In 1950 At 17 I Had Battleship Duty In Korea And This Is My Story
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On my 17th birthday, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. The war in Korea began heating up while I was in boot camp, Great Lakes, IL. Upon graduation, two Navy Companies (120 men) were assigned to the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63) in Norfolk, VA.
I was assigned to the “FA” Division which was responsible for the ship’s armament. Back then, we had 20 quad-40 mm mounts, 10 twin 5”/38 mounts, 49 single 20mm guns and the main battery of 16” rifles – 3 in each of the three turrets.
I worked with Fire Control Men and Fire Control Technicians as a “fire control man striker.” Back in those days, my payday was $89 a month. We received an additional $8 per month for “sea pay.” Cigarettes were .70 cents per carton. And, we didn’t have the cushy bunks that were installed in the 80’s! Our racks consisted of stretched canvas over pipe frames hanging by chains – four racks high!
My battle station was Quad-40mm Mount #18, which was located on the Fantail, port side. I was Telephone Talker & Assistant Director Operator for that gun mount. I was also qualified to takeover any gun crew position should anyone become incapacitated.
When “general quarters – battle stations” was sounded, I had to double-time it from my berthing quarters just aft of the anchor windlass room in the bow, to the fantail, often through snowflakes.
It was one of the coldest winters in Korea’s history. Temps dropped to 29 degrees below zero. The wind-chill factor got down to 98 below.
We were issued arctic foul weather gear which included pressed-wool face masks. The mask had slits for seeing and nose and mouth holes for breathing. The moisture from breathing became icicles dangling from our face masks which gave the appearance of fangs! We shared a good laugh about that!
A scant four hours after boarding, the ship moved away from the pier and headed for the open sea.
We encountered hurricane “Able” off Cape Hatteras, NC, later that day! The Commanding Officer (Captain Irving T. Duke) decided to steam through the hurricane which measured about 350 miles in diameter.
Peak winds reached 140 mph on the 19th of August; we lost two helicopters and a Plymouth sedan due to the strong, pounding waves of sea water and high winds.
Following the tight squeeze through the locks at the Panama Canal (only inches to spare on either side of the ship), we made a stop-over in San Diego, CA and Pearl Harbor, HI for replenishment of supplies and ammunition.
As we reached the East Sea of Korea, we came face-to-face with typhoon “Kezia!” Due to the bad weather, we were too late to take part in MacArthur’s invasion at Inchon as planned. Low tide prevented us from entering the harbor at Inchon. The water level dropped to about 34 feet.
So, the ship was sent to the east coast of North Korea for a diversionary action at Samchok. The first 16” shells to explode on N. Korean soil occurred the morning we hit Samchok! We fired more than 50 rounds of 16” projectiles during that bombardment. Later that day, we hit Pohang with more than 80 rounds. One of the proudest times was when the ship abruptly pulled out of our bombardment mission at Pohang to help rescue the crew of one of our LST’s which had broached on a beach south of our position. She was on her side, making her guns useless. On arrival at the scene, we provided gunfire support all through the night.
The next day, while three smaller ships continued the rescue, our ship returned to Pohang and fired almost 300 rounds of 16” so that the Republic of Korea (ROK) 3rd division could advance. We fired those 300 rounds in just 30 minutes!
Another proud moment was when the ship was assigned covering-fire to protect the First Marine Division and a couple army groups as they made their way from the Chosin Reservoir to the port city of Hungnam, N. Korea.
More than 350,000 Chinese troops came over the mountains into N. Korea and almost entrapped the Marines at the reservoir. The troops called the Reservoir the “Frozen Chosin!”
Once the Chinese were within our gun range, we fired those 16” and 5” shells over the heads of our Marines and they landed on or just in front of the hordes of Chinese troops who were in hot pursuit.
During that grueling 57 mile “fighting withdrawal” to Hungnam, N. Korea the marines suffered more than 12 thousand casualties (more than 7 thousand were non-combat – due to weather conditions).
The scariest time, at least for me, was when three of us were injured by the concussion waves from the firing from turret #3.
When Turret #3 (on the Fantail of the ship) was needed for bombardment, all personnel on the Fantail were ordered into the superstructure to avoid the effects of concussion waves.
On one occasion, three of us didn’t make it to the superstructure and the concussion waves of a two-gun salvo picked us up about 5 feet into the air and then slammed us down to the wooden deck. The sailor running just ahead of me almost made it to the hatch; I was flipped over and landed on my back; and the sailor running behind me was hanging on to the life lines.
Well, everyone knows you can’t hurt a “teenager,” so we helped each other into the superstructure just before they fired the big guns again! We returned to our battle stations when they no longer needed Turret #3.
In addition to aircraft carrier screening duties and gunfire support, the Missouri participated in 19 bombardment missions – 2 were categorized as major battles.
After about 7 months on station in Korean waters, we headed back to Norfolk. The battleship USS New Jersey (BB-62) relieved us.