VALLEJO, Calif. – The ships were called the “Mighty Midgets,” and their official U.S. Navy classification was Landing Craft Support or “LCS.”
They were used for close gunfire and anti-aircraft support during amphibious landings, intercepting enemy suicide aircraft and boats, mine sweeping, fire-fighting, search and rescue, picket duty, to make smoke for covering larger ships from air and surface attack and as convoy escorts.
The Midgets had no names ... only numbers.
There were 130 of them, built in the early 1940s at shipyards in Oregon and Massachusetts.
They were 160 feet in length, 23 feet wide, their draft was six feet fully loaded, they had flat bottoms which enabled them to be beached, and their twin screws and diesel engines could push them to a maximum speed of 15 miles per hour.
They had crews of 65 enlisted men and six officers, their multiple guns and rocket launchers provided more firepower per ton than any ship in the Navy, and they served valiantly in the Pacific island campaigns against the Japanese during World War II.
Only one of the 130 LCSs is still in existence, and it is alive, well, afloat, bears a new paint job, seaworthy and its engines are in good condition.
That ship is the LCS-102, and today it is a floating maritime museum tied up to a pier at the former Mare Island Navy Shipyard here across the bay from San Francisco, less than a five-hour drive from Fallon.
“Our ship is in perfect operating condition ... it could get up steam and get underway today if need be,” said Gordon Stutrud, who, along with fellow volunteer and Navy veteran Jason Leger, welcomes visitors, shows them around the 69-year-old, 387-ton vessel and keeps it in pristine condition with the assistance of a score of other volunteers.
“The other 129 Midgets are long gone ... some were sunk or heavily damaged during World War II and most of the others were declared obsolete and scrapped at war’s end. A few were acquired from the Navy and used as fishing boats. Several were loaned to foreign navies,” added Stutrud as he escorted this writer to the enlisted men’s quarters below the main deck and pointed out the tiny bunk rooms where sailors slept packed like sardines on narrow cots stacked four high.
The officers quarters were equally cramped: The officers lived two men to a miniscule cabin and even the captain had a roommate, his executive officer or second in command.
Then I got a look at the closet-like kitchen or “galley” and the enlisted men’s bathroom or “head” which consists of a wooden plank containing three side-by-side holes that serve as toilets, a metal urinal bolted to the wall, two showers and three sinks. The officers shared a separate head, and it, too, was terribly small.
“It was a tight fit for the men living on the LCS-102, but I hear the food on the ship was great,” said Stutrud, a former Navy Petty Officer 2 who served as an electrical technician aboard the USS Hunley, a Polaris submarine tender, during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
LCS-102, bristling with 10 rocket launchers and 13 guns that included twin 40mm guns, 50-caliber machine guns and 20mm cannons, saw combat at Iowa Jima, Okinawa, the Philippines and Borneo, and was one of the first USN ships to sail into Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender in August, 1945, said Leger.
One of the LCS skippers won the Congressional Medal of Honor, three LCSs were awarded Presidential Unit Citations and six won Navy Unit Citations. The father of former Navy Secretary John Lehman served on an LCS, and Lehman and his son, Joe, are frequent visitors to LCS-102 here.
How LCS-102 ended up as a Mare Island museum ship is itself an interesting story.
Following World War II, the ship was transferred on loan by the U.S. Navy, ironically, to the Japanese Navy, and in 1966 it found another new home as a gunboat in the Royal Thailand Navy.
By the early 2000s, the ship had become too old and obsolete for the Thais, and in 2007 it was purchased by the National Assn. of LCS Veterans, loaded aboard a commercial heavy-lift cargo vessel and shipped to its berth here at Mare Island.
Today, it is maintained by the non-profit Mare Island Historic Park Foundation headed by 86-year-old Dr. Bill Mason, a World War II Navy enlisted man who had served aboard another LCS.
Known as “admiral” Mason by his fellow LCS-102 volunteers and a professor emeritus of economics at San Francisco State University, Mason was a 19-year-old sailor assigned to an LCS anti-craft gun and fired at Japanese kamikaze or suicide planes during Pacific island combat against the Japanese.
“Our Mighty Midgets may have been small, but their brave crews helped contribute to the winning of World War II. The men put their lives on the line, and they and their Midgets deserve an important place in American naval history,” Mason said.