September of 1943: Will Weston with the 32 man crew of the wooden-hulled mine sweeper YMS-184 enters the Pacific Theater of Operations. The small ship is destined to participate in the most horrific battles of WWII.
But before the battles, before the bloodshed, YMS-184 dropped anchor in well-known ports of paradise, like Tahiti and Bora Bora, “beautiful,” in Weston’s words, before sailing on to their final port: Pago Pago in American Samoa. Weston said, “We swept for enemy mines then laid our own minefields on the outer banks of Samoa, plus escorted vessels through the mine fields into Pago Pago Harbor.”
YMS-184 delivered war material to island groups and escorted convoys of Yippie Boats (ex-tuna clippers the Navy hijacked from the west coast for war duty) to New Zealand. Weston said, “The Yippie Boats returned with foodstuffs, but mainly mutton and potatoes. We consumed a lot of mutton. I refused to eat mutton for years after leaving the Navy.”
No more mutton runs. YMS-184 is assigned to the 2nd Marine Division and joins a convoy heading for the Gilbert Islands, specifically a small island called Betio with a coral atoll called Tarawa. The convoy was the largest yet for the Pacific Theater: 17 various-sized aircraft carriers, 12 battleships, 12 battle cruisers, 66 destroyers and 36 transports carrying 35,000 troops from the 2nd Marine Division and the Army’s 27th Infantry Division. Tiny YMS-184 directs the crucial pre-invasion job of sweeping mines from Tarawa Atoll.
Nov 23, 1943, in Weston’s own words: “The Tarawa Atoll is one of few places on earth where the tide does not go in and out every 24 hours. It’s different, but we didn’t know that. We swept for mines before the invasion but found none. What we did find was shallow water and lots of coral. We radioed the flagship Indianapolis that we were concerned about the shallow depths, but after arguing back and forth the invasion went ahead as scheduled. It was horrible.”
“The landing crafts got stuck on the coral and the Japanese chewed up our Marines in crossfires. We rescued Marines all day. Our pharmacist mate and a pharmacist mate from another ship patched up the Marines as we transported them to bigger ships. Every man on our sweeper had tears in their eyes. I had to stay topside at general quarters to man the 20mm anti-aircraft gun. The next day was even worse.”
He continued, “The Japs snuck out during the night and set up ambush positions on the damaged landing crafts. The Marines got cut to pieces again, but finally a navy LST with a new type of amphibious boat (LTV-2 Water Buffalo) came in and things improved a bit. After a 3-day battle we were put ashore to assist the Chaplains. We buried a lot of Marines on that tiny atoll. It was very sad.”
Feb, 1944: YMS-184 transports 45 Marine veterans of Guadalcanal to a nearby island called Wallis. Weston said, “We ran into a terrible storm that tossed us around for 2 or 3 days. When we finally got the Marines ashore every one of them kissed the ground.” YMS-184 continued with escort duty and resupply missions around American Samoa until March, 1944.
Anchored north of Guadalcanal at the huge American base at Noumea, New Caledonia for a short reprieve, YMS-184 received orders to cruise back to Guadalcanal and patrol Savo Sound, dubbed Iron Bottom Sound due to the number of vessels, Japanese and American, sunk in the area. Weston recalled, “That place was spooky. We anchored at Tulagi, just across the sound from Guadalcanal. We almost put on gas masks due to a poisonous smell in the area. Turns out the fragrance came from a flower on the island. Don’t think I’d want to live there.”
June 15, 1944: YMS-184 sees action during the invasion of Saipan; July 21, the invasion of Guam, and on July 24, the invasion of Tinian. Typical action as described by Weston: “During the invasion of Saipan I manned the 20mm anti-aircraft gun almost non-stop. The Japs had airplanes on small islands and bombed us daily. We burned up a lot of barrels from firing so much. In one action we were swapping barrels when a bomb exploded by our port side, scattering the gun crew. The concussion sent an empty 20mm container airborne. I was strapped into position but tried to catch the container coming back down. That was a mistake. It cut up my hand, messed up some ribs, and almost took off part of my left foot. The pharmacist mate sedated me and was about to take off the dangling part. I cussed him out, and he replied, ‘Okay, fool,’ but he stitched and taped it, powdered the wound, and I recovered okay.”
Weston stayed topside during combat strapped to the 20mm. On some days he fired all day, saw friendly fire destroy an American plane, saw Japanese planes hit a landing craft killing all on board, and witnessed a Kamikaze hit and sink a baby flattop (small aircraft carrier). Weston: “I hit a few Jap planes. You can tell by the bright streaks on the fuselage, like firecrackers popping off. But it was difficult to get credit for a ‘kill’ since every gun in the vicinity was protecting the fleet.”
YMS-184 also participated in the invasion of Peleliu in Sept of 1944, one of the deadest battles in the Pacific.
Nov, 1944: YMS-184 escorts a disabled ship into Manus Bay, part of the Western Carolinas. Weston: “Over a hundred ships lay at anchor. They were preparing for the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines. We tied up alongside a repair ship for maintenance.” Over a mile away the ammo ship, USS Mount Hood, lay peacefully at anchor in 35 feet of water. She carried 3,800 pounds of munitions.
Nov 10, 1944 at 08:55 — YMS-184 is pitched by an enormous explosion. A gap is torn in her upper deck. The USS Mount Hood had exploded, sending a column of smoke 7,000 feet into the tropical blue sky. The detonation created a trench on the ocean floor 1,000 feet long, 200 feet wide; and 40 feet deep. The largest piece recovered of the Mount Hood measured 16’ by 10’. No other big pieces were found, no human remains ever discovered. Among the dead: Hood’s entire crew and the sailors on nearby vessels: 350 men. Another 371 sailors were injured. Twenty two ships were sunk or damaged beyond repair, several smaller vessels simply disappeared, 36 more ships sustained moderate to minor damage. The cause of the explosion was never determined.
Weston: “We had all hands on deck after the explosion. It was terrible, ships on fire, several sinking. We were over a mile away, yet 15 sailors that were topside on the repair ship we were moored to loss their lives. Hundreds of shrapnel holes had peppered the repair ship. It was sheer pandemonium.”
Once repaired, YMS-184 sailed to the huge harbor of Ulithi. “Well, our luck didn’t change too much,” Weston recalled. The tiny mine sweeper and its crew were caught at anchorage in Typhoon Cobra, nicknamed Halsey’s Typhoon (Admiral Halsey), on Dec. 4, 1944. “We dropped both anchors, had the engines at one-quarter speed, and rode it out. Waves were so high we couldn’t see the top of them.” Gun mounts vanished off destroyers, glass on ship bridges knocked out, aircraft flight decks on carriers pealed back like banana skins. Weston: “Over 790 sailors died in the typhoon.”
The crew of YMS-184 prepared for yet another invasion, the Japanese Island of Okinawa. Weston: “We had a guy from the Bureau of Ships and Docks inspect our ship. He said, ‘You guys aren’t going anywhere, this ship is in too bad of shape.’ He sent us to Pearl Harbor for repairs. We were happy campers.” Pearl Harbor over-crowded with damaged ships so YMS-184 was diverted to San Pedro, CA. Weston recalled, “I remember seeing the traffic lights on shore blinking red and green. For some reason I thought that was amazing.”
Amazing is surviving sea warfare in the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of Operations. YMS-184 lost one crewmember during the war, due to an appendectomy. The little fighter YMS-184 had one more voyage left in it, to Alaska, to be turned over to the Russians. Its fate is unknown.
Will Weston completed his service helping demobilize the troops and remained on duty until his honorable discharge on Dec. 21, 1946. After retirement from Southern Bell, Will and Dottie traveled the country for several years in their RV. Will lost his beloved Dottie on April 27 of this year. Will stays busy completing his book: Silent Defenders.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.