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

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 arrived and

Underway and sweeping near Chongjin, North Korea
continued to pound the enemy location using napalm and other impressive ordinance.

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, USNR

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