"THE FORGOTTEN 55"
Fifty-Five Seabees and a PT Squadron
by Erwin S. Hein, Y2c, SEABEE Staff Correspondent
The Mailman never seems to catch up with this detachment of Seabees who roam the Pacific building bases for PT boats, and nursing the famed sea wasps through trying times. They work, live and fight alongside the PT crews, and chop out bases on islands swarming with Japanese. This is the first story of a gang which is writing its own robust chapters in the colorful saga of the Torpedo Boats.
THE PHILIPPINES.—"See what can be done about the mail," said Lt. Harold F. Liberty, in command of the forgotten 55. He grinned again, but wistfully. "Here it is summer - and the boys are barely getting their Christmas gifts."
He kept one eye on the spread of blue Pacific, frothing in a frame of palms. The other was swathed in gauze, covered with a black patch. Jungle infection. Across the table, rubbing the dust off a carbine, the executive officer took up the lament.
"Soon we'll be back on the water - any day now," he said. "Then the mails will fall behind again. They seldom catch up. It's been that way the better part of a year. The boys think that's the toughest part of the war."
This didn't look like war. In tents around the officers' hut, fifty of the Navy’s Seabees were idling for the first time in weeks. At last they had a Sunday off. No bombs to dodge, no night work coming up. Most of the men were writing letters. Some were smoking and e the breeze. Brown bodies shone with sweat. The sun beat down on dark canvas, stained from much moving.
Lt Liberty turned and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke at the cocoanuts.
"Yes,'' he said, "It's been a full year. We've just had our first anniversary.
"We'd still be working in a construction Battalion, but the Navy needed a small outfit that could get around fast. The Job was to build operational bases for motor torpedo boats in forward ' areas. So we got together what we ~called a PT detachment—just 55 men-dock builders, carpenters, riggers, electricians, crane operators, powder men, divers, welders, and so forth.
''Each man has a place in at least three operations, the exec added, the cook can drop his skillet and run a winch or string a pipeline. The hospital corpsman doesn't tie his last bandage and go to bed—he mans the crane or drives a truck. Every last one of them is a potential gunner.
''The instant we hit a beach, every man knows his position. There Is ~o fumbling, no lost motion. They are the best damn team in the Pacific—and it's all because the men are smart, tough, willing and proud."
Back home someday, scattered over 28 of the states, the Forgotten 55 may flaunt only two campaign ribbons—-the Pacific theater and the Philippines Liberation.
But if they continue much longer to needle the Nips, their battle stars will be thicker than fleas on a 'possum.
It is easy to see why it was May before they even got the Thanksgiving news from home. They were on the go too much. Their .wake jagged across the Western Pacific like chain lightning. Each barbed angle is (or was) an advance PT base—a point from which the Navy's bantam speedsters darted out to plague the enemy.
''From the beginning," said Lt. Liberty, "the boys have had to fight their way along. In their very first action, the landing on Biak, they had four plane attacks on the way up. They manned the ship's guns. At Woendi they were attacked for 21 days. They lost most of their contacts with friendly civilization, .and somewhere they began calling themselves the Forgotten 55.
It's been one job after another, with little time for rest. Somebody called them the mailless and meatless marvels of the 113th U. S. Naval Construction Battalion. It's been rough going, but the boys don't want sympathy—they want mail."
So far there is no end in view. The Forgotten 55 are fated< to miss more mail and more meals. They have traveled far but they must travel farther—possibly clear up to the happy night they sneak PT docks into Hirohito's lily ponds.
But they can stand the travel. The lads are inveterate wanderers. Almost without exception they are itinerant construction men by civilian experience, most of them young, all of them hardy.
Lt Liberty, himself, is 36, a graduate of Northeastern University. His home is on Briar Brae road, Stamford, Conn. His wife and two children are there. The executive officer, Lt. Theodorick M. Knobel, is a resident of 1048 Jefferson street, St. Charles, Mo. Camp construction superintendent is 28-year-old Gale D. Hedrick, CCM. He comes from Corpus Christi, Tex - 2515 Hulbirt street. He, too, is a family man, with a wife and daughter. Waterfront construction is supervised by another CCM, 32-year-old Harlon E. Plum, of Bussey, La. His family consists of wife, three daughters and a son.
It was Lt. Liberty's practice to send his Seabees out with the hard-fighting PT crews whenever possible. It made for better cooperation. The Seabees learned to appreciate PT merits, and they took more interest in building advance bases for the scrappy little "dreadnots." It was risky fun bounding over black water, dodging reefs, and groping for enemy vessels.
There was a time when one of the PTs ripped into a reef but kept on fighting. Its guns shot up three barges while Seabees were out on the shoal, hip-deep in swishing water, removing the grounded screws and jostling the craft off the sharp coral fringe. Helped by the rising tide, the boat finally floated, the screws were replaced, and the quest for Japs was resumed.
Taxpayers' Bonus: American taxpayers won an unexpected $600,000 dividend when four men of the Forgotten 55 floated a pair of. PT boats, beached high and dry by hurricane. The operation was extraordinary, salvaging valuable boats which normally would have been written off as expended.
At the worst of the hurricane, PT boats circled in a boiling Philippines harbor like frantic ducklings. They couldn't head seaward in such bashing water, yet it took all their vaunted power to avoid crashing upon the shore. Most of them outrode the storm, but two of the fragile craft were lifted broadside by waves and deposited on the beach. Their keels cleared the tide by several feet.
"We took a fire pump over, and borrowed a Cat from the 88th Battalion," said Lt. Liberty. "We used the fire pump to wash the sand from beneath the boats, and the 'Cat' pushed the sand aside until we had settled the craft about five feet. Then we dug a channel on the seaward side to let in the water. "It took our four-man launching crew 48 hours to float the first boat. The second was freed in half the time. They came off so gently that no damage was done. It was a damn good job."
Sound effects for this salvage task were provided by Jap planes, shuttling over their attack route to Tacloban. The toilers had to ignore the threat of bombs and bullets while they each earned more than $2,000 an hour for the U. S. Treasury. Taxpayers may credit this rebate to: Orville E. Skinner, of Thermopolis, Wyo., who bossed the job; Hosai E. McFarland, 1881 Lanham street, San Pedro, Calif.; Charles H. Thompson, Jr., 901 Fairmont street, Latrobe, Pa.; and Clifford L. Haskins, 401 2nd street, Hoquiam, Wash.
They threw in another salvage job for good measure. One PT-boat, pinked by Jap "daisy cutter" and finally grounded on a reef was all but sunk. Water poured into the punctured hull faster than the pumps could get it out. It was a losing fight until the Seabees got an extra pump aboard, lashed the foundering PT alongside their barge and wallowed away with it, pumping furiously. They got the stricken boat to dry-dock with moments to spare.
Battling the Pacific's fickle weather is merely part of the grist. Out of the gentle blue comes a raging wind, lifting the sea before it, and the best efforts of 55 men are littered on the beach. Typhoons have dogged the Forgotten 55 in a relentless game of tag.
They were lucky, in their landing on Leyte. They were battered by an all night gale, but there was mud enough to anchor the men to the beach. The goo was up to their belts, in fact. Unable to move from their tracks, they formed a coolie line to pass the supplies ashore - tugging, pushing and rolling the stuff from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.. while trucks dumped it one mile inland. ''The men were so utterly exhausted. We had to knock off at 4 a.m." said Lt. Liberty, "but we picked up the job again at seven. Four hours later we had 95 per cent of the materials unloaded from two LSTs - and then came orders to reload it all! Another spot was chosen for our landing. There was no chance for rest. The men had to work all day and far into the night
When it comes to the submarine operation of a D-8 caterpillar, the Forgotten 55 wave their gonfalon for Carlisle G. Madison, MMIc, of Brownsdale, Minn. It was 10 p.m. when their LST nosed into the beach at Samar, and the sickly moonlight showed white sand, seemingly firm. Anyway there was no time to test the terrain. First down the ramp was Madison, jockeying his 25-ton tractor-bulldozer.
"Immediately upon leaving the ramp," said Lt Liberty, "the 'Cat' buried itself in the mud. Only the exhaust was sticking out of the water. For a few doubtful moments there was no sign of the driver, but soon he spluttered into view, coughing up cusswords in a murky lather. He got back astride the tractor, with water up to his armpits, and managed to keep the motor running.
"Recovery of the 'Cat' was a laborious deal, lasting until 5:00 a.m. We rigged the sodden 'Cat' to winches on the LST and finally got it back on the ramp - the engine still roaring happily. By 9 a.m. we had the 'dozer on the beach and were building a drier ramp
“The boys had worked throughout the night, never daring to show a light. They were under constant attack, and most of them worked in the water."
Jap fliers bombed and strafed indiscriminately. Battlewise Forgotten 55ers held their own casualties to an amazing minimum, but havoc raged around them. Hapless Filipino civilians perished in their village streets and in jungle clearings. American landing forces took their share of the punishment, but dealt it back in triple measure. Then three members of the Seabee detachment gave thanks to a well-made warehouse door, which saved them from a bomb.
We were watching a dog-fight in the air when an anti-personnel bomb struck the door of a warehouse next to us."' said Chief Hedrick. ''The bomb crashed through the steel door and onto the other side. The door absorbed the shrapnel, though men around us were knocked off their feet by concussion."
Chief Hedrick swapped congratulations with Claude T. Washer, of Columbia, La.; Albert W. Dries, Emmaus, Pa.; and Harry O. Dale, 5615 Northeast 37th avenue, Portland, Ore.
"Over the hill" is Navy terminology for unauthorized departure - and sometimes it applies to equipment. On treacherous terrain of the Philippines, where the Seabees had to grind their own roadways out of the coral and slime, their rolling stock was forever bogging down or sliding into the jungle. Three trucks and a “Cat” went "over the hill" with high priority loads.
"We were under raids all the time," said the skipper, "and another hurricane came in. The Japs and the elements combined against us. But the boys beat them both with some superhuman effort and kept the cargoes moving. Construction proceeded despite frequent interruptions."
Norwell S. Roth wouldn't let a hurricane interfere with a good game of pitch. Back home at 246 Parker avenue, Elkhart, Ind., he'll tell about this game as the highlight of his years in the service.
"I’ve been strafed and bombed by four planes at a time," said Roth, "At least 10 suicide planes have dived in my vicinity. I've been shelled repeatedly, and I've passed the ammunition at the height of the battle. "But nothing quite equals playing pitch in a hurricane. Tents were tumbling all around us, the cards were soggy, and we had three inches of water underfoot. Besides, I lost $14 - but it was an experience."
The astounding ease with which frightened men squeeze into impossible places was discovered by Floyd M. Gray, of 12547 51st South, Seattle, Wash. The revelation came to him while the 55ers were moving cargo from one ship to another offshore. The sky was spitting fire and lead. A couple of Japs already had been shot down within a few hundred yards. Another bomber peeled off and came down strafing.
"A steel deck is no place to dig a foxhole with your fingers," said Gray. "The only refugee I could find was behind a ventilator. I was in line behind a 20-mm. gun, which was chewing pieces off the plane. Just before it got to us, the plane seemed to be lifted a little by the shells, and it went right over my head - the red spots as big as a truck - and it crashed about 20 feet off the starboard side. It threw gas, oil and parts all over the two ships.
"There was a small hole under a winch on our deck. One man could hardly get into it. But it was plenty big for two men when that plane exploded.
"We were on that LST for three weeks. In that time the ship shot down 12 planes, and six of them were suicide divers."
Silver Star: D-Day at Mindoro put a hero's halo on the swarthy brow of little Malcolm A. Peppo, MM3c. He earned the Navy's Silver Star for gallantry in action. His shipmates, who gladly grant that the 19-year-old Peppo saved some lives, regard him as a man of heroic proportions. Yet he is small - five feet inches, weighing only 140 pounds - and modest: "Hell, any guy in the outfit would do the same thing." He is a soft-spoken Louisianan, a native of Gulfport, Miss., but a resident of 8820 Willow street, New Orleans.
Rear Admiral R.0. Glover, commander of 7th Fleet service forces, pinned the medal on Peppo's chest. At the same time he read this citation: "Peppo was unloading stores from his. . . (Continued on page 14 which is missing along with the rest of the paper)