LCT 1119 May 1944 to May 1946©
By Bill Thiessen
My Dad, Victor Thiessen, served in WW2 as a Motor Machinist 3c aboard LCT 1119. Some of my earliest memories are of him in his uniform as my mother and I followed him to several training facilities prior to his departure from the states in the fall of 1944.
I remember the war souvenirs and boxes of photos stored in the attic when I was a boy. I spent hours going through those photos and like other boys of my age I grew up watching WW2 movies. As a result, I suppose, I couldn’t get into the service soon enough. At age 17, I convinced my parents to sign the papers for my enlistment into the Navy. I ended up in the same rating (Engineman) as Dad, served aboard an amphibious vessel (LST) and cruised the same waters in the Philippines. I thought that would be the basis for some conversation about his service but attempts to discuss his wartime experiences went nowhere. My Dad just wasn’t much of a talker. Dad died in 1995. My mother gave me all that was left from his Navy years. Most of the souvenirs and photos had disappeared but there was documentation summarizing his service record. I decided to track down his history.
As anyone who has tried to research LCT history knows, records are almost non-existent. I was able to learn really fascinating information about the development of the amphibious Navy and about LCT’s in particular but the 1119 seemed to be a ghost ship. Even after discovering the existence of “Flotilla” and the reunion group I was able to learn only that the 1119 was part of Flotilla 32. Ron Swanson, Flotilla editor, was extremely helpful, his encouragement and my wife’s dedicated computer work kept me going.
In the fall of ’04, Ron gave me the name of Mr. Steve DiPierdomenico who was a MoMM 2c aboard LCT 1099, also in Flotilla 32. Steve, besides being a great source of information on LCT operations in the Philippines, had a friend who was aboard the LST 584 that carried the 1119 and her crew across the Pacific. From that friend he obtained a list of passengers aboard the LST. The list included the enlisted crew of LCT 1119 complete with full names, ratings, and places of enlistment. Prior to receiving the list I had known the crew by the many photos and by last names only. I have since been able to contact five of them. Four of the crew have died and the survivors have no knowledge of the remaining two. I have been unable to obtain any information on the two officers, having only their last names. I have had several enjoyable and informative conversations with four of the crew. The fifth is in poor health and I was able to speak with him only once. He was the one who collaborated with my dad in an extensive (and illegal!) photography operation and was able to tell me how they pulled it off. I am unable to find any written record of the wartime activities of LCT 1119 and her crew. It would be unfortunate if their experiences were lost to history so I will attempt in a very general way to document their activities. I know where they started from and I think I know where they ended up. The story in between is that of a slow, ungainly, uncomfortable vessel and a crew who seems to have done a very effective job of operating it under conditions for which it certainly wasn’t designed. Included are very few specifics as there aren’t many available. What follows is information based on memories my mother has of what my dad told her, the many photos that he left, the 60 year old memories of surviving crew members and written wartime history of the area in which they operated.
LCT 1119 was built at Pidgeon Thomas Iron Co., Memphis, Tennessee, and launched in May 1944 She was brought down the Mississippi River to Gulfport, Mississippi, where joined with her crew was loaded aboard LST 584 for the trip to the western Pacific.
Mr. Purvis OIC Georgia
Mr. Mendelson Exec Illinois
Lake, Paul L Cox Ohio
Cooper, Brooks L Seaman West Virginia
Ehen, Elton H Electrician Illinois
Harndon, Hugh E Seaman Kansas
Orbeck, Leander H Radioman Minnesota
Pearson, Bert W Motor Machinist Minnesota
Thiessen, Victor L Motor Machinist Minnesota
Vezie, Eugene B Gunner Pennsylvania
Beavers, James W. Jr Cook Texas
Weldon, Arnett J Seaman Kentucky
Magill, Glen A Quartermaster Pennslyvania
Front: Thiessen, Lake, Vezie Back: Ehen, Pearson, Cooper, Beavers, Magill, Harnden
Departure from Gulfport was September 9, 1944. The Panama Canal was transited September 15 to 17, 1944. The equator was crossed on September 30, 1944 at 122º 46w. Arrival at New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) was October 20, 1944. Six weeks at sea on a slow, crowded and top heavy LST must have been a very miserable experience.
At this point in the story I have to resort to a certain amount of speculation based on written history of military campaigns in the southwestern Pacific and on the distant memories of the surviving crew members.
LCT 1119 was dumped off the main deck of LST 584 at Espiritu Santu in New Hebrides.
Somehow the LCT and crew made it to New Guinea by Christmas of “44. It’s not clear how this occurred. Two crew members recall being towed by a freighter. My dad sent my mother a Christmas greeting on v-mail, hand drawn by Gunners Mate Vezie. Cleverly hidden in the v-mail format were the words “New Guinea,” indicating their location at that time. He was able to get it past the censors. The only clear memories of this period are of a firefighting school at Hollandia, New Guinea.
In late ’44 and early ’45 a large group of about 100 LCTs gathered for a trip under their own power from Hollandia to Leyte Island in the Philippines, a distance of around 1000 miles. The 1119 was likely a part of this group. The trip took about 10 days and was one of the few things my dad talked about. He said LCTs that were bolted together broke up in heavy weather. Steve DiPierdomenico made this trip and remembers one LCT being lost.
General Douglas MacArthur invaded the Philippine Islands in October ’44, thereby fulfilling his vow that “I shall return.” For strategic reasons his invasion site was Leyte in the center of the Philippines. Since the overall direction of the war effort was north toward the ultimate goal of Japan, a long string of Philippine islands stretching south almost to Borneo, were left in the possession of the Japanese. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted to leave the liberation of these islands to the Filipino guerrilla forces since they no longer had strategic value to the US and Japan by this time had lost the ability to support them. MacArthur however, insisted on liberating these islands and sent the Eighth Army to do just that. The resulting amphibious landings met little opposition on the beaches; the Japanese for the most part had retreated inland to fight it out in the mountains. The 1119 seems to have been involved in this effort and the invasion photos that I have agree with the written history. Several show smoke from bombardment of the mountains inland while the troops and crew on the landing craft display a pretty relaxed attitude. One photo shows an American Flag on a long pole above the trees some distance back from the beach. The photo caption states that the flag had been run up by Filipino guerrillas but as usual with my dad’s photos, dates and locations weren’t provided. I know that the 1119 was involved in landings on the islands of Mindanao, Basilan, Jolo, and Tawi Tawi.
A note on my dad’s photo operation: according to the crew members, he and Cooper got started using captured Japanese cameras. No one is sure where the development materials came from. Cooper says, “They came in the mail.” My mother thinks that my grandmother sent them. The head had been abandoned in favor of makeshift facilities on the fantail because of chronic problems with the toilet mechanism and so the guys used the space as a darkroom for film development. Purvis, the OIC, had to have known about this illegal activity but apparently didn’t intervene. The photos were pretty crude but definitely showed things that aren’t found in the history books. I asked Cooper how he learned to process film to which he responded, “Vic taught me.”
The liberation of the southern islands took less that two months and was completed by June ’45. An incident occurred during this time that stands out in the memories of all the guys with whom I spoke. I first heard of it when I was a small boy and was evesdropping on a conversation between my dad and his friend and shipmate Bert Pearson several years after the war.
The 1119 was off the coast of Borneo and was alongside a freighter taking on a load of aviation gasoline in drums. Suddenly they came under attack by an aircraft that strafed and bombed them, making at least two runs. Mass panic ensued, especially amongst the army people who were assisting the loading operation. They were totally out of their element and didn’t know where to hide. Accounts differ as to the type of aircraft but all agree that it was American. All remember the tracer bullets bouncing around the gasoline drums. One insists that it was a captured American plane flown by Japanese. He says that he could see the Japanese gunner. The armed guard crew on the freighter could have shot it down but didn’t fire because they could see it was American. Two of the guys identified the plane as a B-25 and said that there were two P-38s off in the distance. Incredibly no one was hurt and an explanation evolved from somewhere that the plane attacked because the ships flags were at half-mast due to President Roosevelt’s death. Possibly to the aircraft pilot “things didn’t look right.”
I can’t find evidence of any one particular role that the 1119 was assigned to. She seemed to have been a sea going freight hauler, plying her trade from Samar down to Borneo and back. An incredible amount of ocean was covered for vessel designed to go from ship to shore. Dad referred to Zamboanga, Mindanao as “home base.” A lot of hauling was done for the Army and the Navy ‘Sea Bees.’ One photo shows her loaded down with lumber from a Sea Bee project. Subsequent photos show a wood framed
“penthouse” built across the stern, likely from the Sea Bee lumber. They were all very proud of it and I’m sure that it improved living conditions considerably.
Before the “Penthouse”
With the “Penthouse” on the Stern
None of the guys remembers how they got their assignments. They all said that the reason they traveled so much is that they were always available. They all attribute that to the skill and dedication of the Electrician and the Motor Macs one of whom was my dad. I have a copy of a commendation letter sent to the commander of LCT Group 95 for performance “above and beyond” on a building project on Basilan Island. One of the guys lamented the fact that they were always so available and would have preferred a little more time “out of service.”
They seemed to have lived like pirates, scrounging food and supplies where they could, pulling up on the beach at night wherever they happened to be. Photos show no semblance of uniforms. Once they were assigned to offload a wrecked freighter near the island of Cebu. After that they wore colored pajamas they got from the hospital supplies that were a part of the load. They got involved with an army unit in an ice cream making venture. Beavers had an ice cream maker and ingredients but no ice. The army had an ice plant. They once stole a quantity of beer from the army and hid it aboard. An irate army officer arrived to search the vessel but couldn’t find it. He left, vowing to return. Purvis got the guilty parties to confess and then ordered them to produce the beer, divide it up amongst the whole crew and drink it before the army came back.
Relations with the army were extensive and for the most part very good. Orbeck had a type of lightweight shirt that he had gotten in firefighting school that was much in demand by the army. He was approached by a soldier suffering from a skin condition caused by the tropical heat. He hoped that the shirt would offer some relief and tried to buy it. Orbeck gave him the shirt since he never used it. The guy returned on several occasions with beer in repayment. One of the crew along with a soldier was caught red handed by an army colonel in the act of disassembling parachute bombs in order to get the parachutes. One wonders what they planned to do with the silk. I didn’t ask and he didn’t volunteer any information.
I have photos of Japanese troops surrendering on what appears to be a mountaintop. The Japanese are fully armed and carrying combat packs, the officers still wearing their swords. My dad had no combat training whatsoever and I find it incredible that he would be present at such an event. One of the guys suggested that he was probably brought up to witness the surrender by the army in return for some favor.
The 1119 spent time hauling Japanese prisoners from the islands to a stockade the location of which I don’t know. For a time they carried two Japanese officers, one army, one navy who acted as interpreters. They appear to be under no restraint at all. The enlisted prisoners show in photos to be loosely guarded by crew members but appear to be a pretty subdued bunch. Other photos show disarmed Japanese warships that were likely used to transport Japanese troops home. I believe that all the activity involving prisoners took place after the war’s end.
Other than general freight hauling the only other task that the 1119 performed that stands out in the guys memory is the hauling of liberty parties from anchored warships to various recreation areas. Beavers remembers that the trips going in were OK. The trips back were pretty gruesome. Beavers also recalls that they often carried a jeep on board for general use by the crew. If it got confiscated they went out and appropriated another. The jeeps were easily hidden on the tank deck.
After the war ended crew members started going home. My dad was married and had two kids which gave him enough “points” to be one of the first to leave. He and a couple of others, probably Pearson and Ehen, were given their release and told to find their own way out. Dad found an Air Corps pilot who was also leaving and asked for a ride. The pilot checked several planes and found a B24 with gas in it and away they went to a port from where troop ships were leaving (probably Manila). The troop ship took them to Seattle and Dad was home by Christmas. Purvis left at some point and Mendelson became OIC. The remaining crew members found themselves celebrating a rather dismal Christmas Eve ’45. Mendelson, who was Jewish and didn’t observe Christmas, appeared on the scene with a couple of bottles for the purpose of cheering up the guys. During the course of the evening, Mendelson toppled over while giving a fencing demonstration using a stick as a sword. None of the guys were inspired to take up fencing but they were left with a new appreciation for Mr. Mendelson.
Beavers was one of the last of the original crew to go home. He said that they spent a lot of their time hauling Japanese prisoners and he expressed some resentment that the Japanese were going home while he had to stay there. He finally left in May ’46.
He said that the plans were to take the 1119 out to sea and sink her. He doesn’t remember where they were when he saw her last. Steve DiPierdomenico says it was likely Guiuan, Samar. Beavers suspects that the Filipinos likely got her.
I was very impressed in my conversations with the five crew members by the respect that they had for each other and the rest of crew members. As is typical with WW2 vets, they avoided talking about themselves. The only one that really talked about his own job performance was Beavers, the cook, who expressed regret about not being able to do better with the limited resources that he had. His plight seems to have been common for LCT cooks. Unfortunately, his worst critic seems to have been my dad. The usual response when asked a personal question was for the crew member to talk favorably about someone else. They all complimented the engineers. Several were really impressed by Beavers, who, after one of the screws became fouled by a piece of cable, dove under the stern with a hacksaw to free it. He scared everyone when he failed to re-appear in a normal amount of time. He finally popped up saying, “Hey, did you know there’s an air pocket under there?” It took him two days to free the screw.
Paul Lake, the cox’n, was much admired by the whole crew, especially the younger guys. In one photo, Lake appears to be the image of a career Navy Bos’n Mate, squared away in all respects. He alone had previous sea duty, having served as an armed guard on civilian freighters in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. One of the guys thought that his ship had been torpedoed. When I asked him about it he typically diverted the topic to something else. I was really surprised to find that he also was a reservist and left the navy after the war.
I really wish that I had been able to contact Purvis, the skipper. I can only speculate on what kind of guy he was. He never shows up in any of the crew photos, only by himself or with Mendelson. It appears that he kept his distance from the crew while never losing their respect. That must have been pretty hard to do on a LCT. He seems to have brought out the best in his crew and to have wielded authority without making a big deal out of it.
I’ve succeeded in finding out what my dad did in WW2 and in doing so I’ve become acquainted with a bunch of really good guys. If I’d had to serve during WW2 I would have liked to have been with them. And what is the fate of the LCT 1119? I guess that will remain a mystery.
Many thanks to:
JW Beavers, Jr.
Steve DiPierdomenico LCT 1099
Ron Swanson “LCT Flotilla Newsletter Editor”
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