The USS Lassen had one job: to deliver ammunition. It delivered it all over the South Pacific, sailing with just about every fighting ship in the theater at one time or another.
“We carried between 10,000 and 14,000 tons of ammunition. We carried practically every kind of ammunition there was,” Lorne Hickok said.
“We carried torpedoes and we carried depth charges. We carried 16-inch projectiles, and powder, and 8-inch, 4-inch and 3-inch and 40-millimeter” shells.
Hickok enlisted in the Navy from his hometown of Atkinson, Neb. His father had been gassed in World War I, and he didn’t want to be drafted.
By January 1943, he was leaving San Francisco on the USS Lassen. An old salt told him: If you get sick in the swells of Alcatraz, you’ll never be sick again.
“And I got sick,” Hickok said. The churning water could suck under a box thrown from a ship and pull it to the bottom. Hickok worked through the nausea, and he never was seasick again.
The Lassen replenished fighting ships in the Marshall Islands, the Palau Islands, at Okinawa and other major campaigns. It earned three battle stars and fended off an enemy air attack.
Loading and unloading ammunition was back-breaking work. Men used winches when it came out of the hold, but otherwise they moved it by hand and will. Hickok learned to operate the winch, perhaps the only task that he did alone. “I used the word ‘I’ once, and that’s probably the only time you’ll hear me use it. The rest of the time, it was always ‘we.’”
At first, the Lassen transported ammunition between island ports and bases. As the war progressed, the Navy needed a quicker way to rearm. So they did it on the move, in the middle of the ocean. Carriers and battleships pulled up along the Lassen’s port side; light cruisers, destroyers and others on the starboard side. Lassen’s crew rearmed ships on both sides at once.
It went something like this: As a ship pulled alongside, sailors from both ships swung balls attached to cables over their heads, like throwing a lasso. Sailors from the opposite ship caught the cables and secured them. The Lassen’s crew hauled up the ammunition, attached it to baskets on the cables and sailors on the opposite ship unloaded it.
“The navigators and the helmsmen on our ship and the fighting ships were unbelievable. They knew what they were doing, and if those ships had ever hit together, that would have been it.”
The technique sped up the Allied advance in the Pacific. Lassen’s crew moved ammunition from dawn to dusk, between four-hour watches. Hundreds of tons went to a single ship, and there was always a line of ships waiting, one right after the other.
“I’ve seen men so tired they’d go to sleep on top of the hatches. Sometime during the night they’d blow the stack and you could see where every guy was laying. They had black all over them,” Hickok said. “It didn’t even wake them up.”
In one day, the crew passed 728 tons of ammunition to the USS Missouri alone. Admiral William “Bull” Halsey was so impressed, he sent the crew a shipment of ice cream, candy bars and cookies. The Lassen’s paymaster — a tall, slim guy — tried to sell it to the sailors instead of just passing it out. Halsey got wind and sent a destroyer to pick up the paymaster. It was the last the sailors saw of him.
“That kind of proves: Don’t mess with the admiral,” Hickok said.
When the Lassen was in a convoy, it was always in the middle. The Japanese looked for ammunition ships, essentially floating bombs. Lassen men listened to Tokyo Rose — English-speaking women who broadcast Japanese propaganda over the radio. “She would tell names and numbers of ships that were in the convoy. Where she got her information, I don’t know. But nine times out of 10, she was right,” Hickok said.
On June 5, 1945, the convoy left the Lassen alone in the Pacific.
Hickok had just come off watch. It was about midnight and the wind started, gently at first, then harder and harder. Soon the gusts were hitting 130 to 150 miles per hour.
It takes a 50-degree roll to capsize a ship, Hickok said. The Lassen was rolling between 39 and 43 degrees. The life rafts and other machinery slid overboard, ammunition broke loose below, and sailors scrambled to secure it.
A 500-pound bomb started to sizzle. There were no flames or a fire, but it was smoking and glowing red.
“And that’s when the Third Fleet left us. When an ammunition ship gets a fire, they don’t want to be near it.”
Sailors hauled that bomb by hand and chain block up through the manways. They got it to the main deck, up a few ladders to the fan tail. “People were standing by to do anything they could. When you had a fire on an ammunition ship, you didn’t have to ask for volunteers, because everyone knew what could happen.”
The Lassen stayed on course. Forty-eight hours later, the convoy caught up, surprised to see the ship in one piece.
Hickok likes to think of all those men sometimes, all those sailors on the Lassen, on the ships that pulled up alongside it. It took complete cooperation to move all that fire power. Even the skipper refused to wear his cap. The men had work to do, and he didn’t want them jumping up to salute him every time he walked by.
“And he didn’t care how we looked. He said we weren’t there to look pretty. We were there to move ammunition.”
Reading the stories of other veterans, Hickok wonders if the soldiers or airmen or Marines ever realized where it all came from: the fuel, the bombs, the bullets to win a war.
For Hickok, the contributions of the USS Lassen can be summed up in two words: