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

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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!

Dr. Richard L. Pearse and the Medical Unit Aboard the USS Leon APA 48

We want to introduce you to Lt. Commander Richard L. Pearse. Pearse was graduated from Duke University and from Harvard Medical School in 1931. He joined the Navy in 1941 and was appointed a surgeon at the Navy’s medical unit in Key West, FL. Three years later he joined the crew of the Leon shortly before she embarked 1400 marines and officers from the 47th Replacement Battalion and left for duty in the Pacific.

By the time he reported aboard ship, Dr. Pearse was Lieut. Commander and Leon’s Senior Medical Officer.

Pearse 5 pics 2 (5)

Lieut. Commander Richard L. Pearse

 

The crew of the Leon were fortunate to have a Senior Medical Officer of Dr. Pearse’s standing, both in terms of his surgical skills and his administrative/organizational experience. In turn, Dr. Pearse was fortunate to have three other officers who were also outstanding medical professionals. All four ship’s doctors would be challenged beyond their wildest imaginations during Leon’s first operation: Operation Forager, June 1945.

We received a very special photograph from the Toon Family Album that pictures the Leon’s four-man professional medical unit. They include (left to right):

  • Lieut. Gerald S. Almond, Dental Officer, from Andrews, NC
  • Lieut. Commander Richard L. Pearse, Sr. Medical Officer, from Tidioute, PA
  • Lieut. (jg) Arnold W. Friedman, Jr. Medical Officer, from South Orange, NJ
  • Lieut. William W. Lusk, Battalion Beach Doctor, from Carlinville, IL.
Almond Pearse Friedman Lusk enhanced

Medical Unit USS Leon

 

We have described in an earlier post the memorable experience these officers had on D-Day, June 15, 1944. That was the amphibious assault against Saipan. At 0955 that morning the Leon’s davits lifted forty-one wounded and dead men aboard ship. With wounded stretched on litters along the main deck, the medical team had its hands full. The next day would be worse for Leon’s crew. We repeat that story from our June 21 post.

” As she anchored in the transport area on D + 1 day and began lowering her boats, the crew soon learned that the Japs had attacked in force throughout the night on the beaches. Boats arrived immediately and throughout the day carrying approximately 200 casualties from the beach and from other ships. They came so rapidly and in such numbers that it was impossible to keep records or do anything but treat the most seriously wounded.

The Leon’s Dental Officer did an excellent job supervising the receiving ward set up in the troop officers’ mess.  Ambulatory patients were directed to and treated at the forward battle dressing station. Wards for the serious patients were set up in the chief petty officers’ quarters and in the troop officers’ quarters. The ship’s…doctors labored around the clock, perspiring endlessly, wearing only their shorts, conducting surgery on the dinner tables in the troop officers’ wardrooms.

The Leon’s hands were happy to receive the ship’s beach party back aboard at 1400 on D + 2 day. The beach crew had been pinned down by mortar fire and sniper fire on the beach since D-Day. After a minimal rest, the beach party doctor and eight corpsmen turned to, making it possible to run two operating rooms simultaneously.

LST (landing ship tank) 275 pulled alongside at 1222 with more casualties, and the medical team fell further behind.

Six of the wounded aboard ship died from their wounds. But the Leon’s doctors and corpsmen stayed up day and night, and the remaining 300 survived.”


Credits:

Pearse Family Album

Toon Family Album

All Came Home