|Comanche 202 Foundation|
By Andrea Howry
A 92-year-old Coast Guard veteran who fought in the Battle of Tarawa during World War II stepped back in time this month when he toured the modern-day version of the vessels that took him to the Gilbert Islands more than 70 years ago.
“They’re radically different,” said George Mills, who served as a boatswain’s mate 2nd class during World War II. “What a wonderful experience!”
The tour of the U.S. Army Vessel Monterrey, a Landing Craft Utility (LCU) 2000 homeported at Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC) Port Hueneme, was provided by Staff Sgt. Ted Lahti, chief mate of the vessel, and Chief Warrant Officer 2 Paul Hogan. Both are with the Army’s 481st Transportation Company (Heavy Boat), a tenant command on base that keeps four LCUs in the port.
Even though it’s 20 years old, the Monterrey is light years ahead of the Landing Ship, Tank (LST) Mills sailed in 1942 and 1943 from its launch in Seneca, Ill., down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, Alaska, and on to the Pacific Theater.
But in a conversation with Hogan, the men agreed that while the metals in the hull change, the basics of sailing stay the same. There’s still a compass and a ship’s wheel.
And when it comes to these landing ships, there’s still bulk.
“LST: Long Slow Target,” Mills laughed, and Lahti agreed.
With Mills on the tour was his wife, Robin, and friend Chris Collins of Oxnard. A former corpsman in the Coast Guard, it was Collins who got Mills to open up about his time in World War II and who arranged the tour for the Burbank couple on Friday, Nov. 7.
That was just a few days short of the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa, where more than 6,000 perished between Nov. 20 and Nov. 23, 1943, including more than 1,600 Americans. It was a crucial victory for the United States, which had sent 35,000 to fight in the Gilbert Islands, a stronghold that would lead the way to victories in the Marshall Islands.
Mills, just 20 years old at the time, sailed to the Gilbert Islands in the LST, then piloted Higgins boats filled with Marines to Tarawa. The United States had not been expecting the strong defense against the amphibious landings, and losses were heavy.
“Those poor Marines,” Mills recalled. “They were so nervous.”
Collins pointed out the danger Mills faced in those Higgins boats.
“The Coasties were driving those boats,” he said. “They were the target.”
Mills much preferred talking about the earlier days of LST-205, about sailing down the Mississippi and finding bottles of booze “Rosie the Riveter” and her cohorts had hidden for the young men they knew would be going off to war.
He also enjoyed hearing the stories about today’s ships.
He was astonished to learn the Monterrey would soon be getting satellite television. He was equally astonished to see a red sign saying “port” to the left of the ship’s wheel and a green sign saying “starboard” to the right.
“It’s required because of the FNs (Foreign Nationals) that serve on board,” Lahti explained.
And Mills chuckled when he learned the Monterrey has auto pilot.
“We didn’t have that,” he said.
As the tour wrapped up, Lahti and Hogan surprised the visitors with another modern-day convenience: MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). One was Chili with Beans, another was Penne with Vegetable Sausage Crumble in a Spicy Tomato Sauce.
Mills said he appreciated the tour, but Lahti said he and Hogan were the real winners that day.
“This is an honor,” Lahti said.