THE USS FREMONT AND THE INVASION OF SAIPAN

 

by

 

Captain Emile L. Bonnot USNR (Deceased)

Collaboration in part with Commander Alex H. Cherry RNVR OBE (Deceased)











CHAPTERS


Chapter 1 ................................................................................. Conversion to APA and Commissioning


Chapter 2 ................................................................................. Preparation for War


Chapter 3 ................................................................................. Set Course for Hawaii


Chapter 4 ................................................................................. Operation Forager - The Battle for Saipan


Chapter 5 ................................................................................. Away all Boats







 

 






Conversion to APA and Commissioning

 

In 1943 at the Bethlehem Steel Shipyard, Key Highway Yard, Baltimore Maryland, a C-3 hulled cargo ship was undergoing conversion to an APA (Amphibious Attack Transport).  The ship was built at the Ingalls Shipbuilding Corporation, Pascagoula, Mississippi as a merchant ship for the U.S. Maritime Commission.  She was to be named the S.S. Sea Corsair.  In May 1943 the Navy, acquired the ship planning to convert it to a straight auxiliary transport to be named USS FREMONT AP 89.  Upon arrival at Baltimore the plans were changed to convert it to an APA with the name USS FREMONT APA 44 (named after various counties in the country named Fremont).  The ship weighed 16,500 tons, had a single screw capable of a top flank speed of 23 knots.  She would carry a crew, now assembling, of almost 50 officers and about 400 men.  But the FREMONT was destined to be the Flag Command Ship with flag quarters for famous Admirals and Generals and was to play a big part in the Pacific War against Japan.

Lieutenant Commander Clarence V. Conlan USN was the pre-commissioning captain and commanding officer of the ship and the reporting officers and men.

In a small office on the shipyard grounds Captain Conlan was interviewing the officers who had been assigned to the ship.  Among the officers who had reported or were reporting aboard were:

Lieutenant Commander Harry C. Howe

Lieutenant Commander John V. Fitzgerald

Lieutenant Commander Gordon Burwell Ross

Lieutenant John Samuel Toothill

Lieutenant (jg) John R.M. Torrey

Lieutenant (jg) Harry Edgar McCullough

Lieutenant (jg) Joseph Pierre Kolisch

Lieutenant (jg) Jay Humphrey Thompson

Lieutenant (jg) Phillip James Daniel

Lieutenant (jg) James Robert Brandon

Ensign Samuel S. Campbell

Ensign John Louis Ramey

Ensign Granville G. Valentine

Ensign Gordon A. Anderson

Ensign David Wilder

Ensign William R. Maybry

Ensign Joseph John Carter '

Ensign Charles G. Greene

Ensign Herman Mischner

Ensign Jerome P. Coakley

Ensign John Joseph Dugan

Ensign Chalmers R. Bryan

Ensign Philip Glen Martin

Ensign Arthur H. Neyendorf

Ensign John Pierce Ellis

Ensign Reese F. Luket

Bos'n William John Gore .

Chief Electrician Frederick O'Neil

Another officer reporting in the commissioning crew was Lieutenant (jg) Emile L. Bonnot.  A resident of New Jersey, who had been commissioned and sworn in at the Third Naval District Headquarters in New York City on February 27, 1943.  He had been sent to Dartmouth College Naval Training School for Indoctrination, then to the Naval Service School at Princeton University for general training.  From there, because of the large number of friendly planes being shot down in error and allied ships being fired on in Europe, Bonnot was sent to the second class at Ohio State University for specialty training in Ship and Plane Identification.  After graduation he attended classes at the Submarine Base in New London, Connecticut for a special naval course for ‘lookouts’ and training in night vision so vital for lookouts on submarines.

When Bonnot reported aboard the FREMONT and Captain Conlan read his qualifications, he grunted and said “Don't they ever send me anybody who knows anything about a ship?”

But indoctrination, training and familiarization with the ship commenced immediately.  All officers took turns in tracking down all of the electrical wiring, water lines, watertight bulkheads, studying the holds, living spaces, the bridge, the engine room, the guns, the boats, the winches and booms, the anchors etc.  Because of the rare opportunity while in dry dock, all of the officers had to go down into the bottom of the dry dock to inspect the hull and the side plates of the ship.  While in the drydock and inspecting the hull, Lt. (jg) Bonnot in company with Ensign Granville G. Valentine, were looking up at the side of the ship when a scupper from one of the heads let go and doused Valentine from head to toe.  He turned green and returned to the ship to change his clothes and remove the mess.  While awaiting completion of the conversion of the ship which was a cold' ship while in drydock, all officers lived ashore in modest hotels and rooming houses.  Bonnot had his car to get back and forth from his small hotel.  At one point Captain Conlan ordered Bonnot and three other officers to report to the U.S.S. CUSTER, a sister ship, completed one month earlier.  She was engaged in amphibious training exercises in the Chesapeake Bay.  In her they were to get a preview of the officer's and the crew's duties while observing several days of amphibious landings.  In that exercise troops were put ashore under ‘mock’ battle conditions at Solomons Island, Maryland.  Bonnot volunteered the use of his car.  However when they arrived at the designated beach area it was dark and all of the ships off shore were ‘blacked out’.  How were they to tell which one was the CUSTER and how were they to get out to the ship?  They spotted a Coast Guard Station down the beach and the four approached the Station keepers and explained their problem.  The Coast Guardsmen agreed to help and attempted to raise the CUSTER by blinker (flashing light).  Not watching the beach it was two hours before the ship finally spotted the signal and responded.  A half hour later a small boat beached to pick them up.  Bonnot parked his car among some trees down the beach and then all four got in the boat and boarded the CUSTER.  It was a valuable three days for them in observing all of the action in lowering the boats, watching the debarking of the troops in battle gear down the nets and following the ‘mock’ battle progressing on the beach.

When the exercise was completed the four FREMONT officers were returned to the beach.  But when they went to get the car they found that it had been parked in the battle area and the paint was completely pock marked from the explosive charges and pyrotechnics used in the simulated battle.

Returning to the FREMONT the day came when the conversion was completed.  In consultation with the Captain Lieutenant Commander Conlan, the Executive Officer Lieutenant Commander Harry C. Howe had assigned the officers and men of the crew to their various duties aboard the ship such as Lieutenant Commander John V. Fitzgerald, Chief Engineer, Lieutenant (jg) John R.M. Torrey First Lieutenant, Lieutenant John Samuel Toothill Senior Watch Officer, Lieutenant (jg) Joseph Pierre Kolisch Gunnery Officer, Ensign John Joseph Dugan First Division Officer, Ensign Jerome P. Coakley 2nd Division Officer, Ensign Joseph John Carter 3rd Division Officer, William John Gore Chief Bos'n, Lieutenant (jg) Emile L. Bonnot Lookout Officer and to gain experience was assigned to assist the First Division Officer.  When the crew was fully assigned the ship was ready to be commissioned.

 

U.S.S. FREMONT

COMMISSIONING PROCEDURE

20 November 1943

"

UNIFORM:     Officers and CPO's                  -           Service dress blue "Baker". .

Topcoats if weather demands.

Enlisted men,less                       -          

CPO's and Cks, Sts.                -           Dress Blue, white hats,

peacoats if weather demands.

ORDER                                   GIVEN BY                                          TO WHOM .

Attention (by voice)                              Lt. Comdr. H. C. Howe                       All Hands.

Executive Officer FREMONT

 

"The Ship's Company               Executive Officer                                  Capt. Clarence

is at quarters Sir"                                  (Salutes)                                               V. Conlan

PCO FREMONT

(returns salute)

“Captain we are ready

to proceed with the

commissioning of the                             PCO FREMONT                                Captain Ward

FREMONT"                                                                                                    (Navy Dept)

 

Invocation                                            Chaplain                                               All hands.

 

Commissioning orders are read by Captain

Ward. When he finishes he orders

“Hoist the Colors”.                               Captain Ward                                       All hands.

 

"Hoist the colors and                             Executive Officer                                  QM's standing

commission Pennant"                            FREMONT                                         by colors.

 

"Hand salute" (while the colors are going

up). Two" (when colors are two

blocked). Bugler sound off                    Executive Officer

sound off if available                             FREMONT.                                        All Hands.

 

"The USS FREMONT is

in commission and I

transfer her to you"                               Captain Ward                                       Capt. Conlan

 

Reads orders ordering

him to Command.                                 Captain Conlan                                     All hands.

 

"I assume command of

the USS FREMONT"

(Salutes Capt. Ward)                            Captain Conlan                                     Capt. Ward.

"Commander Howe, set

the watch"                                            Capt. Conlan                                        Executive Officer

 

"Set the Watch"                                    Comdr. Howe                                      Ch. Bosn. Mate Pope

 

"Aye, Aye, Sir. Set

the Watch first

section" (Pipes)                                     CBM Pope                                          All hands.

 

"Lt. Toothill, you

will take the watch

as Officer of the

Deck"                                                   Comdr. Howe                                      Lt. Toothill

 

"Aye, Aye, Sir"

(Salutes and goes to

the quarter deck)                                  Lt. Toothill                                            Comdr. Howe.

 

"Pipe Down"                                         Capt. Conlan                                        Comdr. Howe.

 

"Pipe Down"                                         Comdr. Howe                                      CBM Pope

 

"Pipe Down" (Pipes)                             CBM Pope                                          All hands.

 

"Division Officers

take charge. Dismiss

your divisions."                                     Comdr. Howe.                                     Div. Officers

 

"Division, Dismissed"                Division Officer                                     Division

 

H.C. Howe,

Lieutenant Commander, USNR,

Executive Officer.

 

After the commissioning, on 23 November 1943, there was a lively commissioning party with a band and dancing at a hotel in Baltimore for all of the .plank owners’ officers and men and their families and friends.





Preparation for War

 

Four days later the FREMONT departed Baltimore and arrived at the Norfolk Navy Yard Portsmouth, Virginia 28 November.  Here the ship and the crew went through many tests and exercises including speed runs, firing all of the guns both at star shells fired by the 5 inch guns and at targets towed by planes.  The instruments were calibrated, the ship was degaussed and all instruments tested.  Training continued until 9 December when she conducted a further Shakedown Cruise in the Chesapeake Bay.  On 17 December the ship returned to Portsmouth for post shakedown repairs.  Soon after the shakedown repairs were finished in company with the U.S.S. Bayfield and the U.S.S. Henrico the Fremont, flying the flag of Commander Transport Division 11, commencing 27 December 1943, conducted similar ‘mock’ battles off Cove Point Maryland as those observed on the CUSTER off Solomons Island Maryland.

 

24 December 1943

ANNEX B TO CTG 20-1

OPERATION TRAINING ORDER NO. 11-43

 

 

SCHEDULE OF EXERCISES

 

23 Dec.            -           Ships available at location designated.  Advance loading details and TQM's

move to pier. Prepare to load supplies and equipment.  Hold conference with

ship commanders.  Start loading supplies.

 

24 Dec.            -           Continue loading supplies.  Vehicles start arriving at piers.  Serialize and

prepare for landing.

 

25 Dec.            -           Holiday routine as practicable.

 

26 Dec.            -           Complete loading supplies and vehicles.

 

27 Dec.            -           Troops embark.  Ships and landing craft sail.  Conduct necessary drills and

conferences aboard ship.  Stress forming of troop units below decks and

prompt and orderly movement to debarkation and abandon ship stations.  

Boat teams and boat crews study models of landing area.  Troop officers

instruct men in preparation for landing.

 

28 Dec.            -           Arrive Solomons, Md., Amphibious Maneuver Area.  Prepare for Exercise

No.1.  Conference at Cove Point at 1000.  Practice boat loading rail and net.

 

29 Dec.            -           Exercise No. 1. - Unopposed daylight landing.  This exercise is for

practice and coordination of Navy and Army elements in landing.  Unload

only vehicles and initial beach reserve supplies.  Shore unit does not

organize beach beyond initial practice needs.  Stop unloading on order by

CTG 20.1.  Reload, restore beaches, and reembark.  Critique at 1400 at Cove

Point.  Prepare for Exercise No.2.

H-hour: 1000

BAYFIELD land BLT-l on BLUE Beach at H-hour by organized attack boat

waves.

HENRICO land BLT-2 on RED Beach at H-hour by organized attack boat

waves.

FREMONT land BLT-3 on YELLOW Beach by organized attack boat waves

as soon as boats are available.  Land RCT Command Staff on RED 2 Beach

at time specified by CTU 20.1.2.

LST 262 and 265 land on RED 2 Beach at H plus 120.  Unload 1/2 tank

deck.  LCI(L) 356 and 353 land on RED 2 Beach at H plus 120.  Disembark

all troops.

LST 210 remain at anchorage.  LCTs operate as prescribed in Annex F,

Master Boat Employment Plan.

 

30 Dec.            -           Exercise No. 2 .- Dawn landing unopposed.  Unload to the extent that all

vehicles and supplies can be completely reloaded in strict original priority by

noon of following day.  Stop unloading on order by CTG 20.1.  Keep dumps

segregated by ships and priorities in order to facilitate reloading.  Emphasize

beach organization, efficiency handling of vehicles and supplies to and

across beaches, rapid rail loading, coordination of assault waves, and proper

functioning of shore fire control and air liaison communications.  Start

reloading on order by CTG 20.1

H-hour: 0730

BAYFIELD land BL T-l on GREEN Beach at H-hour by organized attack

boat waves.

HENRICO land BL T-2 on YELLOW Beach at H-hour by organized attack

boat waves.

FREMONT land BL T-3 on RED 2 Beach by organized attack boat wave as

soon as boats are available.  Land RCT Command Staff on YELLOW Beach

at time specified by CTU 20.1.2.

LST 262 and 265 land on GREEN Beach at H plus 120.  Unload 50 percent.

LCI(L) 356 and 353 land on GREEN Beach at H plus 120.  Disembark all

troops.

LST 210 land on GREEN Beach at H plus 240.  Unload 50 percent.

LCTs operate as prescribed in Annex F.

 

31 Dec.            -           Complete reloading and preparations for Exercise No.3 by 1200.  Troop

officers and TQMs make careful check to assure that supplies and vehicles

have been reloaded according to original priorities.  Critique at 1400 at Cove

Point.

1944

1 Jan.               -           Exercise No.3. - Dawn landing opposed (see Annex D to this order).  Stress

rail loading, air employment, and control of simulated naval gunfire support. 

Organize Shore Unit for division beach, unloading in shifts.  Unload 100

percent.  Utilize actual demolitions of shore and beach obstacles.  Defense

force make active defense with maximum of emplaced explosive charges and

pyrotechnics to add realism to action.  Action ashore to be umpire controlled. 

Play full evacuation of casualties.  Combat bivouac.

 

2 Jan.               -           Continue exercise.  Test beach defense against air.  Continue tactical

problem for combat elements.  Check organization and issue of supply.  

Conclude tactical problem and commence reloading supplies in afternoon. 

Troops bivouac.  Critique as announced by CTG 20.1.

 

3 Jan.               -           Continue reloading.  Troops assist Shore Unit as required.  Police and restore

beach and adjacent area.  Vehicles proceed overland to Camp Pickett.  Finish

reload1ng.  Reembark personnel.  Ships sail.

 

4 Jan.               -           Arrive Norfolk.  Berth and disembark as directed.  Unload supplies.

 

The exercise which included two unopposed landings and one opposed landing gave the necessary training to both the FREMONT crew and the troops aboard who stormed the beach.

When the Watch, Quarter and Station Bill was set in Baltimore before the trip down to Norfolk, the training of the green members of the crew stepped up.  Uniform regulations were strict.  When reaching Norfolk, one officer thought he could wear the gray shirt from the then used gray uniform instead of the white shirt with detachable white collar in going to the Officer's Club.  Conlan who was in the club spotted him in the crowd but said nothing at the time.  But when the officer returned to the ship, he found he was penalized for being out of uniform as was the Officer of the Deck who permitted him to go ashore.  Another officer who had the mid watch on the Watch List, thought he could go ashore in the early afternoon.  He was also penalized as he found out that if you were on the Watch List, even if it was the mid watch several hours later, you had to be on the ship for the entire length of that watch.

Conlan had strict training to becoming Officer of the Deck.  The officer had to stand the watch as Junior Officer of the Deck until it was believed that officer could be Officer of the Deck with the ship tied up to the dock.  If the officer mastered that, then he was qualified to stand Officer of the Deck with the ship moored to a buoy.  And after months of standing J.O.O.D. on the bridge with the ship underway, he finally might be qualified as Officer of the Deck underway.  Bonnot found when he stood his first Officer of the Deck with the ship tied up to the pier, it was a more responsible job than just adjusting the lines to the rise and fall of the tide and supervising the Quarter Deck.

It was a mid watch and Captain Conlan was ashore.  The preceding Officer of the Deck when he was being relieved by Bonnot passed the word that officers had been working on the winch but had stopped work to be resumed the next day.  The Captain returned at 0230 with all of the officers and crew asleep and obviously had been imbibing.  He stumbled on the gangway and after returning salutes, he made an inspection of the deck and the winch.  He returned and with Bonnot, the Bosnmate of the watch and the messenger standing at attention, stood a foot before Bonnot and staring with bloodshot eyes said "I want to see the Executive Officer, the Chief Engineer, the First Lieutenant, the Carpenter, and the Chief Ship Fitter.  Now, who do I want to see?"  The Boatswain mate of the watch stepped forward and said: "I know who the Captain wants. I'll get them."  The Captain said "Stand back" and repeated to Bonnot "Who do I want to see?"  With the Captain staring right into his eyes, Bonnot said: "You want to see the Executive Officer, the Chief Engineer, the First Lieutenant, the Carpenter and getting more nervous he said "the Cheap Shit Fitter."  This passed and Bonnot ordered the messenger and the Bosnmate to rouse those the Captain wanted to see.  All of them arrived in various states of dress and lined up at attention on the Quarter deck.  The Captain berated them for the condition of the gangway, the condition of the deck, the tools left around, the bearings on the winch left exposed to the damp salt air and a few other things.  After a half hour of harsh words, he finally dismissed them.

The upshot was that Bonnot was demoted to J.O.O.D. again because he was representing the Captain and should have seen that these officers had done their job correctly in covering the exposed bearings, picking up the tools, clearing the deck and fixing the gangway.  It was another month before Bonnot was again promoted to Officer of the Deck with the ship tied to the dock.

The Captain also assigned Lt. (jg) officers with no sea experience as assistant to Ensigns who had some sea experience.  Bonnot was assigned as Assistant First Division Officer under Ensign John J. Dugan who had been a petty officer during the North African Landings.  These Ensigns were not immune however to criticism.  John Dugan was very energetic and if his petty officers were not handling the manila lines properly, would jump in and do it himself.  The Captain watching from the bridge, called Dugan and told him he was not to do the job himself but see that his petty officers and men did the job properly by themselves .






Set Course for Hawaii

 

After being satisfied with the post shakedown repairs, the ship loaded food, supplies and cargo and then embarked the 117th Construction Battalion (C.B.) and made ready to sail.  Orders were received to sail but sailing was delayed for three days because rumor had it that a wolf pack of German submarines had been operating off Norfolk.  Orders were finally received to get underway on 26 February 1944 and the Fremont headed for the Panama Canal acting as guide for transport group 29.81 which included USS FUNSTON, USS O'HARA, and USS CAVALIER escorted by destroyer (DD) USS EVANS and destroyer escort (DE) USS THOMPSON.  A storm and heavy seas made rough going at Hatteras.

Because of the submarine threat, Bonnot and the lookouts were stationed around the bow scanning the waters ahead and to the side.  But the water became more and more turbulent.  The waves rose high and higher.  The ship plowed through, the bow rose high in the air and then plunged down, the spray dousing everyone on deck.  The lookouts and the talkers on the sound powered phones were secured but no word for Bonnot to leave.  He looked back at the bridge, saw the Captain and knew that he could see him getting drenched as he stood out like a sore thumb.  Bonnot realized the 'old man' was putting him to the test.  He continued to scan the water through his binoculars, wiping them after each wave broke over the bow and waited until the watch was changed.  Seeing no relief coming, he picked up the sound powered phone and asked the bridge "Am I supposed to stay there?"  The bridge talker replied "I'll check."  Ten minutes later the word was received "Secure."  The Captain was satisfied that Bonnot had been given his experience in heavy seas and had not suffered from ‘mal de mer’ as many had.

Leaving the Hatteras behind, with the FREMONT as guide, and using the Zig Zag Plan 6, in case a submarine was trying to track them, the transport group made it safely to Cristobal and the Canal.

The Panama Canal Pilot proved a problem for the green crew of the FREMONT.  The pilot required that the ship be steered within a one half degree change of course in entering and leaving the locks.  None of the 2nd and 1st class quartermasters could fine tune their steering to do this.  The Chief Quartermaster was the only one who could steer with that delicate touch.  He took the wheel.  Also the pilot would not operate from the bridge but only from the open Fire Control deck above the Bridge where the view was unobstructed and he could move rapidly from the port side to the starboard side as required.  His commands for speed and course had to be relayed to the wheel and the bridge.  This required the use of the voice tube which was located amidship directly over the wheel.  The Panamanian pilot was a little difficult to hear and to understand as he called his orders from the rail of the port or starboard side.  These orders had to be relayed immediately and to stand at the voice tube and try to relay his orders.  When this combination at the wheel and the tube proved successful neither was relieved through the whole transit of the Canal, through the lake and the locks and the docking of the ship at Balboa.  .This took a whole day with most of the crew and CB's on deck enjoying the scenery and the action.  Bonnot always said jokingly that he took the ship through the Canal as it was his relaying orders over the voice tube that navigated the ship.

The trip to Pearl Harbor was uneventful.  Only one ship was sighted though when she appeared hull down on the horizon she was reported as an atoll even though no islands were within 1,000 miles.  The confusion occurred when only the masts were visible over the horizon and she had paravanes and torpedo nets attached to the raised booms and they looked like palm trees with palm fronds.  An exchange of signals showed she was a British merchant ship traveling east and alone.

Arriving at Pearl Harbor and clearing the narrow entrance and lowered submarine nets without incident, and while heading for the dock, all could see in the distance the hulks of the Battleship ARIZONA and the other ships still on the bottom that had been destroyed by the Japanese attack on 7 December, 1941.

At this very time, planning and rehearsals for the great Marianas campaign was already in high gear; its objective was the invasion and capture of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam.  The pacific Fleet was short of Amphibious Command Ships.  Some were being built but none would be ready for months and time wasn't waiting.  FREMONT was a lucky ship.  When she reached Pearl Harbor, Captain Conlan (now Commander) was told the FREMONT had been selected for an Amphibious Command Ship.  She would be carrying commanding Admirals and Generals and their staffs and be in the forefront of the invasions.  A superstructure had to be added for the Flag Quarters.  Sophisticated electronic communication equipment, Loran Navigational instruments had to be installed.  One 5-inch gun had to be removed and replaced with 3 quads of 40mm guns for better anti-aircraft protection.

Their new responsibilities and new additions required additional training for most of the ship's officers. Lieutenant (j.g.) Bonnot was sent off to naval schools in Hawaii for additional 40mm gunnery training, fire fighting, damage control and refresher courses in ‘Ship and Plane Identification’ and for ‘Lookouts’.

Because of attendance at off base schools few had much leave or liberty. When aboard the FREMONT all had two 24 hour days in which they stood watch and attended to departmental duties.  As a new Assistant First Lieutenant, Bonnot stood watch, worked with the C.& R. (Construction and Repair) Department and conducted classes for the officers, gunners and lookouts on ship and plane identification and on day and night vision.  During daytime with light a lookout or gunner could sight an object at sea by looking straight ahead through the pupil of the eye.  At night peripheral vision was used.  By raising the eyes to 10 degrees above the horizon and moving the eyes from right to left a submarine, small boat or periscope could appear to move across the eye and could be detected.  The third day was a part day with afternoon liberty granted to spend time strictly on the Base.  After muster on the fourth day liberty was granted to leave the Base and visit Honolulu, Waikiki or other places on Oahu.  However with the Territory of Hawaii under martial law and a strict curfew, it made things difficult.  Under the curfew, everyone, military and civilian, had to be off the streets by 6 PM or be subject to arrest or even death.  Because of the large number of military personnel and the lack of transportation, the Navy had a staggered system for return to Pearl Harbor and the Base.  Enlisted men had to be back on Base by 4 PM, petty officers by 5, chiefs by 5:30 and officers by 6.  As an example of the difficulty, Bonnot at one time found himself trying to get back from Waikiki Beach.  All transportation that was moving in the direction of the Base was jammed.  Drivers normally would stop and pick up military personnel but all cars and jeeps could not squeeze in one more person.  Bonnot thought he was in deep trouble.  But a truck driver, with a huge load of old shoes piled high, stopped.  He said "If you can climb up and sit on top of the pile of shoes, I can take you back."  So Bonnot climbed up and rode back perched high on top of the old shoes and made it back on time.

Despite the difficulties, the sailors learned much about life at the time on Oahu.  There was much that was cultural, entertaining and athletic and some that was not so cultural.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel and its beautiful Waikiki Beach was available for R&R (Rest and Recreation).  The USO managed by the Armed Services YMCA had fresh milk available at five cents a quart and great snacks.  While not too significant then, it was valuable knowledge later when the ships were on powdered milk for months at a time.  There were churches, museums, libraries, movies, gymnasiums, tennis courts and beautiful gardens.

Not so cultural was the house of prostitution.  The waiting line to get in stretched down the street.  One petty officer said he took a book and got in line around 8 AM.  When he got out about noon, he bought a hot dog and got in line again.  When he left he just had enough time to get back to the Base before the curfew at 6 commenced.

If you were lucky, jeeps were available in the car pool for a ride around the island.  Also by crossing over to Ford Island it was possible to scrounge rides with pilots, who now on shore duty, needed flight time to preserve their flight pay.  On one of these, with Bonnot riding as a passenger, the pilot flew past one of the islands with sheer cliffs rising over 2,000 feet above the ocean.  The pilot was flying at a height of 1,500 feet, the maximum height allowed since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Looking up Bonnot saw a huge waterfall pouring from the cliff into the ocean.  He wondered why this waterfall was never mentioned when they were writing about the height of Niagara Falls, Yosemite and Victoria Falls.  It was the Island of Molokai!  He questioned about the waterfall when he returned to Ford Island and was told it was not a waterfall but was the runoff from torrential rains that had hit the island.

Bonnot became more curious and sought more information about Molokai.  He learned that Molokai had a large leper colony to which these unfortunates were banished and abandoned. Through fear, no one visited, and those poor people suffering from the dreaded disease of leprosy lived in poverty and misery until they succumbed from the disease.  He was also told the story about Father Damien de Beuster, a Belgian Roman Catholic priest who as a young man some 75 years before had gone to the island on a pastoral visit.  Father Damien became so shocked at what he found that he determined that tending to these people was his life mission.  He stayed - comforting them, bathing them, dressing them, feeding them, burying them until he himself contracted the disease, dying at the age of 49.  It was both a heartrending and heartwarming story!

But the greatest news he heard, offsetting the bad news of the war, was the fact that medical researchers had only recently developed a cure for leprosy.  It was a miracle discovery. Now these poor unfortunates could be cured and saved from their horrible existence .

Meanwhile the conversion of the ship had been going on since 26 March 1944.  In early May the work was completed.  The FREMONT now bore the designation USS FREMONT APA/RAGC 44.  Rear Admiral W.H.P. Blandy came aboard and inspected the ship.  Meeting his approval the FREMONT embarked troops of the 27th Division and conducted practice landings in Moalite Bay, Maui, Territory of Hawaii from 19 to 24 May with Rear Admiral W.H.P. Blandy, now Commander Group 1, 5th Amphibious Force Pacific and Major General Ralph E. Smith, Commander 27th Infantry Division, aboard.  While the FREMONT was off Maui on 21 May an officer on Blandy's staff told some officers on the bridge that there was a terrible explosion and fire back at the anchorage at Pearl Harbor.  Dozens of LST' sand LCI' s destined for the upcoming operation and nested close together in the anchorage, were loading drums of gasoline and ammunition.  One LST caught fire, exploded, and six or seven others blew up simultaneously in a tremendous explosion.  Others caught fire.  The concussion set off alarms all over Pearl Harbor and General Quarters was sounded.  The belief was that it was another Japanese attack like 7 December 1941.  Deaths and losses were appalling.  Six LST's and six LCI's were totally destroyed.  163 men were dead and 365 were critically injured.  This was a sobering thought to all privy to the information and prompted strong safety lectures by Pierre Kolisch, the gunnery officer and his assistant to all gunners and ammunition handlers based on the theme “Familiarity Breeds Contempt”.

The practice landings completed, the FREMONT returned to Pearl Harbor.  The ship was again inspected this time by Vice-Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner and Rear Admiral Dellaney on 26 May.

Ships stores, medical supplies, clothing, 50 caliber machine guns, ammunition and gunnery supplies were being quickly loaded aboard.  Among them was an item that produced much merriment and laughter.  It was a bicycle!  What do we need a bicycle for aboard ship? was the question.  Do we ride it around the deck to get from the first division forward to the third division aft?  Ensign Joseph John Carter, the ebullient Texan who was permitted by the Captain to wear his Texan boots under his uniform rather than the officers brown shoes, grabbed the bicycle.  He rode it around the forward hatches, down the deck, over the quarter deck and back and forth.  Everyone doubled up with laughter.  So did the Captain, though unseen, who was watching from his quarters.  He thought it was very funny but he could not let the sanctity of the quarter deck be violated.  So he called for Carter to go to the bridge.  Still laughing, he admonished Carter for his brash action but gave no other punishment.  It was said that the bicycle was put aboard in case the ship was in port and there was no other transportation available, it could be used to deliver a message.  It was never used.

 





Operation Forager

The Battle for Saipan

 

Then came the day when Rear-Admiral (soon to be Vice-Admiral) William H. P. Blandy and Major General Ralph Smith commanding the U.S. Army 27th Infantry Division and their staffs were formally piped aboard Fremont over the PA (Public Address System).  Soon after reembarking the 27th Division, the  additional transports assigned to Blandy's Reserve Task Group joined up.  When the Admiral returned from a briefing aboard Turner's flagship ROCKY MOUNT, the FREMONT became a beehive of activity and the group made ready to sail.

Admirals King and Nimitz and the Joint Chiefs had decided that the capture of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas was the key for the penetration of the inner perimeter of the Japanese defenses and would cut the pipeline to the Carolines and New Guinea and provide advanced submarine facilities and bases for the army's new B-29 long range bombers for strikes on the Japanese home islands.  It would enable the U.S. Navy to control the eastern approaches to the Philippines and Formosa.  Its code name was ‘Operation Forager’.

To keep ships in manageable forces, Turner had divided his Amphibious Expedition into the Northern Attack Force (Saipan section), Southern Attack Force (Guam Section) and Blandy's FREMONT Reserve Task Group carrying the 27th Infantry Division to support landings where needed - and it was soon needed.  A Transport Division 34 was to join Blandy's group later at sea.

Admiral Raymond Spruance, from his flagship the heavy cruiser INDIANAPOLIS, Commanded .’Operation Forager’.  His 5th Fleet - a powerful striking force of 15 great aircraft carriers, 7 modern battleships, 21 heavy and light cruisers, 49 destroyers was assembled off Majuro in the Marshall Islands. It was to take off from Majuro Lagoon to blast the Marianas airfields and Saipan's defenses.

On 30-31 May, Turner's Northern Attack Force left Pearl Harbor to carry out ‘Operation Forager’.  Two days later Blandy's FREMONT group, screened by destroyers, sortied out for Kwajalein, there to top-up with fuel and essentials before taking up their position off Saipan in the Marianas campaign.

On 9 June, the FREMONT group entered the waters of Kwajalein, and dropped anchor Lieutenant (jg) Bonnot and the other officers could scarcely believe their eyes.  There wasn't a building, a tree that wasn't incinerated.  The island, once the jumping-off place for Japanese invasions, was just rubble, like a no-man's land.  And, at anchor was Turner's Southern Attack Force that had assembled at Guadalcanal and Tulagi and was leaving the next day to join up off Saipan.  On 11 June Blandy's Task Group also upped anchor and pulled out and set course in the wake of the Southern Attack Force steaming a day's distance ahead.  The group was escorted by destroyers DD SIGOURNEY, SOUFLEY, PRINGLE, WALLER, and destroyer escorts (DE) DIONE and VANFIELD.  SOUFLEY made a submarine contact, dropped depth charges and an oil slick was seen on the surface.

So it happened that on the very day of the Normandy invasion on the other side of the globe, in the Pacific there was another great invasion underway.  An armada led by Spruance's 5th Fleet was steaming westwards under radio silence, penetrating deep into Japanese territory.  Its hard hitting Task Force 58 was commanded by Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher aboard his flagship, the carrier LEXINGTON.  And, some two days behind, covering some five hundred miles of sea, steamed Turner's Amphibious Expedition - now a vast array of over 535 ships carrying 127,000 troops.  It was accompanied by its own fire support force of 4 escort carriers, 8 pre-Pearl Harbor battleships, cruisers and destroyers.

Thus USS FREMONT found herself part of the U.S. Navy's first team, a remarkable gathering of famed Admirals, Four-star Admiral Raymond Spruance of Midway fame; Vice-Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner - who made that historic invasion of Guadalcanal on 8 August 1942 against the fearsome power of Imperial Japan in those black days after Pearl Harbor; Vice-Admiral Marc Mitscher, who had skippered the HORNET in the Doolittle raid and skippered the HORNET under Spruance in the Battle of Midway; Vice-Admiral Willis Augustus “Ching” Lee, victor of that unbelievable night-battleship-action in Ironbottom Sound on 11 November 1942 when the hard-hitting WASHINGTON single handedly sank the Japanese battleship KIRASHIMA, saved the American garrison on Guadalcanal, it did more - it started the Imperial Navy down the road to defeat.  On this day in June 1944 Vice-Admiral Lee commanded the fast battleship force in Task Force 58, his flagship his famous WASHINGTON with the same navigator E.  Stansbury Schanze now Executive Officer and his Captain Glenn B. Davis, now Rear-Admiral, commanding the battleship INDIANA in his group; then there was the much-decorated Rear-Admiral Joseph ‘Jocko’ Clark who commanded 4-fast carriers in this Task Force 58.  He was the first appointee with Indian blood ever to be enrolled at Annapolis and oft referred to as the ‘fightingest admiral’ in the Pacific.  Present also was Rear-Admiral John W. ‘Black Jack’ Reeves now commanding another 4 fast-carrier-group in Task Force 58.  In 1942 he commanded the carrier WASP which participated with the Royal Navy in the historic battles with the Luftwaffe to save Malta from falling at a crucial time.  It was the time when Rommel threatened the capture of Alexandria, Cairo and the Suez Canal.  With the fall of Malta, convoys could have moved freely to supply Rommel. It would have turned the Mediterranean into an Axis lake. It would have been a catastrophic defeat for the Allies. Reeves' WASP was the first American carrier with pilots trained in night fighting and he and his ship endeared themselves in the Royal Navy for their gallantry in battle.  After the WASP battled through in a second successful replenishment of Malta with planes, ammunition and supplies, Winston Churchill sent Admiral Reeves a telegram which read:  “Who says the ‘WASP’ can't sting twice?”  There were others of renown in this galaxy of fighting Admirals.

Later Imperial Japan was to describe the 5th Fleet ‘Forager Operation’ as the most powerful and destructive naval force in the history of sea warfare - in strength and in the fury of its fighting morale.  It was in fact the greatest collection of fighting Admirals ever assembled in one force.  Every unit of its composition was commanded by Admirals who had achieved fame in the Pacific War.  It was a galaxy of ‘aces’.  It was a galaxy of ‘fighting aces’.

Into this historic scene the officers and men on the FREMONT found themselves on duty in the momentous invasion that was to make history.

The Marianas is a chain of tropical volcanic islands first discovered by Magellan in 1521.  It was mandated to Japan after World War I and in the passing years it had become a small version of Japanese life in a tropical setting.  In the lowlands sugar cane fields flourished.  If one put two Manhattan Islands together, side-by-side, it would be about the length and width of Saipan.  Rising conspicuously over the island was the 1,554 foot Mount Tapotchau.  Between it and Mount Marpi at the northern end stretched miles of jagged ridges honeycombed with hundreds of hard coral caves under numerous peaks and on steep slopes.  It was ideally suited for defensive war.

On 11 June several hundred carrier planes flew some two hundred miles ahead of the advancing 5th Fleet to raid the airfields and defenses in the south of Saipan.  The planes hadn't yet returned when Spruance's flagship intercepted a radioed signal from a Marianas garrison alerting Imperial Navy headquarters that they were under a heavy air attack.

On 13 June, two days before the invasion, Lee's fast battleships detached from Task Force 58's Fast Carrier Force to blast Saipan's defenses.  Through that day, from seven miles off the reef barrier of Saipan's west coast, the seven battleships great guns pounded the island's defenses mercilessly.  The next day Rear-Admiral Jesse Olendorf's pre-Pearl Harbor battleships, cruisers, destroyers took over.  They moved into position five miles off shore and continued the pre-landing bombardment.  For more than two days the 14-mile-long island shook, trembled and burned with hundreds of raging fires.  The coastal town of Charan Kanoa, facing the assaulting battleships was a burning shambles and ‘spotter’ pilots could see Japanese fleeing into the foliaged hills, Garapan, Saipan's capitol with over 10,000 inhabitants, five miles north of Charan Kanoa was in flames.

Some 800 miles off Rear-Admiral Blandy's darkened ships were drawing closer to Saipan with each passing hour.  At 0415 Reveille was sounded in FREMONT.  The troops had to be fed at 0600 and then they had hours to kill before being fed again.  It was 14 June, the day before D-day and the men off-duty and the troops aboard were reading the ship's newspaper or lounging about when the ship's radio was turned on.  Over it came Tokyo Rose' familiar voice.  Most of the time her daily broadcast amused the American troops with her ominous admonitions and they liked her American recordings which brought thoughts of home, of the wife, or mother, or girl friend.  They settled down to listen.  Her manner of speaking was typically American for she was born in California, a graduate of UCLA.  She began:

 

                              This is orphan Annie your favorite enemy.  I've got some

                  swell recordings for you...  You'd better enjoy them while you

                  can because tomorrow at 0600 you're hitting Saipan... and

                  they're waiting for you.  So while you're still alive, let's listen

                              to…

 

She went on with her sexy intimate voice. A deep silence fell over the troops.  How did she know?

Tokyo Rose' ominous broadcast lingered on the minds of many.  They realized the peaceful hours were now about over.  As though confirming, a directive from the Executive Officer Lieutenant Commander Harry C. Howe appeared on the ship's ‘notice’ board.  It gave instructions to the ship's company and the troops:

 

1.      Tomorrow 15 June is D-day for the Northern Attack Force for which our Group is the Reserve.

2.      All Hands must be prepared to go to Condition One Able from 0530.  Commissary must be ready to feed men at battle stations.  There will not be any men excused from their stations.  The ship will be in area FORT at 0530 in direct support for the Northern Attack Force.

3.      All watertight doors MUST be kept closed at all times.  Severe disciplinary measures will be taken with any person found tampering with any watertight fittings.

4.      Forward and up on the Starboard side of the Ship.  Aft and Down on the Port side of the ship.

5.      Every man on board must be alert at all times.  If you see an enemy plane, periscope or torpedo wash get word to the bridge the quickest way possible.

6.      The water situation will be acute in the coming days.  We must be ready to furnish water to LCIs and other smaller vessels that do not have evaporators and distillers.  Therefore, unless you want to be in the same status as the LCIs (ie) no water except for drinking and cooking.  Use the water with care.

7.      FREMONT must in all respects be ready to receive seriously wounded and ambulatory patients.  This means this ship must be ready to handle wounded from all types of vessels and in all conditions.  For every litter case brought on board, a properly outfitted litter must be put on board the vessel that delivered the wounded.

8.      When ordered, we must be ready to disembark the 27th Division combat troops under all conditions-and this means Under All Conditions.  If we are under air attack, we must be ready to provide boats to any ship hit in the Group still disembarking combat troops.

 

Printed copies of these instructions were being passed around and a solemn quietus that lasted some hours settled on the ship's company and on the combat troops aboard.  Then the order was given to ‘Darken Ship’.  Night was setting in.

On 14 June Captain Conlan decided he wanted to have Bonnot (recently promoted to Lieutenant by ALNAV) close by on the bridge at all times.  As his Lookout and Ship and Plane Identification Officer he wanted him to be available to identify any plane or ship sighted that might be Japanese.  He had a cot placed on the wing of the bridge where Bonnot would remain sleeping at night as well as being on the bridge during daylight hours.  Bonnot remained there through the entire operation and until two days after the FREMONT finally departed.  This afforded him the opportunity to be an eyewitness to everything that transpired that was visible from the bridge of the FREMONT. 

In the small hours of 15 June, Turner's Northern Attack Force was passing Marpi Point, Saipan's northernmost land fall.  At its western end the force turned south.  Turner's transports and LSTs carrying the 2nd and 4th Marine divisions were drawing close to its ‘Departure Line’ - established at 4,000 yards off shore - opposite the Japanese coastal town of Charan Kanoa between Afetna and Agingan Points.  At daybreak they would be in position for the debarkation of assault troops.  Vice-Admiral Turner and Lt. General Holland Smith were on the bridge of the command ship ROCKY MOUNT.  Condition 1 General Quarters had been sounded.  Below decks assault troops were having their last breakfast aboard the transports.  Before the day was over, they would be in battle.

In the distance, the booming of great guns echoed and reechoed.  In the last hours Rear-Admiral Jesse Olendorf's pre-Pearl Harbor battleships, cruisers and destroyers had been carrying out the final bombardment of the island's defenses before the invasion.  At 5:42 A.M. the commander of this Expeditionary Amphibious Force, Admiral Turner, gave the signal: Land the landing Forces!

Of all the doings of a whimsical Fate!!  At this time the Supreme Commander of Saipan was Vice-Admiral Chichi Nagumo – he who had commanded the attack on Pearl Harbor - he who had led invasions with his famed carrier force that helped win an empire for the Emperor - he who with his famed carriers had led the invasion force in the Battle for Midway that gave Nimitz and

Spruance some of their worst hours.  The world had turned full circle for Nagumo, once Imperial Japan's great Samurai hero - now he himself was reduced to face an invasion - and commanded by Nimitz and Spruance.  Who but a scheming Fate could have arranged it!  It was to be Nagumo's last battle.

Subordinate to Nagumo for land operations was Lt. General Yoshitsugu Saito.  They had turned the beaches between Afetna and Agingan Points - where the Americans were to land - into a range for a turkey shoot.  Their heavy field guns had been superbly sited.  And between their field artillery artfully placed were mortars and nests of machine guns that covered the approaches to the reef barrier and shores.  Pill boxes, camouflaged trenches, completed their bastion of fire power.  The eight beaches Turner had chosen for the landings were enfiladed for a deadly reception.  It was a hornet's nest where the stings were fatal.  And, all these had been so skillfully concealed that despite the horrific 3-day bombardment the island had endured, their defenses were intact.

Daybreak came over Saipan in a golden sunrise in a clear blue sky.  The bombardment had ceased and inhabitants of the island looked out on the greatest gathering of naval power ever beheld in the Marianas.  From an observation post fronting a cave in a steep coral cliff, Vice-Admiral Nagumo stood transfixed at the sight of the great assembly of amphibious ships.  And, not far off, were 8 battleships, 4 escort carriers, 11 cruisers, 26 destroyers all in their fantastic battle camouflage.  Among them were 4 battleships he had sunk at Pearl Harbor, resurrected, back in action, steaming proudly in striking distance of him like a horrible omen stirring a feeling of doom.  Was this a day of reckoning for him?  But how could this be?  Dispatchers had reported that on 6 June 1944 a huge fleet of warships and transports were landing armies on the shores of Normandy in France, with heavy fighting in progress.  That was half a world away.  Now here it was 15 June 1944 and he was  looking at another huge armada of ships off his own shore.  It just couldn't be!  Shaking his head in disbelief, Nagumo lowered his binoculars.

 

It was D-Day for Saipan!






Away All Boats

 

Some 1500 yards to seaward of the U.S. Navy transports, the maws of an array of LSTs opened, disgorging armored amphtracs filled with armed assault troops that began forming up.  From the transports two Regimental Combat Teams in their green coveralls, with their battle gear and camouflaged helmets strapped to their chins, crawled down landing nets into boats.

About 8: 42 A.M., gunboats armed with 40mm guns accompanied by amphibious tanks to deliver fire support, raced for the shore.  Behind them came the first wave of well over 700 amphtracs carrying several battalions of assault Marines from the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions in a 4-mile-wide front, divided into 4 main sections - red, green, blue and yellow, each with 1, 2 and 3 beachheads to be taken.  As they came within a few hundred yards of the white-capped reefs that had to be crossed to reach the placid waters of the lagoon fronting Saipan, they ran into a withering storm of artillery and mortar fire that wrecked many of them even before they reached the shore.  Ignoring heavy losses, some of the amphtracs and amphibious tanks of the first wave fought through and reached the beaches.  Even when a boat was hit, the survivors, holding guns high above their heads, waded ashore and began the battle for Saipan.  The first wave was quickly joined by the 2nd and 3rd waves of assault troops.  They commenced clearing out the snipers and nearby busy machine gun nests.  From the escort carriers, dozens of planes streaked in, bombing and strafing the entrenched Japanese defending the shoreline.  By the time the 5th wave approached the reefs, General Saito had concentrated his artillery fire on the reefs and the invasion beaches.  The barrages were so accurate, so intense and so fearsome the amphtracs were forced to debark all of the surviving troops at the reef's edge, again forcing the Marines to wade ashore with guns held high overhead.  Not all of them made it through the intense fire.  The LSTs which had debarked the amphtracs also under this devastating barrage, were forced to high-tail it out without waiting to unload the ammunition, mortars and machine guns which were to follow.  Sharp-eyed Japanese observers kept reporting American movements and positions.  All that morning the entire beachhead was carpeted with deadly fire and casualties kept mounting.

On the southern end, on beach. ‘Yellow 3’, the southernmost invasion area, the 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment, 4th Marine Division no sooner neared the reef than it found itself caught in an enfiladed area; amphtracs trapped in this fierce crossfire were forced to disgorge their troops at the end of the lagoon and many of the troops were cut down as they made for the beach.  At adjacent beach. ‘Yellow 2’ some of the amphtracs and LVTs plunged onwards carrying their troops 500 yards inland to a narrow gauge railway embankment.  When they managed to get a foothold, the Japanese launched a counter-attack from Agingan Point near the southern end of Saipan.  1st Battalion promptly called for air and naval support.  Carrier aircraft swept in blasting and strafing the oncoming enemy.  Then, the destroyers opened fire with their 5-inch guns, lobbing salvos into the foremost enemy ranks, then into their very midst slaughtering many and scattering the rest.  But the battle for beaches ‘Yellow 3 and 2’ did not end with that.  From high ground, a thousand yards inland, General Saito's cleverly concealed artillery and mortars kept raking the beaches with deadly fire and the 1st Battalion continued to lose men.  A part of the 3rd Battalion was sent in to reinforce and to help the 1st Battalion seize Agingan Point.  A call went out for air support; carrier planes swept in dropping white phosphorous bombs which ignited and gutted the sector concealing the artillery which silenced them. 

Not long after as the 1st Battalion Marines headed toward strategic Agingan Point, they sighted hundreds of Japanese civilians, old men, women and children, coming towards them.  The Commanding Officer was startled.  The Marines held their fire.  What is this?  What are they doing?  Are they coming to surrender?  But Japanese do not surrender!  Is this a ruse?  The Marines still held their fire, their eyes on the civilians approaching them.  The commanding Officer ordered a mortar to lob a shell into their midst to reveal what might be behind them.  From the center of the explosion the civilians scattered in all directions, exposing the Imperial soldiers ready to charge in battle formation.  A fierce ground action was fought.  Carrier planes joined in, strafing the enemy rear, cutting off their retreat.  Fighting continued into the afternoon.

That afternoon medium tanks landed at Beach ‘Blue 2’ at the center of the 4 mile long invasion area.  They were promptly dispatched to assist the advancing Marine Battalion.  It was now that the Marines ran into another Japanese surprising innovation that cost the 1st Battalion more casualties.  Japanese soldiers armed with machine guns concealed themselves in holes dug into that the earth covered with camouflaged lids.  They would raise the lids, fire a quick burst at approaching Marines and quickly lower the lid.  They remained undetected.  After the Marines had passed, they would fire at the unsuspecting Marines from behind and casualties kept mounting.  This went on until a keen eyed Marine sighted a piece of earth rising and that cunning device was exposed.  Marines with flame throwers destroyed the foliage, undergrowth and camouflage and incinerated the hidden assailants.  At this time the battalion came under artillery and mortar fire from enemy strongholds surrounding Aslito airfield near Nafutan Point, Saipan's southernmost point and only some 5,000 yards east by south from Agingan.  Air and naval support was called in which silenced the batteries and the battalion was able to seize Agingan.

At the northern end of the invasion area, a battalion of the 2nd Marine Division had fought their way to the first objective - the coastal town of Charan Kanoa.  Charan Kanoa was most important to the invasion forces because it had a priceless pier with a priceless boat channel running to it that near high tide enabled boats to enter avoiding the off shore reefs, a feature especially valuable at night.  The pier serviced a sugar mill and a railway running to the cane fields.  But taking the town of Charan Kanoa was a difficult bloody battle.  Each street, each house, was defended by the Emperor's soldiers and each had to be fought for.  The Japanese died littering the streets with their bloodied bodies; they died behind smoldering blasted walls Japanese houses that they had turned into forts of resistance.  Here and there the wall of a shattered home still stood, grotesquely covered by bougainvilla still in bloom.  Behind, soldiers were sprawled in death who had refused to retreat.

From the sugar mill, a corps of Japanese tanks came rumbling in with their guns blasting at the advancing Marines.  A covering wave of escort planes armed with rockets went to work on the tanks and left them flaming hulks of smouldering metal, adding to the scene of utter devastation.

Vice-Admiral Nagumo and General Saito were only beginning to bare their teeth.  They were determined to push the Americans back into the sea.  It was about 5 P.M. when the Marine sentries gave the alert.  Swarming down a hill, like an army of ants on the move, came the next assault.  Well over a thousand Imperial soldiers led by officers brandishing swords, slashing air and a thousand throats screaming BONZAI! BONZAI!  The air throbbed with it like a challenge to battle.  They raced towards the beachhead to annihilate the invading Americans.  Shore Fire Control called on the Navy to lay down a barrage on the onrushing Japanese assault.  The pre-Pearl Harbor battleship lashed out with salvos of 5-inch shells.   The salvos struck in the midst of the onrushing enemy and a fearsome scene of slaughter ensued.  They reorganized and came in a headlong charge.  The Marines wiped them out as they burst in on them.  But the fighting wasn't over.  There was a dangerous no-mans land between the 2nd and 4th Marines and in that slot another contingent of Japanese broke through to seize the Charan Kanoa pier.  Despite stiff resistance from Marines of the 3rd Battalion 23rd Regiment, they surged forward and gained possession of the pier.  Before they were cut down to the last man, they had achieved their purpose.  They had managed to destroy most of the pier making it unusable for days.

By dusk, some 20,000 Marines had landed.  But the casualties in dead and wounded had been heavy, far greater than had been expected and the penetration fell disturbingly short of D-day's objective.  At this time Blandy's FREMONT reserve group was moving toward area FORT in cruising disposition to await call of Northern Attack Force.  If called on for reinforcements, the FREMONT group was to proceed to the forward area MIKE and land troops on beaches ‘Green 1 and 2’ and ‘Red 2 and 3’ and ‘Blue l’ where the reserve combat troops of the 27th Division would support the rear of the Northern Attack Force.

The first night on Saipan's shore proved a terrifying one for the Marines.  Even after that desperate assault failed, the persistent, ingenious Japanese resorted to a number of ruses to keep them on edge so that none of the Americans got any sleep that night.  Then, with dawn, General Saito's artillery sprung to life again.  All through that second morning of the invasion, the Marines endured heavy artillery fire and it was fearfully accurate adding to the ever mounting casualties.  It seemed nothing could escape the well-concealed, sharp-eyed observers, despite waves of covering aircraft bombing and strafing suspected hide-outs.  Every attempt to land troops, essential fighting armament and supplies met with a withering barrage.  One LST carrying ammunition and heavy guns to the beach exploded with a roar that could be heard by the men on. the FREMONT cruising well off shore.  Bonnot said the ship rolled 30 degrees from the concussion.

From the beachhead, the Marines ranged out in an all out effort to search out and mop up the enemy units that were providing the enfilading fire power.  While this was taking place, boats landed all the Marines' artillery, excepting their 155mm howitzers, and none too soon as it turned out.  But Vice-Admiral Nagumo and General Saito hadn't been idle.  They were determined to drive the Americans into the sea before they could establish a firm hold on the shore.

Late in the evening of 15 June (D-day) and early in the morning of 16 June the FREMONT moved to within sight of Saipan.  At 0200 on 16 June (-10 time zone) star shells were seen over Saipan.  Continuing to move toward Saipan, together with the other ships and escorts of Blandy's Group One, the FREMONT entered the waters off Marpi Point the scene of an action the day before called the Battle of Marpi Point.  Here Japanese barges loaded with troops, attempting to bring reinforcements from Tinian to Saipan were intercepted and destroyed.  These wrecked barges were visible from the FREMONT.  The screening destroyers moved in and picked up Japanese survivors from the water.  The officers on the bridge of the FREMONT were looking at the distant wreckage through binoculars.  There was a column resembling smoke rising from the water into the sky a short distance from the wreckage.  Captain Conlan turned and asked each of the officers, the Officer of the Deck, the Navigator, the Communications Officer and others what they thought it was.  Some said it was a burning barge, others that it was a plane shot down.  He then turned to Bonnot and said "what do you think?"  Bonnot who had never seen one but had been doing his reading, replied “A waterspout.”  This was correct. Bonnot then felt that he had moved up a notch in the Captains' opinion of his growing knowledge of seamanship.

At 1251 Admiral R.K. Turner, Commander Task Force 51 ordered the FREMONT to proceed to the transport area, and land troops on Blue Beach.  At 1820 the FREMONT arrived at the transport area and commenced debarking the 165th Regimental Combat Team of the 27th Infantry Division.  Debarking had not progressed very far when orders were received from Admiral Turner for all transports and escorts to retire for the night.  The Japanese fleet had sortied and Task Force 58 had moved in their direction.  There were no friendly planes in the air, but bogies were plentiful on the radarscope.  The ship retired slowly leaving little phosphorous wake.  The orders were “No firing”.  A destroyer 20 miles distant jumped up and down firing to draw the enemy planes away from the transports but there were no attacks.

In the morning the transports and the FREMONT returned to the transport area and resumed landing troops.  The FREMONT continued landing troops all day.  It was a slow process - loading the troops into the LCVPs transporting them to Blue Beach over two miles away, beaching the boats getting the men ashore, then returning to the ship to load more troops.  By late afternoon the divisional artillerymen and their weapons had been unloaded but there were many of the troops still aboard.  But because of the violent air battle being fought by Task Force 58 which because of the number of Japanese planes destroyed, became known as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot” and the menace of the Japanese fleet, Admiral Turner again ordered the transports to retire.  But before retiring, in opening the hatches, a terrible mistake began to be uncovered.  The 27th Division had assembled their cargo by priority 1,2,3,4, etc.  The top priority was what the troops would need on the first few days ashore and the lower priority was the equipment needed later such as typewriters, paper, desks and administrative items.  They should have been loaded in reverse order with the top priority items loaded last.  Instead the top priority items were loaded first and were on the bottom.  Nothing could be done to reverse this and the low priority items would have to be unloaded before the high priority items could be reached.  This might have been a major factor in what transpired later.

So the FREMONT retired with the other transports on the evening of 17 June.  The danger persisted and all transports remained in retirement on the 18th and 9th of June.  But because of trouble encountered by the units of the 27th Division already ashore and at the urgent request of General Ralph Smith at 1640 on 19 June the FREMONT and others of Blandy's transports that still had men and urgent cargo of the 27th Division aboard were ordered to return to the transport area.  Because of the continuing danger and menace of the Japanese fleet the transport that had safely unloaded the Marines remained in the retirement area.  It seems that the units of the 27th Division that had been landed could not have gone ashore at a worse time.

It was 3 A.M. and Major General Ralph Smith's divisional artillery and GI's were still coming ashore and there hadn't been time to brief them or even assemble them when the Marines holding the beaches (Red 2 and 3) north of Charan Kanoa heard sounds coming out of the night.  It was the clatter of heavy armor coming from the hills of 290 - foot Mount Fina Susu inland from them.  It grew louder even as they jumped to their arms.  The rumble of a heavy enemy movement grew still louder.

Shore fire control called on the Navy for star shell illumination.  The destroyers responded, illuminating the area with a great explosion of blinking yellowish light.  Under it, the Marines saw Japanese armored tanks lumbering down a winding hill road with hundreds of the Emperor's soldiers on both sides keeping the pace.

The Marines opened fire on the leading tanks.  A battle began that lasted over four hours.  As the foremost tanks were hit, erupting into flaming torches, they si1houetted others coming on behind them in a long column; and Japanese officers could be seen standing upright in opened turrets, directing the assault.  Star shells kept exploding, their concussions mingling with the Marines' artillery and mortar fire.  Even as tanks blew apart or stopped in their tracks, afire, the Emperors' soldiers suddenly joined by hundreds of Nagumo's Imperial Marines, charged the 2nd Battalion of U.S. Marines.  They came screaming ‘Banzai!’, brandishing swords, their rifles blazing and hurling grenades.  And, penetrating that wild night came the weird echoes of bugles, as from a bygone age, spurring their countrymen to even more frenzied fury.

Surviving tanks, Imperial marines and soldiers surged forward like an ocean tide.  The American 2nd Battalion Marines defending the beachhead north of Charan Kanoa stood their ground with bazookas to shoulders, behind machine guns, rifles or armed with grenades and rifles bayoneted for blood, met the furious onslaught, slaughtering the wild attackers.  But more kept coming.  There seemed no end to them and the battle raged on for possession of those beaches.

As dawn broke on ‘D-day plus 3’ American half-tracks armed with 75mm guns rolled up to take part but the enemy assault was about over.  Littering the field of battle were the hulks of more than 40 tanks, burning, smoldering with over 700 of the Emperor's marines and soldiers sprawled in death, left behind.  Maggots were already swarming over the eyeballs of the fallen, fighting among themselves for the glistening eyes of the dead Japanese; while from their gaping wounds fat, bloated worms were already slithering in and out of the dark, fleshy holes still warm with oozing blood.  Battle-hardened Marines looking down at the vanquished foe turned from the gruesome scene, for tomorrow it could be themselves.

On the morning of 20 June the FREMONT and a half dozen transports anchored widely spaced almost two miles out from the beachhead resumed debarking troops and some cargo.  The FREMONT beach party went ashore with these troops to assist in assembling the cargo being delivered to the beach.

During the raging battle and in all of the shambles and chaotic confusion and constant ambushes and attacks on the beach, the medics and helpers of the 2nd and 4th Marine Divisions were attempting to care for the wounded.  Those too seriously wounded to be cared for under these battle conditions were put into boats to rush them to the transports off shore.

The FREMONT and all of the transports were equipped to act as an emergency hospital until hospital ships came on the scene.  But there were no hospital ships.  This produced one of the most heart rendering problems of the invasion!  The FREMONT was the closest ship to shore.  The boats all headed for the nearest ship the FREMONT.  The FREMONT’s sick bay was soon filled to capacity and the doctors could cope with no more casualties.  The oncoming boats were waved off and told to go to the next ship.  This ship soon filled and the small boats bouncing around in the ocean were sent to the next ship and the next ship and the next ship.  But soon all were filled to capacity.  But the small boats were still taking off from the beach and heading for the nearest ship, the FREMONT.  They were waved off.  The boats then headed for the next ship and the next and the next spending hours on the open sea.  The men in the boats pleaded with the men on deck, saying the casualties aboard were dying but they were sorrowfully forced to order them to shove off.

The FREMONT, Blandy's flagship, was overwhelmed with casualties.  All available spaces were filled.  The doctors could cope with no more.  They were already working around the clock and doing everything they could for the many casualties they had aboard.

Seeing the horribly wounded and dying men with intravenous bottles swaying above them and hearing the groans as the boat rolled in the swells of the ocean left a lasting impression on the officers and men of the FREMONT who were unable to help.  The casualties were aboard a long time before some ships leaving the area appeared and some of the most serious casualties needing surgery or extreme medical care were transported to them.

The Operation Plans failed to include plans for taking care of the critical casualties that exceeded the capacities of the forces on Saipan to cope with their serious condition.  The number of casualties were so great and beyond expectation the comparatively small number of ships in Blandy's Group were quickly filled to capacity.  There was no liaison between the ships and the shore and the boats kept coming out into the rolling swells of the ocean with men who were dying en route as the coxswain hunted to find some ships that could take them.  This was a sad lesson learned that was corrected in later operations.

But unloading continued at a slow pace into the FREMONT's LCVPs and LCM's until the LST 127 came alongside.

Meanwhile word was received that the 2nd and 4th Marines were fighting their way and advancing on both flanks but the 27th Division holding down the center was not keeping pace and was endangering the operation.  Marine General Holland M. (‘Howling Mad’) Smith was furious.  He held a low opinion of the 27th and General Ralph Smith stemming from the Gilbert Islands Campaign, 20 November 1943, in which the Tarawa Invasion, was one of the bloodiest few days in Marine Corps history and of the 2nd Marine Division.  Holland Smith had been on Makin Atoll, part of this Gilbert Campaign, on 20 November.  The 27th was to have taken Makin easily as there were less than 800 Japanese, mostly construction workers, defending the atoll.  He remembered how on 16-17 August 1942 Carlson's Marine Raiders had landed and quickly destroyed installations and most of the small Japanese garrison.  But the 27th in their first invasion had all kinds of trouble, trigger happy and firing at every sound and at one point shot Holland Smith's tent full of holes.  In his rage at the 27th failures on Saipan he fired handsome and well liked General Ralph Smith on the spot which caused an uproar over a Marine General firing an Army General.  The officers on the FREMONT wondered if the snafu in their loading priority cargo on the ship might not have had something to do with the failure of the 27th to advance as well as the 2nd and 4th Marines.  Also, they wondered if the FREMONT had been able to stay around and continue unloading without having to batten down the hatches and retire for days, whether the problems might have been minimized.

The Marines had not been subject to this particular problem.  The Marines and practically all of their supplies had been offloaded on the first two days.  The 27th Division on the other hand were the reserve forces for Saipan and were to leave to invade Guam, if not needed.  In consequence, in order to land the 27th came late when the danger of Japanese counterattack was possible.  This necessitated the cautionary withdrawal of all of the transports.  While the transports carrying the 27th Division  and their cargo departed, the transports that had carried the Marines stayed in the retirement area.  Blandy's ships were ordered to return to the beachhead and resume debarking the 27th and their supplies despite the possible danger.  This five and six day delay, not encountered by the Marines, hurt the 27th and possibly hindered their forward advance.

By continuing to unload by day and at night with covered lights and red flashlights to prevent the light being seen, and with the help of LST 127 that loaded a great amount of cargo onto its deck, the FREMONT began to make headway in unloading the cargo from its holds.  Radar picked up bogies indicating Japanese planes in the area, but there were no attacks.

During the morning while the unloading was still going on, Ensign John Dugan, the First Division Officer who was on deck overseeing the unloading, called up to Bonnot  “What is happening on the CALLAWAY?”  The CALLAWAY was a Coast Guard ship anchored nearby.  Bonnot looked at the ship through his binoculars and saw floodlights and much camera equipment on deck.  They seemed to be making a movie.  Lieutenant Toothill and the Communications Officer were on the bridge and they mentioned that the actor Cesar Romero was in the crew of the CALLAWAY.  Bos'n Mate Bob Allen was nearby and said “I met Romero.  We were on R&R (Rest and Recreation} at Pearl and played a softball game with the CALLAWAY.  Cesar was a Bos'n Mate on the CALLAWAY and played against us.  He was a good Joe.”

But why was a movie being made of him in the midst of an invasion?  The suggestion was made that movie stars were being recruited to help sell war bonds.  If that were the case we never found out.

Near the end of the day, the FREMONT finally unloaded most of the cargo of the 27th Division including some of their high priority items that were near the bottom of the hold.  With still some cargo left, the FREMONT was again given orders to return to the retirement area.

The FREMONT got underway slowly.  Two of the FREMONT’S LCVPs seeing the ship moving and afraid they were being forgotten, caught up with the ship expecting to be taken aboard.  But they were waved off and told to return to the beach.  The men were dismayed as the ship was their home and they did not relish returning to the hostile shore.  But they returned to rejoin the beach party still on the beach.

The FREMONT continued on to the retirement area and transferred some of the casualties to ships returning to Pearl Harbor.  Reports kept coming in about the hundreds of Japanese planes being shot down and destroyed in the “turkey shoot” air battles being fought by the pilots and gunners flying from the 15 great carriers of the 5th Fleet.  Also being reported was the as well as now the Army's 27th Infantry Division.

Despite heavy fighting being reported, everything seemed to be going well and after being in the retirement area for four days, the FREMONT was ordered to return to the beachhead.  On 26 June the FREMONT returned to the Blue Beach and completed unloading the last of the cargo still aboard.  The unloading completed, the beach party returned including the boat crews of the LCVPs that had been ordered to return to the beach.  They all had a story to tell.  Some of the boat crews had been put on report by the beachmaster and were to stand Captain's mast.  It seems they had left the beachhead and their boats and had gone down the beach to another beachhead area to look for some old friends from another ship.  This was mitigated, however, by the fact that in moving down they had spotted several Japanese snipers who had infiltrated the lines and were firing into the backs of troops, from the tall sugar mill behind Charan Kanoa.  One of the boat crews members who was a good marksman killed one of the snipers.  The firing from the others drove the remaining snipers out of the sugar mill and they disappeared in the brush.

The FREMONT then received more casualties and food and water was transferred to various ships.  But then a strange thing happened, apparently under orders from Admiral Blandy, the FREMONT got underway and steamed around to the other side of Saipan where there were tall cliffs rising above a rocky coastline.  Through his 7x50 binoculars, which he always carried around his neck Bonnot saw large groups of people on top of the cliffs.  Occasionally it seemed like something was thrown off the cliffs like bags of clothes.  He asked “What is going on?”.  Somebody said “Don't you know?”  It then dawned on him that they were natives committing hara-kiri..  Families of two or three at a time were jumping off the cliffs to their deaths disemboweling themselves on the sharp rocks on the shore below.  This kept up as the groups milled around at the edge of the cliff sometimes in apparent frenzy.  A priest or leader seemed to be conducting a religious service or exhorting the crowd to cast themselves off the cliffs either alone or in groups of two or three.  It was a sobering sight seeing these people committing suicide apparently because their countrymen had been defeated and failed their Emperor, their God.

Conlan ordered the helmsman to turn the ship around and have Navigator Greene set a course to return to the beachhead.

Evidently Admiral Blandy had heard that these Japanese civilians were committing hara-kiri and he wanted to see it himself.  In his time aboard the FREMONT he proved to be a man with much curiosity which on one occasion during the Invasion of Peleliu Island endangered the FREMONT from shore batteries before she pulled back out of range.

When the FREMONT rounded the island and returned to the beachhead area, a flash announcement was radioed around the world “Saipan is Secured”.

The troops had taken all of the strong points and decimated the defending Japanese forces.  This announcement was made despite the fact that heavy fighting was still going on but this was a last ditch death stand by the Japanese and the end was inevitable.

With Admiral Blandy still aboard, the FREMONT was ordered to set a course for Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the scene of some very heavy fighting several months before.  The Captain ordered “Set the sea and anchor detail and make all preparations to get underway”.  In attempting to heave in the anchor the ship swung toward nearby Tinian still in Japanese hands.  Japanese shore batteries opened up and their shells splashed in the water but their guns were small and the range was too great!  But it was an uncertain time as most officers on the bridge ducked down behind the metal shields.  Bonnot, standing by was impressed at the coolness of Bos'n Gore and the anchor detail on the open raised forecastle deck.  Also he admired Captain Conlan's example as he stood calmly on the open chain platform on the wing of the bridge.  Standing on the platform allowed the captain to look along the side of the ship from bow to stern.  He looked heroic standing there without a metal helmet.  But this was contrary to his own orders.  All crew members were ordered to wear their helmets at all times but the captain rarely wore his.  Where was Blandy who was a stickler on things like that?  Bos'n Gore kept calling out the markings of the anchor chain as it was being hauled in by the anchor windlass.  The ship kept swinging toward Tinian as the shells kept dropping raising splashes in the water.  When Gore reported “anchor up and down” meaning the anchor was clear of the bottom the captain standing calmly on the chain platform called out “Engine ahead one third. Right standard rudder - Come to course 085.”  As the splashes continued the anchor was still being raised with Bos'n Gore and the anchor detail standing by.  The helmsmen called out “On course 085”.  The captain replied “Steady as you go”.  When Gore reported “Anchor secure” the captain ordered “Engine ahead two thirds. Secure the anchor detail.”  Gore sprinted for the ladder leading down from the Forecastle Deck to the Main Deck, Bonnot claimed he never hit a step but flew through the air to hit the Main Deck.  Bonnot said, “In idle

moments I taught the tough old Bos'n how to play chess and move the pieces from square to square but I never thought he himself could fly from spot to spot on deck like a flying fish in the ocean.”  The Captain still on the chains and watching the Forecastle get cleared of men called out “Engine ahead full. Steady as you go” and the FREMONT left the splashes behind.  On the second day underway Bonnot was finally permitted to leave the bridge.  Because nothing had happened that required any Ship or Plane Identification the Captain decided that it was not necessary in the future.  He said if the warships fire we will fire.  This proved true until the Leyte Invasion when he had to alter his thinking.  Bonnot learned a great deal from the time he spent on the bridge and observing what went on which proved valuable later on.

 

The FREMONT arrived at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands on the “Fourth of July” 1944.  At home this was always a day of celebration but there was no celebration here.  As Lieutenant James Robert Brandon, medical officer in sick bay said “We have so many critically wounded marines and soldiers in here, there is no cause for celebration.”  “Let's get them home first.”  So on July 6 Navigator Greene was ordered to set a course for Pearl Harbor.

But July 6 was to become an historic date also.  It was on July 6 1944 that Japanese Vice Admiral Chichi Nagumo, the supreme war lord of Saipan, the commander of the fleet that wrecked havoc at Pearl Harbor, the Admiral who with his invincible carriers became the scourge of the Far East, the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific, the famed Admiral who commanded the Japanese fleet at the Battle of Midway, - had come full circle on Saipan.  It was in a coral cave back in the hills of Saipan that Chichi Nagumo, the great Japanese Samauri hero had committed hara-kiri - not with the traditional sword but by taking his own life with his own pistol.  Joining him in committing hara-kiri was his commander of Saipan's ground forces Lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito.  Subordinates buried their bodies in unmarked graves, with no slab or monument so that their bodies would not be found.  It was a fitting end for Nagumo who had caused so much death and destruction since 7 December 1941.

The FREMONT, steaming unescorted, arrived at Pearl Harbor on 12 July 1944, returning to the base from which it had sortied on 1 June.  The invasion and complete seizure of Saipan, despite its most difficult defensible terrain of jagged ridges, honeycombed with hundreds of hard coral caves, the fierce fanatical resistance by the Japanese, the many casualties sustained with bitter fighting, had been accomplished in a little over three weeks.  The FREMONT had been at Saipan until the island was declared secured.  The Medical department had received and treated more than 200 critically wounded and exhausted soldiers and Marines.  They had labored around the clock, day and night.  They had received a commendation for their efforts.

Once the FREMONT had docked, ambulances arrived and transported the remaining casualties to base hospitals on Oahu.  With Operation Forager over, it seemed time to relax.  But the crew of the FREMONT - the hospitalmen, the boat- crews, the beach party, the cargo handlers, the deck hands, the engine room, the commissarymen who fed the troops, and all - had done such a commendable job, they soon learned that their active participation would not end there.  The FREMONT was ordered to prepare for another invasion - Peleliu-Anguar in the Palau Islands - and be the flagship for Admiral Blandy once again.

 

 

The End



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