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Clean Sweep: A Mine Sweeper’s Journey

By H. G. Jones
9/14/2017 • World War II Magazine

After the war ended, the war against underwater mines went on. One sailor’s story.

On paper, in August 1945, and nearly every serviceman wanted to go home. For me and others serving on minesweepers, the war was over the end seemed simple: we would sail our ship back to the West Coast, decommission her, accept individual discharges, and go home. Finis. Back in civvies. “Ain’t gonna study war no more.” On second thought, we realized the simplemindedness of such a solution. The Japanese had surrendered their ships, not their mines—nor had we surrendered ours. Thousands of square miles of waters in the Far East were pregnant with mines planted by both the Japanese and the Allies, and those weapons would not discriminate between nationalities. For years to come, each one of them would endanger any ship sailing near it.

Our minesweepers faced many months of dangerous work destroying or neutralizing mines before returning to the States. Most urgent was the clearing of strategic channels through which Allied ships could safely deliver occupation troops and bring out thousands of American prisoners of war held in Japan and on the Asiatic mainland.

Within an hour and a half of my boarding the USS Strive as its new flag yeoman on September 1, the minesweeper sailed with Mine Division 17 out of Buckner Bay off the southern coast of Okinawa on a perilous mission—to lead the first American occupation troops into Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu. Our assignment was to clear a channel into Kagoshima Bay at the south of Kyushu so transports could safely land American troops to seize the Chiran and Kanoya air bases, from which kamikaze pilots had struck many of our ships and killed hundreds of our fellow sailors and soldiers.

Thus, at the moment Japanese officials were signing the formal treaty of Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay on September 2, my new ship was facilitating the peaceful landing of troops of the 32nd Division, who had been preparing to invade Kyushu two months later. The invasion plans—made unnecessary by Japan’s surrender—were unknown to us at that time, but hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of American troops had been rendezvousing throughout the Pacific in preparation for a massive assault on the Japanese mainland. The estimates for potential casualties among American troops varied substantially, but—alarmingly—the War Department had ordered the manufacture of 400,000 additional Purple Hearts.

As a flag yeoman I had largely administrative duties, and little notion of the use of all the mysterious gear stashed, seemingly haphazardly, on the deck behind the stacks. Nor did I know much about mines except for their lethal power. Through osmosis rather than formal study, I gradually learned a bit about mine warfare. Mines—typically containing from 250 to 1,600 pounds of TNT—were either controlled or independent, and could be anchored at specific depths or planted on the sea floor. Each type of mine—moored, magnetic, or acoustic—required a different offense. Strive usually went after the moored mines by streaming several hundred feet of sweep gear behind her, designed to cut their anchor wires. If the cutting gear itself didn’t explode the mines, they usually floated to the surface, where sharpshooters on deck exploded them by gunfire. But we never knew exactly where the mines were; even when we had maps showing general areas that had been mined, they couldn’t show us the location of the many thousands of individual mines.

As we gingerly approached Kyushu in the predawn darkness of September 3, the Strive turned on her running and range lights for the first time in the Pacific. “Condition III”— highest battle readiness—was set, and our crew wore sidearms as we cautiously approached a Japanese vessel and took aboard three uniformed Japanese seamen. It was a strange feeling— putting our lives in the hands of three erstwhile enemies who, just weeks before, would have killed us on sight. We wondered if these men might deliberately pilot our ships into the minefield rather than steer us through a secret channel.

Heartbeats accelerated when each minesweeper streamed her gear and began a sound and visual search for mines. All day, under the shadow of the conical, 3,000-foot Mt. Kaimon, the ships swept the approach to Kagoshima Bay. We only relaxed a bit late that afternoon when the day’s work came to an end and the three Japanese were returned to their pilot vessel.

Confidence had been established on the bridge that day, however, and the commander of the Strive, E. B. Knowlton, and several other officers accepted an invitation to pay a brief visit to a Japanese vessel, where pictures were taken as evidence of the rapport between former enemies. Nonetheless, the unit commander ordered our ships darkened at night, lest we attract suicidal swimmers bearing limpet mines. We were well aware of the extremes the Japanese could go to in war, and none of us were quick to let down our guard. When we retrieved our equipment that evening, we found Japanese minesweeping gear entangled in Strive’s—a sign the Japanese had made an effort to open a channel, presumably for vessels on suicide missions.

September 5 was a banner day. With gear streamed, Strive entered the mined area of Kagoshima Bay as the guide ship in a starboard “protective echelon” formation, meaning that we were completely exposed to unswept waters, but provided some protection for the vessel that followed our starboard cutter, which in turn offered a bit of protection for the third ship, and so on. Just after noon, we cut one mine and, within an hour, five more. The next day’s toll was an astonishing record of 25 mines, two of which had to be shaken from the cutters.

From our anchorage, we saw little of Kagoshima, the major city in the district of that name, nor did we get to see the two air bases from where more than 1,000 pilots had departed on suicide missions. American bombers had leveled the dockyards around Kagoshima and much of the city, so our most lasting impression was of the volcano towering 3,665 feet just east of the city. Its last violent eruption, in 1914, had turned the island into a peninsula, and it still acted up and smoked almost continually.

Sweeping continued until September 9. Strive alone destroyed 32 mines; our sister ships accounted for 222 more. Just one of those explosive devices could have sunk a transport loaded with thousands of men. But we had done our duty and happily witnessed the arrival of troops to take up positions around military establishments. We were also glad to head back to Okinawa, where two days later Strive tied up to the tanker USS Wabash and took on 24,526 gallons of fuel oil and 1,300 gallons of lubricating oil.

A week of relative inactivity came to an end on Sunday, September 16, when a typhoon bore down on the island, and ships were ordered to execute Typhoon Plan X-Ray, which meant sailing out of the bay into the rising sea. For two days we alternated course with other vessels, battling the huge waves. Steering became increasingly difficult as ships as large as destroyers were tossed around like corks, their bows alternately pointing up and plunging into troughs, their forward gun turrets completely under water. Unsecured objects became weapons that flew from beam to beam, but Strive suffered no structural damage.

Several other vessels were less fortunate: two small wooden minesweepers, YMS-98 and YMS-341, went down; the Liberty ships Richard V. Oulahan and John A. Rawlins were lost; the hospital ship Repose recorded winds of 173 miles per hour and a barometer reading of 26 inches; and the supply ship Beagle claimed to have measured waves up to 80 feet high. Most horrifying of all, the minesweeper YMS-472 capsized with a loss of 25, including one man devoured by sharks as his shipmates watched helplessly.

Badly shaken up but safely back in Buckner Bay, my shipmates and I were grateful for four days of relative quiet. Then, on September 22, our squadron was ordered back to Japan, this time to Bungo Suido, the broad neck that separates the home islands of Kyushu and Shikoku and provides the gateway from the Pacific to Japan’s Inland Sea.

Upon arrival at the entrance to the strait on the 24th, Commander Knowlton was placed in charge of Operation Bungo Suido, with instructions to clear a channel for the transports bringing the 41st Infantry Division to occupy the area around Hiroshima and Kure. Many of the 3,400 mines to be swept in Bungo Suido had been planted in these waters by American submarines as early as 1942, and we were welcomed by a genuine made-in-America floater—a mine that had bobbled to the surface—which we sunk with small arms fire. Another bobbed up the next day with the same result, and we got down to business on the 26th, exploding 10 mines, one of which had to be dislodged from the sweep gear.

Obviously, we were in the right place, whether we liked it or not. Our everyday work for five weeks was repetitive but, because issues frequently arose with the sweeping gear, not always boring. The log on several occasions recorded problems such as: “Lost starboard float while anchoring; float pendant fouled in starboard screw pulling float into screw. Examination by diver disclosed slight damage to port screw.”

By September 29 we had crossed the strait to Kyushu and tested the waters of Tsukumi Bay, then sailed up to Beppu Bay on the Inland Sea. Always wary of attacks from suicidal Japanese, armed seamen circled our ships in a small boat—a “whaleboat” in navy parlance—to deter potential saboteurs. Sweeping back from Beppu to Fukuru we cut five mines, but in the process lost the leg of gear streaming from the port side. We recovered it, lost it again, and recovered it a second time. These were nerve-wracking hours, trying to recover gear in the middle of a minefield; dangerous, and definitely not fun.

On October 3, ships passed through the Inland Sea carrying elements of the Sixth Army into Hiroshima Bay. The next day we rescued and took ashore a crew of five Japanese from a small vessel flying the international distress signal, before the threat of another typhoon drove Strive to put in at Tsukumi Bay. On October 7 our log recorded: “Maneuvering through many mines, mines detonating ahead.” Strive got two of them before returning to Fukuru Bay. But the real “fun” came the following day south of Fukuru when, between the hours of 9 a.m. and noon, Strive destroyed 25 mines, equaling the previous month’s record at Kagoshima.

The Lord was with us on October 9, for we were in Bungo Suido when Typhoon Louise wreaked havoc on the fleet remaining around Okinawa. That storm, which unexpectedly changed course and caught 300 ships in vulnerable Buckner Bay and other anchorages around Okinawa, only sideswiped us. But at Okinawa, an estimated 80 percent of the military buildings around Buckner Bay were blown away or damaged. Many servicemen, in wet uniforms and without food for days, sought shelter in caves previously used by Japanese holdouts. The Navy Department reported the sinking of 12 ships, the grounding of 222 (most of which were eventually salvaged), and severe damage to 32 more.

Mine Division 17’s back-and-forth sweeps between Shikoku and Kyushu continued for three additional weeks, with consistent success for Strive: four mines on the 12th, eight the next day, and twenty on the 16th. We came up empty for five days, but the next week swept ten more.

Except for typing transfer orders for men who had attained enough points to qualify for discharge, relatively little office work was required of me during Operation Bungo Suido. I spent a lot of time around the bridge, away from the clutter and clatter of the minesweeping gear toward the stern, and I played checkers and chess with other bored crewmembers. We were not permitted to go ashore—the Japanese in these remote areas may not have fully accepted their country’s surrender. From my vantage point on the deck, however, I sent home the following description of Fukuru:  

For the past two nights we have anchored in a little cove back under the cliffs in the Straits. There are a number of little villages in the cove and are interesting. The hills are very steep…, but the Japs have terraced off the hills and now they appear like giant steps. They plant their crops on these steps and make use of the steep hills that we would let go to waste in the States. Many of the homes are dug in caves and they don’t bother with glass windows; they just leave a hole in the side of the houses and let it go at that. Some of the roofs are made of straw and weeds, but some of them are of terracotta clay….We have two whaleboats patrol all night with tommy guns just in case any Japs try to swim out with depth charges.

I added, “We still don’t trust them too much.” That distrust increased dramatically when we solved the mystery of hundreds of small dark spots visible along the water’s edge on the coast of Shikoku. We debated the purpose of the tiny holes in the cliffs. After anchoring in Fukura Bay on October 14, I joined a whaleboat crew for a closer look. The question became more perplexing when we drew closer and discerned two thin lines running from each cave to the water’s edge. Closer still, we suddenly realized the awful truth: Each cave served as a midget submarine pen, and the dual lines were in fact flimsy rails on which the diabolical suicide weapons were to be launched into the water. Along the rugged coast of the Japanese islands hundreds of young Japanese had been prepared to give their lives to the emperor by guiding these small explosive-laden contraptions into American ships.

Historians may debate the wisdom of atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but a few years later—in 1961, at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri—I had a chance to tell my wartime commander in chief: “Mr. President, I want to thank you for your decision to drop the atomic bombs, for otherwise I probably would not be here today.”

The most memorable event of the Bungo Suido operation occurred while Strive was anchored off the island of Shikoku in southeast Japan, on October 27. We had a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Frank G. Moore, who declared a holiday. We watched the movie Marriage is a Private Affair, and Lieutenant (junior grade) R. B. Ferrell and I arranged a third anniversary commemoration of Strive’s commissioning in Cleveland, Ohio. The lieutenant handled the logistics, the commissary department provided the food, and I prepared the crew roster, wrote a short history of the ship, and mimeographed the five-page anniversary program.

The menu was sumptuous for a war zone: mulligatawny soup, olives, carrot and raisin salad, roast stuffed Princess Anne turkey, spinach, minced eggs, potatoes, green peas, and for dessert, chocolate layer cake, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate sauce. I wrote home about the “biggest chow we’ve had in years…, really delicious.” The dinner was followed by cigars and beer, which further boosted morale.

By the time we were relieved of duty in Bungo Suido on November 2 (“at last,” I wrote in my notebook), the ship’s log recorded the destruction of 87 lethal mines that could have endangered the troopships heading for Hiroshima. (In the history I had prepared for the third anniversary celebration, I had credited Strive with 107 mines. I suspect the discrepancy was because the log recorded only mines actually exploded by Strive, whereas my anniversary figure included some that were cut loose by Strive but exploded and sunk by ships behind us. Cooperative destruction was essential because mines usually surfaced several hundred feet astern of the ship whose gear cut them.)

In total, sweepers at Bungo Suido had destroyed 1,687 of the estimated 3,400 mines endangering shipping; Japanese vessels impressed into the same service accounted for 222 more. Our immediate job of clearing sea channels there was over. But that meant that nearly 1,500 other underwater missiles remained to threaten every ship that sailed between Kyushu and Shikoku. Some had escaped the deep-water sweeps; hundreds more were submerged in dangerous waters near the shores, where the Japanese had laid them as protection against invasion. Clearing those required a different small-boat type of sweeping. That task was left to the Japanese, and I suspect many of those mines still infest remote shores.

The Strive and Mine Division 17 went on to two more months of war against mines, including an operation around Formosa (now Taiwan), where for the first time since leaving Pearl Harbor, the Strive and her sister ships tied up to a dock and we were finally allowed shore liberty. Near the end of this time we received the sad news that another minesweeper, the Minivet, had been sunk by a mine in the strait between Korea and Japan on December 29, carrying down 31 of her crew, including the brother of one of our cooks. This tragedy reinforced the truism that mines respect neither friend nor foe.

Late one evening two weeks later, I sat down in my yeoman’s office and started what would become a typed 13-page single-spaced circular letter with multiple carbon copies. It began: “This is a date that we will all remember for a long time to come, just like 7 December 1941 and 15 August 1945. This morning at 0800, the Strive, after 11 hectic months in the Pacific (plus 21 in the European–African theatre), and her sister ships got underway for their last trip—and one for which we have all looked forward.”

It was January 15, 1946. And we were coming home.

 

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.

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