The invasion of Saipan (D-Day June 15, 1944) was the first real, full scale offensive action for the Newcomb, and it was a first for this scale of operation anywhere in the world. In total, some 535 combatant ships and auxiliaries transported 127,500 troops over tremendous distances. Saipan was about 3500 miles from Pearl Harbor and 1017 miles from Eniwetok, the nearest advanced base!
Until now, we had operated with, at most, a few ships. Now, the task-groups we traveled with stretched for miles—from horizon to horizon. At the time, we really didn’t know the magnitude of “Operation Forager,” but we knew we were now part of something BIG. And I must say, for an 18 year old this was awesome, exciting and scary.
The Newcomb was the flagship of the transport screen, which included 15 destroyers and four patrol craft. We provided protection for a large task group of (troop) transports. Leaving Pearl on May 29, we spent 3 days at Eniwetok and arrived at Saipan on June 15.
Part of the time there we would provide screening support for the transport groups, and part of the time we would be giving fire support to the troops ashore. I won’t go into detail about all of the activity at Saipan and Tinian, but will record a couple incidents:
On June 22, through numerous depth charge attacks, we sank a submarine. During the action, the sub came near the surface and we tried to ram her but just missed. I was on the bridge and can still see the large black shape passing down our port side, only a few feet below the surface. My main GQ duty at this time was to keep an accurate log of the action and to assist with communications. When the Captain told me to “pass the word” (on the PA system) to “stand by for a ram,” I did so. I was really surprised that the Captain would risk our ship in this way. I learned later that we would likely survive such a crash, but the Jap sub probably would not.
That same night, approaching land, we hit something (probably a sunken vessel) that caused severe vibration in one of our propellers; so for several days we ran on one prop. A floating drydock was already on its way to Saipan for just such emergencies, and it arrived on the 28th of June and went into Tanapag Harbor. That evening we anchored outside the harbor entrance, and sent a whaleboat in to the harbor to deliver our ship’s plans so that the drydock could arrange the necessary blocks to support our hull. This turned out to be an exciting night for me:
It was pitch black when we were ready to lower the whaleboat. The occupants were the three-man whaleboat crew, the officer who had the plans and the directions to find our way into the harbor, and yours truly who was sent along as a signalman. There were no lights to guide us except machine-gun tracers near-by on shore. But our officer seemed confident of our position—until we ran aground on a coral reef! Our rudder was knocked off (the pintles were bent) and we were bouncing on the reef in slight seas; the propeller was still OK—what to do? We didn’t want to expose ourselves to fire from the shore (which seemed very close), and we had no guns. I shone my Aldis signal lamp into the water (on the offshore side!) and saw that we were on the edge of the reef, and if we could move offshore a few yards we would be free. Using our boathook and a couple of paddles, we pushed ourselves free and headed out. I suggested using the paddles to steer with, much as I had done in my own little sail-boat. We managed to find deeper water, and purely by good luck ran into some type of small military barge anchored offshore. There were a couple of Marines aboard who had some tools, and who helped us to straighten out our rudder. They also gave us better directions into the harbor. So I signaled the Newcomb about our delay, and we proceeded, without any further grief, to do our job. We were all very happy to get back aboard the Newcomb!
But that’s not the end of this little tale. By the next afternoon, the drydock had arranged the hull-blocks, had flooded the ship compartment and was ready to receive us—almost. A floating dry-dock is essentially a huge barge with floatation chambers and living quarters on both sides. Under normal conditions, the dock was anchored with four huge anchors, one from each corner, thus pretty well immobilizing the dock. On this particular day, they only had time to set two anchors, so the dock was able to swing from side to side. You can imagine what happened: we took on a pilot to take us into the small harbor, and then tried to enter the dock. It takes a long time to get a 376’ long ship lined up with a stationary target, let alone a moving one. After a couple very frustrating attempts, with darkness upon us, we left the harbor for the night, planning to return the next day after the anchors were all in place.
Meanwhile, the Japanese on shore, having witnessed this activity, and thinking that we were in fact in the dock, and that the dock had been pumped out, decided to sabotage the operation. Accordingly, in the wee hours of the morning, they set off large explosions along-side the dock. I don’t know the details. Apparently, if we had been in the dock, the result might have been disastrous but because the dock was flooded, the damage was slight.
The next day we entered the dock without problem, repairs were made and the entire crew had the great and memorable pleasure of scraping and painting the bottom of the ship!
At Saipan, we did a lot of fire support work; I especially recall the 4th of July. In the afternoon, we were working with two Marine Shore Fire Control parties on the west coast in the vicinity of Tanapag Harbor where there was a large concentration of Japanese troops amassed for a Banzai attack. Our spotters (who could see where the shells landed) guided our fire to this concentration and we opened rapid fire. In a short time, we had expended 208 rounds of 5-inch ammunition; and according to the spotters, had also expended some hundreds of Japanese troops! In retrospect, this sounds very grizzly; and it was. But I can still hear the excited voices of the spotters as body parts were flying through the air. In war, it’s either them or us.
A few days later, we headed eastward for peaceful Eniwetok in company with three cruisers and two destroyers. After two weeks there, for logistics, maintenance, and repair (including another stay in a floating dry-dock), we headed for the South Pacific and Purvis Bay in the Solomon Islands. Here we were to assemble for out next operation: the Palau Islands.
Enroute we crossed the equator for the first time. A sailor who had already crossed the equator was a “Shellback.” But most of the crew were uninitiated “Pollywogs,” never having crossed the equator. We were now in safe waters, so at 0900 on August 20 “Neptunus Rex and His Royal Court” came aboard and commenced initiation ceremonies, which lasted until 1300. The “Shellbacks” aboard had been busy preparing a list of charges and punishments for each of us—and the punishments were meted out. Mostly this was in good fun, but there were a few officers aboard who took a lot of real punishment. This rite is the only instance I know of in the Navy where enlisted men can inflict punishment on officers with impunity (within rather broad limits). For instance, our Executive Officer (second in command) had riled the fur of a number of older, regular Navy, Shellbacks. As one of his punishments, he was placed in a large canvas laundry bag, which was suspended from #5 gun, in the sun. Shellbacks passing by were free to pick up a wooden bat and give the bag several whacks!
We all survived, and were admitted to the Domain of Neptunis Rex! We arrived in the Solomon Islands on the 22nd of August.