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Hats off to the USS Orange County

The only U.S. Navy warship so named served 13 good years before being sunk as a target ship off Hawaii.

January 22, 2014|By David C. Henley
  • Wearing his original Navy white uniform cap, Norman D. James, 81, who served as a gunner’s mate on the USS Orange County, displays a photograph of the ship as he stands in the front yard of his farmhouse near Sacramento.
Wearing his original Navy white uniform cap, Norman D.… (Courtesy David…)

The doughy LSTs, or landing ship tanks in military parlance, were the U.S. Navy's amphibious landing workhorses of World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War.

Flat-bottomed and keel-less, the 328-foot LSTs, their guns blazing, crawled onto enemy-held beaches through sand, mud and coral reefs, opened their two massive "clamshell" bow doors and sent ashore deadly loads of tanks, jeeps, heavily armed troops, weapons and ammunition.

The versatile LSTs, which were crewed by nine officers and 98 enlisted men, also could accommodate a string of railroad freight cars in the giant holds, and their wide top decks often were pressed into service as landing and take-off platforms for small planes and helicopters conducting reconnaissance missions and medical evacuations.

Some thought the snub-nosed ships were ugly and ungainly, and they often were the objects of unkind jests from crews of sleeker and larger vessels.

The LSTs also were slow — their top speed was 11 knots — and they rolled in calm as well as heavy seas, causing them to be labeled "floating coffins," "one-way tickets," "large slow targets" and "vomit comets."

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But they did their jobs well.

Winston Churchill said the LSTs "helped win the war against Germany and Japan." Adm. Richmond K. Turner referred to them as "marvels." Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall wrote, "The great worth of these vessels will never be understood by history."

More than 1,000 LSTs were built, and one of them, which was commissioned in a Boston shipyard on March 27, 1945 — less than five months before the end of World War II — had a distinctly local name: the USS Orange County.

The only U.S. Navy warship to have borne the name Orange County was designated LST-1068. It was in service for 13 years until old age and obsolescence set in, and she was sunk as a target ship in mid-June 1958.

Norman D. James, 81, one of the Orange County's still-living crew members, who served as a gunner's mate on the ship for nearly four years, says the LST was "the love of my life until I married my wife, Marjorie, after I got out of the Navy in late 1955."

James, a ramrod, 6-foot, 2-incher who raises rice, hay and alfalfa with his two sons on the family farm near Pleasant Grove (population 250), about 25 miles north of Sacramento, said, "I was stationed aboard the Orange County for more than two years during the Korean War, and our ship was often in the thick of combat."

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