«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 ...»
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Though thousands of sailors were forced to endure unspeakable horrors seeing their shipmates immolated aboard ships struck by kamikazes most would only be forced to face this ordeal once, or twice at best before being pulled out of combat. But the men of the rescue ships faced these gruesome sights every day with every ship they were called upon to assist. Working ankle deep in blood and mangled body parts became de rigeur as the Stokes litter bearers and attendants sought to find those amidst the debris of battle who could be saved. This constant exposure to grim death and dismemberment eventually took its toll on the young impressionable sailors who, unlike ambulance drivers facing similar horrors in big city hospital emergency rooms, found no respite from death and bloodshed for week at a time.
Particularly demoralizing was the fact that the rescue ships were not fitted with refrigerated morgues to store the dead. In the tropic heat stacked bodies decomposed quickly and the attendant smells of decaying flesh sent many of the younger sailors repeatedly to the rails to retch. In this grim atmosphere of sudden and violent death by fire, explosions or drowning it was inevitable that some crewmen would snap mentally and become victims along with those they attempted to save. This was part of the price paid to try to save precious lives in a conflict that killed more than 30,000,000.
SHIPS BECAME SCARRED AND BEATEN
During these days a jocular sort of camaraderie existed between the -851 and -852. If they joined up during a moonlight night there was quiet discussion over the SC 510 voice radio as to who would stay up the path of the moon or who would take station astern, where most of the fire power lay. At other times the signals usually involved such priorities as who was entitled to ask first for permission to go in for supplies, or water, or repairs. Since ships were a fairly independent unit, such matters usually were agreed upon first, and permission requested in accordance with that agreement.
As the days and nights were on, the three rescue ships became more scarred and beaten.
They were not properly designed to go along side vessels in a seaway, being high-sided with gun tubs flush to the sides. The -851 lost half of its portside stanchions and gun tub supports while backing away from Laffey on Radar Picket Station #1, and ran for three weeks with the gun platforms supported by 4 x 4 shoring before availability was granted alongside a repair ship.
The technique of going alongside was developed to the point that the Special Sea Detail was done away with, and the -851 used what was commonly known as the “Special Special Sea Detail,” which consisted of a small number of highly proficient line-handlers and the ship’s best helmsman. This left more men free for the casualty party. The Casualty Party was a carefully chosen group of men, who were trained in emergency aid techniques by the medical officer, and whose duty it was to scramble aboard the stricken ship with Stokes litters and bring back the wounded. Pharmacist mates led this party, checking on who should be moved first, and the medical officer either went aboard or stayed close by the rail to supervise and direct the seamen on where the injured were to be taken.
The bravery of most of the wounded was characteristic of the Navy. One burly sailor, clothed only in shorts with the rest of his body a blackened and charred mass of flesh, walked to the rail of his ship and across the brow to the -851. As he approached the step down form the brow he stopped, held out is arms, and indicating his wrists said, “Grab ‘em there, boys.” Other story book examples of heroism were too frequent to mention. A fairly common remark heard from wounded men was something like “Poor Mike fired at the b------- until he smacked into his gun,” or a bewildered, “The last 30 rounds went right into the SOB’s nose and he didn’t even waver,” or “I saw him coming in on the port side - and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in water on the conn.” One of the angriest men to come aboard the -851 was a Marine pilot fished out of the water, who kept saying, with a shocked expression: “They teach these carrier guys recognition for six moths, and then they shoot down an F4U.” He had been picked off by a Navy pilot. His wrath was equaled only by the TBM pilot who came aboard off Iwo Jima after being shot down by a battleship, in broad daylight.
The general conclusion reached by personnel serving on the PCE(R)s was that they were a most valuable addition to the fleet; but that they should be ten knots faster, carry more guns, and should be specially constructed for close-in work with loading posts in the ships’ sides. In addition, all ship’s officers should be instructed in the task of the rescue vessel, in what its capabilities are and when it should be called upon. Many lives were saved by the, PCE(R)s, but the number could have been increased had their qualities been more fully recognized and proper advantage taken of them.
POSTWAR CAREERS OF THE PCE(R)S Although Japan’s surrender brought peace to the Pacific battleground it was the advent of helicopter that instantly obsoleted the Navy’s PeeCee seagoing ambulances. Already in use even as Japanese emissaries signed the surrender documents, helicopters quickly established themselves as the revolutionary high-speed link between land and sea. Their ability to hover motionless in th air itself made them the perfect rescue vehicle for any kind of emergency in war or peace.
Happily, the PCE(R)’s inherent seaworthiness, economy and utility swq them sail on in a number of other capacities in the postwar Navy, namely as totally disarmed experimental sonar and weather ships. In February 1956, the eight surviving PCE(R)s on the Naval register were given names; the veteran -851 becoming USS Rockville, -852 USS Brattleboro and -853 USS Amherst. While their original hull numbers were retained the brackets were dropped from their designators thus making PCE(R)-851 simply PCER-851. At that time several were fitted with large aft cargo booms and configured for special use, i.e. USS Rexburg (EPCER-855) becoming an oceanographic research vessel. Sold in 1970, Rexburg next became the SS Excalibur of L.
Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology.
All PCEs including the PCERs were retired, scrapped of transferred to foreign Navies by
1970. USS Amherst (PCER-853) and Brattleboro (PCER-852) deserve special mention because, after being transferred to the Vietnamese Navy in the late 1960's, both managed to escape capture by the Communists. With skeleton crews they eluded Viet Cong gunboats as South Vietnam collapsed and successfully made their way to the Philippines where in 1975 Brattleboro became the Philippine Navy’s Miguel Malvar and Amherst the Datu Marikuda. Highlighted in this tribute, USS Rockville (PCER-851) became the Columbia Navy’s San Anderes in 1969. With their decommissioning one of the Navy’s most unusual warships of WWII passed into history where little if any mention is ever made of the uniquely humane role they played in some of the grimmest Naval warfare and sailor ever faced.
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