«One of the least-known but most significant warship variants of WWII was the PCE(R) - the Navy’s equivalent of a seagoing ambulance. Only 13 were ...»
THE DECKS RAN
The grimmest of all wartime shipboard duty was experienced by the valiant
medical corpsmen who manned the PCE (R) rescue ships
the Naval equivalent of seagoing ambulances
One of the least-known but most significant warship variants of WWII was the PCE(R) -
the Navy’s equivalent of a seagoing ambulance. Only 13 were commissioned and these saw
extensive duty only in the later campaigns of the Pacific. Though few in number the heroic role of the PCE(R)s in Pacific invasions was truly remarkable for had they not existed thousands of wounded aboard the smaller vessels of the amphibious fleets may have perished before adequate medical aid reached them.
Born to battle, the PCE(R)s proved war at best is a nasty business. Saving as many lives as possible in the bloody arena of battle became an urgent priority in the island-hopping phase of the Pacific War where heavy casualties were frequently taken far at sea thousands of miles from hospital facilities. While large hospital ships assigned to invasion fleets did their best to expedite front-line medical aid they were not always available in adequate enough numbers to be everywhere when needed. This shortcoming became especially critical to those who sustained serious wounds aboard the smaller ships of the fast moving battle fleets, and with amphibious landing craft which existed in large numbers but whose diminutive size precluded the inclusion of sick bays or emergency facilities for medical personnel.
HE WHO RECEIVES PROMPT MEDICAL ATTENTION IS LIKELY TO SURVIVEAmerica’s Civil War, the first conflict to experience the terrible wounds caused by explosive shells and high volume musketry, early proved that recovery of the seriously injured largely depended upon how quickly proper medical aid could be obtained. By the onset of WWII, the US Army had addressed this problem by inserting trained medics in every infantry unit. The medics were in turn supported by mobile front line dressing stations and these in turn were networked with mobile field hospitals which were served by corps of motorized ambulances. In this manner during the European War it was not uncommon for a wounded soldier to often find himself in a full-blown hospital bed withing hours after being injured.
But not so at sea where the vastness of the ocean often spelled the difference between life and death. Sailors and seamen severely injured on merchant ship in convoy, on patrol craft or aboard vessels involved in rear area combats, were forced to depend on whatever limited medical facility was available. Emergency medical aid was frequently nonexistent or, at best, limited to small pharmacist manned dispensaries of destroyers or destroyer-escorts and LSTs. Small escorts such as PCs, AMs and landing craft like LCIs, LCTs, LCMs, and LCVPs - backbones of the amphibious fleets - generally carried no medical personnel.
To correct this dilemma in the far-flung Pacific the Navy, late in 1943, decided to create what was tantamount to a special sea-going ambulance staffed with doctors and trained corpsmen who could provide adequate emergency aid to smaller vessels during amphibious operations.
The early success of two field modified Army Headquarters ships assigned to Gen. Mac Arthur’s command provided the inspiration for the rescue ship/ambulance program. By the time the waterborne ambulance concept took organizational form in the Pentagon the advent of the deathbound Japanese kamikazes - who especially sought out lucrative humanity intense targets like troopships and landing craft - made the need for the emergency medical aid afloat all the more acute.
The vessel chosen for this salubrious task was a specially modified 185-ft long patrol craft based on the well-proven diesel-powered all steel Admirable-class mine-sweeper. Capable of making 15 - 16 kts, a number of AM hulls had been converted into ocean-going patrol craft whose 8,000 mile range, sea keeping ability and imposing armament made them well-suited to the Pacific. Based on a design originally ordered by the General Board in 1941 to include British specifications, the 795-ton AM hull proved itself readily adaptable to a multitude of uses within the patrol craft escort (PCE) role. Of the 49 AMs completed as PCEs, ten were converted to amphibious PCE(C) control ships, eleven were altered in weather ships, two became ACM minelayers, two others morphed into Coast Guard cutters, three became YDG degaussing vessels, and 13 were altered in the rescue ship configuration as PCE(R)s.
By extending the long forecastle almost to the stern, the planners at Pullman-Standard Car Co. - designers and builders of the 185-footers - were able to created a large hospital bay able to accommodate beds for 80 patients. A complete surgery, X-ray and pharmacy were provided along with quarters for a medical officer, and a staff of 15 pharmacist mates, including lab technicians. Quarters were also made available for additional doctors who augmented the staff as the need arose. The rescue Peecee’s complement numbered 120 men and eight officers, generally all reservists or inductees.
Unlike hospital ships, which by international law carried no armament, the PCE(R) retained its full gunboat-type weaponry of a single 3-in/50 DP gun on the foredeck, two single 40mm, and six 20mm. As the kamikaze became more of a threat it was not uncommon for PCE(R)s to add a variety of single and dual-mount.50-cal machine guns readily made available from the Army by unrecorded trades of “medicinal” brandy for Brownings.
Although the Brits refused to accept the AM versions built for them under Lend-Lease because they did not include diesel-electric power, the PCE design retained the raised open bridge wherein an enclosed wheel-house was provided in the deck below. Late model sonar and a variety of VHF/HF communications, plus a modified Combat Information Center (CIC) gave these hybrid vessels the ability to provide escort duty en route to an invasion and upon arrival at an enemy beach quickly transformed into the rescue role.
To better appreciate the type of war these unique vessels fought, let’s trace the exploits of the PCE(R)-851, one of a trio of newly commissioned rescue ships which arrived in the Pacific shortly before the 1944 invasion of Leyte after many dull months of patrol duty out of Bermuda.
PCE(R)s -851, -852 and -853 arrived at Manus in time to report to DesRon54 just before the destroyer’s departure for Leyte. Having traveled as a team en route from Hawaii, the trio of young captains had evolved a number of plans for various types of rescue work which they felt would prove the life-saving potential of their vessels. Among these specially developed procedures was the ability to transfer wounded quickly via Stokes litters, methods of identifying and classifying required medical attention and, above all, procedures to assure maximum survivability of those in their care. Although extremely pleased with their innovative accomplishments, the officers and their medical staffs were due for an unfortunate rude awakening. It seems no one deigned to inform them that the Navy had failed to advise the 7th Fleet of the new ships’ purpose, existence, or presence.
Acting as spokesman for the trio, Cmdr. F.S. Bayley, USNR, a Harvard educated attorney form Seattle who commanded -851, did his best to explain to the destroyermen the variety of rescue services his vessels were capable of performing. However, the officer Bayley addressed lacked an y comprehension of what the weird new ships were able to do. Worse yet, he confused the stubby-looking gunboats with high speed Air-Sea Rescue boats, advised them not to race about the harbor at 35-kts, that there was little flying activity and ordered all three to tie-up to harbor buoys and await further orders.
ON TO THE OKINAWAN BLOOD BATHAfter repairs at Hollandia - 851 found itself reassigned to the 5th Fleet’s DesRon 60 at Saipan for the upcoming invasion of Okinawa. At this point the ship fortuitously came under the command of Capt. C.B. Buchanan, USN, an officer who became enthralled with the vessel’s unique life-saving mission. Taking voluminous notes on rescue techniques for future reference, Buchanan’s interest would soon pay handsome dividends to those whose lives the ship saved.
The screening position of the -851, while steaming to Okinawa, was directly ahead of Adm. Turner’s big AGC. As the force steamed at 14 to 15 kts, and the -51 had a maximum speed at that time of 15-kts, screening became of secondary importance. Captain Buchanan was aware of the predicament the ship was in and authorized a more or less straight course while the formation followed a zig-zag plan. This kept the ship out of harm’s way until at last, on the night before D-day, the Engineer gave the bridge a solemn warning on stack temperatures, pressures, and Diesel engines in general. At the same time, an LSD was falling astern, so Capt. Buchanan assigned the -851 as escort for the cripple, and as dawn came the two ships chugged alone toward Okinawa.
Approaching Hagushi Beach, with the island about ten miles distant, the ships were relieved to hear over Local Air Warning that the condition was Flash White - with no enemy planes in the area. As the -51's gunners climbed out of their straps and seats, and a cloud of cigarette smoke rose over the ship, an airplane engine was heard in the clouds overhead. The gunnery officer, a tall and slow-spoken Texan, drawled, “Hell, Cap’n that ain’t no F6F - I bet it’s a JBJ.” (This latter was -851 talk meaning “Jap By Jeezus,” as opposed to FTG, meaning “Friendly Thank God.”) No sooner had he spoken than through a rift in the clouds came a Zeke, diving almost vertically, with its propeller spinner centered directly on the bridge of the ship.
Being unfamiliar with the laws of relative motion, the pilot passed behind the funnel, a few inches above the starboard motor whaleboat, and splashed ten feet from the ship.
Not a shot was fired.
When the incident was reported later to Capt. Buchanan, his remark was only: “if you think you scared him to death, claim him!” At okinawa the -855 arrived, fresh from the States, and joined with the -51 and -52 in performing most of the rescue work during that operation. The Okinawa days were without a doubt the fastest moving and busiest days for these ships. Almost without cease, except during stormy days, the continuous raids called for the services of the PCE(R)s. To be readily available at all times to the picket ships, they were stationed well out at sea, separately, where they steamed alone until directed to a damaged picket. The duties of the ships were well expressed by
“The services of these ships were urgently and almost continuously required. Whenever a vessel was damaged in action, one of these PCE(R)s would be directed immediately to render aid. Many heroic rescues of wounded personnel from alongside bumming and sinking vessels were carried out, frequently in addition to saving survivors form water. The frequent and unpredictable enemy attacks required that the ship stand by on instant notice, 24 hours a day, day after day. Her station while awaiting call was an Isolated and remote one form which she could proceed with the least delay to the distant Radar Picket Stations. Frequent under attack herself, she had to fight off enemy planes with her own gunfire and by maneuvers.
Although on occasion the dead were taken aboard with the wounded, as when the -851 went alongside Maryland, it was necessary finally to refuse to do this at Okinawa. This was partly because of space limitations and the difficulty of getting the Graves Registration people on the beach to take the bodies away - but principally because of the adverse effect upon the morale of the ship’s own personnel. The continual grimness of the duty was by this time making its mark upon all hands. In the case of other ships, unless they were hit, they rarely came in direct and immediate contact with the savage results of a kamikaze hit. But the PCE(R)s saw little else for months, and the crews became disheartened and morbid as a result. The feeling that “They won’t get us” was slowly lost, and it became a certainty in the minds of the officers and men that the ship would be hit. The question with all hands was not “when,” but “where.” Such a conclusion was inevitable, because the ships traveled alone, without air cover, and could only rely on visual sighting of bogeys. And then when they were sighted, there was little or nothing to throw at them.
During night attacks the -51 did not man battle stations. The large number of ships hit at night, when the kamikaze flew down the tracer path, forced the conclusion that no guns should be fired after evening twilight. Consequently, only the damage control stations were fully manned, and the crew was ordered to disperse, with all hands except watchstanders in the engine rooms above the water line and with no more than ten men in any compartment.
When a bogey closed the ship, word was passed to hit the deck. In this manner, the ship had many low-flying planes pass close aboard, but none ever hit it. On one moonlight night, while returning from Radar Picket Station #2, and still well north of the island, the -851 had four low-level passes made at it by one plane. The last three passes missed the bridge by over 30-ft, and the plane then flew off, leaving the ship with a badly overheated steering engine and a watery-kneed bridge gang. In the distance the tracers of another ship were seen steaming across the water, followed by a flash of flame as the plane dove in alongside it.
Some of the gun crews were vexed at this passive procedure until the ship took casualties from the Maryland, where a night kamikaze had struck directly in the midst of a group of 20mm on the top of Number Three turret. This and other similar sights soon took the itch from their fingers.