ONLINE LEARNING

Lost at Sea

The Last Cruise of a Portsmouth Sailor

 

By Ross Patterson II

Published September 2, 2013

Naval service has long been a part of life along the Elizabeth River. When the United States was drawn in to the Second World War, a large number of local men and boys answered the Navy’s call for more men to man its expanding fleet of ships. The students of Craddock High School heeded this call through willing volunteers and the random draw of the draft board. Of the six former students to fall in action during World War II, one gave his life in the Navy. His name was Vernie Eligia Musgrove.

Born in Waycross, Georgia on July 26, 1921, Vernie spent much of his childhood in that state’s Ware County. His father Hiram was a welder by trade, and made a living working for the railroads. At some point during the Great Depression, however, the Musgroves decided to move north, purchasing a house at 8 Emmons Place in Craddock. With his father now employed as a ship welder at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Vernie and his two younger sisters found themselves enrolled in the local Portsmouth school system.

Carl was inducted into the military in Greensboro, North Carolina on October 21, 1943. Strangely, despite his background as a shipfitter marking him as a ‘skilled pattern maker,’ he was selected for service in the Army Air Corps as a gunner.

Following six weeks of basic gunnery school, Carl continued training for assignment to a heavy bomber for roughly eight months. During this time, he was selected for duty aboard a B-24 model bomber, and was then assigned to a specific crew.

  Biographical information on William Carl Sawyer from a November 1941 document.  Virginia Department of Health Image

A 1920s view of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad repair shops in Waycross, Georgia where Vernie Musgrove’s father was originally employed. Public Domain Image

A 1941 view of the welding shop on the Norfolk Navy Yard in which Hiram Musgrove worked.  Library of Congress Photograph

A 1941 view of the welding shop on the Norfolk Navy Yard in which Hiram Musgrove worked. Library of Congress Photograph

A 1941 view of the welding shop on the Norfolk Navy Yard in which Hiram Musgrove worked.  Library of Congress Photograph

The Craddock High School Freshman Class of 1940. Portsmouth Public Library Image

1940 saw Vernie begin and end his foray into High School. He was part of Craddock High School’s Freshman Class that year while also working as a delivery boy for the local meat market. In 1941, however, Vernie appears to have dropped out of school to follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming a local railway car repairman for the Inter-State Tank Car Corporation. By 1942, he had joined his father on the shipyard as a ‘Burner’ in the yard’s welding department. It was from there that his path led him to the Norfolk Navy Recruitment Station, where he joined up on November 20, 1942.

Vernie Musgrove’s 1942 Draft Card.  National Archives Image

Vernie Musgrove’s 1942 Draft Card. National Archives Image

Following his enlistment, Vernie was selected to crew the Navy’s burgeoning fleet of amphibious assault vessels, which were crucial to invasion landings and resupply missions. When he began his training in 1943, he was selected for assignment as a shipfitter, drawing upon his knowledge from his years working for both the railroad and the shipyard. Vernie was chosen to be a ‘Plank Owner’ for a yet-to be commissioned Landing Ship Tank, or LST, and was sent to Camp Bradford Amphibious Warfare Training Center in Norfolk with his future crew. Training was completed in February of 1944, and on May 22 of that year, the men were finally given their new ship.

An LST crew practicing unloading Sherman Tanks at Camp Bradford.  United States Navy Photograph

An LST crew practicing unloading Sherman Tanks at Camp Bradford. United States Navy Photograph

An LST crew practicing unloading Sherman Tanks at Camp Bradford.  United States Navy Photograph

LST crews and troops practicing full beachhead deployments at Camp Bradford. United States Navy Photograph

February 1944 Graduation photograph of Vernie Musgrove and his shipmates, the future crew of LST-695.  United States Navy Photograph

February 1944 Graduation photograph of Vernie Musgrove and his shipmates, the future crew of LST-695. United States Navy Photograph

LST-695 was a LST-542 class vessel constructed by the Jeffersonville Boat and Machine Company of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Laid down on February 28, 1944 and launched on April 24, the 328 foot long behemoth was designed for a crew of 129 and a cargo capacity of 145 troops and up to 1,900 tons of equipment. Nicknamed the “Large Slow Target,” the two 900 horsepower diesel engines of the LST design were only capable of 11.6 knots during testing, making this ship type more vulnerable to attack than most of the Navy’s vessels. However, the ships’ unique clamshell bows and shallow draft meant that they could beach themselves during landings, open their doors, and disgorge soldiers, trucks, tanks, or any number of things directly onto the field from two massive internal decks.

Cross sectional guide to the decks of an LST.  The main feature of the LST-542 class that differentiated it from earlier designs was the use of a ramp to get from the main deck to the third or ‘tank’ deck rather than using a slower elevator.  United States Navy Image

Cross sectional guide to the decks of an LST. The main feature of the LST-542 class that differentiated it from earlier designs was the use of a ramp to get from the main deck to the third or ‘tank’ deck rather than using a slower elevator. United States Navy Image

Now a Shipfitter Third Class, Vernie’s duties aboard LST-695 were similar to his experiences on the shipyard. As a trained welder, he would have been responsible for making repairs while at sea, maintaining the ship alongside his fellow shipfitter Edgar F. Northern. Vernie’s work was evidently appreciated, as he was promoted to Shipfitter Second Class on September 1, 1944 after Northern’s departure from LST-695 to another assignment.

By the time of his promotion, Vernie had been serving in the Pacific Theater of Operations for several months. LST-695 had passed through the Panama Canal on July 19, 1944, steaming directly towards Bora Bora in the Society Islands with a full load of war materiel. After unloading 110 tons of cargo on July 31, the ship and crew joined a convoy towards New Caledonia, from which they proceeded to Manus Island in the Admiralties. There they successfully unloaded their remaining cargo, and remained anchored through the end of August awaiting their next assignment.

LST-695 offloading a bulldozer through her bow clamshell doors in 1944.  United States Navy Photograph

LST-695 offloading a bulldozer through her bow clamshell doors in 1944. United States Navy Photograph

The next major operation for Vernie and his crewmates was landing supplies as part of the battle to capture Morotai in the Maluku Islands in September. The men’s first real taste of combat came on September 30, when two Japanese light bombers passed by LST-695 on their way to attack the men on shore. Sixteen of the vessel’s anti-aircraft guns were able to open fire, expending 668 rounds of 20MM and 40MM ammunition in roughly fifteen seconds. While no visible damage was observed and the planes successfully dropped their bombs a mile away on the beach, it was a sobering reminder that the men were indeed in a warzone. A reminder that would be further driven home in October.

LST-695 offloading a bulldozer through her bow clamshell doors in 1944.  United States Navy Photograph

Report from LST-695 on their engagement of the Japanese bombers near Morotai. National Archives Image

The Philippines had been an American possession since the Spanish-American War, and one of the crucial holdings seized by Japan at the beginning of the War. General Douglas MacArthur had famously declared “I shall return” upon his presidentially mandated evacuation from the islands in March of 1942, and by late 1944 he was preparing to fulfill his promise. The island of Leyte, located in the eastern center of the Philippines, was chosen as the initial landing target due to its deep water approaches and suitable airfield construction sites. October 17 was picked as the date for the invasion, and a massive armada of American warships and transports began to form in preparation for the attack. One such ship was LST-695.

Vernie and his shipmates had been anchored off Hollandia, New Guinea in preparation for liberating the Philippines. Designated to be part of the later waves of reinforcements, their ship was heavily laden with over 508 tons of cargo and 503 Army Servicemen of the Sixth Army. Assigned to Task Group 78.6 of Transportation Division 26, the men set sail on October 16 for ‘White Beach,’ near the Tacloban Airfield and small town of San Jose.

RA view of LST-695’s bridge while in convoy towards Leyte, taken on October 18, 1944. National Archives Photograph

Another October 18, 1944 view, this time from the bow of LST-695 showing her fully laden main deck with tarps and blankets strung up to keep the soldiers and equipment cool. Army Signal Corps Photograph

LST-695 arrived off Leyte with her flotilla on October 22, successfully beaching at 2:42 PM local time. For the next ten hours, the crew set about emptying their cargo and passengers onto the crowded and chaotic beachhead. Japanese troops were much further inland, and only once were two distant planes sighted by the ship’s nervous gun crews. Shortly after midnight on October 23, the ship was declared empty and cast off into San Pedro Bay. Cleared for a return to Hollandia at 3:23 PM, the ship and crew began their departure from the battlefront. In less that twenty-four hours, however, the war would catch up to LST-695.

LST-986 in her Pacific Theater Camouflage.  David Buell Photograph

LST-986 in her Pacific Theater Camouflage. David Buell Photograph

LST-170 offloading cargo in New Guinea on July 30, 1944. Coast Guard crewed LSTs were virtually indistinguishable from Navy crewed examples. Army Signal Corps Photograph

Sub chaser SC-1363 while serving in the Pacific. National Archives Photograph

Vengeance for the men of LST-695 would come months later off the Japanese island of Okinawa, when a squadron of five Navy destroyers tracked and sunk I-56 with all hands on April 19, 1945. LST-695 would spend the remainder of the war out of the combat zone, undergoing repairs and slowly being transferred back to the West Coast. After victory was declared, it was decided that the battered LST was surplus to requirements. As such, the ship was decommissioned on November 6, 1945 and stricken from the Navy Register twenty-two days later. As for Vernie Musgrove and his fallen shipmates, their names are among the 36,279 carved into the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines.

LST-695 entering a floating dry dock for continued repairs on April 11, 1945.  National Archives Photograph

LST-695 entering a floating dry dock for continued repairs on April 11, 1945. National Archives Photograph

LST-695 entering a floating dry dock for continued repairs on April 11, 1945.  National Archives Photograph

The Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, with the Walls of the Missing in its center. American Battle Monuments Commission Photograph

Vernie Musgrove’s name on the Walls of the Missing.  American Battle Monuments Commission Photograph

Vernie Musgrove’s name on the Walls of the Missing. American Battle Monuments Commission Photograph