Red Toon Letters (Pt. 6): Red Shoots The Sun For The First Time

Amphibious Training Base

Little Creek Virginia

Dearest,

Today has been very nearly a complete loss, but I had a lot of fun. As usual we mustered and marched off to the class that wasn’t there only this time three of us got a boat and went out to the YAG 17, a training ship anchored out here in the bay & climbed aboard. The boat that took us out was to pick us up at 11:30 but never showed up til nearly one. We missed chow at noon and I’m nearly starved now. We did have a lot of fun there though. By the use of a sextant, an almanac, two compasses, a pelorus and numerous tables we were able to conclude that we were anchored in Chesapeake bay. Theoretically we should be able to “fix” our position anywhere by the same means. Terry, the star student, came out at the end of his figuring just where we were. If we’d been where I figured we wouldn’t have hadto miss chow.

Went fishing after chow yesterday & caught an eel got a lot of mosquito bites.

I’m lonesome and in love with you.

                                                                                                Warren

We looked up the USS YAG-17 (below) on which Red first shot the sun. (This was a key responsibility of deck officers at sea. Periodically shooting the sun told the navigation team the ship’s  precise location. If they  knew the ship’s current location and the location of their destination, they could set an accurate course to that destination.) It had been a privately owned vessel before the war and was commissioned by the Navy as a training vessel in 1943. Note the landing craft astern; cargo netting hanging over the side for debarkation/embarkation drills; and the four sets of steps installed to help troops get over her tall bulwarks from the training nets.

 

USS YAG-17

 

 


 

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Air Attack!

Recently I was reviewing pictures from several WWII albums shared by families of former crew members of the USS Leon APA 48. (My dad, Joe McDevitt, was also a member of the crew.) One of those albums was the Lusk family album which contains some outstanding amateur photographs. Dr. William W. Lusk was the ship’s Battalion Beach Doctor and director of the beach first aid station.

Pictures from the Lusk collection may be found in three earlier blog posts: June 6, June 21, and June 22, 2017.

I was studying two very similar pictures from that collection, trying to understand what I was looking  at and its significance. Suddenly  I was thunderstruck. I realized—literally in a single moment— what I was seeing and why it was important. It was a two-picture sequence of photographs.

I had studied these two pictures numerous times. Why were two virtually identical pictures taken and saved for so long? How to explain the minor differences between them? What would I see if we tried cleaning them up—scratches, folds, spots, five decades of fading—and enlarged them?

Then in a moment it had come to me…maybe because I had seen similar pictures in  previous research or maybe because I remembered reading descriptions and listening to oral histories of sailors who experienced this very event.

I was pretty excited. I thought, “Gotcha.” I may have said it aloud.

The (enhanced) photos are displayed below in the correct order. (Click on each to enlarge it.)

Air Attack APA1

First Picture of Transports At Anchor

 

Air Attack APA2

Second Picture of Transports At Anchor

The pictures show a transport division anchored offshore of an amphibious assault site. It was probably taken at one of Leon’s five assaults (Saipan, Angaur, Leyte, Lingayen Gulf, Okinawa). The ships’ proximity to shore suggests they are in the inner transport area, a zone close to the beaches reserved for unloading once it was safe to move inshore.

I had noticed what looks like a large explosion among the ships in the far background of the second picture…but what to make of it?

The answer is in the first picture. If you enlarge that picture, note the black spot in the sky. That is a dive bomber (or a kamikaze) diving on the ships. The first visual evidence of an air attack was always described as “black dots that start falling out of the sky.” This was an air attack.

My guess is that Dr. Lusk was on the beach—possibly even holding his camera—when he first heard the sound of a diving aircraft. They all knew and dreaded that sound. His first picture caught the attacker diving on the ships; his second picture caught the explosion.

I have researched this incident hoping to find an account of the attack and to  identify the struck ship. We know that it was not Leon. We do know that Dr. Lusk witnessed the attack on a sister ship and understood the death and destruction out on the water. He probably never explained these pictures to anyone, but he remembered.

If you can help to identify the circumstances of this attack, e.g., location, date, etc., and the ship’s identity, please contact us!


Credits: Lusk Family Collection

Introducing Red Toon

February 1944

On February 8, 1944, Lt. (jg) Joseph B. (Joe) McDevitt received a long-awaited set of personnel orders from the US Navy. An untested boat group commander, McDevitt had helped lead a battalion of sailors and junior officers through the Navy’s Introductory  and Advanced Amphibious Training programs at Little Creek VA and Ft. Pierce FL, respectively. By early 1944 there was a big operation brewing in the Pacific. The Navy needed more ships and amphibious forces; they needed them NOW.

McDevitt’s orders were to proceed immediately with 125 sailors and 15 ensigns to the naval shipyard in New York harbor and to report for duty aboard a brand new attack transport, the USS Leon APA 48.

The Navy’s official file photo below was taken on the day Leon was commissioned, February 15, 1944.

USS Leon Commissioning Day

The first two officers on McDevitt’s roster were his assistant boat group commanders, Ensigns Orville W. Terry and Francis W. (Red) Toon. The Navy soon learned that Terry was a gifted navigator, so he was reassigned full-time as Leon’s Assistant Navigator. Thus when Leon put to sea for Pearl Harbor, Joe and Red began working together to finalize preparations for the island hopping campaign ramping up in the Pacific theater.

They had some amazing experiences in the next few years. They trained aboard Leon and qualified as Deck Officer (Joe) and Assistant Deck Officer (Red). They spent countless hours out on the ocean in small boats (LCVPs) with their men. The goal: To prepare them to put the boots on the beaches—any beach, any time. And they shared a small sea cabin from which they wrote leters home to their wives, Kathleen (McDevitt) and Norma (Toon).

Present Day

Now, let’s scroll forward to today. I recently spent five years researching and writing All Came Home, a story about my Dad’s (Joe McDevitt’s) wartime record. One of my priorities when I finished was to continue my (so-far) unsuccessful search for Red Toon’s family. I had found only one small (group picture) of Red Toon to include in All Came Home, but I always sensed that there were more stories and shared experiences there.

In March 2017 my wife Barb and I discovered that Red’s daughter, Betty Toon Collins (and husband, Frank) were living and practicing law in Jackson MS.  After a two-day visit we returned home with copies of pictures, letters, and documents as well as an oral history that Red had recorded for his family. We have labelled these historical treasures the Toon Family Collection.

We needed some time to research these materials and to relate them to our other sources; that work continues today. But we wish to begin today to introduce you to Red Toon through a series of blog posts  based on our findings. We begin with a favorite picture of Red Toon, one of the many young heroes who served aboard the Leon. From his shoulder boards, we believe this picture was taken late in the war after he earned a prmotion to Lt. (jg).

Red Toon 2

Lt. (jg) Red Toon USNR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we tell Red Toon’s stories in future posts, we hope that you will contact us if some of the pictures and/or stories are familiar!