all wearing yellow caps (we found out the significance of that later). They all had grappling hooks and bamboo poles and some of them were pushing rafts of bamboo loaded with explosives.
Their objective was two-fold; to board the ships silently and kill the crew (whom they assumed would be sleeping) and to place the five hundred pound bombs under the sterns of the LCIs and blow them up. All of the swimmers had large sashes tightly bound around their waists to protect them from the blast of the bomb going off.
The problem was that many of the kamakazi swimmers were too close to the boats for our 20mm and .30 calibre guns to be leveled at them.
USS Plunger Gun Crew doing cleaning and maintinance on the 4-inch .50 calibre deck gun
Our shouts brought the entire crew topside and everyone started shooting at the swimmers with their .45’s. It was like shooting clay pigeons. Those further away were dispatched with the machine guns. We also had to be careful not to hit any of the other LCIs close to us.
In the middle of this chaos, one Japanese had managed to hide
behind our LCVP, which was tied to the stern. When all the swimmers had been
killed or driven off, we discovered this lone Japanese. The “old man”, Captain
Morrill (John Henry) yelled
“hold fire” and we brought him on board.
He was pretty scared, and probably pretty happy, too. There was no question of talking to him as he had no English and none of our guys spoke Japanese; but we gave him coffee and cigarettes and he bowed a lot, I expect to say.
Only seven miles long, Peleliu had an airfield in the south; a swamp covered most of the eastern side. Volcanic in origin, Peleliu presented a low profile and rough surface of cliff faces, sinkholes, coral outcroppings, caves, and thick vegetation.
I was stationed on an LCI which stands for Landing Craft Infantry, but our particular boat was equipped with rocket launchers, which made us a “G” that stood for “gunboat.” We were attached to what was called Flotilla 13, and we were supposed to capture the islands Peleliu and Angaur. When this had been accomplished, our LCI was supposed to act as a buffer between Peleliu and the islands to the north – the Japanese could infiltrate on barges between the islands.
Our base was in a lagoon. During the day we could see all the open waterways, but at night some of the LCI’s had to be stationed across the northern part of Peleliu as we didn’t have radar and had to depend on visual sightings.
There was another danger, aside from the Japanese. When our picket boats sighted a barge, we would radio the Marine F4F squadron giving them an approximate location. They would attack. This usually worked, but once in a while, they hit our boats. On one occasion, the armor-piercing shells destroyed one of our LCIs; we radioed them about the mistake and, after that, they were more careful.
During the day, anchored in the lagoon, we spent our time swimming, fishing, and resting up for the night’s vigil. Most of the fish we caught – and they were very easy – were parrot fish. The Army survival manual said they were poisonous, so we threw them back in, until we found out that the islanders had been eating them since time began. They had also been serving them to the high ranking officers – supplied daily with the filets by helicopter. We checked with the local suppliers and found this to be true. After that we didn’t throw them back but ate them – absolutely delicious! (And we didn’t lose a man to parrot fish!)
Our harbor was large and very deep; it was also mined. This didn’t matter to the LCIs as we drew only about three feet and the mines, held by cables, were about six feet under the water. This precluded the larger supply ships coming in to unload – they were forced to unload outside in pretty rough water. The mines were ugly things, big balls with spikes; we could see them clearly from our ship or when we swam in the lagoon. Unfortunately, the mine sweepers couldn’t operate in the lagoon.
USS Plunger alongside the USS Fulton, July 24, 1942
This problem was overcome in an odd manner. As a Senior Petty Officer, I accompanied our CO, Captain Morrill, to meetings with senior officers on the beach. We took our LCI to a point south of the harbor where an LCVP “water taxi” of the army command would ferry us to the dock. On the beach there were jeeps to take the officers to headquarters for the scheduled meetings.
Along with meetings, Headquarters also had regulations – one of these was that the water taxis did not operate after 1800 hours (6 PM). A meeting had lasted longer than expected and Captain Morrill arrived back at the dock after the cutoff time. Plead as he might, the Sergeant in charge would not organize a water taxi for us.
There were a couple of LCVPs by the dock – they
belonged to the LSTs. The Commander smiled and asked me if I thought I could
handle one. I said,
“Commander, if you will throw off the lines after I start the
engine, we’ll be gone before they know what happened.” It was tricky because
the LCVP was facing the shore and there were some heavy swells. I had to
maneuver the turn so as not to catch a swell and capsize. My timing wasn’t the
best – we were in a hurry – but we managed the turn and, with full power, were
back to the LCI quick smart. We tied the LCVP to the stern and high-tailed it
back to the harbor.
Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel (LCVP)
Incdentally, if the coxswain of that LCVP ever reads this (it belonged to LST 228) he’ll know what happened to his stolen LCVP – he must have gotten hell for losing it.
As soon as we anchored in the harbor, the Commander had the number “228” painted over to hide the ownership of the craft.
Captain Morrill was like a kid with a new toy. He had a .30 calibre machine gun mounted on the bow and opted to make reconnaissance trips to the northern islets to see if any Japanese could be spotted. We did see sniper posts high up in some of the coconut palms and we destroyed those immediately. I wasn’t too happy about these “search and destroy” missions (I never thought of myself as a hero, and we were in an open boat, like sitting ducks) but it turned out, after the first spray of .30 calibre, the Japanese were more afraid of us than we were of them.
Then Captain Morrill had a brainstorm. You remember the mines? He decided to have a “round-up” sort of cowboy style. With a fifty foot heavy-duty line and 8 or 10 of the best swimmers, we would locate a mine; make a lasso, and then the swimmers formed a circle and allowed the hawser to sink over the mine. They got back in the boat and, with the hawser attached to the stern of the LCVP, we pulled the loop tight around the mine’s cable and pulled it into shallow water. At a distance of about fifty yards we shot at the mine with the .30 calibre – sometimes we were lucky and hit one of the spikes, which blew that ugly thing up, but even if we didn’t, the holes that we put into the mine let it fill with water and sink to the bottom harmlessly. I don’t know how many mines we cleared – it took us about two weeks – but after that the harbor was clear and the supply ships could come right in. Our reward was fresh fruit and vegetables that we hadn’t been able to get before.
Captain Morrill was already an outstanding naval officer. He had been a submarine officer, stationed in the Phillipines. When the Japanese invaded, he had been based at Corregidor. When it became obvious that Corregidor would be lost, he commandeered an 18 foot motor launch and, with about a dozen crew and a make-shift sail, escaped from “the Rock” traveling down the coastline of the islands and eventually he reached Darwin, Australia. He wrote a book about that called “South from Corregidor” – my autographed copy of that got “borrowed” and was never returned.