Minesweepers: deadly duty in Korean waters: "Where the Fleet Goes, We've Already Been," proudly proclaims the motto of the minesweepers. Indeed, during the Korean War their crews were only 2% of the sailors there yet sustained a disproportionate share of the casualties. (Korean War).
According to Arnold S. Lott in Most Dangerous Sea (1959), Soviet personnel not only trained North Koreans and supervised mine assembly, but actually laid magnetic mines off Korean coasts.
The war was only a few months old when mines began plaguing the U.S. Navy. The devices came in several deadly varieties. Buoyant contact mines, anchored to the sea bottom, lurked a lethal distance below the water's surface, ready to explode when hit by a ship. Acoustic mines, which sat on the bottom, were triggered by the sound of a passing ship's engines. Magnetic mines, also bottom-dwellers, were set off by a ship's electrical field.
Although the primary purpose of North Korea's mines was to stymie U.S. troop and supply movements, there was plenty of direct damage, too. On Sept. 26, 1950, the destroyer Brush triggered a mine, killing nine men. Four days later, the destroyer Mansfield set off another, with five men killed. These and other mine explosions prompted Adm. Allan Smith to fume, "The U.S. Navy' has lost control of the sea."
America's minesweeping fleet had been largely dismantled after WWII, but the ships that remained were quickly pressed into service (assisted by several Japanese minesweepers).
To eliminate contact mines, these vessels towed steel cables capable of severing the mine's tether. Once cut, the buoyant mine bobbed to the surface where it was sunk or exploded with gunfire.
Acoustic mines were destroyed by sending a loud pounding sound through the water to trigger an explosion a safe distance from the ship. Similarly, an electrical signal sent into the depths exploded magnetic mines. Helicopters, planes, divers, sonar and small boats sometimes helped with the mine field search-and-destroy missions.
Minesweeping, deliberately steaming into a known minefield, was very hazardous duty. In addition to the possibility of setting off a mine at any moment, the minesweepers often operated within range of the enemy's shore guns. (At least 14 U.S. minesweepers were hit by shore fire.)
Sometimes, sweeping could be conducted only at night. "But we knew it was an important job that had to be done," says Howard Kastens, who served on the minesweeper Magpie. "The boys doing the fighting needed supplies that could only be brought in by ship."
Aboard a minesweeper, life was something of a paradox. The little ships carried only a few dozen crew members, so all the sailors got to know each other. "We were like one big family," says Kastens, "and most of us considered minesweeping to be pretty good duty. There was very little spit and polish."
But danger was never more than a few feet away, even on a calm sea with the enemy nowhere in sight. While other ships avoided mines like the plague, it was the minesweepers' job to seek them out. "We knew it was dangerous work, but we didn't worry about it much," recalls Carl Lowe, who served on the minesweeper Merganser.
Lowe tells of one incident in which a contact mine, tangled in minesweeping cables, had to be pulled alongside the ship so some steel-nerved sailor might cut it free by hand. With safety ropes around his waist, the man leaned far over the side and with cable cutters set the device free.
"That mine was really big and ugly, and I started thinking about what would happen to us if it blew," recalls Lowe, who held one of the ropes. Fortunately, it did not.
ODYSSEY OF THE MAGPIE
The Magpie was the first minesweeper to experience the full peril of this dangerous duty. On Oct. 1, 1950, she and the Merganser were sweeping a channel off Chuksan on Korea's east coast when the Magpie struck a floating mine. "The pilot house blew off like a matchbox, and in a few minutes the Magpie was in pieces," recalls James Benefield, who was aboard the Merganser.
Kastens was standing amidships when the mine went off. "Most men forward of the middle were killed," he recalls, "and the ship was completely destroyed." One sailor survived by clinging to a piece of the bow. Kastens and others clung to a raft and made their way to the Merganser. Twenty-one members of the 33-man Magpie crew were killed. This was the Navy's second largest combat loss after the Walke.
(The Navy's single greatest loss of the war occurred April 21, 1952, off Wonson during gunfire support operations. The cruiser St. Paul sustained a powder fire that claimed 30 sailors lives.)
The next minesweeper disaster was not long in coming. As a 250-ship U.N. landing force steamed toward the North Korean port of Wonsan, American (and Japanese) minesweepers worked frantically to rid the area of the 3,000 mines it reportedly contained. Again and again, the thunder of safely detonated mines reverberated through the air, and water spouts from the explosions shot skyward.
On Oct. 12, minesweepers Pledge and Pirate entered an area with mines so numerous they seemed to school like fish. About noon, the Pirate's luck ran out when it hit a mine, broke in two, and sank.
Rick Richard, who served aboard the Pirate that fateful day, remembers the incident well. "It was a cold day when the flagship of the squadron entered Wonsan Harbor to meet its final destination," he recalled. "The Pirate struck a mine at approximately 12:01 p.m. and went down within four minutes."
The Pledge commenced rescue activities, but five minutes later it, too, hit a mine and sank.
Enemy shore gunners and the ubiquitous mines held other U.S. ships at bay, causing some sailors to float for hours in the 55-degree water. Thirteen men died in the two sinkings. (The mines delayed the landing at Wonsan a week, but by then South Korean troops had already taken the area.)
A fourth minesweeper, the Partridge, hit a floating mine on Feb. 2, 1951, and sank in just a few minutes, killing eight men. Mines also damaged two destroyers off Hungnam. The Walke lost 26 men (see story in March issue) on June 12, 1951. Four months later, on Oct. 7, the Small had nine KIA. Two sailors lost their lives when the tug Sarsi was sunk on Aug. 30, 1952.
But the toll might have been much worse had American minesweeping crews not repeatedly put themselves in harm's way and removed more than 1,000 mines from Korean waters.
Indeed, in the first two years of the war, mines caused some 70% of all US. Navy casualties, and sank the only U.S. ships lost to enemy action in Korean waters.
Four of the five U.S. ships lost during the war were minesweepers. Although minesweeping crews constituted only 2% of U.S. naval forces in Korea, they suffered 20% of the Navy's casualties.
The minesweeping motto says it all: "Where the Fleet Goes, We've Already Been."
U.S. NAVY KOREAN WAR KIA BY BATTLEGROUND % OF BATTLEGROUND NUMBER TOTAL Air 177 41% Ground 142 * 32% Sea 117 27% * The vast majority--113--of Navy personnel KIA in ground combat were corpsmen serving with the Marines. Source: Dick Ecker's Database on Korean War Casualties.
GARY TURBAK is a frequent contributor to VFW magazine's Korean War series.
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|Date:||Apr 1, 2002|
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