Biography of John Stokes

Sailor, Hatchman and Winchman Detail, Armed Guard, SS Saginaw Victory, SS Louis Weule, Okinawa, USN, WWII

The ill-fated victory ships of the Western Pacific

By John Stokes

   My entry into the U.S. Naval Armed Guard and the contributions of cargo ships to the war in the Pacific occurred late in World War II. Although that duty was of short duration, it was fraught with enough danger and excitement to satisfy any sailors longing for adventure and action.

   Prior to that phase of Navy duty, I had served for a time with the fleet post office in San Francisco. It was January of 1945, and the war was approaching the shores of Japan. The military forces of all the Allied powers were slowly converging on the home islands as the campaign was winding down in Europe. Major supply bases were being reinforced from Guam and Saipan through Ulithi Atoll to Leyte in the Philippines. The Allied momentum was unstoppable as Iwo Jima fell.

   Okinawa was next on the Allied timetable, and it was imperative that supply ships arrive in increasing numbers to feed the war machine. Allied planners knew that successes on the fringe of the Japanese Empire would provide supply bases for the upcoming attack on the home islands. The overwhelming convergence of Army, Navy, and Air forces was sure to produce a shortage of supplies. To expedite the transfer of mountains of ammunition, food, and equipment, it would be necessary to supplement the effort of the hard-working Navy CBs with the additional personnel. If there were enough trained servicemen on board cargo ships to handle the direct off-loading operations in the invasion area, the transfer time from ship to combat troops would be minimized. Such Navy personnel would serve handily as floating warehouse personnel.

   For the first time the U.S. Navy hit upon the idea to training auxiliaries to the Armed Guard to serve both in loading - unloading operations and in the defense of their ship. It was my fate to be chosen among a group for training in what was called the Hatchman and Winchman Detail.

   For two weeks our small group trained on Treasure Island to operate a winch, repair cargo nets, tie knots, and other miscellaneous functions associated with handling cargo. In my training program some thirty to forty-five men were included, and each special session involved a detail of 15 men,

   At the end of a short “crash” training course, our unit was split into three duty assignments: One went for service on the S.S. Hobbs Victory, another aboard the S.S. Logan Victory, and my unit was assigned to the S.S. Saginaw Victory. All three-cargo ships would soon sail into the western Pacific.

   My ship was on the Northwest coast, so following our training my contingent was put on a draft and shipped by train to Seattle Washington. From there we were transferred to the Beaver ammunition dump at Kelso, Washington, on the Columbia River. There we found the S.S. Saginaw Victory. The gun crew of twenty-seven men was already aboard, and they with the merchant marine crew occupied all available quarters. Due to the lack of space, two small “doghouses” were built, attached to the boat deck, and served as our quarters.

   After reporting for duty on board, our winchman-hatchman detail was assigned combat stations with the gun crew. My position was with the 5-inch-38 crew, where I was a fuse-setter and third projectile man.

   In February the heavily loaded S.S. Saginaw Victory left the States, bound for the western Pacific. We arrived at Okinawa by way of Ulithi on April 12, 1945, following the invasion of April 1st. Perhaps we were not aware of how dangerous our mission was, since the S.S. Logan Victory and the S.S. Hobbs Victory, ammunition ships like ours, had been sunk on April 6th. They both had been among the first cargo ships to arrive in the Okinawa area following the April 1st invasion.

   Other Victory ships with them were the S.S. Pierre Victory, S.S. Halaula Victory, and S.S. Green Bay Victory. The loss of these ships is worth recounting.

   The S.S. Hobbs made landfall in convoy six days out of Ulithi (April 6th) in a group of Small Island five miles south of Okinawa. These tiny islands, Kerma Retto, are in the form of a natural enclosed harbor. The S.S. Hobbs Victory, with six companion ships, pulled into the anchorage and dropped its hook. Then the ship was notified that the Hobbs should proceed with its dangerous cargo of 6,000 tons of ammunition to an anchorage of the smallest westerly island. Together the three ships, Pierre, Hobbs, and Logan, were to leave the protection of some twenty warships for the uncertain conditions of an area almost unprotected by those great ships.

   By 1500 Hours the ships were safely in the new anchorage and notified that unloading operations would begin the next day. Suddenly the ships come under attack by Japanese suicide planes. One crashed in an LST (Landing ship tank), creating an inferno. Another narrowly missed the Hobbs and was shot down by Pierre. Next, Logan was hit broadside amidships, amazingly surviving the blow but eventually sinking.

   Hobbs’ skipper ordered the ship to head for the open sea. By 1800 hours the ship had cleared Kerama Retto, when suddenly a Zeke came from nowhere and managed to strike Hobbs in the radio shack, badly shaking the ship and damaging the engine room. She, too, survived, however. Most of the crew managed to escape (13 did Not) in lifeboats. At about 2400 Hours the drifting, deserted ship blew up in a fiery display.

   With the loss of two expected ammunition ships the troops ashore would soon feel the shortage. It was therefore immediately made known to us that we would have to unload as quickly as possible. Our operation began when the Army Cargo Officer who was aboard the ship (in fact part of our 3”50 gun crew). The Army notified him ashore as to what ammunition was needed from the S.S. Saginaw Victory. Transportation was provided when “Ducks” came to the ship. Still, with air attack and other enemy action an ever-present danger, the Army hoped to accelerate the process at top speed, wanting to assure safe delivery of our precious cargo. A stevedore CB battalion was soon on board and engaged in the work. To increase the stream of ship-to-shore craft, “Ducks” were replaced with an LST, an LCT, some LCMs and other small boats. It certainly didn’t take long to unload in these circumstances. Our total time in Okinawa was 12 days, but normally we would expect to spend much more time at destination.

   Following some suspense-filled days of thirty-two air raids and being credited with taking down 3 enemy planes our orders came through to return to Ulithi, where we stayed two weeks. At that time the S.S. Canada Victory arrived in the waters of Okinawa with a supply of ammunition. Unfortunately, it met the fate of the Logan and the Hobbs and was sunk. Yet this was not the end of the ill luck that seemed to track the Victory ships.

   Orders came to return to the States, but ten hours out of Ulithi the S.S. Saginaw Victory Collided with another ship, the S.S. Cuba Victory. The damage to our ship was substantial, and we were compelled to lie at anchor off the island of Truk pending damage assessment of the vessel. An escort finally arrived, and in three days we were back in Ulithi.

   On arriving back to Ulithi we were boarded by the Seebee repair crew. They surveyed the damage of the ship. They thought they would be able to make the necessary repairs and it would hold together for the long voyage home to the United States. After a few weeks of intense repairs, welding large girders across the damaged decks, it was determined, if a severe storm was met on the way home, the repairs would probably fail and the ship would most likely sink. Under these conditions we were sent to a Naval repair base in the Admiralty Islands, located near New Guinia.

   After we arrived at Manus Island our crew of 15 Hatchmen and Winchmen were taken off the ship and transferred to the Naval base. As far as we knew, the ship had been sent to the repair base. Now we were stuck on this Island until we could find another ship. After a few months waiting for another ship we had different jobs. I drove a garbage truck. Finally we got a ship. It was a Liberty ship, the SS Louis Weule, named after a marine instrument maker in San Francisco. The ship’s cargo was oil, in 50-gallon drums. We again became part of the gun crew.

   We left Manus Island and headed for the Philippines. On arriving in Manila we waited for orders and the rumor was, “we were getting ready for the invasion of Japan.” While there, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. The war quickly came to an end. It wasn’t long after that, that we were taken off the ship and put aboard the APA 210, USS Telfair. This was a troop transport.

   We left Manila and after 18 days we arrived in Portland Oregon. It was great to get back to the States. We had been delayed for nine months, because of the collision of the two ships.

   After several months I got my discharge from the Navy in May of 1946 from Camp Shoemaker, California. While waiting there for my discharge I got my Lincoln High School diploma through the GED program.

----- John Stokes


       jstokess AT pacbell DOT net


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