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VMB-611 Squadron Insignia

Marine Bombing Squadron Six-Eleven

 

VMB 611: ON THEIR WAY TO WAR

By David L. Fish, son of a VMB 611 pilot

Marine Bombing Squadron VMB 611, under command of Lt. Col. George A. Sarles, was deployed to the Pacific Theater in two stages. One-half of the Flight Echelon and their 14 PBJ-1s from San Diego aboard the USS Manila Bay on August 24, 1944; the Ground Echelon (including the other half of the flight crews with my father) from Port Hueneme Naval Base aboard the SS Zoella Lykes, a freighter converted to a troopship.

During WWII, Port Hueneme was a small, but busy, Naval Base. It was also home to the Navy’s Pacific Construction Battalions (Seabees) and ACORN Units. The ACORN was an Advanced Base Unit consisting of a Combat Aircraft Service Unit and an attachment of Seabees. Their responsibility was the administration, operations, and maintenance of U.S. existing airfields or recaptured Japanese airfields such as Clark Field in the Philippines.

On September 26, thirty-six officers and 416 enlisted men of VMB 611 and 240 sailors of ACORN 34 boarded the Zoella Lykes and headed to Hawaii. The saga of the ship, a floating rust bucket, was bizarre, with many “snafu’s,” including the ship’s captain sailing without proper up-to-date orders and running short of food supplies. The ship sailed for five months with its human cargo, becoming a living hell and unable to deliver its passengers to the correct destination.

Per Leyte Operation Plan 13-44, both VMB 611 and ACORN 34 were to participate in the Leyte invasion; however, neither did. Due to a change of orders, which the Zoella Lykes captain did not receive, the ship sailed from Hawaii on October 10. The new destination for VMB 611 was supposed to be Emirau Island to rejoin the Flight Echelon; the destination for ACORN 34 was eventually changed to Lingayen Harbor, Luzon. It should have been a voyage of two months or less.

In the meantime, on October 22, VMB 611’s Flight Echelon left Hawaii with their PBJs for the island-hoping flight to Emirau, arriving and joining MAG 61 on October 27. The Ground Echelon never made it to Emirau. Lt. Col. Sarles, with only half a complement of flight crews, which also performed maintenance on their PBJs, determined that VMB 611 was ready for combat. The squadron made its combat debut, led by Lt. Col. Sarles, on the evening of November 18, with a night mission to heckle Kavieng.

I recently had the honor and privilege of making contact with LeGrande Poor, one of the last surviving veterans of ACORN 34. He related the following:

"I ran across your inquiry on the internet. I sailed from Port Hueneme on the Zoella Lykes. VMB 611, as you are aware, also was on board. My unit was ACORN 34. I was in the U.S. Navy and was an enlisted man. We were quartered in the center of the ship and the enlisted Marines were in the bow area of the ship. I did not know your father. He would have been quartered with the officers of our unit at the rear of the ship."

"When the Zoella Lykes left Pearl Harbor, through an administrative error, we were lost. We were at anchor in Ulithi where much of the Pacific Fleet was located at that time. There were aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and cruisers there also. In fact, we observed Bull Halsey’s task force leaving for the Leyte operation and watched them return. I remember this incident when a Japanese submarine got into the anchorage at Ulithi and sank one of the ships there. I do not know if your father was still on the Zoella Lykes at that time."

Zoella Lykes

Men from VMB 611 and ACORN 34 board the SS Zoella Lykes at Port Hueneme Naval Base, CA on September 26, 1944. (Photo courtesy of LeGrande Poor)

Zoella Lykes

The SS Zoella Lykes, anchored off the Port Hueneme coast –September 1944. (Photo courtesy of LeGrande Poor)

Attack on the USS Mississinewa

"I believe you are already aware of the ship leaving Pearl Harbor and apparently lost from the Port Director until we showed up in Leyte and the Navy wanting to know why we were so late. We were scheduled for the invasion of Leyte Gulf and got to the Philippines for the tail end of the invasion of Lingayen Gulf."

"I ran across a document on the internet, perhaps you have seen it, that said ACORN 34 was ambushed on the way to Clark Field and almost entirely wiped out. That is completely false. We lost one man to a Japanese sniper who was on his way to Subic Bay to pick up some movies. I was at Clark Field until the end of the war when I was transferred to Sangley Point, near Manila."

"I hope that what I have said will be of some use to you. Let me add that, following the war, I was en route from a convention, stopped in New Orleans, and took a boat trip up the river and there, at anchor, was the Zoella Lykes. The original ship is no longer around. There is a new one with the same name. Incidentally, Zoella, I understand, was a daughter of the owner of the Lykes Steamship Lines."

The watercolor illustration to the above left depicts the torpedoing of the Fleet Oiler USS Mississinewa (AO-59) on November 20, 1944 by one of five Kaitens, a manned suicide miniature “torpedo” sub launched from two Japanese mother submarines outside the anchorage of Ulithi Atoll in the Central Pacific. AO-59 was attached to the Third Fleet and loaded with aviation gasoline, diesel oil, and Navy special fuel oil. The initial explosion had been port side forward at 0545 and was followed by a series of explosions as the fire quickly traveled through magazines and bunker tanks. The ship burned fiercely for about three hours and then rolled over and sank. Out of a total complement of 298, there were three officers and 57 enlisted personnel lost. (The painting and description is from Cpl Charles F. White, VMB 611 flight crew member aboard the Zoella Lykes and my personal collection.)

While the above incident was VMB 611’s Ground Echelon and ACORN 34’s “welcome” to the Pacific combat zone, Ulithi is also where Lt. Col. Sarles retrieved the other half of his flight crews. Because of concerns about his missing flight crews, he started looking for his men. In mid-December, he received information that they were at Ulithi. He flew an echelon of PBJs to Ulithi to at least retrieve his flight crews flying them back to Emirau.

Meanwhile, the Zoella Lykes continued its bizarre voyage, arriving at Lingayen Harbor on February 7, 1945, when shortly afterward ACORN 34 disembarked for their assignment at Clark Field. Because of the lack of orders, VMB 611 ground personnel did not disembark until February 24. They boarded two LST’s and made their way to Mindoro, then sailing to Zamboanga, Mindanao, disembarking March 17.

With new orders, VMB 611 left Emirau and MAG 61 on March 29, arriving at Moret Airfield, Zamboanga on March 30 and joining MAG 32 as part of MAGSZAM.

Finally, VMB 611’s Flight Echelon was reunited with their long-lost Ground Echelon at Zamboanga, where they finished the war.

(David L. Fish is the son of Capt Doit L Fish, VMB 611 pilot who sailed aboard the SS Zoella Lykes and went MIA with his crew on May 30, 1945. In November 1956, the aircraft wreckage and crew skeletal remains were discovered near Davao, Mindanao. The eight Marines were given a group burial, with full military honors, at Fort Logan National Cemetery, Denver, CO on July 15, 1957. David continues his research on his father and VMB 611 in honoring their sacrifices and memory.)

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