The only U.S. Navy warship so named served 13 good years before being sunk as a target ship off Hawaii.
|Wearing his original Navy white uniform cap, Norman D. James, 81, who served as a gunner’s mate on the USS Orange County, displays a photograph of the ship as he stands in the front yard of his farmhouse near Sacramento. (Courtesy David Henley)|
The doughy LSTs, or landing ship tanks in military parlance, were theU.S. Navy‘s amphibious landing workhorses of World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War.
Flat-bottomed and keel-less, the 328-foot LSTs, their guns blazing, crawled onto enemy-held beaches through sand, mud and coral reefs, opened their two massive “clamshell” bow doors and sent ashore deadly loads of tanks, jeeps, heavily armed troops, weapons and ammunition.
The versatile LSTs, which were crewed by nine officers and 98 enlisted men, also could accommodate a string of railroad freight cars in the giant holds, and their wide top decks often were pressed into service as landing and take-off platforms for small planes and helicopters conducting reconnaissance missions and medical evacuations.
Some thought the snub-nosed ships were ugly and ungainly, and they often were the objects of unkind jests from crews of sleeker and larger vessels.
The LSTs also were slow — their top speed was 11 knots — and they rolled in calm as well as heavy seas, causing them to be labeled “floating coffins,” “one-way tickets,” “large slow targets” and “vomit comets.”
Winston Churchill said the LSTs “helped win the war against Germany and Japan.” Adm. Richmond K. Turner referred to them as “marvels.” Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall wrote, “The great worth of these vessels will never be understood by history.”
More than 1,000 LSTs were built, and one of them, which was commissioned in a Boston shipyard on March 27, 1945 — less than five months before the end of World War II — had a distinctly local name: the USS Orange County.
The only U.S. Navy warship to have borne the name Orange County was designated LST-1068. It was in service for 13 years until old age and obsolescence set in, and she was sunk as a target ship in mid-June 1958.
Norman D. James, 81, one of the Orange County’s still-living crew members, who served as a gunner’s mate on the ship for nearly four years, says the LST was “the love of my life until I married my wife, Marjorie, after I got out of the Navy in late 1955.”
James, a ramrod, 6-foot, 2-incher who raises rice, hay and alfalfa with his two sons on the family farm near Pleasant Grove (population 250), about 25 miles north of Sacramento, said, “I was stationed aboard the Orange County for more than two years during the Korean War, and our ship was often in the thick of combat.”
That is until an armistice was reached in July of 1953, which left Korea divided into North and South Korea along the 38th parallel.
James, who joined the Navy at age 17, “right out of high school,” said in an interview conducted in his farmhouse kitchen, “Although the Orange County frequently hauled miscellaneous cargoes to Japan, Okinawa and Guam during the Korean conflict, we spent many months conducting amphibious operations on the Korean coast, where we beached the front part of the ship and off-loaded Army and Marine Corps infantrymen and their tanks during combat.
“On one occasion, we were steaming north of the 38th parallel at night when we heard Russian-made MIG fighters of the North Korean air force approaching our ship, and in a few seconds they started strafing us. But they didn’t hit us with their guns, and we didn’t hit them either, because it was pitch dark. Then, North Korean shore batteries opened fire on us and the two other LSTs in our convoy. They missed too, and we couldn’t hit them because our guns didn’t reach that far.
“We had about 50 huge barrels of gasoline lashed to our top deck, and I said to myself, ‘We’re sitting ducks. The commies are shooting at us from the air and the shore. Our ship is slow-moving and we are a big, fat floating target. One of these guys lobbing shells and bullets at us will get lucky and hit the gasoline barrels and ‘boom,’ the Orange County will blow up and we’ll all be goners.
“But, miraculously, we were saved. Nine Canadian Air Force jets arrived out of nowhere and chased off the North Korean jets and fired on the enemy shore batteries. Our ship wasn’t hit once, and no one was injured or killed. In fact, I was lucky all during my Navy service. I was never injured.”
One day, the Orange County was caught in a typhoon. Source: Daily Pilot
“I was standing lookout duty on the bridge, and the heavy seas were coming over the decks and nearly reaching the pilot house,” James said. “The ship was rolling so bad I thought we’d turn over and sink. But we didn’t … boy that was a close call.”
During long stretches at sea, the ship often would run out of fresh water and fresh food, he added.
“We had to take salt water showers, and they made us itch like hell. Several times we ran out of drinking water, and we were so thirsty that we drank from the emergency water cans in the lifeboats. And we had to eat dehydrated eggs and potatoes. And, gosh, it was hot below decks. Navy ships in those days weren’t air-conditioned, and the temperature would reach 110 degrees in the crew’s quarters.
“Duty aboard the Orange County was never monotonous. One day, our ship was converted into an aircraft carrier when a Navy helicopter flew on and off the deck while photographing a U.S. submarine purposely sink an old and obsolete Navy seagoing tugboat off the coast of Japan. When the sub’s torpedo hit the tug, it jumped up high into the air and then sank in seconds.”
Three years after James had left the Navy and returned to his farm in Northern California, the USS Orange County was destined to face the same sentence handed the aging tugboat: It was sunk as a target ship off the coast of Hawaii on June 19, 1958.
“When I heard my ship had been sunk, I felt just terrible,” James said. “I think I even cried. It was like I had lost an old girlfriend. A part of me was gone forever.”
On Oct. 6, 1986 — 28 years following the sinking of the USS Orange County — California’s U.S. Sens. Pete Wilson and Alan Cranston and Orange County Reps. Robert E. Badham, William Dannemeyer, Robert K. Dornan and Dan Lungren wrote a letter to Navy Secretary John Lehman, requesting that another warship be given the name USS Orange County to herald the county’s 1989 centennial.
A Lehman aide initially responded that there was no chance of naming a new ship the Orange County. He later relented, stating there was a “faint possibility” and the proposal was “feasible” and a “good idea.”
But the Daily Pilot has in its possession a copy of the original letter sent to Lehman, and in the letter’s margin is a hand-written comment by Lehman that says, “I would advise holding firm … if we use the Orange County name, we would have one less name to use for a more deserving candidate.”
As of today, there are no further requests or plans to name a new warship the USS Orange County.
The only ship in U.S. naval history to have carried that name, a ship that won four Navy battle stars for its wartime service in Korea, lies in a watery grave off Hawaii.
A longtime newspaperman and foreign correspondent, DAVID C. HENLEY is a member of the Chapman University Board of Trustees and a resident of Newport Beach.