By Burl E. Gilliland, CAPT, USNR-Retired

Ens Gilliland off North Korean coast

The 3 ships of Mine Division 54, early 1951
The fury of the war for minesweeping personnel in Korea reached its apex during 1951. It was particularly risky for sailors aboard the wood hulled minesweepers of the AMS class ships. The AMS ships were really refurbished YMS type ships of the World War II era. (For instance, the USS HERON (AMS-18) had been YMS 369 during WWII, had been "mothballed," and then had been recommissioned as an AMS at the start of the Korean War).
Day after day these minesweepers would sweep the sea lanes and harbors to make safe passageways for each of the four U. S. battleships and their entourage of several cruisers and destroyers to gain access to fire on enemy gun emplacements, supply dumps, and rail and highway routes. We routinely swept beneath the umbrella of firing from 16-inch gun mounts of the USS MISSOURI, USS IOWA,

Wonsan is 6 miles away. New Jersey BB-63 fired at will

Interdicting fire from USS Ney Jersey, BB-64
USS NEW JERSERY, and USS WISCONSIN and the 8-inch and 5-inch guns of their accompanying battle groups. (Only four U. S. battleships of the USS IOWA class were in commission at that time). Each of these surface warfare groups came, at different times to take up their positions and deal misery to the enemy. They took turns, meaning that at no time that I ever observed did more than one battleship group simultaneously occupy a firing station in a particular locale.

I was on the USS HERON (AMS-18). The group of AMS's, AM's, and DMS's were routinely busy--amid the noise, fury, and confusion—doing sweeping duty by day and patrol duty by night. The year of 1951 was characterized by a great deal of shore battery activity directed toward minesweepers that were often working close in to shore. Sister ships that I readily remember that were regularly subjected to shelling from enemy shore batteries included the

The ship ahead of us, USS Redstart, being shelled by the enemy

The enemy shore batteries on Kalma Gak Point, just east of Wonsan, is firing on the ship ahead of us. We got hit on the next pass through
wood hulled USS FIRECREST (AMS-10), USS WAXBILL (AMS 39), USS REDHEAD (AMS-34), and USS KITE (AMS-22). Steel hulled minesweeping types that we operated with included the USS REDSTART (AM-378), USS MURRELETE (AM-372), USS ENDICOTT (DMS-35), USS DOYLE (DMS-34), and several others.

On one occasion we were sweeping close in to the inner harbor at Wonsan. Our sister ship, USS FIRECREST (AMS-10) was in the lead and we were second in a line of several ships.

Enemy shore battery firing was particularly intense that morning in 1951. As enemy shells burst all around us, getting closer and closer by the second, I feared that we were going to get hit. I could see that the FIRECREST, just ahead of us, was also being "zeroed in upon." At that moment, someone yelled, "the FIRECREST has been hit." And within a second or two, I felt the jolt of our own ship, the HERON, taking a hit. We had, indeed, ventured much too close to shore. According to our bridge

A ship and the mainland viewed through "the Hole"

USS Heron, AMS-18 hit by North Korean shore batteries in Wonsan Harbor, 1951
personnel, the enemy shelling that hit the FIRECREST and the HERON came from Kalma Gak Point, a peninsular location just east of the city of Wonsan, North Korea.

All the minesweepers in the line cut their cables to their minesweep gear, left all gear in the brink, and retreated, in previously swept waters, as fast as our engines could carry us. Only the FIRECREST and the HERON were hit that day. And both hits were above water line, which was a lucky blessing. Not a single person on either ship was injured: not even by a flying splinter.

The shore munitions shells were said to be approximately 75mm's. The one that hit the FIRECREST did not explode, but, instead bored all the way through the ship at the main deck level. It went right through the forward part of the ship, starting at the starboard side, through the plywood deck of
the galley, out the port side hull, and splashed some 50 yards away into the bay. Later that morning, I could see clear through the bored hole that the big bullet had reamed.

The bullet that hit the HERON entered the wooden hull on the forward starboard side, struck and exploded in the Handy Billy (an emergency gasoline powered pump that was stowed on the inside bulkhead). The explosion, above the water level, blew a huge gash in the side of the ship and the shells detonator deflected through the bulkhead, into the galley

Sin Do Island, in the Wonsan arbor as seen through the shell hole in our side, 1951H

From front to back: ENS Vaughn; LTJG Vermilya, XO (with "Little Stinker helmet); ENS Gilliland; LTJG Roth, CO; LCDR Janeckey, COMINDIV54, aboard USS HERON (AMS-18)

and down through the galley deck, through the crew's quarters and deck below, and into the ship's magazine. It landed harmlessly on the deck of the magazine compartment. In addition to my primary duty as engineering officer, one of my collateral assignments was damage control officer. The damage control party, using the port side Handy Billy (the one that was not destroyed) to hose down the explosion area to prevent the vessel from catching on fire. The whole event was fast paced and scary.

Following protocol, the shore batteries were

immediately plastered by U.S. surface warfare ships and by rocket firings from carrier based aircraft. Our minesweep ships quickly made rendezvous with our tender, some 5 or 6 miles out near the mouth of the bay. I believe that our tender ship at that time was the USS COMSTOCK (LSD-19). Anyway, shipfitters from the tender applied patches over the shell damages, caulked, painted over the patched areas, and within an hour or so we were back streaming new minesweep gear and going about our regular routine.

The shore battery shelling occurred a few miles further in Wonsan harbor from where four other minesweepers had, a few months prior, been sunk by enemy mines. These

CO, LTJG E.S. Roth; EO, Ens. B.E. Gilliland on USS Heron, 1952 Yokosuka, Japan

Click image for larger view
This picture, taken in late 1951 on the open bridge of USS Heron.
Click here for complete list of names
sinkings included two, steel hulled, AM's, [the USS PIRATE and the USS PLEDGE] with heavy loss of the lives of a majority of their crews. One of our sister AMS's, the USS PARTRIDGE, was also sunk and, as I recall, almost all personnel aboard were lost. I believe that only 4 or 5 people survived the PARTRIDGE's sinking. We lost four minesweepers that year. I believe I recall that the fourth vessel that was lost was also an AMS, the USS MOCKING BIRD. Considering the frequency and intensity of shelling by shore battteries during the entire year of 1951, we were fortunate, indeed, to incur so few hits from North Korean shore gunners.

Continue to Dozo, Mascot of USS Heron

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Photographs by Burl Gilliland, Ens, USNR

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