Pt. 15: After the Shakedown Cruise

Before we present another letter from Red Toon, we want to show a picture that we just discovered from the Toon collection. Meet Ensign Alton W. Swift from Claremont, CAL. He was the Engineering Officer in Leon’s boat group in March  1944. In his previous letter Red had commiserated with Swift: “someone is continually  yelling for & at him…”.

Red sympathized. As followers of this blog will recall, he had been the previous engineering officer. As the man responsible for the performance of Leon’s 26 landing craft, engineering was a key position in the boat group.

Officer-Swift Final

Ensign Alton R. Swift

Ensign Swift does look a bit weary!

Red Toon wrote the following letter while Leon was moored at Pier No. 4, Berth 26, Norfolk Naval Yard for final repairs following her shakedown cruise. We enjoyed Red’s account of several officers’ wives travelling from New York to Norfolk for last-minute leaves with their husbands before Leon put to sea. We believe those wives were Joyce Swift (Ensign Alton Swift) and Betty Smith (Ensign Jimmy Smith). Stories about desperate, last leaves are familiar to all of us who have read Douglass Reeman’s novels about ships and the sea in WWII!

March 9, 1944

Dearest Wife:

What a day this is. I know I’ll be able to call you long before this letter gets in your hands so any news contained herein will be old stuff to you.

We seem to be completely fouled up here aboard ship. We’re a part of ship’s company and we aren’t a part of ship’s company, we don’t know who is our boss from one day to the next. First it’s Joe seems to be in charge, then this fellow Reitze, the debarkation officer I told you about in the previous letter who incidentally seems to have studied the ship to shore manual pretty well the past few days & may turn out all right. He still insists on fouling up our movements but seems to be able to learn through his own mistakes.

Got two letters from you and one from Ticknor. Mail is more an item to me then ever. We’re docked for repairs but won’t be here for long. Joyce and Betty had quite a trip to Norfolk, left New York six in the morning and got to Norfolk at midnight. 18 hrs.!! They had quite a wait then for their husbands. We docked yesterday & will leave again before long. Won’t be here over five days at the most which means they will get together only twice. I’m going to stand watches for Swift here in port so he can get out oftener but will go ashore one night to call you.

We had a nice “excursion” in our ship but had to work pretty hard . She’s pretty fast and very well armed and we tried every maneuver the Captain could think of.  The first day out was the roughest and I came as near getting seasick as I ever have. Got over it though and can stand her slow roll & pitch as well as I can the small boats.

We have a nice library aboard and I have managed to read a few of them. Standing watches underway is a lot of fun. Of course, all of us are very green at it but we’ll catch on in time. The only disagreeable part of it was the weather. It was wet & cold & rough. Remind me to tell you some time where we were. We aren’t to keep diaries or anything but I know I will remember where I have been. Everywhere we go though looks much like the place we left.

We’ve had quite a time here today. Got a lot of supplies, etc., & ran into the usual deal when we got back aboard. No one had made any arrangements for bringing the material aboard so it’s still in the boats.

We had a visitor today. An investigator of these situations aboard these ships. He claims something may be done about the thorn in our side, Mr. Reitze, & maybe too about the spots.  Here’s still hoping.

I’m so glad Janice is acting better now & I know she is the sweetest baby in the world (don’t tell her I said so). She couldn’t be otherwise with the mother she has & I know that more & more every day.

What kind of car does your dad have and where is ours? I’ll write to the State Dept. about the title transfer so you shouldn’t have too much trouble with your license plates.

All my love

       Warren

We add several postscripts. We’re pretty certain we won’t hear Red describe standing watch as a “lot of fun.” When working four hour shifts, standing watch quickly became tedious, mind-numbing duty.

Also, we are reminded of the organizational challenge of integrating a 141 man boat group (who have been training together for nine months) into a larger ship’s company. I still recall a young boat group sailor, Bill Janega, telling me in 2012 about his dual work assignments aboard ship. Sometimes he had boat duties under the supervision of a boat officer, and other times he had gunnery duties under the gunnery officer. He found it very confusing.

Finally, I have never heard of the term “investigator.” Nevertheless, someone eventually got the boat group personnel assignments straightened out. Deck log entries for later in 1944 list:

Lt. John W. Reitze, Gunnery Officer

Lt. George A. Robinson,  Debarkation Officer

Lt. (jg) Joseph B. McDevitt, Boat Grp. Cmdr. and

Lt. (jg) Francis W. Toon, Asst. Boat Grp. Cmdr.


Picture Credit: Toon Family Collection

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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!