To: Mr. Henrik Normann Zacho
Re: Alcoa Pioneer Memories
From: Lenhart R. Lange, Napoleon, Ohio 43545
Enclosed please find the final of my memories of the Alcoa. We sent you a draft via email. A few details are added here.
I entered the United States Navy on 9 September 1943. After attending Great Lake Training school, I was put into the Armed Guard Division. My service on the Alcoa began around August of 1944.
What did I think about my service on the Alcoa ?
I was looking forward to sailing on the U. S. Alcoa. I was very young, maybe the youngest on the ship. I was very proud to be in the Navy, because my father served in WWI and my older brother was an officer in WWII, and I was proud to say I was following their examples. I had little experience, was seasick on my first ship, but after overcoming that I loved being aboard ship. Being prone to seasickness, probably saved my life, as you will soon learn. I served as a sight setter for a 3″ 50 cal. gun on the bow. I was somewhat scared because I knew that we would be sailing into the Pacific and at the time I didn’t know what our cargo was or where we were going. As a young man, it was exciting not to know what was going to be just around the corner.
What was life at sea like and the daily routine?
We had watch every day with time off. We were responsible for keeping our guns cleaned and oiled. We did required daily exercises. We had our meals-breakfast, lunch and dinner at the same time each day. Everyone ate together and the food was good. The Merchant Marine cook often tried to make things we requested. The only chores we had were to keep our bunks tidy and our own laundry done. There were no religious services on the ship, but I carried and read the bible each day. For recreation we played cards. We would also like to watch what other people were doing on ships near us and even during free time we kept our eyes on the horizon to see where we were headed, and what might be coming our way.
The Alcoa was pretty new and the quarters were very good for our Navy personnel. There were four bunks in a room. I spent 90% of my time sleeping under the bow gun tub while at sea, because of the fresh air (which helped fend off seasickness) and solitude.
The Alcoa was a ship that hauled all types of cargo for United States Force use. The ship was leased to the government and owned by the Alcoa Steamship Company. The ship’s serial PD was 30070021. Aboard the ship we had (1) 4″50 cal., (1) 3″50 cal., (8) 20 mil., and we had (4) 45 cal. pistols, (1) 38 cal. revolver, and (2 )30 cal. rifles and ammunition. It wasn’t a brand new ship, but I think it was built in 1941.
Who made up the crew and what were they like?
The crew was made up of Navy men and Merchant Marines. The Navy crew’s job was to arm the ship and protect the ship and cargo. The Merchant Marines saw to it that the ship was maintained.
Our crew was a very alert crew. Most of the men were young. Some had families. We talked a lot about our families. We all had our special friends on board, but we were all friendly to each other. We were from all different states and backgrounds. I would say that after serving with them, I found out that they were all very brave people. My feeling is that we all felt that we were on the ship to protect the United States and I think every man was proud to serve. All men did their duties, as they were told, because we had good commanders.
Our Lieutenant, Howard Jerslid, was very Navy. Everything had to go by the book. His personality was good, he was excellent with his men, he worked hard and dressed well. I had the pleasure of going out to dinner with him in San Francisco several times before our voyage. He spoke often of his family and he was interested in sports. He was knowledgeable about many things and empathetic about our lives and emotions during the time of service. I never saw him get upset or use fowl language with the crew. We liked him and we did what he asked.
The Captain of the ship, A. W. Gavin, was Merchant Marine. He was usually in his cabin or on the bridge. We didn’t see him often. He was good with the Merchant Marine crew . The Navy men and Merchant Marines got along well and we often tried to help each other.
My Voyage on the Alcoa began in August of 1944. We left the port of San Francisco, not knowing what cargo was aboard. At the last minute the Longshoreman put a jeep aboard for us, we paid them a few dollars and we also got a monkey aboard. The captain had a dog, named Skipper. Once out to sea two weeks, we were told that we carried high explosive gasoline for Navy, Army and aircraft use in the hold. On the main deck we also carried airplanes that were KD, to be assembled on shore. The ship had a gross ton capacity of 6759 ton. We were listed in the water about 22 feet (depth). Sailing was good. We made several stops and then we into Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. This is where we first heard Tokoyo Rose use the name of our ship in the broadcast. While waiting for the convoy there, we were hit by a ship in our bow. They put an 8X10 plate of steel into the ship so we would be safe to sail. While we were in the Bay, we got messages that the Japanese Navy was going to come in and attack. We had our equipment ready to go to shore, because we knew if anything would hit us, with gasoline in our hatches, that would be the end of everyone. The Japanese sailed by and they didn’t attack.
One night while in the Bay under repair, our officer let us visit one of the Navy destroyers so that we could see a movie. When we got ready to get into the big life boat (carried about 25) to go back to our ship it was very foggy and we didn’t get back to the ship until early morning. Our captain was upset, so that ruined our chances of ever going back to watch a movie on any other ship!
As we waited for the repairs on the ship, the convoy left. After a matter of several days we left on our own and zig zagged through the ocean until we met with our convoy. From there our destination was the Leyte Gulf, Philippines Islands . On the way we had a number of submarine attacks. We dropped charges, luckily none of the ships were hit.
When we got to the Leyte Gulf it is reported that our vessel had 103 alerts and 50 were direct attacks. On the 12th a ship got hit with a suicide plane and hit one of the hatches, I think it was the Burke, and 164 Army were killed. The Romano was also in the Bay with us at the time. The action was heavy every day. I remember that the Japanese fighters and bombers came into the bay about every two hours. We had a hard time telling our planes (P51) and the Japanese 0’s apart. They looked so much alike. The US Government later replaced the P51 with P38 and this made them easier to identify.
All of the time we were in there, the Navy destroyers and battleships were protective. They fought off enemy aircraft that were trying to blow us up. While in the Bay we had a total of 5 planes we shot down. We had 5 marks painted on our stacks . The smell was terrible from the inland from all of the deaths. They were digging holes and burying the bodies, the wind would catch the stench, it was bad.
After we were in the Bay a week or so we had a typhoon that brought waves way above our ship. With both anchors down and the engines full speed ahead , the ship was still pulled back. There was no way to go out on the decks.
When the storm subsided, the Japanese planes started to attack again. I remember that there were three merchant ships in the bay at the time to be unloaded. At 0710 (7:10) November 18, 1944, three enemy planes of the suicide squad dove out of a cloud for the Alcoa. Two of the planes sheered off toward two other vessels anchored near by. The third plane continued its dive onto our vessel. I was in my hammock, asleep, under the bow when I heard the sirens go off, I went into position and we saw the plane come in from the stern and we knew right then we were going to have some problems. It happened so fast. I saw that we were going to be hit by the planes, but due to the fast action of our 20 mm guns and our 450 crew in the stern, I think they knocked two of the planes out. One went down before our ship, another went down on fire over our ship and the third plane hit us in mid ship, which did all of the damage. Mid ship was where most of all of the men were asleep or in the Galley. Our officer and others were killed and many were hurt.
Being the site setter on the bow, we could see everything that was going to happen. The fire was so bad and everything went so quickly. Considerable damage was done to the midship section. The stack was almost demolished and the decks were torn up. I can still remember seeing one of our men hanging from a ladder of his gun tub by his shoe. I also remember seeing one of our men badly burned and one arm almost severed and still pointing his gun. The dog, Skipper, was blown through a screen door and had a piece of shrapnel in his back and yet he crawled over to his officer and licked his face.
The fire on the bow was put out by the fast action of a Navy ship that was nearby. They worked under extreme danger to get the fire out. They seemed to be everywhere. They quickly had the fire under control. They extracted men who were seriously injured and pinned under twisted steel plates and beams in the rooms where the plane exploded directly overhead. They took a number of our people off to a number of different ships. I had no knowledge of how many people were hurt or killed at the time because we had to stay at our guns. I was very saddened and depressed after seeing my best friends being killed and hurt and not knowing if others were hurt or killed.
I think there were only five of the Navy men left on board, and it was our job to man the guns. A number of the Merchant Marines volunteered to help us man the guns until replacements could board the ship. In less than an hour after the attack all guns were fully manned. Within two hours the ship was under attack again.
The following day the Merchant Marines and Longshoreman began to unloaded our gasoline and cargo, many working 18-24 hours straight . At the same time we were under attack day and night ( with an average 7-8 attacks daily) , the Merchant Marines continued to help us man the guns.
Some days later, since the engines were not destroyed, we began our trip back to San Francisco on our own power, but only went a short way and had to be towed back to the United States. It took us about 54 days , which was a long time at sea with no letters or messages.
After we arrived in San Francisco, they kept us in separate quarters so that we would not tell anyone on the base about the suicide planes and we had to promise that on our leave we would never mention to anyone about the suicide attacks. All of my pictures and sea bag contents were confiscated and they issued us all new clothes.
After my survivors’ leave of three weeks, the Twelfth Naval District released to a local paper the following report:
” Eagle-eyed Navy gunners aboard a merchant ship had only a few seconds in which to train their sights on three Japanese planes that swooped down through a cloud band off the coast of Leyte last Nov. 19, but they bagged all three.
“This story of traditional Yankee marksmanship and high heroism was revealed here recently in an official report filed with the Armed Guard Center the commanding officer, Lieutenant.. Howard Frederick Jersild….was killed in the attack. The report revealed that a member of the heroic Navy gun crew was Lenhart R. Lange, seaman first class …”
Notice that this report mentions nothing of the suicide planes or damage done.
Many times I remember the Navy and Merchant crew who were with me on this mission and know that they were heroes. I have prayed often for those who lost their life and for their families. Many times I look back and it seems like this just happened yesterday.
Many thanks to Howard Jersilid’s grandson who got me in touch with other survivors and sent me treasured information. I have been able to share this event more clearly with my family because of his efforts. We continue to remember those who lost their lives that day.
I never served on the Alcoa Pioneer again. When I went back after my survivor’s leave, I wasn’t sure what would become of me, but before long I was sent back into action. I just took this in stride. I knew I had to go and there was no turning back. I hoped the good Lord would keep me safe again. My next ship was the U.S.S. Cape Canso, which we sailed to San Francisco to more action in the Pacific. I was discharged on 4 April 1946.