The last surface action of World War II

While the daring overnight anti-shipping raid in July 1945 by the nine American destroyers of DesRon 61in Tokyo Bay, an action remembered today as the Battle of Sagami Bay, is largely seen as the last fleet combat involving commissioned warships in WWII as they tied up with a Japanese minesweeper and submarine chaser, it was not the last surface action.

No, that claim goes to a scrap between (sail-powered) gunned-up junks off the coast of China 75 years ago today, a full week after VJ Day. Ironically, by American military personnel who were previously training pirates to fight to the common enemy.

A junk in Chinese waters, prior to World War I. A U.S. Navy armored cruiser is in the background. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, Corte Madera, California, 1973. NHHC Catalog #: NH 77414

A force of two Ningpo junks with Chinese fishermen crews under the command of one LT Livingston “Swede” Swentzel, Jr., USNR manned by six other Americans along with 20 Chinese guerrillas, were set upon by a heavily-armed Japanese junk– carrying a crew of 83 as well as a 75mm pack gun– while at sea between Haimen and Shanghai, China.

From Swentzel’s citation:

The first round from the 75-mm. howitzer struck Swentzel’s junk shearing off the foremast. The Chinese crew left their posts and Swentzel took over the helm. Meanwhile, he established contact by means of handy talkie with his second junk and gave orders to close with the enemy. He also ran up the American Flag…

The ensuing 45-minute action saw the Americans fight it out with everything from bazookas and Thompson submachine guns to carefully tossed grenades. When the smoke cleared, the Allied junk force counted 10 casualties across their two vessels while the Japanese craft, boarded by a prize crew while dead in the water and smoking, held 45 dead and another 35 injured.

Not a lot of ballistic protection in a junk, it would seem.

The story ran in the October 5 Stars & Stripes (CBI Edition) and was picked up by papers stateside. 

Both Swentzel and Gunner’s Mate Third Class James Ralph Reid, Jr., USNR each received the Navy Cross in February 1946 from Commander Naval Group China, “in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.” They were the last two Navy Crosses issued in WWII.

The Pirate Connection

The reason why Swentzel and Company were in China was that they were assigned to the Sino-American Special Technical Cooperative Organization (SACO), working at Camp Eight training local forces against the Japanese, with their first clients being the rather infamous Chang Kwei Fong’s pirate group, the “Green Circle Brotherhood.” 

It would seem that Swentzel and his boys learned a little bit from the pirates as well.

Of course, it would not be the last time the U.S. Navy fought from junks– with Tommy guns.

Tommy guns, aviators, and khakis! “Ensign Caldwell of Houlton, Maine, stands guard in a motor whaleboat with a .45 caliber submachine gun M1928AL (it is actually an M1A1) off the coast of South Vietnam. The Vietnamese men wait as their junk is searched by USS FORSTER (DER-334) crewmembers, 15 April 1966.” Catalog #: K-31208. Copyright Owner: National Archives Original Creator: Photographer, Chief Journalist Robert D. Moeser

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