We want to introduce you to Frank Tunney, a veteran of 2 ½ years of WWII in the Pacific. Frank was from Philadelphia, PA. At the age of 16… (Sixteen, mind you!), he dropped out of high school to enlist in 1943. The navy accepted Frank because his father, Stanley Tunney, Philadelphia’s Chief Clerk of the Board of Revision of Taxes, changed his son’s birth certificate to make Frank two years older and eligible for service.
Frank was a big strong young man who fit in right away with all the other volunteers. After completing boot camp, he was assigned to the Navy’s amphibious training program at Little Creek, VA. He completed that program before most of his previous classmates had graduated from high school back in Philly. Here’s Frank’s diploma, which he proudly saved until he died in 1998.
After Little Creek, Frank was transferred to the advanced amphibious training program at Ft. Pierce, FL. Then, along with one hundred and twenty-four other sailors, he joined the boat group aboard a brand new attack transport, the USS Leon APA 48.
Frank was a Coxswain—a primary boat operator. The boats we’re talking about here were landing craft called LVCPs. They were 36 ft. long, shallow draft boats used to deliver marines, soldiers, and all their gear to the beaches of Japanese strongholds in the Pacific.
When I hear “Coxswain,” I always think of the magnificent painting by James Turnbull entitled Coxswain at the Wheel.
Frank and the Leon eventually participated in five amphibious assaults during the Allies’ island hopping campaign. That might be Frank’s boat at the waterline below as the Leon debarked elements of the Army’s 81st Division against Angaur (Palau Islands) during Operation Stalemate on September 14, 1944. Heck, that might be Frank standing at the bow!
According to our earliest records, Frank Tunney’s LCVP crew mates included:
Brown, Leonard B. S1c address unknown
Hossa, Paul J. S1c Bronx, NY
Dorney, Andrew W. MoMM3c (motorman) Smock, PA
If any of these three men is familiar to you, we’d like to hear from you!
Like many veterans of the Pacific, Frank rarely spoke to family and friends about his service after the war. But on the occasion in 1994 of the 50th reunion of the crew of the Leon, he recalled and shared several stories about Leon’s first amphibious assault: Operation Forager, against Saipan in the Marianna Islands, June 15, 1944.
The Leon’s mission was to land the 4th Marine Division’s 23rd Regimental Combat Team on Blue Beach 2 at Saipan. For two days the intensity and accuracy of enemy mortar and artillery fire against the boat approaches and beaches remained devastating to the assault force and the boat crews landing them on the beaches.
The marines lost all four of their battalion commanders and 2000 casualties killed or wounded on D day. Among many others, the navy lost my Dad, Joe McDevitt, the Leon’s Boat Group Commander. His landing craft was struck by mortar fire as he led the first wave to the beach. (But he was one of the lucky ones. He was rescued, treated for multiple shrapnel wounds, and back on duty for the next operation.)
In spite of the hot landing, boats crammed with battle-tested marines kept coming ashore at Saipan. By the end of D day, 20,000, marines were ashore and dug in. By D + 2 day, the entire Fourth Marine Division was ashore, organized, and ready to attack in force.
Back to Frank Tunney… Out on the water, the Leon’s boat group were delivering a steady supply of cargo to the beach: tanks, artillery, bulldozers, ammunition, water, rations, and medicine. Sometime on D + 2 day, they learned that Leon had joined Task Force 52.4 and was heading to sea. The Japanese Imperial Fleet was steaming towards Saipan for its long awaited “major engagement” against the Americans. The lightly armed troop transports were ordered to steam east at top speed and to convoy out in the Central Pacific until the battle—the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot—played out.
One problem: the transports left many of their boat crews back at Saipan.
Some crews were stranded on the beach. They dug deep fox holes and kept their heads down for eight days. They wondered—along with the marines and soldiers—whose planes would be flying overhead next: victorious Zeros and Vals from a Japanese Imperial fleet or returning Hellcats from America’s Pacific fleet?
Other boat crews were stranded eight miles offshore, some loaded with cargo and most with limited fuel and provisions. Frank and his boat crew were one of those out on the water. They were on their own.
Unfortunately we don’t know the details of Frank’s eight days on the water. He never shared the story before the 50th reunion, insisting to his daughter Helene who heard his account at the reunion, “… people don’t care about that stuff.” We know only that he and his three buddies drifted along on the currents for eight long days watching anxiously for the return of the fleet. Would the Leon be among them? Could they hold out?
What a missed story. Eight days out on the Pacific, a large and fearsome place in those days. Four sailors floating around in a 36 ft. boat. If the Japanese navy showed up, they were finished. If the American fleet didn’t return in time, their water and provisions would give out, and they were finished.
I’ve read accounts of experiences like this. Every day is incredibly long and hot. The glare of the sun is impossibly strong. Conversation gets scarcer and scarcer, and men’s spirits fall. The water and food disappears in a hurry. One man is always watching for ships or planes.
Thankfully the Leon returned—none too soon—on June 24, D + 9 day, to finish unloading her cargo. Frank and his buddies rejoined her crew and went back to work. So far as we know, they never talked about that fearful week again. But if you’ve heard this story, we’d like to hear from you!
Frank shared another memorable story at the 50th reunion. We know this because a reporter from the local newspaper attended the reunion that day and quoted Frank’s story in an article. It was a story that I thought I had heard before, at least in part. So I revisited a taped interview from Spring 2012 when I met in Hartford CT with three of Leon’s other boat group sailors. Their names were Bill Janega, Jimmie Hecht, and Glenn Dickinson. Bill Janega had mentioned an incident that day, just a passing comment. But I remembered it when reading Frank Tunney’s recollection eighteen years earlier.
I learned the final piece of this story in April 2017 while meeting with the family of Red Toon in Jackson MS. Lt (jg) Toon was the Second in Command to Leon’s Boat Group Commander, Joe McDevitt. But with McDevitt out of action, Red had become the boat group’s leader.
In a future post, I’m going to try to pull together all the pieces of this story about Red Toon. It is perhaps the most moving account that I’ve heard or read from that war. I’ve come to think of it and will entitle it, Red Toon and the Dog Tags at Blue Beach 2. Watch for it.
James Turnbull, National History and Heritage Command
Frank Tunney Collection