Phil Brown’s War Experience
by John Delach
My Texas friend, Phil Brown, was a “plank owner” of LSM 317 being part of the original crew who took delivery of this landing craft from the Pullman Co. shipyard in Illinois. He served on this ship until it returned to Long Beach for decommissioning after hostilities ended.
Phil and I became friends when he was the Manager of Marsh & McLennan’s Dallas office and I worked with them on an unsuccessful attempt to produce a new marine client. Phil enjoyed commenting on my blog and this is what led me to prompt Phil to write about his World War II experiences that I originally published in 2016. His story begins when the original crew of LSM 317 took delivery of this landing ship at the Pullman – Standard shipyard on Lake Calumet, Chicago. Phil died on November 1, 2020 and this is his story. Phil Brown: RIP.
Our crew stood at attention on 28 July 1944 as LSM 317 was commissioned. The ensign was raised, and the first watches were set. We cast off into the Calumet River and sailed along the Chicago, Des Plaines and Illinois River making our way to the Mississippi River. We only navigated the Mississippi during day light making stops at Memphis, Greenville, Vicksburg and Baton Rouge.
One of our pilots was an old-timer who quit commercial piloting to serve his country. He was really pissed off at his fellow pilots who continued to work on commercial traffic earning big bucks. He frequently flipped them the bird as we passed their tows. Using professional river pilots was a good thing as none of our five officers had ever been to sea and the Skipper, Lt. Warren Ayers had previously been a professional musician.
The guns were installed when we reached New Orleans and, from there we sailed to Galveston where we underwent two or three weeks of intensive training and shakedown. From Galveston we sailed across the Gulf of Mexico to the Panama Canal where we made a short stop for minor repairs and equipment replacement before transiting to the Pacific side.
Next stop, Bora Bora, which appeared after a 19-day cruise. I thought of paradise; it looked just like what I always though a South Seas island should look like and the locals were friendly, trading shell jewelry for canned goods and other ordinary items. From there we headed to New Caledonia, the Admiralty Islands and stops in New Guinea before reaching our ultimate destination…the Philippines.
Kamikaze was not a word that we knew when we witnessed our first such attack on December 10, 1944. It found us loading supplies to be taken around Leyte to Ormoc on the opposite side of Leyte Gulf. MacArthur planned to circle behind the Japanese who were stubbornly defending the mountains keeping us from punching through to the other side. The Japanese were also using the Ormoc beaches to reinforce and resupply their troops.
We had finished taking on supplies from the Liberty Ship, William S. Ladd, anchored well offshore…As I recall, mostly miscellaneous gear including some artillery shells. We had moved back to the Red Beach area where we grounded 317 to take on an infantry unit that had been pulled out of the lines to be reinserted for the back door attack…About that time General Quarters (GQ) sounded: a squawking klaxon horn followed by the command: “THIS IS NO DRILL; ALL HANDS MAN YOUR BATTLE STATIONS.”
Our rather primitive radar showed three bogeys approaching. Some of the larger ships opened up with what we thought were 5-inch guns… but the planes were too high for our 40mm and 20mm guns. Two or three planes were all we saw. They made their way toward the main concentration of ships where one started down in a steep dive right into and through the number two hatch of the William S. Ladd, where we had taken on supplies! The Ladd exploded and sank in a few minutes; we were thunderstruck; had never seen anything like that and didn’t want to ever see anything like it again!! We’d been so close minutes before!
My GQ station was on top of the conning tower as the Captain’s talker. Several of us discussed what we had just seen and thought it would not happen again…WRONG!!!
On the runs to attack and later resupply Ormoc Beachhead I think we encountered suicide planes every time. We came to refer to the attacks as “crash divers” or “suicide” attacks. Do not remember hearing the term Kamikaze until the invasion of Okinawa.
They were scary and intimidating. On December 11, we were part of a convoy of eight LSMs and four LCIs escorted by six destroyers, supported by four F4U Corsairs. We were ordered to GQ and within minutes several low-flying planes came in front to back attacking our little convoy. They were so low we were unable to lower our field of fire for fear of hitting our own ships. One plane flew so low right over us we could easily see the pilot before he crashed into the destroyer, USS Reid, right behind us striking the torpedo tubes. The Reid blew in half and sank within two minutes. I never forgot what that looked like. Several of us began to pull back to pick up survivors but were ordered to continue our run. Only one LSM was designated to stay to attempt rescues and less than half of Reid’s crew was saved.
We were scared!!! At least I was scared!!! About that time the Corsairs covering our convoy chased off the remaining Japanese aircraft. We reached Ormoc that night but waited until about 3 or 4 am to beach. Out behind us, our escorts were in a serious fire fight with some Japanese destroyers attempting a last-ditch resupply of troops and supplies. Everyone was shooting everywhere, and I am sure some damage was caused by our own fire…I hate the term, “friendly fire” as it did not seem friendly. Our own radar and early daylight told us we were landing on the same beach only ¾ mile from the enemy. It was difficult getting off the beach and on our way home across Leyte Gulf, more air attacks but no crash dives.
Going on the beach to land supplies and troops was not much fun but the crash divers added a scary element as we felt there was no way to stop them. Granted we were small and insignificant; targets of last resort but on one trip a LSM was hit, the aircraft engine went right through the ship.
LSM 317 had damage that prevented us from being sent to Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Those were much worse. Okinawa was the real climax of the Kamikaze.
As an ironic twist, after the Japanese surrendered, we were ordered to Korea to take the surrender of several of their installations. One turned out to be a rather large Kamikaze base. As I remember the island was off the tip of Korea and named Sasha To. The remaining troops had been ordered to stack their arms, rifles in one stack, side arms in another, machine guns in a third, etc. Troops lined up and their officers delivered the bowing and surrendering.
The best thing about this spot was that we liberated a Japanese motorcycle with a sidecar. One of our mechanics fixed it and we had a great time with it along with a jeep we had liberated before the war ended. When the tires finally blew out on the motorcycle, we used a fire hose to wrap around the wheels and wired it on. We took it down onto the land whenever we beached the LSM, opened the bow doors, lowered the ramp and zoomed off; great fun!!!
I had accumulated enough points for discharge once the ship arrived in Long Beach. I knew LSM 317’s sailing days were over. She was completely worn out and would be sold for scrap. I decided to keep the commissioning ensign and our “lucky” flag, the one we ran up during hot landings. So tattered, it was not much more than a star square, but I packed both in mothballs and years later, I mounted and framed the ensign and the flag in two cases that are still proudly displayed.
Looking back at so much confusion when I left 317, I still regret not taking a pair of good binoculars and the ship’s navigation clock.