Navy veteran recalls Korean War combat
January 16, 2014
I've been chatting on the telephone with my friend, Norman D. James, who has great tales to tell about his Navy service during the Korean War, and last week I visited him at his farm near Sacramento to hear his stories in person.
James, 81, who frequently visits Northern Nevada with his wife, Marjorie, in their fifth-wheel trailer, says the sea and the Nevada desert have much in common.
"When the weather is calm, the ocean and sands also are tranquil. But when the wind comes up, be careful…there could be trouble ahead," he told me as we chatted in the kitchen of his farmhouse in the tiny community of Pleasant Grove (population approximately 250) about 25 miles north of California's capital city.
James, who stands a ramrod 6-foot, 1-inch and raises rice, hay, barley and alfalfa, joined the Navy "right out of high school at the age of 17 to serve my country and see the world," he said.
Following boot camp in San Diego, he served as a deckhand on the USS Skagit (AKA-105), a 459-foot attack cargo ship that carried James and his 400 shipmates to North Pole duty at Point Barrow, Alaska.
He soon became a gunner's mate, and after less than a year aboard the Skagit, was transferred to the 328-foot LST-1068 on which he served three years, 10 months and 29 days before leaving the Navy and returning to the farm to help his father who was elderly and ill.
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"The LST was much smaller than the Skagit and had only nine officers and about 90 enlisted men. But we had an important job to do… our little ship could run its bow up on a beach, open its two huge clamshell bow doors, and discharge and take aboard tanks, trucks, troops and all kinds of cargo," he told me.
"We had a good-sized arsenal aboard…50-calibers, 40 and 20 mm guns, shotguns, riot guns and Thompson sub-machine guns. We were very slow moving… our maximum speed wasn't much more than 10 or 11 knots and some folks called the LSTs 'slow moving targets,' although LST really meant 'Landing Ship Tank,'" he said.
"And because LSTs had round hulls with no keels, they really rolled around at sea," he added.
Commissioned just four months before the end of World War II, LST-1068 saw troop and cargo-hauling duty in occupied Japan after the war, and James and a shipmate boarded a train at Yokohama and traveled to Hiroshima, which had been leveled by an atomic bomb dropped by the U.S. on Aug. 6, 1945.
"I was speechless when we arrived at Hiroshima. It was six years since the atomic bomb had been dropped, but most of the city was still flattened. It was something out of hell. Some of the Japanese we saw had never seen an American before, and they stared and pointed at us.
"It was in Hiroshima that I saw the first malls. Because most of the stores in the city had been destroyed by the a-bomb and had not yet been rebuilt, shopkeepers had set up side-by-side stores in long-wooden buildings in the suburbs," he said.
Stationed aboard LST-1068 for more than two years during the Korean War, James was in the thick of things until an armistice was reached in July of 1953, which left Korea divided into South and North Korea along the 38th Parallel.
"Although part of the time our ship hauled troops and cargoes to ports in Japan, Okinawa and Guam during the war, we also spent many months along the Korean coasts during amphibious operations where we beached the ship and off-loaded combat Marines and their tanks and trucks," James continued.
"On one occasion, we were steaming north of the 38th Parallel at night when we were ordered to our battle stations. I was below deck at the time and ran to my gun station when I heard airplanes approaching our ship. They were Russian-made jet fighters of the North Korean Air Force. They started strafing us, but they didn't hit us because it was so dark and we had turned off the ship's lights. Then North Korean shore batteries began lobbing shells at us and the two other LSTs in our convoy. We started firing back, but we couldn't hit the planes or the shore batteries because it was too dark and our guns had such short range.
"We had about 50 huge barrels of gasoline lashed to the deck, and I said to myself, 'We're sitting ducks. The Communists are shooting at us from the air and the shore. Our ship is so slow moving that we are a big floating target. One of those North Korean shells will hit the gasoline barrels and, "boom…the ship will blow up and sink and we'll all be goners," James said.
"But, miraculously, we were saved. Nine Canadian Air Force jets arrived as if out of nowhere and chased the North Korean jets away and fired on the enemy shore batteries. We steamed farther out to sea and got away from it all. Our ship wasn't hit once and nobody was injured or killed. Boy, we were lucky, I guess."
One day, LST-1068 was caught in a typhoon. "I was standing lookout duty on the bridge, and the heavy seas were coming over the decks and nearly reaching the pilot house. The ship was rolling so bad that I thought we'd turn over. But we didn't. That was a close call," said James.
During long stretches at sea, the ship often ran out of fresh water and fresh food.
"We had to take salt water showers, and they made us itch like hell. Several times when we ran out of drinking water, we were so thirsty that we drank from the emergency water cans in the lifeboats. And we had to eat dehydrated eggs and potatoes. And, boy, was it hot below decks. There was no ship air conditioning, of course, and the temperature would reach 110 degrees in the crew's quarters.
"Duty aboard the LST was never monotonous. One day, our ship was converted into an aircraft carrier when a Navy helicopter used the deck as a landing pad and flew on and off while photographing a Navy submarine torpedo and sink a seagoing tugboat off the coast of Japan . The tug was old and obsolete and the sub sank it during target practice.
"Our crew, because it was small, was close-knit and I made many friends aboard. Our skipper was only a lieutenant, and there was an informality between the officers and men that you wouldn't see aboard larger ships," James said.
LST-1068, alas, was destined to face the same sentence that befell the aging tugboat sunk by a Navy torpedo during target practice.
In 1958…three years after Norman James had left the Navy and returned to the family farm…. the aging and obsolete LST-1068 was sunk as a target ship south of Hawaii. Two years before her demise, the ship, like most of the other LSTs in the USN, had finally been given a name. Her name was the USS Orange County.
"When I heard that my ship had been sunk, I felt just terrible. It was like I had lost an old girlfriend. A part of me is gone forever," James said.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.