The Long Blue Line: Bloody Callaway—the Coast Guard’s Silver Star Ship

Friday, December 22, 2017

Originally posted by Diana Sherbs, Thursday, December 14, 2017

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

Written by William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian

USS Callaway at anchor in the Pacific theater of operations on Sept. 18, 1943. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

The air is filled with screams of wounded and dying men. The smell of burning flesh fills the nostrils; the eyes smart from thick smoke. The chaplain administers the rites to the dying.
Coast Guard Combat Artist Norman Thomas, USS Callaway, Jan. 8, 1945

In the quote above, combat artist Norman Thomas described the aftermath of a kamikaze attack against the Coast Guard-manned USS Callaway (APA-35), one of the service’s worst combat losses of World War II.

During the war, the Coast Guard employed over half its personnel to man 802 Coast Guard, 351 Navy and 288 Army vessels that supported land, sea and air forces in all theaters of the war. One ship in this armada, the Callaway, was a 500-foot attack transport of the Bayfield class. The ship was launched in October 1942 at the Western Pipe and Steel Company in San Francisco and commissioned in the spring of 1943. Fitted with heavy-duty derricks, Callaway carried an assortment of nearly 20 large and small landing craft. Manned by nearly 600 officers and enlisted men, the cutter was armed with an array of weaponry: a pair of 5-inch guns, four 40mm cannons and 18 20mm cannons.

Callaway in camouflage paint scheme during World War II. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

A year after its construction, Callaway sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, for San Diego to train with Marines in preparation for the first of five major invasion landings. Joining Task Force 53 at Lahaina Roads, Hawaii, Callaway sailed for its baptism of fire at Kwajalein Island of the Marshall Islands. On Jan. 31, 1944, the cutter landed troops in an assault that overwhelmed the island’s Japanes9e occupiers. After staging at Guadalcanal, the ship steamed combat-loaded for the occupation of Emirau, where the crews landed troops on March 20. For the next two months, Callaway transferred troops and cargo in the Solomon and Ellice islands and underwent training at Pearl Harbor.

In early June, Callaway got underway for its third amphibious assault. This time, the crews shipped troops to the bloody inferno of Saipan. After landing troops, Callaway steamed to Pearl Harbor laden with Saipan’s battle casualties. In mid-September, with battle-tested skill, Callaway launched troops in the assault on Angaur in the Palau Islands. After disembarking troops in the Palaus, Callaway prepared to ship reinforcements for the landings at Leyte Gulf. Arriving at Leyte in late October, Callaway landed troops and then retired through the epic naval battle of Leyte Gulf. For the next month, the crews fended off enemy air attacks and disembarked troops at Leyte.

Japanese kamikaze aircraft under heavy fire in the Philippines as they attack U.S. ships in early January 1945. Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

In New Guinea, Callaway prepared for the Lingayen Gulf assault. In this amphibious operation, the transport would distinguish itself as a member of the Beach Blue Attack Group. It would also face Japanese kamikaze attacks launched to break up the landings. On Jan. 8, 1945, when Callaway’s invasion force was steaming only 35 miles off the beaches, a group of three Japanese aircraft swooped in directly behind its convoy. Callaway’s guns peppered the sky with a hail of 40 mm and 20 mm anti-aircraft fire, downing two of the three kamikazes. They also hit the third, but the suicide plane managed to break through Callaway’s fusillade of cannon fire.

Photograph of a damaged kamikaze in the final seconds before impact on a U.S. warship. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

As the damaged kamikaze hurtled toward Callaway’s starboard bridge structure, several gunners refused to leave their anti-aircraft batteries to escape death. By manning their guns, these heroes sacrificed their lives for the Callaway and their shipmates. The impact of the aircraft killed seven men instantly. Dozens more died a horrible death in a blaze ignited by aircraft fuel. According to one historian, “. . . men were turned into human torches. Flames leaped to the top of the stack and shot down toward the engine room . . . .” In spite of the loss of life, skillful work by damage control teams contained the conflagration and kept the damage to a minimum. In fact, the Callaway managed to keep its position within the convoy during the kamikaze attack and resulting conflagration.

The crash killed 23 Coast Guardsmen and wounded 10 more. Several of Callaway’s crewmen were decorated for their actions that day and their award citations give an indication of the hell they experienced. For example, Seaman 2/c Ralph Martin was posthumously awarded a Silver Star Medal for:

Conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as a member of a gun crew on the U.S.S. CALLAWAY in action against Japanese forces in the Pacific on 8 January 1945. Manning his station aggressively when the vessel was attacked by Japanese suicide plane, he unhesitatingly relinquished all chance of escape as the plane plunged toward the target and remaining steadfastly at his gun, continued to direct his fire with unrelenting fury upon the enemy until carried away with his weapon by the terrific impact. With indomitable fighting spirit and unyielding devotion to duty in the valiant defense of his ship he gallantly gave his life for his country.

Six other enlisted men were posthumously awarded Silver Star Medals. They too died while manning anti-aircraft batteries hit by the kamikaze. Despite the heavy loss of personnel, Callaway carried out its assignment the next day with its usual competence.

Coast Guard combat artist, Chief Specialist Norman Thomas, drew this illustration of Navy chaplain, Lt. Thomas Dunleavy, administering last rites to two dying Callaway crewmen. U.S. Coast Guard Collection.

Callaway had a lengthy career after the kamikaze attack at Lingayen Gulf. Temporary repairs at Ulithi put the cutter back in action by early February 1945, when the crew carried marine reinforcements from Guam to Iwo Jima, and wounded from that battle-scarred island back to Guam. From March through May, Callaway transported men and equipment between bases and operating areas of the Western Pacific, then embarked Japanese prisoners at Pearl Harbor and carried them to San Francisco. The ship returned to Pearl Harbor in August 1945, loaded occupation troops and disembarked them at Wakayama, Japan. Two trans-Pacific voyages carrying homeward-bound Americans ended with Callaway’s own return to San Francisco in March 1946. The transport then sailed to New York where the Coast Guard crew disembarked. In 1948, Callaway was turned over to Merchant Marine service and its name changed to the President Harrison. The cutter was scrapped 25 years later in 1974.

A portrait of Silver Star Medal recipient Seaman 1st Class Rollin Fritch, Coast Guardsman aboard USS Callaway who died during the kamikaze attack on Jan. 8, 1945. Photo courtesy of the Fritch family.

Attack transports supported Allied amphibious operations, fighting fleets and land forces throughout the Pacific. Coast Guard ships like USS Callaway ensured a steady stream of troops, equipment and supplies to Allied offensives throughout the war. For the three-year service in World War II, Callaway received six battle stars while its heroic crewmen received seven Silver Star Medals and 33 Purple Hearts. The Callaway’s dead were buried at sea and memorialized at the American Cemetery in Manila. Today, they are long forgotten and lost to the cobwebs of history. However, these young men, many too young to shave, went in harm’s way to defend the freedoms Americans enjoy today.

For readers wishing to remember the young heroes that died that fateful day, their names are listed below:

Bermuda, Jack Walker, Signalman 2/c; Age 22; San Bernardino, California; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Blaney, Anthony, Coxswain; Age 23; Gary, Indiana; Died of wounds Jan. 9, 1945.
Centofani, Enio John, Seaman 1/c; Age 23; Columbus, Ohio; Jan. 8, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Davis, Cecil Gordon, Boatswain’s Mate 1/c; Missouri; Died of wounds Jan. 10, 1945.
Fritch, Rollin Arnold, Seaman 2/c; Age 24; Pawnee City, Nebraska; Died Jan. 8, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Hoyt, Robert Gordon, Signalman 3/c; Age 19; Fairfield, Connecticut; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Hughes, Charles Joseph, Seaman 1/c; Rensselaer, New York; Died of wounds Jan. 15, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Jarosz, Roman Jerome, Motor Machinist Mate 3/c; Age 23; Lackawanna, New York; Died of wounds Jan. 9, 1945.
Kehn, Charles Richard, Seaman 1/c; Age 19; Detroit, Michigan; Died of wounds Jan. 11, 1945.
King, Sam W., Coxswain; Age 23; Dallas, Texas; Died Jan. 8, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Marshall, William James, Jr., Signalman 2/c; Pennsylvania; Died Jan. 8, 1945; Navy Commendation Ribbon.
Martin, Ralph Eugene, Seaman 2/c; Age 18; Wichita, Kansas; Died Jan. 8, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Maxwell, Allan Arthur, Signalman 3/c; Age 20; Los Angeles, California; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Moore, Bobby Ray, Seaman 1/c; Age 19; Dallas, Texas; Died of wounds Jan. 10, 1945.
Nemeth, John Joseph, Electrician’s Mate 3/c; Pennsylvania; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Owens, Thomas Elbert, Seaman 1/c; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Died Jan. 8, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Pettit, George Edward, Jr., Seaman 1/c; Age 19; Franklin, Indiana; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Pimm, Henry George, Jr., Signalman 2/c; Age 22; New York, New York; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Ritter, Warner William, Seaman 1/c; Age 19; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Seutter, Donald John Eckard, Ship’s Cook 3/c; Age 21; Fair Haven, Minnesota; Died of wounds Jan. 21, 1945; Silver Star Medal.
Tafalla, Alfredo T., Commissary Steward; Age 44; Port Angeles, Washington; Died of wounds Jan. 9, 1945.
Wardlaw, Roy Eathen, Jr., Fireman 1/c; Age 19; Hale, Texas; Died Jan. 8, 1945.
Williams, Glenn William, Boatswain’s Mate 2/c; New Jersey; Died Jan. 8, 1945.

The Fast Response Cutter Rollin Fritch underway in the Atlantic Ocean, Oct. 24, 2016. The crew’s primary missions include search and rescue, law enforcement, and ports, waterways and coastal security. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Micallef.


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