Lieutenant Mike Norwood cinched the chin strap under his helmet and checked the mirror over the tiny sink in his stateroom. He hoped that he did not look as terrified as he felt. The face was blank, he hoped. Nothing to it, just let them do their jobs.
He stepped into the tiny passageway, took a right and opened the door. The steady pounding sound of the big naval guns, which had been thumping the bulkhead of his sea cabin, suddenly increased in volume and speed. He squared his shoulders and stepped through.
“Captain on the bridge!” the quartermaster shouted. Normally, every man would have snapped to attention and stopped whatever they were doing. In combat, they dispensed with such ceremony. Instead, Lieutenant (junior grade) Hale, the Officer of the Deck (OOD), called out. “Ahead slow, 090, sir”. He dropped his binoculars and turned to the skipper. “Ready to beach on signal.” He indicated the flagship, another Landing Ship Tank (LST) four ships to starboard.
Mike shook hands with the Marine Corps officer standing next to the OOD. “Good luck today, Lieutenant.” Like Hale, 1st Lt. Parker was a mustang – a former enlisted man.
Mike considered himself blessed: all the officers in his wardroom had seen service in World War II, a rare roll of the dice. In 1943, Sergeant Norwood had received his appointment to the Naval Academy while in Italy, which took him out of the war for a while. On VJ Day, he had been riding a troop train somewhere in Kansas, only a few months after his commissioning.
“Put us past the surf, and we’ll make our own luck, sir.” Parker saluted and went to join his men and their tanks.
Since stepping on to the bridge, Mike’s gaze had taken in the faces of the men there and scanned the scene beyond the bulletproof glass of the bridge windows.
Inside, his team of teenagers seemed pale but focused, each with his mouth set and keeping themselves busy to quell their own fear. Except for Hale, this was their first battle. The whistling of sixteen-inch shells overhead followed by explosions on the beach did not inspire the patriotic appeal of a fireworks show back home.
Outside, Mike saw a chunk of the cliff to their left blow away and crash to the beach below, bringing down the three houses above it. Smoke rose from the town of Inchon, mostly evacuated the day before by a fleet of Japanese ferry boats (mostly re-purposed landing ships) brought up to clear civilians from the site of the expected landing. Mike had admired the skill and discipline of the Japanese civilian captains who had gathered on the flagship LST to hammer out a set of flag signals to communicate with the American LST squadron staff. Neither the Japanese nor the Americans spoke the other’s language, but they had managed to bring thousands of non-combatants away before the cruisers and battleships began softening up the beachhead.
Mike moved to the starboard side but did not bother to get in the captain’s chair. He stepped out to the bridge wing, where he could see the flagship’s signal halyards and hear the bridge team at the same time. The cold wind of mid-September held the signal flags stiffly out, making them easy to read. USS LST-973 was almost the last ship on the left wing of the line of landing ships. Off his starboard quarter he could see the silhouettes of the bombardment ships and the flashes of their guns. Beyond them, the great white hospital ship USS Haven (AH-12) cruised slowly back and forth, a big white patch against the gray horizon.
Twenty minutes later, the shelling doubled in intensity and rows of gaily colored flags climbed the flagship’s mast. Each LST in the line repeated the signal, until all 13 ships were flying the same signal.
“Stand by, Mr. Hale.”
“Aye, aye, sir!”
The string of flags on the flagship disappeared as signalmen snapped them down. The signalman behind 973‘s bridge shouted “Execute!” and snapped his string down.
Mike nodded to the OOD.
“Full speed ahead. Come left to 085. Bo’s’n, prepare to beach!” The boatswain pulled down the microphone to the 1MC public address system and blew the call for “attack and board” (left over from the sailing days) on his shrill pipe. Every heart onboard beat faster knowing that they were driving at full speed to put the bow of their ship as far up the beach as possible. Soon they would be stuck in the sand and at their most vulnerable.
From the bridge wing, Mike watched his crew do what they had drilled for months to do without thinking. Black smoke bellowed from the two exhaust stacks as the big diesel engines raced to maximum speed. Every man grabbed something to steady himself as the ship caught up with a large wave and rode it into the beach. Still, Mike leaned over the rail slightly at the sudden stop.
“Ahead slow. Steady as she goes!” Hale called out. The helmsman used his wheel to keep the ship pointed into the sand without sliding the stern one way or the other. The engines slowed to keep the bow up on the beach as the wave receded.
“Nicely done, Mr. Hale.” Mike smiled. Hale nodded and kept his mouth taut, but his eyes smiled.
The bow ramp went down as soon as the ship steadied into position. The ramp fell onto dry sand, well above the water mark, exactly as they had wanted. While the tide continued to come in, the tanks and amphibious assault vehicles with their Marines raced onto the beach. The 50-caliber machine guns on either side of the ramp added their noise to the din, firing steadily over the advancing tanks.
The enemy artillery gave up trying to lob their shells at the bombardment ships. Mike saw the splashes of their shells walk back toward the beach. He prayed that they could back off before the enemy finished spotting them.
“All ashore, sir” the sailor on the sound-powered phone to the battle circuit called out. Mike gestured to the boatswain’s mate at the ramp, which began rising rapidly. He could feel the slight movement of the ship, which began to float, being relieved of her cargo and the attachment of the ramp to the beach.
“Back us out, Mr. Hale.”
“Half speed astern! Steady as she goes!” The great diesels stopped while the engineers shifted the transmissions into reverse. The ship shuddered as the engines grabbed the propellers shafts. The helmsman’s knuckles whitened over the wheel, ready to counteract any sideways swing of the stern.
Mike saw the LST two ships over from him take a direct hit just below the bridge. Shrapnel the size of a small car flew into the air, to land in the water and rain on the LST next door. A shell crashed into the water between 973 and the next LST backing out. Too close, he thought.
A pair of Marine Corsair fighter-bombers flew low overhead toward a gun emplacement on the cliff. The burrpp of their strafing rounds punctuated the thump of the heavier artillery on the beach in front him and the naval gun line behind him.
LST-973 gained speed as she pulled into the high tide. Hale increased speed and ordered the stern to port. Mike walked over to the port bridge wing, where he could see the other ships and the landing. Just as he stepped out, the world became silent; a blazing light surrounded him and went out…
Light. Everywhere. It had been dark, but now he could see light and hear sounds. Shadows appeared against the light.
Suddenly he felt a great pain throughout his body. Worse than burning, like the twisting of a massive knife in every muscle. As the shadows took shape, the pain grew greater in his left side and then his shoulder and chest. He gasped.
“Michael.” A woman’s voice. The shadow slowly became a brown-haired woman with dark eyes and a gentle smile. Not Margery, he thought. She waved her hand. “Follow my hand, Michael.” He did, and his head began to spin.
He tried to speak, but he was too tired. He closed his eyes…
He opened his eyes. A bright light blinded him, so he shut his eyes quickly. He felt more than saw a shadow block the light. He opened them again. A man in a white lab coat leaned over him. By the khaki uniform under the coat, Mike recognized a Navy surgeon.
“Hello, Lieutenant. I’m Dr. Mather. You’re going to be OK.” Mike tried to smile, but the effort hurt. “Easy now. There’s no hurry. You just rest and let your body finish repairing itself.”
Mike closed his eyes. Without the bright ceiling light in his face, he could smile. “Thanks,” he said, and slept.
When he awoke next, he felt strangely refreshed. His left shoulder, arm and chest hurt terribly, but the rest of him felt almost normal. The brown-haired nurse caught his glance as she passed his bed. She came to his bedside.
“Hello, Mr. Norwood. How do you feel now?” She smiled and picked up his chart from the foot of his bed. He could not help noticing how well her khaki uniform fit.
“Hurts like hell.”
“Welcome back to the living, then. The pain will get better.”
“Where am I? What happened?”
She checked the chart again. “973 is still out there. I think Dr. Mather has more information for you. I’ll send him around.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant – ” He squinted to see her name badge.
“Phillips.” She held a glass of water to his lips. He drank deeply, then fell back. “I’ll be right back.”
Dr. Mather came walking down the ward almost as soon as Lt. Phillips’ shapely figure disappeared through the watertight door. He checked the chart, then took Mike’s wrist to check his pulse.
“Strong. That’s good. How’s the pain?”
“Terrible, but it’s not all over like before.”
“That’s good. I don’t want to give you morphine unless you really need it.”
“Can you fill me in on what happened? I don’t remember anything.”
“Nothing to remember. A mortar round hit your ship just below the bridge on the port side. The explosion sent a big piece of steel into your left shoulder. The port lookout was knocked unconscious, and three men on the foredeck took shrapnel.”
“How did I get here? What happened to the ship?”
“Your crew brought you to us in the whaleboat. The ship continues with the squadron, minus the port wing of the bridge.”
“How long have I been out?”
“Almost two weeks now. You were in a coma for the first ten days, and we don’t want to move you until you are ambulatory, if possible.”
“So, what happens now?”
“You keep healing. When we see how well you’re doing, we’ll either return you to 973 or a transport for repatriation.”
Two days later, Nurse Phillips and a corpsman helped Mike out of bed. He felt lightheaded, and his legs were weak after all the inactivity, but he walked to the end of the ward and back. By the middle of October, he could walk up the ladder outside the ward and join the other officers in the wardroom between meals. Patients had to eat in their wards. The wardroom could only accommodate the ship’s officers. Dr. Mather (Jason Mather, he learned) sometimes joined him for cards or conversation.
“From what Nurse Phillips tells me, you saved my life, Jason,” Mike told him as he swept up the hand he had just won. The surgeon smiled and blushed modestly.
“Your crew saved your life, Mike. I just patched you up. If they had hesitated at all to get you to us, we’d have lost you. And it was close. It took us six hours to sew all the pieces together, but the real danger was in the time you spent unconscious, because we did not know what kind of damage your head sustained.”
Mike Norwood returned to his ship. Lt. Hale handed him his helmet, which was caved in dramatically. “There’s a new one in your cabin, sir.”
The squadron commodore came aboard just before Christmas. He pinned a star on Mike’s Purple Heart medal (in lieu of a second award), and medals on the rest of the crew. The ship herself received a Navy Meritorious Unit Commendation. Hale received an immediate promotion to full Lieutenant and orders to take command of a new LST in Yokosuka.
USS-973 remained off Korea with the United Nations counteroffensive until the following spring. A year after Inchon, Mike brought her alongside the pier in San Francisco. The ship became the Republic of France Ship (RFS) Golo and sailed back to the Western Pacific. Mike spent Christmas at home in San Diego with Margery.
And every Christmas, Jason Joseph Mather received a bottle of single-malt Scotch whisky, and a simple, unsigned card with one word.
Author’s Note: The real USS-973 did land at Red Beach during the Battle of Inchon. A mortar round injured three sailors. She operated off Korea as described above and served in the French Navy as RFS Golo from 1951 until 1959. I chose to set my story in real ships, because I could not make up heroism such as the men and women at Inchon and in USS Haven (AH-12) showed in real life. The landing ship squadron really did coordinate a massive evacuation of non-combatants before the amphibious assault. The Chief Staff Officer of the squadron admitted that organizing that evacuation was the proudest achievement of his career, notwithstanding his many decorations for other things.
The rest of the story, and especially the people, are my own creation and there is no resemblance between the fictional Mike Norwood and the last American CO of USS-973, Lt. Robert I. Trapp.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,