Three score and seven years ago, on what used to be Memorial Day, organized resistance by Japanese forces ended on the island of Attu in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Although primarily a land battle involving the 7th U.S. Army Infantry Division, the United States Navy made that day possible, by pulling off one of the most challenging amphibious operations of the war. In this case the strongest ally the Japanese had was nature who in the late Aleutian Spring did her best to delay and hamper the safe landing of American Forces. The Naval History and Heritage Command posted a series of pictures commemorating this day in their photo album and then followed up with a link to the entry for the USS Zeilin (APA-3) which has photos of LCVP’s from the “Mighty Z” as she was called, landing on the beaches in the opening hours of the invasion. Less known is a narrative of this campaign preserved by the crew of the Zeilin, in the book Attack Transport: The USS Zeilin in World War II-An Oral History.
The trip up and landing were described by Captain Logan of the Zeilin, in this unpublished manuscript.
“… and ship to shore movement was promptly underway. But it is only fair to report that this particular journey north through the foulest weather imaginable was one to remember. Fog bound for several days , and constantly combating the bitter cold, rainy foggy weather characteristic of that area, all hands concerned did a marvelous job getting the old lady through.”…the coxswains were always encountering considerable difficulties in safely navigating their small boats to and from the shore. Some of these brave lads returned to the ship practically frozen to their wheels.”1
For six days the invasion fleet stood by as the transports disgorged their men and cargo. The fierce weather conditions made almost every trip a dance with death. Even if the trip in was uneventful, the return trip could turn deadly on even the gentlest change in the wind that brought pea soup fog rolling in. Former Machinist Mate William P McMahan described one such trip.
We started back to the ship, and a huge, dense fog rolled in. It got so bad that you couldn’t see anything; we were out there, but we didn’t know which way to go. Finally we heard a fog horn on a little destroyer escort. They had sent this little ship out for us because they realized the fog was so thick that we couldn’t find our way back on our own. We heard that horn and headed in its direction. After a bit, we’d stop and wait until we heard it again. We kept on like this until, finally we ran into the side of that vessel….they got several of us together and we formed a line like a duck and her little ducklings and made our way back to our ship. Of course once we got back, they loaded us up again, and we headed back to the beach. This went on all day and night, without stopping until our ship was unloaded.2
Besides the fog, the swells some reaching fifteen feet along with the bitter cold, even made trips in clear weather treacherous. One such trip almost ended in the loss of a boat crew when after delivering an army officer to the shore during the night, the returning LCVP encountered fifteen foot seas. Machinist Mate Robert H Vinson related how they learned to navigate in rough seas.
“We went around and around with these huge swells – they must have dropped at least fifteen feet – you go up, and you go down, you go up, and you go down. You have to take your time or, otherwise, you go up and you can either ‘pitch poles’ – go back down in a trough end-over-end – or your can go crossways to the swell and capsize. Even though we were wearing our life jackets, we had all our foul weather gear on and so, if we had gone overboard, nobody would have ever found us.”3
Vinson’s boat eventually made it to the Zeilin, but the boat davits were jamed, so the crew attempted to raise the boat with a single hook. After getting the hook attached to the bow ring and before being able to secure the after ring, the deck crew began to raise the boat. The screams of the three men could not be heard over the sound of the steam winch. Hanging on for dear life the three crewman clung to the sides of the LCVP. With the boat suspended vertically and half submerged, the crewman climbed up the inside of the boat to reach the extended hands of the deck crew and safety. Vinson remembered.
“I’ve never been so scared in my life. we raised holy hell: we were cursing and jumping up and down, but the Chief was there and said, ‘Hey, it’s not our fault,…..at least we got you out of there.'”4
Finally on May 17, 1943 the Zeilin steamed south her mission complete. In a strange turn of events the “Mighty Z” and her crew got a brief respite when upon return to San Diego she co-starred in the movie Guadalcanal Diary ironically playing herself. “Many of the crew were unpaid extras in the film,” according to Robert W. Thompson.5 The shooting went on for a few weeks, ending when the landing craft repainted with the former ‘P9’ to designate the original hull number for the Zeilin during the Gaudalcanal Campaign shot the landing scene of the troops hitting the beaches at a tropicalized Camp Pendleton beach.
As soon as the filming ended, the Zeilin steamed to San Francisco to pick up troops for the invasion of Kiska. And after that, Bloody Tarawa.
1. Robert E Witter, Attack Transport: The USS Zeilin in World War II-An Oral History (Haverford, PA: Infinity, 2001) 51.
2. Ibid, 53.
3. Ibid, 57.
4. Ibid, 58.
5. Ibid, 59.