Seaman First Class William P. Campbell, Jr.’s journey into World War II, which would at one point place him at the helm of a landing craft approaching the beach at Iwo Jima, began when he was 15. Like many young men of his day, he learned about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor via a radio broadcast. Campbell, whose mother had died two years earlier, was living with an aunt and uncle in 1941, and he listened to the broadcast with his cousin Euclid Voyles.
As they listened to the momentous news, the two boys made up their minds then and there to join the armed forces as soon as possible. But because of their ages they had to wait. For a time they could only watch as the older boys in their small mountain community outside Murphy, N.C., joined and left home for the war.
Euclid Voyles, who was a year older than Campbell, enlisted in the Navy at 17, hoping to become a pilot. But before he left home, ‘Euc had to go through a long, tedious battle to convince his mother to give her permission for him to enlist, since he was still underage. William Campbell — known as Junior to his family — waited only a few months longer before he joined the war effort, but rather than go through the same hassle to receive permission, he lied about his age. Following his cousin’s example, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy on March 16, 1944.
I was sent to boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Campbell recalled. After six weeks I was given a week’s leave and told to report to Fort Pierce, Fla., for amphibious training. I went home to visit for a day or two, and that was the last time I would see home until the war was over.
At Fort Pierce, Campbell was trained to operate a Higgins boat, known officially as the LCVP (landing craft, vehicle, personnel), the most versatile landing craft of the war. In fact, General Dwight D. Eisenhower later said he believed that Andrew Higgins, the boat’s designer, was the man who won the war for us. The howl of the LCVP’s diesel engines when the craft was thrown into reverse after disembarking troops was as familiar to troops in World War II as the whump-whump-whump of a helicopter was to those who later served in Vietnam.
After two months of training, Campbell received orders to go to Boston, where he was introduced to what would be his home for the next year and a half, a vessel known as LST-930. The LST (landing ship, tank) carried four LCVPs. LST-930 had been laid down on June 9, 1944, in the Bethlehem-Hingman Shipyard in Hingham, Mass. Less than two months later, on August 6, the ship was commissioned under the command of Lieutenant F.W. Grabowski, with orders for the Pacific theater.
LST-930 began her journey to the Pacific with Campbell serving as helmsman. By that time his shipmates had given him the nickname Soupy because his last name reminded them of the Campbell soup company. The voyage was not uneventful. We were with 37 other ships when we got into a hurricane off the coast of Florida, Campbell remembered. We went through waves so high that when you went under a wave you would go completely under the water, and then when you went back up, the bow would be out of the water. Then the ship would go through the middle of a wave with the whole ship trembling. When it would turn to go down, the screws would come out of the water.
Steering the 300-foot-long ship was impossible in those conditions. We got between two big swells for four hours; wherever those swells went, we went just rolling along with the ocean rolls, said Campbell. The mighty storm scattered the convoy all over the Caribbean. LST-930 limped into Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on September 16, 1944. After some minor repairs and regrouping with the other ships, LST-930 passed through the Panama Canal on September 22, with Campbell taking the helm through the canal.
Her next stop was San Diego. We were there seven days and never got off the ship, Campbell recalled. We just took on supplies. Ten days after leaving San Diego, LST-930 was in Pearl Harbor, where the ship was further resupplied. Although the LST was supposed to leave the harbor as part of a convoy going to the war zone, her debut in the war effort was delayed by an accident. At Pearl Harbor we were going down the harbor to load up when we fell victim to two bullheaded skippers, one with a big transport and ours in that little LST, Campbell recalled. Neither of them would give the right of way out of the harbor, and that transport rammed us in the side, nearly cutting us in two. We had to go into dry dock for three months.
During his extended stay in Hawaii, Campbell acquired two tattoos on his forearms and one borrowed jeep, compliments of the U.S. Army. While we were there, the captain decided he wanted a jeep, so we went up into town, and they were parked everywhere, Campbell said. We just stole one. We drove it back to the pier. It was an army jeep, but we painted it battleship gray. We used it until we left Pearl Harbor, and just left it sitting on the dock. The crew’s time in Hawaii ended on January 22, 1945, when the 150 men of LST-930 joined a convoy to Eniwetok. They picked up troops on Saipan before heading for Iwo Jima on February 15.
Iwo Jima (which means sulfur island) is named for the numerous ground vents that spit sulfurous fumes on the barren island. The small, pork-chop-shaped island is crowned on its southern tip by Mount Suribachi, a 556-foot-high extinct volcano. Iwo Jima is 650 miles south of Tokyo and 625 miles from Saipan, roughly halfway between the Marianas bases used by Boeing B-29 Superfortresses and their targets in Japan. Iwo Jima was the logical place for the Allies to establish an emergency landing strip for bombers low on fuel or heavily damaged. The Japanese had already built two airstrips on the island and started constructing a third. They were using Iwo Jima as a base from which to launch kamikaze attacks and harass the Allied bombers. The Japanese knew an invasion force was coming and were determined to defend the island with the 22,000 troops garrisoned there. Their commander, Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, planned to inflict such high casualties that an attack on the Japanese homeland would be reckoned too costly. He told his troops: Every man will resist until the end, making his position his tomb. Every man will do his best to kill 10 enemy soldiers.
The U.S. striking force headed for Iwo Jima was the largest assembled in the Pacific up to that time — 450 ships carrying 30,000 men of the 4th and 5th Marine divisions, who would be the first to hit the beach, plus the 3rd Marine Division as a reserve. By the night of February 18, 1945, Iwo Jima had been under attack for 72 days by North American B-25 Mitchell and Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers. The island had also been steadily bombarded for three days by U.S. Navy ships. As Campbell and the rest of LST-930’s crew approached the beleaguered island, they learned what their mission would be. From Saipan we knew we were going somewhere, he recalled, but we didn’t know where. As they neared Iwo Jima, those in command explained to the crew that they were part of an invasion force. They were bombarding when we got there, so we didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, Campbell remembered. H-hour was 0700 the next morning, and when I looked up then the sky was black with planes.
According to the ship’s records, LST-930 moved into an area 5,600 yards off the beach at 0735, began launching LCVPs at 0737 and had completed launching by 0752. Soupy Campbell was at the helm of the first LCVP launched. At 0750, as the last LCVPs were leaving the landing ship, a pontoon barge was launched alongside the starboard side of LST-930. The barge would be used to offload wounded soldiers so they could be lifted to the deck. After the first wave of Marines hit the beach, LST-930 became a hospital ship. We got the troops in the LCVP and started circling, Campbell recalled. The seas were pretty rough, and it was raining, like pouring water out of a bucket, all day long. They would send us in as a group, called a wave, and tell us to go in by radio. When we got the call to go in the first time it was about 0900.
While the LCVPs were circling, awaiting their orders to go in, LST-930 came under fire. The ship’s record reports the first near miss at 0816 hours and states: At 0900 several near hits amidships and at the stern….0954 first casualties brought to ship from shore, casualties continued to come in a steady stream by small boats, DUKWs [amphibious trucks], and LVTs [landing vehicles, tracked].
Campbell was aware that some of the LCVPs were being hit as they approached the beach, but what he remembers most clearly is the difficulty experienced by the tank crews that had already reached the shoreline. It was so rough and the sand so soft that the tanks and things that got to the sand just bogged down, he said. They were having to take bulldozers to pull them off. His first trip was without casualties. We made it in all right, he recalled. We unloaded with no problem. All I did was drop that front door down, and then I got out of there. The coxswain was concentrating on his job so much at the time that today he cannot remember whether there were any near misses for his own landing craft.
We made four or five trips between then and about 7 o’clock that night, said Campbell. I could see other LCVPs getting hit then, but it was hot all night. We made it in all right carrying in troops off the ship. My trouble started when I went back and picked up a load of medical supplies a little after dark. I went in to the beach and couldn’t get off. It was dark. They’d shoot flares and it would light the whole island up, just like it was daylight. We were on the beach unloading supplies. There were men on the beach helping us…to get the supplies off the boat and get off the beach. I was at the back of the boat when a shell or mortar hit the front of the boat. It blew the bow door off of it.
We got off that thing and dug a foxhole about 20 yards off the beach using a little shovel and our hands. It was nearly impossible to do. The sand kept pouring back into it. Every time we would get a little deep, the sand would cave in. Finally, we just piled it up in front as best we could and got behind it. They were shooting at me lying in that trench, and the machine-gun bullets were so close they were kicking sand in my eyes. I remember that like it was today. The funny thing was, I never did think about dying.
Campbell and his three crewmen huddled in their trench under fire for five hours before they finally had a chance to get off the beach. Around midnight we finally found this LVT going by and we managed to get on it as they went back out to their ship, another LST, he recalled. Once we got on that ship we went down to the tank deck and just went to sleep.The four sailors were not in a rush to get back to their own ship. After lunch they went to the bridge and asked that LST-930 send a boat to pick them up. Back on the ship they didn’t know where we were, if we were sunk or killed, said Campbell. They could see the LCVP on the beach, and the Japanese had kept hitting it with fire throughout the night, so it was all torn to pieces. Once he was back on LST-930, the young coxswain turned to other duties. We used the tank deck for an emergency hospital, he recalled. We had seven doctors and 35 corpsmen on board. They’d put the wounded on the barge tied to the side, put them on a stretcher, and we would pick them up with the crane and lower them down to the tank deck. I ran the crane.
It was Campbell’s first encounter with combat, and the carnage made a deep impression on the young sailor. I had seen the wounded being unloaded from my second trip on, although we weren’t carrying any, he said. I can still remember the first guy they brought back to my ship. He had gotten blown up in a tank, and his face was blown off. His nose and his jaw just weren’t there. His tongue was pinned back to his collar. He wasn’t out or anything, and his eyes were okay. He thought it was only his jaw that was broken. He couldn’t put his hands up to touch his face because they were pinned down. Another guy came back blown all to pieces, just burnt up. You’ve never smelled such a scent in all your life as burned human flesh.
There were a lot of burns, a lot of arms shot off, legs broken, just everything you could imagine. They didn’t make a lot of noise, though. As soon as they got on the barge, if they were in pain they’d shoot the morphine into them. Once we were unloading this wounded guy to the barge, and when they started to put him over on the barge, one end [of the stretcher] got loose, and they dropped him into the water. Everyone was just standing there, watching this guy sink. This black cook, Reva L. Jones, dove into the water and pulled him back up. I thought it was a brave thing, but he never got any recognition for it.
Unloading wounded troops was what Campbell did for the next 24 days. LST-930’s crew relayed casualties from Iwo Jima’s beaches to larger hospital ships. The 18-year-old witnessed many deaths. I didn’t pay too much attention to the dead after a few days, but you don’t get used to it, he said. You never get used to it. I’ve slept on the tank deck with as many as 14 dead with just canvas over them, lying off to the side before we could get a chance to go out and bury them. We’d take the ones who died on our ship out for burial, and we’d sew them in canvas, put some weight on them so they would sink, have a chaplain say a few words, and bury them at sea. I didn’t go on many of them [burial details]. I told them I didn’t like it and tried to avoid it as much as I could.
On the fifth day of the battle, Campbell was an eyewitness to the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi. He recalled: We were three or four miles back in the bay when it was raised on top of the ‘hot rock’ — that’s what I called it. I saw them raise it up. I was on the top deck, and someone said, ‘Look, they’re putting the flag up.’ They’d radioed among the ships that they were putting the flag up now, and everyone on the top deck could see it. They didn’t cheer or anything where I was, they just watched.
But even after Mount Suribachi had been taken, LST-930 was not through losing LCVPs. We had a boat that got loose, Campbell recalled. We went over there to get it, and as we brought it up to the side of the ship, it was about full of water. We were towing it, and just as we got to the gangplank with it, it started to go under. It would have pulled us over, I think. One of the boys had a big old knife and cut the rope in two, and it just sank on down.
Campbell’s LST lost one LCVP to Japanese fire and another because of a mistake made by his captain. We were going into the beach with the LST, and the captain dropped the stern anchor too quick, the former coxswain remembered. We ran out of cable. We had 700 feet of cable, and it just broke loose, turned the ship loose, and we had no way to secure the stern. We were on the beach a long time, and when we finally got back and anchored, we took an LCVP and a chain and hook and dragged around in big circles trying to find the stern anchor. I was making these circles, and I’d ride up to where the wave was just starting to break. The captain said to go in a little closer. I told him, ‘If we go in any closer it will turn us over.’ The captain looked at me and said, ‘Who’s giving the goddamned orders here, you or me?’ I didn’t say a word, and the next time I went in on top, riding up on top of the wave like he ordered, and the waves just rolled the boat over. The captain had to swim to the beach. He never said another word about it. It sank that boat and tore it all to pieces.
LST-930 returned to Saipan after 25 days, with Iwo Jima generally secured. From there, the ship carried supplies to the Philippines, and after the Philippines she was on her way to yet another invasion — this time on Okinawa.
While the invasion was basically unopposed on the beach, there were other dangers at Okinawa, chiefly kamikaze planes. On April 6, 1945, the Japanese launched their largest kamikaze attack of the war — 355 planes — at the Okinawa invasion fleet. The pilot of a Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero apparently selected LST-930 as his target during the onslaught. Earlier that morning the ship had beached and the crew had unloaded all the rolling stock from the main deck. By 1534, the crew had pulled the craft back from the beach and begun to set anchor, according to the ship’s records.
General quarters was sounded at 1535. For Campbell, that meant manning a 40mm cannon. Shortly after he did so, a Zero came at the ship in a long, sweeping curve. I was looking straight in his gun barrels as he came down, Campbell recalled. I was looking straight in his wing. You could see the tracers we were shooting going right in the nose of that plane. There were six or seven guns hitting him as he came down, and just before he got to us he raised the nose up just a little, came right across the superstructure, and just barely cleared it. He went over the top and into the water on the other side. The ship’s record states simply: Anchored as before. 1606, shot down enemy suicide plane (Zeke), plane crashing into sea, 500 yards off starboard quarter.
Campbell would take part in yet another invasion, on the small island of Ie Shima, on June 6, 1945, and then his combat days would be over. But Campbell remained aboard LST-930 until later that year, as the ship’s tour of duty in the Pacific continued. We just hauled supplies from one place to another, Campbell recalled, from Okinawa to the Philippines, and finally to Japan in September 1945. On his return to Guam that December, Campbell was slated to be sent home.
I left Guam in the first group to come off our ship, he said. There were 12 of us on a transport to California. You see, they had to get replacements for you before they would let you come home. They gave me 30 days to report to Charleston, S.C., so I caught a train to Knoxville, Tenn., and came home. I went to Charleston long enough to get discharged and then rode the bus home. I was discharged on May 17, 1946.
Campbell’s cousin, Euclid Voyles, who had listened to the radio report of the Pearl Harbor attack with him nearly five years earlier, was there to greet him when he reached his hometown. Voyles’ plans of becoming a pilot had been frustrated when he was turned down for medical reasons. He had instead trained as an aviation ordnanceman. Voyles had served in many of the same locations visited by Campbell during his tour in the Pacific, but the two cousins had never run into each other.
Although she had two battle stars and one Japanese plane to her credit, LST-930’s career in the U.S. Navy was not a long one. After the war, she returned to the United States, where she was decommissioned and struck from the Navy list on July 31, 1946. In June 1948 the former LST was sold to the Humble Oil and Refining Co. of Houston, and in 1955 she was converted into an oil-drilling rig. LST-930’s nameplate was given to a former crew member in 1997.
J. Bruce Voyles wishes to thank former crew members of LST-930 for their help in obtaining much of the information in this article.
This article was written by J. Bruce Voylesand originally appeared in the February 2000 issue of World War II. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!