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As troop-bearing landing craft pass by, LCS(L) 35 heads a row of landing craft, support (large) during an exercise in preparation for the invasion of Okinawa. The formation would be less tidy during the actual landing on April 1, 1945. (National Archives, courtesy of Ray Baumler)
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Mighty Midgets

Small as gun platforms but mighty in firepower were the Mighty Midgets of the Pacific War.

By Art Reid

It was daylight on  April 1, 1945, when the little ships started their unwavering advance toward the Japanese-held beach installations on Okinawa. Ready to unleash a lavish eruption of firepower, the fleet of "Mighty Midgets" rushed toward the shoreline.

Yes, Mighty Midget, an unusual name for an unusual ship that bristled with guns.

Mighty Indeed

The vest-pocket ships were referred to in Tokyo Rose's radio broadcasts as "secret weapons" and "miniature destroyers." They were officially designated by the U.S. Navy as landing craft, support (large). The LCS(L) was, inch for inch, one of the most heavily armed of all amphibians in the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Aimed toward the Japanese beachhead from each LCS(L) were two twin-mounted air-cooled 40mm guns controlled by Mark 51 director/operators; a single, manually controlled 40mm gun in the bow; and four 20mm guns with Mark 14 sights. The upper gun deck also carried four .50-caliber machine guns, although one LCS crew had an even dozen .50-caliber machine guns, mounted on every available spot. Perhaps the most devastating weapons, however, were the Mark 7 rocket launchers set to spew their explosive 4.5-inch cargo at the astonishing rate of 120 at a time.

The goal of all this armament was to hack a swath through enemy positions, neutralizing as many as possible before the swarm of troop-filled landing craft reached shore.

Shallow water presented no problem. A flat-bottom amphibian with an overall length of 157 feet and a 23-foot beam, the LCS(L) could be beached without damage.

Midget Tactics

At Okinawa -- and prior to that in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima -- the LCS(L)s were asked to function exactly as their name implied. As support landing craft, they were the first ships to go into harm's way. They not only ventured within effective range of large batteries but also on occasion came within range of Japanese machine-gun fire.

By the time the Mighty Midgets had narrowed the distance to less than 200 yards, gunners among the 65 enlisted men and six officers aboard each ship had fired 240 4.5-inch rockets at the enemy, strafed the enemy with literally thousands of rounds from both 40mm and 20mm cannons, and hammered them with .50-caliber machine-gun bursts.

Then the Mighty Midget crews would exercise that adage about discretion being the better part of valor, and quickly head away from the beach. But with a top speed of only 15 knots, none of the 128 LCS(L)s in the Pacific campaign posed a racing threat to the sizzling speed of destroyers, which they slightly resembled.

Japanese Defense At Okinawa

Fortunately for most Americans taking part in the Okinawa invasion, the Japanese adopted a defensive scheme entirely different from those used earlier in the war. It had been their practice to fortify the territory and sea lanes likely to be used during an invasion. But at Okinawa, the Japanese finally accepted the fact that despite the terrible havoc they had exacted on Allied invasion forces, their own losses at the beachheads had been even greater. The new Japanese strategy, which would serve them no better than the old, was to offer only token resistance to American invaders on the beaches, allow them to push inland, and then attack and overwhelm them.

In preparation for D-day on Okinawa, the awesome 6-inch to 16-inch guns fired by the U.S. Navy had thrown ton upon ton of explosives upon the Hagushi beaches. The 1st and 6th Marine divisions of III Amphibian Corps and the troops of the Tenth Army would land on those beaches, which provided the shortest routes to the Yontan and Kadena airfields, both about 10 miles north of Naha, Okinawa's principal city.

Beginning when the LCS(L)s moved shoreward and continuing until they turned to leave the immediate troop landing grounds, incessant strikes by carrier-based planes supported the LCS(L)s and the oncoming troop carriers.

The opposition directed at the 40-plus LCS(L)s, the troop-laden landing boats streaming toward shore, and the massive fleet standing off Hagushi was regarded as relatively light. In fact, LCS(L) 12 was one of only a few ships reporting Japanese resistance. This came in the form of sporadic mortar shells and ineffectual machine-gun fire that dimpled the water's smooth surface near LCS(L)12. Had the surface been even a bit choppy, its crewmen would not have been aware they were being shot at.

Midgets at Iwo

But if D-day at Okinawa was a leisurely boat ride for the LCS(L)s, things had not always been so easy. Less than two months before hammering the Japanese on Okinawa, a dozen LCS(L)s from Flotilla Three had found themselves unexpectedly alone during two gantlet runs toward the black sands of Iwo Jima.

Originally, the LCS(L)s were to team up with a dozen LCIs (landing craft, infantry) converted to gun boats, but by D-day every one of the latter had been put out of commission by Japanese shore batteries. This left only LCS(L)s to fill the gaping hole that had been torn in the assault plan. The LCS(L) crews rose to the occasion with unwavering courage and determination.

Despite fierce opposition from the Japanese at Iwo, within 90 minutes the fleet of Mighty Midgets had made two frenetic sprints, firing nearly 3,000 rockets and sowing attendant destruction with 40mm and 20mm cannons. The final run was a protective umbrella for Marines heading to the deadly beach.

Decoys

On D-day, the LCS(L)s contributed to a new cooperative tactic that would later be refined and expanded at Okinawa. Many Japanese batteries on Iwo Jima were so well concealed they were nearly impervious to effective bombardment by the big Navy ships. The hidden guns, trained on the Marines and landing boats nearing shore, were taking an appalling toll of American fighting men. Into this breach cruised the LCS(L)s to within 500 yards of shore, acting as decoys to deliberately draw enemy fire. LCS(L) gun crews then replied in kind. Tracers from their 40mm and 20mm guns were followed by spotters on the outlying destroyers and cruisers to pinpoint troublesome Japanese batteries, which were then silenced with 5-inch and 6-inch guns.

LCS(L) 33 was the only one in the flotilla at Iwo Jima to be seriously hit by shore guns. Six crewmen suffered wounds. As it happened, LCS(L) 33 had less than two months to remain afloat. While on radar picket duty off Okinawa on April 12, she was sunk by a kamikaze. Four men were killed and 29 seriously wounded.

Looking Ahead To Okinawa

In terms of lives and materiel lost, the Okinawa campaign was the worst for the U.S. Navy in World War II. Casualties and damage aboard the more than 85 ships in the LCS(L) fleet contributed substantially to those grim figures. Of the total of 164 killed and 269 wounded on LCS(L)s in the Pacific, most of the casualties were suffered off Okinawa.

Because of the excellent teamwork displayed between destroyers and their diminutive counterparts at Iwo Jima, the LCS(L) craft and their big brothers would again be teamed at Okinawa. This time, however, the mission was far different and more grisly than ever before.

The Americans expected Okinawa to be fiercely defended by Japanese aircraft based on Formosa (Taiwan) and southern Kyushu. U.S. ground and sea forces were to be given advance warning of these airstrikes by destroyers and destroyer escorts cruising on courses enemy planes were expected to take. From Okinawa, these radar picket stations ranged from about 18 miles outbound to nearly 100 miles.

Next: Pickets

Copyright (c) 2000, PRIMEDIA Enthusiast Publications, Inc.


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