THE FOLLOWING ACTION TOOK PLACE IN WONSAN HARBOR, SOUTH KOREA, IN OCTOBER OF 1950. A TEAM OF U.S. NAVY FROGMEN ALONG WITH A SQUADRON OF NAVY MINE SWEEPS WAS ENGAGED IN CLEARING WONSAN HARBOR OF HORNED SCULLY MINES.
In early October 1950, team members of Naval Underwater Demolition Team 3 were still working like beavers. American forces had invaded the smelly South Korean port of Inchon almost a month ago.
The Team, after doing some small recons prior to the invasion, placing directional buoys in the channels, placing swimmers in the water to assist troops ashore and patrolling in our LCPR, had been busy since then in harbor clean up and working on the dry docks.
In the last few days, the Team had gone to work on the damaged gates of the giant dry-dock. Much underwater work was required and the Army engineers, with whom the responsibility lay, were just a bit hesitant, being dry-land creatures.
Word suddenly came down for the Team to saddle-up. A mission was in the making.
After boarding the USS Wantuck (APD 125), you held on tight because at flank speed, the old ship’s rivets would rattle like loose teeth in an East Texas hound dog.
Our destination was Wonsan, which lay on the opposite coast. The run would take us around the boot of the peninsula, then north up the East Coast to Wonsan harbor.
The objective was to clear the harbor of horn scully mines. This minefield, which luckily was discovered in time, had held up an anticipated United Nations invasion of the port. The idea was to shoot a force across the peninsula to intercept the fleeing North Koreans who were running before the American forces pushing up from Inchon. Discovering the minefield had stopped the operation cold.
The Wantuck arrived on station at dawn the next day. First thing on the agenda was to recon the harbor and see what we were up against.
The reconnaissance that followed was to be the only combat drop and pick-up that was used by UDT in Korea that I’m aware of. This particular method of drop and pick-up was used exclusively by Frogmen units both in WW 2 and Korea - a high-speed LCPR dropped the men into the ocean, under fire, outside the breaker lines. Then after completion of the mission, picked them up at high-speed with an arm snatch.
The recon showed us the mines; all horn-scully and moored three or four feet beneath the surface. What proved more important, however, was learning the futility of wearing our rubber frog-suits. It had always been a problem to quick-dive with the air-buoyant suits, and with enemy small arms fire zipping by your head, this problem could prove fatal in a hurry.
For the duration of the mission, although October snows had covered the adjacent landscape, Team members swam the icy water of Wonsan Harbor dressed only in Uncle Sam’s long-johns, which were normally worn under the rubber suits - and they retained body heat surprisingly well.
The method of operation was to form skirmish lines of swimmers and sweep a section, buoying the mines as they were found.
A different squad detached the mines from their mooring cables, and I assume they used cutters. When the mines surfaced, they were towed out of the area and exploded by machine gun or rifle fire.
This very slow and extremely dangerous procedure may very well be the only sea lanes ever cleared by hand, and you may very well ask, “Why were you guys doing it – thought that’s what mine sweeps were for”?
At that time, all mine sweep squadrons were on station in Japan (or adjacent areas), and although they had been called for and were on the way, they would not arrive for several days. An entire invasion fleet was being held up and we were only hours away – we got the job…
By the end of the second day, the harbor was clear. Word had been flashed to the fleet to send the troops in the following morning.
At 5 am on 12 October, UDT had three LCPR boats rechecking the harbor waters as troops began flooding from troop ships into landing craft. To our astonishment, we found mines all over the harbor again. Evidently, the enemy had added additional mines during the night from fishing sloops, which had been hidden in secret in-lets around the area.
Bitter words were exchanged, I’m sure, as impatient commanders reloaded their troops on the troop ships.
Frustrated Frogmen returned to the icy water and began extracting the mines again, working so long in the cold water that many Team members carry the ache even today.
By noon on this day, the 12th, the wind had risen and was howling across the harbor causing white caps to fly and creating four-foot ground swells. This freezing wind and ground swells created havoc with our efforts.
Suddenly all swimmers were recalled to the LCPR boat. We could not imagine the reason, but as we climbed aboard the boat, we cheered like crazy as we saw a squadron of US mine sweeps steaming into the harbor. Their 40’s were spraying the shoreline and battle pennants were flapping in the wind. It was a beautiful sight.
As we watched from the LCPR, the lead sweep suddenly exploded in a geyser of spray, then, seconds later a second sweep hit a mine. As enemy shore batteries opened up on the sinking ships, our boat commander ordered flank speed. Ignoring the possibility of our boat hitting a mine, we raced across the harbor to the stricken vessels to rescue crewmembers.
As U.S. Destroyers steamed in close and opened up on the shore batteries, UDT Team members went into the icy water to rescue crewmembers that were mostly wounded and leaping from the sinking ships.
This dash through an enemy mine field and the rescuing of American sailors was rewarded later by Bronze Stars for all who participated. (22 Frogmen received the award).
After the ships sank and the crewmembers were secured – Team members went back into the water and finished clearing the harbor.
Unit LCPR’S with underwater mufflers, twin 30’s and spotlights patrolled the harbor through the dark night of the 12th. Three enemy fishing sloops, which were caught trying to re-mine the harbor, were sent to the bottom in blinding flashes of machine gun fire.
The saga ended on the following morning as our troops finally stormed ashore, only to find that a South Korean unit, advancing over land, had taken the port the day before…
During the rescue operation a great mystery evolved when several of our guys went aboard the sinking ships to throw men off who were too wounded to go over the side by themselves.
One of our guys who went aboard one of the sinking ships (the Pledge); stumbled over a camera that had been dropped by some crewman. He slung the camera over his shoulder and brought it back to our ship. After all the wounded were secure we went back into the water and finished clearing the mines from the harbor.
Later when we returned to Japan the man remembered the camera and sent the film to be developed. When the pictures came back everyone was mystified at the pictures.
We mostly agreed, the photographer took one picture showing the USS Pirate on his starboard beam – he rolled the film and took a second shot catching the Pirate just as she hit a mine. Just a few seconds later the photographer’s ship (USS Pledge) hit a mine and he dropped the camera.
Of the missing or dead sailors from these two vessels (I read someplace the number was 12) – Frogmen from Team 3, using SCUBA gear, dived on the wreckage. We understand this was the first and only time SCUBA was used in the Korean War. I’ve never heard a report of any bodies being recovered (however bodies were seen on the dive). Among old Frogmen who were there the debate is still alive whether the photographer who took the attached pictures was among the missing…
Top Photo shows the USS Pirate on the starboard beam.
Second shows the Pirate hitting a mine and blowing up.
Seconds later the photographer’s own vessel, Pledge, hit
A mine. Debate over the photographer and whether he is
among the missing is still ongoing…(after more than 50 years).
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