October, 2016, is the 72nd anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, thought to be the largest decisive naval battle in history. For Battleship Cove, this battle was momentous, and through the valiant actions of the US Navy and the crew of the USS Massachusetts, we are able to reflect back on the battles with a sense of pride and respect.
On October 20, 1944, US forces led by General Douglas MacArthur, landed on Lyete Island in the Philippines in a strategic move by the Allies. This move was aimed at cutting of Japan from the countries it occupied and the resources it claimed in Southeast Asia, specifically oil supplies,
At the invasion, MacArthur declared, "People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil." This move prompted the Imperial Japanese Navy and the Allied forces in the area to engage in the most decisive naval battle of World War II.
On the USS Massachusetts, a South Dakota-class battleship, sailors stood by along with other US naval vessels while ground troops invaded, ready and prepared to take action when needed. The USS Massachusetts was, at this point, part of Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet, and during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, placed in Task Group 38.3 and Task Group 34.
In retaliation, and in an attempt to repel the land invasion, the Imperial Japanese Navy initiated a plan which required nearly all of their naval vessels - a plan, which if successful, would lure the Allied forces away from the strategically placed islands of Leyte, Luzon, and Samar. The Japanese by this point had lost most of their air strength in the region from the series of raids against Formosa and Ryukyu Islands by Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet earlier in the month.
The nuts and bolts of the Japanese plan on October 23rd was to have a Northern Force of Japanese ships lure American forces away from Leyte as a decoy, while two other forces (Central and Southern) would advance on Leyte from the west and south. The Japanese plan began unraveling when the Central Force was spotted and ambushed by submarines on the 23rd.
On the 24th, when the Northern Force was discovered, Admiral Halsey and his Third Fleet moved to pursue them, seeing the force as a larger and more dangerous threat. He did not want to separate the fleet and thin them out. This shift in attention led to the Central Force being able to proceed through the San Bernardino Strait to the eastern side of the island by the next morning, October 25th.
The Seventh Fleet, under Admiral Kinkaid took over tor the Third Fleet against the Central Force and were able to launch 450 aircraft, inflicting immense damage on the Central Force. The force quickly turned and fled back through the Strait. The Southern Force also suffered heavy losses from Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet, and turned back to head west. The USS Massachusetts, as party of the Third Fleet, was placed on the eastern side of Luzon, and tasked with searching that side of the island for Japanese forces. While Task Groups 38.2 and 38.4 engaged with the Central Force off of the San Bernardino Strait, the battleship attempted to join them, but were engaged in a vicious air attack from the Japanese. From Frank "Frenchie" Letourneau's 2011 memoir, "A Gunner on a Battleship in WWII his diary entry reads, "October 24, 1944 - Today our planes hit the central party of the Philippines. We went to air attack, stayed there until 1200 hours the next day. All day long, dive bombers and fighters attacked us. One Jap kamikaze fighter plane got a direct hit on the carrier USS Princeton, which was 6000 yards off our starboard stern. She had to be sunk later by our planes. Frenchie Letourneau was a crewmember of the USS Massachusetts from 1942 until 1945.
From October 24th through the 26th, the USS MASSACHUSETTS was engaged in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. On October 26th, Frenchie writes, “Launched planes in the morning to attack Jap ships that had been damaged by our carrier planes. All day long, our planes hit them. And again the next day.” During this battle and the subsequent air attacks, the USS MASSACHUSETTS suffered no losses or damage, all in part to the highly trained and highly skilled crew. The close of the battle found all three forces turning tail in defeat. The Imperial Japanese Navy suffered massive losses during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, so much so that many historians agree that Leyte Gulf was the largest naval battle ever fought. Many of their ships and aircraft were lost, and the additional loss of fuel resources permanently debilitated what was left of their navy. The Imperial Japanese Navy never returned to full force after Leyte Gulf, and the balance of power had shifted significantly towards the Allied Forces.
Breaking these battles down by the numbers, the United States had 232 ships involved, the Japanese had 53. The United States had approximately 1500 aircraft, while the Japanese had approximately 300. The Allied Powers lost approximately 3,000 men, the Japanese lost approximately 10,500. It is easy to see how this battle turned the tides of war against the Japanese. Interestingly, Leyte Gulf was the first instance of organized Kamikaze attacks. Labeled the Special Attack Force, these suicide attacks started on October 25th, during the ending phase of the battle between the Southern Force and Kinkaid’s Seventh Fleet. The Escort Carrier the USS ST. LO was destroyed by these attacks. After the destruction of many of their aircraft and pilots in earlier battles, the Japanese used what little resources they had left – obsolete aircraft and inexperienced pilots. On October 26th, kamikazes hit 7 aircraft carriers, and 40 other ships. This resulted in 5 sunk, 23 heavily damaged, 12 moderately damaged. The use and escalation of kamikaze attacks resulted in highly unanticipated damage to the US Navy, but also led to the development of tactics and weapons designed to repel kamikaze attacks. Patrols increased, gunners fired their guns into the sea near sea-level planes in order to swamp them, and ships began using proximity fuses on their anti-aircraft shells.
These adjustments to defend against kamikaze warfare are visible on the USS MASSACHUSETTS, which began using proximity fuses on their 5” /38 caliber guns, and increased the amount of 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns.
Battleship Cove’s USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. DD850 is a Gearing class Destroyer in a Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) 1 configuration that represents her 1967-1973 Vietnam War era appearance. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. was named after Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., a naval aviator and son of the former Ambassador to Britain, Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., and older brother of future President John F. Kennedy. The Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. would serve the US Navy from December 1945 until July 1973. Among the highlights of her service are two combat engagement stars during the Korean War, host to President John F. Kennedy and his party for the 1962 America’s Cup Race, the blockade of Cuba and boarding of the Soviet Chartered Marcula during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and as a member of the afloat recovery teams for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo NASA space missions.
In the early 1970s, Battleship Cove in Fall River, MA was looking to add to its collection of Naval vessels that already included the Battleship Massachusetts and submarine Lionfish. Due to damage sustained to the Newport Naval Station based Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the Navy planned on retiring the ship in July 1973. It was a fit that made sense since DD850 was built in MA, was moored only around the corner from Fall River, MA to ensure a cheap towing cost, and was named after a prominent MA citizen from a famed family. Battleship Cove began interaction with the Navy to begin transfer of the ship.
However, all was not easy as a thin hulled Destroyer had never been preserved before, and costs for maintenance would need to be reviewed. While the museum reviewed the proposal and logistics costs of acquiring the destroyer, the sister destroyers of the active Navy removed much equipment. After months of negotiations the US Navy finally communicated if the museum didn’t take the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. soon, tugs were going to bring her to Philadelphia, PA in preparation for a scrap sale. At the last minute, Battleship Cove with the support of Senator Ted Kennedy, signed the agreement to bring DD850 to Fall River, MA.
On a cold day in January 1974, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., with snow on her decks, was towed to Battleship Cove in Fall River to begin life as a museum ship.
With weathered decks, faded paint, and many spaces empty of equipment, the museum had a big challenge to say the least. During her darkest time, a brilliant idea arose to a Board of Director of Battleship Cove named Edward Ward. Though he never served himself, he had a great love for destroyers and was the catalyst for the museum to acquire Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. His idea was to provide volunteer labor in the form of destroyer veterans and their families to restore Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.
It started slow at first in 1976 with only a few members, but the volunteer operated restoration program that introduced the term “Field Days” to the museum fleet would grow to become one of the leading examples nation-wide of how volunteer labor can support and preserve historic assets.
Over many decades, the volunteer crew continuously painted, replaced corroded metal, provided electrical and plumbing vocations, and worked to improve the ship’s appearance. By 2001, the main focus of the crew changed. It was time to replace and install the tons of missing equipment from the ship to present the active-duty time-frame of the destroyer and show what life was like on a ship during the Vietnam War era. Volunteers from across the country sought out old military assets in warehouses and mothball fleets. Teams went to New Mexico, Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and other localities to remove equipment from retired ships of the same vintage and bring them back to Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Acquisitions of the DASH drone helicopter, office furniture, Radio equipment, SONAR and RADAR consoles, and engineering equipment were all undertaken.
The monthly field day volunteer program has led to the installation of missing equipment and restoration of the majority of the ship. Veterans from WW2 to present day sailors have joined with dedicated civilians, Massachusetts, Maritime Academy sailors, US Naval Sea Cadets, Boy and Girl Scouts, and Naval Academy Prep School students to maintain the ship and exhibits.
This past year, the field day events have had over 80 attendees each, the volunteer crew negotiated the equipment removal of items from a Mexican destroyer of the same type as Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., and recovered a SPS-29 RADAR suite from an old destroyer. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. now has a complete set of weapons, sensors, and systems as she did during her active service days during the Cold War.
However, this mission is not complete as further restoration and upkeep must always be undertaken. As this article is being read, the Chief Petty Officer’s pantry, the ship’s laundry, and the Windlass equipment room are all being restored by a dedicated group of volunteers who believe in the importance and history of this destroyer museum.
Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. is the last surviving Destroyer built in the State of Massachusetts, the last US Navy configured Gearing class Destroyer in the world , and proudly rests as a museum and memorial to all those who served aboard Destroyers in the US Navy. She also reflects and honors our service personnel who served during the Cold War in the challenging 1960s and 1970s. With the Official Commonwealth of Massachusetts Korean and Vietnam War Memorial to our fallen servicemen aboard, her mission is as important as her active-duty service.
If you are interested in helping to preserve this Historic National Landmarks, please visit http://battleshipcove.org/donate-2/.