INTRODUCING FRANK TUNNEY, COXSWAIN, USS LEON APA 48

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.

Tunney Pic (2)

S2c Francis R. Tunney

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.

Tunney Graduation Certificate

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.

Coxswain at the Wheel James Turnbull

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!

Leon's Crew Disembarking Army Assault Forces at Angaur.JPG

Army 81St Division Debarking Against Angaur, Palau Islands

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.


Credits

James Turnbull, National History and Heritage Command

Frank Tunney Collection

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Converting a Steam Ship to a WWII Attack Transport

Building an attack transport during WW II could be viewed as a two stage process. The first stage was to build a transport vessel according to designs provided by the Maritime Administration; what you got was a plain-jane, no-frills ship that needed… CONVERSION, the second step.

Conversion was the process of “finishing off” the ship, beginning with modifying its superstructure and interior compartments, e.g., rebuilding Holds 1 and 2 to become berthing space for large numbers of troops and storage for light equipment. Next came reconfiguring deck machinery and rigging to a configuration known as “yard and stay” rigging, the fastest way to move cargo at that time.

Then came new firefighting systems, rearranged booms and king posts to unload heavy equipment from her holds, and triple Welin davits to lower landing craft over the side and down to the water. The last finishing touches included installation of her armament and top secret communications and radar systems.

The whole notion of a ship’s conversion was a mystery to me until I read an account provided by one George S. Gibb, Ensign SC USNR. Gibb was assigned to USS Sumter APA 52 while she was undergoing conversion. The letters that he wrote home to his family about conversion were hilarious and informative. They described the furious, rushed process of preparing a ship for war while the Pacific fleet impatiently waited 4000 miles away.

The following account of Gibb’s experience during conversion is drawn from his document Battle Star History.


 THE SHIP

uss-sumter-apa-52-at-leyte

Summer At Leyte: D Day evening 22 October 1944 Sketch by author made on location

The Official Ship’s History states: “Designed to land fully-equipped assault troops on enemy-held beaches, while defending herself against possible enemy action, the attack transport turned out to be one of the most important vessels of World War II …..” Acquired by the Navy as the AP 97 on 30 April 1943, she was taken to the Baltimore Yards of the Maryland Dry-dock Company, where she was converted to an APA (attack transport), renamed Sumter, and designated APA 52.

The Sumter was a C-2 transport… The Official Ship’s History provides the following specifications:

Overall Length               469             Feet

Beam                                    63              Feet

Speed                                    16              Knots

Displacement              13,910             Tons

 

CONVERSION – SHAKEDOWN – TRAINING

First to be assigned to the ship was Ensign Gibb, SC USNR, eleven months in uniform, a hardened veteran of three months duty in the Coding Room of the Eastern Sea Frontier in New York City, three months of training duty at Naval Supply Depot, Newport, Rhode Island, and four months schooling at the Navy Supply School at Harvard. He reported for duty, as Disbursing and Assistant Supply Officer, at 0900 on 4 June 1943 to the Assistant Industrial Manager of the Maryland Dry-dock Company (officially, the Baltimore Repair and Conversion Branch, Norfolk Navy Yard). The Sumter was berthed at a dock at 112 South Gay Street. The weather was excessively hot; conversion had not commenced; the Assistant Industrial Manager impatiently told Gibb to go home.

Two weeks later there was still little work to be done, although the new Disbursing Officer faithfully reported each morning at 0900. Gibb and his wife played golf and went hiking and fishing at Lake Roland. Work on the ship, however, finally commenced. Supply Warrant Officers Hugh Hambric and James Munson – both old Regular Navy – reported for duty, looked around, and promptly left for the nearest bar. On June 15 a consignment of 11 typewriters arrived. On that same day Gibb wrote home:

“I’ve been aboard the Sumter. It’s a big ship, and new – but in a messy stage of conversion. . . what confusion! Riveters going full blast, whistles blowing, steel plates banging around, winches and derricks puffing away, nine million motors of every shape and description going full blast . . . . I am the only officer present. I just sit around and wait for something to happen. If it does, however, I lack authority to do anything about it!”

The Sumter contingent was assigned office space where necessary paperwork, mounting rapidly in volume, could be handled. This space was shared by contingents from two other transports similarly being converted. On 17 August Gibb went to Philadelphia to pick up the pay accounts for the ship. Letters written home at this time tell of a side of the war that perhaps had best remain hidden.

“The ship is progressing fine, but there is a bunch of female help aboard and they are no dam good. A lot of them work only when the mood is on them to do so, and what is worse; each one of them who is idle takes about four male workers to entertain her. One of the riveters and his sweet young apprentice were recently discovered christening the Captain’s bunk – both being fired, I am happy to say, though I do not frown on young love in other places than on my own ship!

Last week we devoted three days to ordering stock for the Ship’s Store. Of those three days approximately one-and-one-half were devoted to a spirited discussion between us and two old chiefs as to how many rubber prophylactics 500 men require for six months and four port calls. The answer, in case your wife is skeptical of the virility of the present generation of mankind, is ten thousand. That’s a lot of f-f-f-f-(excuse my stutter) fun for the kiddies!”

And later . . . .

“The supply system is actually very simple in theory, and with reasonably average intelligence along the line it works very efficiently – but draw up a chair and I will tell you how things have gone with us! 

  1. We go to set up our yard office and order all necessary equipment and supplies. Very simple. Fill out Form 1034 and send it in requesting delivery under your commissioning allowance. After a long delay the stuff arrives – tons of typewriters, stationery, adding machines, desks, and miscellaneous crap of every description. Five minutes after the mess is unloaded the yard superintendent walks in and asks you what all this is. You tell him. He says, “Why, all this stuff was ordered by someone three months ago and there’s a whole duplicate shipment over in the warehouse! 

That “someone” is the guy who is messing up this whole show! I don’t know who He is or where He hangs out. Every day mysterious bundles arrive that “someone” has ordered. We stack’em in the corner and when “someone” calls to claim them, we’ll plug the guy for keeps! 

  1. You open the typewriters and notice that none of them have space keys. The Underwood repair man informs you that if he makes a real special effort he can get the keys down to the Yard three days after we are due to sail. 

  2. You order 500 cases of toilet paper, and get 50, with the information that the rest will be sent along next December. You resort to the obvious remedy in this case and order 450 Sears Roebuck catalogs. 

  3. You examine the ship’s galley and discover that Satan himself couldn’t turn out a meal there because the passage between the ovens is 18 inches wide. You tell the Yard construction officer about it and he screams, “GODDAMIT Gibb – #XX#&&X!!!!XXX – we’re trying to turn this ship out on schedule and we can’t make every dam change, which your pretty young fancy requires. GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!” 

  4. The Captain reports for duty and decides that he’d like to have your desk, so you move. The subsequent office reorganization takes three days. 

  5. You receive 1,000 expensive penholders, with a note from the manufacturer that there will be no pen points for them until after the war. 

  6. The Captain comes up and says, “See here, “Pay,” the Chief of the Bureau of Supplies & Accounts just told me I couldn’t collect expenses for the use of my car in Baltimore. But when you get your money, by God, YOU are going to pay me for it. Besides, it only amounts to $850 or so.” 

  7. The ship’s quota of heavy guns arrives in the Yard – we’ve been held up for 2 months waiting for them. The freight company “isn’t sure” that the guns are for us because the invoices don’t say so. They refuse to deliver them up. The words “DELIVER TO USS SUMTER” are painted in letters four inches high on the sides of the crates but this, of course, is considered merely as circumstantial evidence.”


For the record, the crew of Sumter earned six battle stars during their service in the Pacific theater.

Source: Battle Star History The U.S.S. Sumter APA-52

George S. Gibb

http://www.oocities.org/uss_sumter/georgegibb.htm

 

 

 

 

Shipmates After All These Years

The USS Leon APA 48 was a Bayfield class attack transport, commissioned on February 12, 1944 at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard in Brooklyn NY. She was 492 feet long, the largest class (C3-S-A2) of attack transport built during WWII. Leon was home to a crew of 550 officers and sailors—and countless Marines, Soldiers, POWs and others—during two years of hard duty in the Pacific theater.

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USS Leon APA 48

Two of her young crew members were Boat Group Commander Joe McDevitt, Lt. (jg), and Irwin Goldstein, S1c, a member of McDevitt’s boat group. They participated together through five amphibious assaults in the Central and Southwest Pacific campaigns, plus numerous occupation landings after the war’s end. Theirs was hard duty, out in the open ocean in small boats, often under fire.

When the war ended, Joe McDevitt, now the XO and Commanding officer of the Leon, welcomed a decommissioning party (below) at Chickasaw AL on March 7, 1946. Among the decommissioning party was Irwin Goldstein (front row, 4th from the left).

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Decommissioning of the USS Leon APA 48

Seventy years later, Paul McDevitt (son of Joe) and Justin Goldstein and Susan Goldstein Colon (grandchildren of Irwin) are sharing pictures, stories, and memories of Joe and Irwin. Stay tuned for more!