Thursday, January 13, 2022

LST 333's Rendezvous with War: Loss of a Norfolk Ship

By CAPT Alexander Monroe, USN (Ret.)
HRNM Docent and Contributing Writer

On October 15, 1942, at 7:30 AM, Mrs. Cornelius Kneeburg, wife of the Master of the Shipfitters and Welders Shop of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY), smashed a bottle of champagne across the bow of the newly-constructed Tank Landing Ship LST 333, and the ship slid down the ways of NNSY, into the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia. Towed to the St. Helena Annex of the yard for outfitting and receiving its first crew, it was the first of twenty of such “curious appearing ships” built and sent to war by the yard. Barely eight months later, it was the first of the novel ships lost to enemy action.[1] They sailed to landing beaches in the Atlantic, Mediterranean Sea, and Pacific, where their crews performed admirably, contributing significantly to Allied victory.
Mrs. Cornelius Kneeburg, wife of the Master of the Shipfitters and Welders Shops of Norfolk Naval Shipyard, smashes a bottle of champagne of the bow of LST 333 on October 15, 1942, as the Flag Lieutenant of the yard watches. (NNSY photo 3994/42)
The LST was a new class of ship “of which there was no counterpart in the U.S. Navy.” It was developed hurriedly and put into service to meet the exigencies of a new type of operations: Amphibious Warfare.[2] Amphibious warfare required that “landings on enemy beaches have to be made if the war was to be taken to our foes.” These shallow draft vessels would be “capable of running up on a beach, opening bow doors and depositing men and machines directly on the land.” After an early 1942 meeting of various shipyard staffs wherein allocation of construction tasking was formulated, the Secretary of the Navy ordered twenty ships from NNSY on May 19, 1942. Over 1,000 were built, many at sites on inland rivers known as “cornfield shipyards.” Transit to open sea along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers provided initial training for life at sea.[3]
LST 333 is launched from Builder’s way 1 at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard on October 15, 1942, with a tug standing by in the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River. (NNSY photo 4003)
LST 333 was towed to the yard annex to be outfitted for sea and receive a crew for intense training. Following various trials, the ship was delivered to the fleet. On November 20, 1942, it was commissioned USS LST 333, under the command of Lieutenant Paul O. Krahenbuhl, a former Chief Boatswain’s Mate. Four days after commencement of the invasion of North Africa known as Operation Torch and shakedown at Camp Bradford (a part of what is now Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek/Fort Story), the ship left for Africa. Its crew would prepare for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. By May 6, 1943, the ship was berthed at the Advanced Amphibious Training Base Arzew, Algeria. Motor Machinist’s Mate Harvey R. Alexander recalled that, “we met practically no resistance and set up a naval repair and supply base in preparation for the later invasion of Sicily.”[4] Taking the island would provide a foothold for later operations in continental Europe.
LST 333 underway for pre-commissioning trials in the Elizabeth River near Norfolk, Virginia, on November 17, 1942.  (NNSY photo 4173/42)
In mid-June 1943, LST 333 joined Convoy Elastic from Arzew to Bizerte, Tunisia. It had been modified to enable carrying pontoons on either side of the ship, permitting the transfer ashore of equipment when the area inshore of the beaching point was too deep. U-593, built at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and commanded by Oberleutnant Gerd Kelbling, concurrently left Italy on June 13, 1943, for its eleventh war patrol. The skipper had destroyed 43,216 tons of allied shipping since March 1942.
Lieutenant Paul O. Krahenbuhl reads orders placing USS LST 333 in commission on November 20, 1942, with Rear Admiral Felix Gygax, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, standing behind him. (NNSY)
The U-593 CO reported in his ship’s war diary that at 9:30 PM on June 22, 1943, near Cape Corbelin, Algeria, he fired three torpedoes at two targets that he assumed were merchant tankers.[5] These torpedoes hit both LST 333 and 387, and LT Krahenbuhl’s subsequent letter reported the time of the attack as 7:19 PM, just after sunset and under clear skies. The ship was steaming on course 080 (T), 6 ½ knots and was hit in the starboard quarter.[6] Blown back to the bridge frame and dazed by the explosion’s force, Krahenbuhl understood the serious injuries to his ship that had rendered it powerless and rudderless. Though holed and taking on water, it was beached. When the dead and wounded had been evacuated, an unsuccessful attempt to salvage it was made, and Krahenbuhl brought his crew ashore.[7] Oberleutnant Kelbling and his boat escaped by evasive maneuvering and ended his 11th patrol in Toulon, France, ten days later. His crew used all torpedoes and 9,408 additional tons of shipping were added to his record. Kelbling was awarded the Knight’s Cross on August 19th, 1943.[8]

Gerd Kelbling’s success as a U-boat commander ended on December 13, 1943, northeast of Bougie, Algeria. His boat had torpedoed HMS Holcombe (L 56) and HMS Tynedale (L 96) on the 12th. It was sighted and attacked by a Wellington aircraft from RAF 36 Squadron B, whose pilot radioed USS Wainwright (DD 419) and HMS Calpe (L 71). They successfully forced Kelbling and his entire crew to surface, abandon, and scuttle the boat. The U-boat’s crew spent the remainder of the war in a Canadian POW camp and returned to Germany in 1947.[9]

Nineteen LSTs followed USS LST 333 from the builder’s ways at NNSY. They served in all areas of hostilities. Four were transferred to the United Kingdom. Two more were lost to enemy action and one to grounding. Two were lost in the Mediterranean and one in the Pacific near New Georgia Island. Ten were involved in Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. The LST, more than any class of U.S. Navy ship, performed well in a variety of operations, from transporting enemy prisoners of war away from the battlefield to transporting medical surgical units to invasion sites.[10] Most were decommissioned and broken up at the war’s end. Only one NNSY-built LST survived, USS LST 344, later named USS Blanco County. It sailed to Vietnam from its Norfolk home port and was sold for scrapping on July 1, 1975. In the Second World War, these ships played a central role in winning the war and brought great credit on those who built them.

*Many thanks to Marcus Robbins, Captain Jerry Mason, and Zach Smyers for their help with the research and writing of this blog.

[1] “Four Tank Landing ships will be launched Thursday,” Norfolk Naval Shipyard DEFENDER, October 14, 1942, p.1. ; “4 Landing Craft Launched At Norfolk Navy Yard,” Norfolk LEDGER STAR, October 15, 1942, p.2.
[2] “Six more landing ships are launched, a tribute to the Yard’s Speedy War Production,” Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s DEFENDER, Vol. 1, #19, November 11, 1942, p.2.
[3] “History of the Norfolk Navy Yard in World War Two,” Lieutenant Commander Arthur Sydnor Barksdale, USNR, November 1945, p. 158.
[4] Harv’s, at Interview page 1. This is a series of his recollections of service aboard LST 333
[5] U-593 11th War Patrol War Diary, Admiralty Registry Number 30625/12,, Captain Jerry Mason, USN (Ret.) Translator
[6] Ltr, CO, USS LST 333 to Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet, “LST 333-Final Report of Torpedoing and Beaching of,” 29 June 1943.
[7] Idem.
[8] Ibid., U-593 War Patrol Diary
[9], U-593, the pilot of the aircraft was F/O C.F. Parker. Though struck by AA fire from U-593, the plane landed safely at Bone, Algeria.
[10] History, Company B, 48th Armored Medical Battalion, landed at Normandy, June 12, 1944.

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