Sixth Special NCB - Seabees -
by Frank Jardim
My inspiration for writing this history was my grandfather S1/c Frank Gall, Company A, Sixth Special NCB. I intend to publish the book in a few more years once I get a few dozen more interviews done. Frank Jardim, Arrival at San Pedro Bay, Philippines
October 28, 1944 - May 18, 1945
On September 26, a/b detachment of the 6th Special, boarded the Navy liberty ship AK 117, the U.S.S. Zaurak. The men of a/b detachment were told by the Zaurakís crew that their captain had lost a ship to Japanese bombers off Tugali and that he was determined to settle the score. There was ample evidence that this was not just braggadocio in the profusion of extra anti-aircraft guns that were welded to the deck wherever they could fit. Compared to the average liberty ship the Zaurak bristled guns.
Though the crew was inexperienced, they were as gung ho as their captain. Already veterans of too many air attacks, the Sixth NCB men shared none of the sailorsí enthusiasm for meeting the enemy at Yap. The Sixth Special's a/b detachment spent the month of October at sea. They left Bougainville on September 26 thinking their ultimate destination would be the invasion beaches of Yap.
However, unbeknownst to the Sixth men, circumstances developed in mid September that led to a decision to skip Yap and some of the other preliminary operations, and strike directly at the central Philippines. The boredom of waiting broke when the Zaurak was finally ordered north, dropping anchor in San Pedro Bay, between Leyte and Samar, on October 28 after an uneventful trip.
Things had not been uneventful in the waters off Leyte. Two days prior, the still formidable Japanese fleet made an attempt to destroy the American invasion force in Leyte Gulf. But though success was within their grasp they failed to seize it and in turn lost heavily.
The Sixth men had missed the largest naval battle in history, which was fine by them. It was at Leyte that the Japanese first used organized kamikaze attacks. The Sixth men were veterans of many an air raid, but the action they saw while aboard the Zaurak in Leyte Gulf was of a much higher magnitude than they had previously experienced. San Pedro Bay at the northern end of Leyte Gulf, an area of 400 square miles, was filled with hundreds of ships. When enemy planes came over the guns of several hundreds of ships opened fire on them. With such a heavy concentration of ships firing, it was dangerous to be on deck. Low-flying Japanese bombers drew fire from all sides, fire that crisscrossed the crowded Bay and not infrequently hit other ships.
On the Zaurak the Sixth Special men were assigned battle stations, some were stretcher bearers, others passed ammunition to the gunners. They were called to general quarters the day they arrived at San Pedro Bay.
Merely defending his ship was not enough for the Zaurakís captain. Determined to shoot down as many Japanese planes as possible he weighed anchor each night and positioned the ship at the end of the Tacloban airstrip. The Japanese attacked the airstrip nightly, and when they came the Zaurakís gunners were in a good position to take shot of them.
The Zaurak put up such an impressive volume of anti-aircraft fire that the Japanese took notice of her right away. Tokyo Rose announced on her radio program that she knew the Americans were moving a "cruiser" into position at the end of the airfield every night. The Zaurakís captain was delighted with the compliment.
These nightly moves and the enemy attention they attracted were not particularly popular with the Sixth Special men, who were eager to get ashore before their luck ran out. A few nights later it very nearly did.
The start of November brought no slackening in the Japanese air attacks. On November 1 the ship was called to general quarters eight times, and during the more than ten hours that the gunners remained on alert the Japanese attacked twice. On November 2, general quarters was called seven times. The enemy attacked only once, but the men spent another seven and one-half hours at their battle stations.
The climax of the enemy air attack came on November 3. General quarters was sounded eight times, and the men spent over eight hours at their guns. The Japanese attacked five separate times. At dawn the Japanese began a concentrated attack that lasted for over an hour. Formation after formation swooped in to bomb and strafe the ships anchored in the Bay.
They had their first encounter with a kamikaze a minute after the attack began. Hurtling toward the Zaurak a single enemy plane was discerned in the glare of the searchlights, tracers, and gun flashes. The Zaurakís gunners threw up a curtain of fire, the three inch and five inch guns thundering out over the roar of the smaller calibers, but the kamikaze did not waver. When it seemed as if the Zaurak was doomed, the enemy plane suddenly swerved as if it had struck an invisible wall, and its tail section dropped off into the sea. In flames and out of control the planes passed over the ship at masthead height and crashed into another liberty ship, the S.S. Mathew P. Deady, only 200 yards astern of the Zaurak.
One Sixth veteran recalled how he had his foot on the rail ready to jump over board as he watched the kamikaze swoop in. The Zaurakís 3 inch gun shot the tail off the Japanese suicide bomber at almost the last second. A Sixth man assigned temporarily to the Zaurakís LCVP crew was on shore by the airfield and observed the whole drama. He and three other men immediately boarded the LCVP and rushed to the burning ship to rescue the men who had been blown overboard into the burning sea. Ignoring warnings from the stricken vessels crew, and with flaming debris still falling from the sky, the four men pulled 20 from the sea and rescued five more from a raft. Seven of the survivors were badly burned.
Before the long attack was over the Zaurakís gunners shot down another enemy plane. Nine Zaurak crewman and three Sixth Special men were wounded. On November 4 the men spent another seven and a half hours on alert. General quarters was sounded six times and five attacks were beaten off. There were no casualties on the Zaurak, but a Japanese bomb missed the ship by only 50 yards.
The Seabees sweated out three more attacks before they started going ashore at Samar, on November 8. They were attacked six more times before disembarkation was completed on November 10. In the ten days that they spent afloat in San Pedro Bay they were attacked by enemy aircraft twenty seven times, and the air raids continued throughout November.
On November 10, the danger of an approaching typhoon led to the decision to rush the rest of the Sixth Special ashore on thirty minutesí notice. Their camp was still incomplete, but the blow tore down those tents that had been put up, and a wet miserable night was had by all. The stormís eye passed about 01:11, but the gusts of rain and wind continued until dawn. After the typhoon the Sixth's camp was a flooded disaster area.
The men reimposed order on their wind scattered camp, but the mud and floods were the constant companions until the dry season belatedly arrived in mid February. Vehicular traffic was impossible. High rubber boots were the normal footwear, and slipping in the slimy ooze was a way of life. Every day the stevedores had to wade through the mud to get to the beach.
The Sixth Special commenced stevedoring operations in the Philippines on November 12, handling cargo on both ship and shore. All ships were worked in the stream. Approximately 29% percent of their time on duty was wasted waiting for lighters. It was not uncommon for men to waste their whole watch waiting on the beach for transports to the ships.
The frequency of Japanese air raids in November also forced delays in cargo handling, 14% percent of the time the stevedore gangs were on watch they were on red alert. Between November 11, and November 30, the Japanese attacked seventy times. The ships in the harbor that the stevedores worked every day were the target of the enemy bombers, and twelve Sixth Special men were wounded during the month. It was not safe in camp either, shrapnel possibly from American anti-aircraft fire, fell in the camp during every attack.
Other factors that lowered the Sixth Special's cargo handling efficiency included the great distances they had to travel just to get to the ships they were supposed to work. LCM trips of ten to twenty miles were not uncommon. San Pedro Bay has an area of about 400 square nautical miles, and it was full of ships in November. Sometimes the men spent their whole watch trying to find the ship they were to discharge.
When the plans to develop the San Pedro Bay area into a major naval base were canceled, the Sixth Special was reduced to picking miscellaneous cargoes for the few naval activities that remained there. After December the enemy air raids became sporadic, and none were near the Sixth camp. By March the raids stopped altogether. After over six and a half months in the Philippines, and in the case of the majority of men in a/b detachment over 26 months overseas, half of the Sixth Special was finally going home. The 28th Special NCB arrived, and the Sixth was secured. On May 18, 1945, the men gathered their belongings and prepared to board the troopship S. S. General Hersey bound for Oahu, Pearl Harbor, HI.
Ship's Log: USS Zaurak: November 1-7, 1944: Leyte Gulf