MINESWEEPING IN WONSAN HARBOR, 1950--1952By
Gilliland, CAPT, USNR Retired
This represents one account of many
incidents I experienced while serving aboard the minesweeper,
USS HERON (AMS-18), during the Korean War. I recall it happening
some time during 1951. I was an officer with the rank of Ensign.
The ship had a complement of 4 officers and 28 enlisted men.
We operated in waters all around the Korean peninsula, from
the Hungnam and Chongjin area on the Northeast Korean coast
(facing the Sea of Japan) to Inchon on the Northwest Korean
coast (facing the Yellow Sea). The lion's share of our work
occurred in the vast outer and inner Wonsan harbor and greater
Bay of the entire Wonsan-Hungnam area.
The incident reported here
happened just about sunset on the lee side of a very small island
inside the Wonsan harbor. I believe we called the island, Rei
To (pronounced rye tow). Rei To was routinely occupied
Taken about 1 second after the mine was exploded with 50 cal fire.
ENS Gilliland, The EO (Engineering Officer). The helmet is now
at snorkel depth. I lost it over the side later.
and used by the U. S. Marines as an observation point and a
spotter location for interdiction fire in support of U. S. surface
warfare ships and for fighter-bomber raids from the U. S. Air
Force and aircraft from U. S. aircraft carriers. Those carriers
operated just off the coast, out of sight from land, within
minutes of access to the battle areas and rail and transportation
hubs that supplied the North Korean military forces.
The wartime routine of the minesweeping fleet involved sweeping
the entire harbor area during daylight hours and pulling patrol
duty during nights to prevent the North
Koreans from re-mining the sea
lanes and to help U.S. forces maintain the maritime naval blockade
of the peninsula. The three ships that comprised my particular
division were the USS HERON (AMS-18), and two sister ships, USS
FIRECREST (AMS-10), and USS WAXBILL (AMS-39). Several other divisions
of the minesweeping fleet included a large assortment of AMS's,
AMs, and even a few DMSs (Destroyer/minesweepers).
USS Firecrest, AMS-10. Lead ship in MINDIV54
This mine was right under our nose. Korea 1951
We were at our battle stations
most of the time. Needless to say, we were a constantly weary
bunch. Because of the persistent danger of unswept mines exploding
underneath the vessel, the crew could not stay underneath any
overhead. (The reason for this rule was that whenever a mine explodes
underneath a vessel, everyone standing beneath an overhead would
usually die as a result of a broken neck). So, day after day,
in all sorts of weather, the whole crew, except for two galley
personnel, was required to be out in the open during minesweeping
operations. Our meals consisted mainly of soup and sandwiches
and/or chili and crackers, brought to us on the open decks outside.
We would eat that fare while wearing our life jackets and battle
gear, including keeping our steel battle helmets on at all times.
That brings us to the value
of our getting an occasional respite, from minesweeping and/or
patrol duties, by anchoring in the lee of an island like Rei To
in order to rest and enjoy a relaxing dinner meal inside in our
regular messing facilities. On one such occasion, we were unaware
that during that very day, while we were out sweeping, the North
Koreans recaptured Rei To and sent the U. S. Marines scurrying.
Unfortunately for us, nobody communicated to us that the island
was now in hostile hands. So there we were, four or five AMSs,
anchored, like sitting ducks, some 3000 yards from an enemy held
island. With our main engines shut down, we were just settling
down to eat our evening meal when the enemy opened fire with some
sort of small guns. I would guess that they were firing something
like 50 caliber machine guns, plus one or two weapons similar
to our 20-mm guns.
ENS Burl Gilliland entering Sasebo harbor following minesweeping
operations in North Korea, 1951
A mine exploding in the bay at Wonsan. USS Firecrest AMS 10 bagged
this potent baby at about 250 yards. A charge of about 1000 lbs
of TNT . . . the column of water rose to about 300'.
As the bullets whizzed through our rigging and splashed all about
us, we simultaneously received assistance from U. S. warships
that were close by. All of our minesweepers sounded general quarters,
rapidly started main engines, and slipped anchors. (Released our
anchors and got underway without them. I suppose those anchors
are still embedded in the muddy bottom of Wonsan Harbor today).
The primary relief that caused the enemy to cease fire came from
the cruiser, USS MANCHESTER. That ship had observed the enemy
shelling us. And she was steaming at flank speed toward Rei To
and firing her six forward main batteries into the enemy's gun
positions. That meant that
continued to pound the enemy location using napalm and other impressive
the MANCHESTER was also firing
continuously directly over our ship. I remember, as I was stood
on the main deck, the terrific impact of the concussions from
MANCHESTER's main batteries whose shells were barely skimming
over our ship's super structure. For a short while the enemy's
shore batteries started firing at the MANCHESTER instead of at
us. That took the heat off us. But the cruiser effectively silenced
the enemy's shore batteries before the U.S. Navy jet fighters
Underway and sweeping near Chongjin, North Korea
Someone ahead just cut a mine. Wonsan Harbor, 1951
The whole experience lasted only a
few moments, but I remember it well. In seagoing lingo, We
got the hell out of there. And, to the best of my recollection,
that was the very last time we anchored in the lee of Rei To.
And I don't think any of us ever got an opportunity to thank
the people on the USS MANCHESTER, which just happened to be
conveniently on station in our vicinity that evening.
A moored mine that has been cut 1951
Moored type mine cut by USS Firecrest AMS 10, May 1951
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Photographs by Burl Gilliland, Ens,
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