It was a privilege to learn about important World War II naval history from my brother in law, William L’Heureux, 92, who lives in Longmeadow, Mass. We were fortunate to hear, first hand, about his participation in World War II, during his recent visit to Maine.
He shared with us a stack of saved photographs kept from the time he served in the US Navy, during and after World War II. Moreover, his service aboard the USS Panamint AGC-13, Flagship 13, during 1945, was a conversation loaded with accounts of witnessing historic events. Because my husband Richard is a retired US Navy Master Chief and a Vietnam War veteran, he and his brother shared their rare experiences about serving on several different ships.
My brother in law or “Uncle Bill”, was born in Sanford. He grew up speaking French at home with his parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and four siblings. In fact, he continues to speak fluent French whenever he has an opportunity to do so. As a matter of fact, he’s always on the look out to find French books to read. At the time of our September 2018 visit, he had just finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man in the Sea”, in French.
In 1945, Bill was a sailor stationed aboard the USS Panamint. In fact, the ship was the flagship of Rear Admiral Lawrence F. Reifsnider, Commander Amphibious Group 4. It was the Flagship that participated in the Battle of Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II. The battle to invade Okinawa began on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. Additionally, the Panamint was also the flagship that participated in the surrender of Northern Japan. Bill was stationed on the ship during these events.
During combat, the Panamint was among ships that were subjected to suicide Kamikaze attacks launched by the Japanese. On May 6, 1945, a Kamikaze approached the Panamint from the starboard beam. Panamint and her sister ships began anti-aircraft firing that proved effective. The attacking pilot overshot Panamint, splashing 1500 yards off her port bow. Nevertheless, other sister ships in the fleet incurred heavy damage and loss of life during a series of attacks during this assault. Bill has a vivid recollection of the attack. “I recall saying to myself at the time, ‘it seems that dying is going to be easy’. But then, the airplane overshot its target.”
Having been spared any direct hits by Kamikaze attacks or torpedoes, might be the reason the Panamint had the nickname, the “The Lucky 13”.
Another witnessed event happened when the famous war journalist Ernie Pyle was transported to the Battle of Okinawa, on board the Panamint. Tragically, Pyle was killed on April 18, 1945, in Okinawa. A decades long mystery involved the whereabouts of a photograph taken of Pyle after he was killed. Two prints were kept as souvenirs by veterans who served aboard Panamint. They showed up again in 2008 and were given to the Newseum, in Washington.
Included in the package of World War II memorabilia was documentation about the Panamint’s February 5, 1945 equator crossing. It’s a tradition for Navy personnel to conduct initiation ceremonies for the sailors and crews during this special oceanic crossing. A highly organized series of rituals are performed in the presence of “Neptunis Rex” (King Neptune). Documentation about the crossings are recorded in the Navy personnel’s official military service records. Most of the rituals are directed to personnel who are “green backs”, meaning, their first equator crossing. “For the most part, the USS Panamint’s crew were as green and as pale a lot of lubberly pollywogs as ever fouled a line,” is how the February 5th crossing was reported in the ship’s program booklet.
A cruise book photograph documents the return of prisoner of war Lt. Col. James Devereaux, He was a defender of The Battle of Wake Island, during attacks that occurred simultaneously during the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor.
USS Panamint (AGC-13) was an amphibious force command ship named after the Panamint mountain range in California. She was a floating command post with advanced communications equipment to be used by the amphibious forces and landing force commanders during large-scale operations.
This historic veterans conversation with my brother in law and a selection his personal memorabilia will be included with the information being archived about Franco-American veterans at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn Campus (USM LAC), in the Franco-American Collection. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities supported this special collection of Franco-American veterans histories.
Contact https://usm.maine.edu/franco or call 207-753-6545 for more information.
Merci. Thank you William L’Heureux and Richard L’Heureux, for your service to the US Navy. A special salute to my husband Richard. “Welcome Home!”.