Army Airman
 in Sailor's Hats

By Norman Rozeff (1991)

SS Brig. Gen.
Alfred J. Lyon


Can you visualize US Army Air force servicemen dressed in sailor blue fatigues or dungarees and wearing white sailor hats? Believe it or not 5,000 highly-trained AAF 'seaman' were part of the war effort. They were part of a facilities SUPPORT "floating project" code-named Ivory Soap. Their unusual story has gone largely untold. I learned of this unheralded facet of WWII history through Bill Blockley, an old friend who experienced Far East service.

It began with the military strategy for the Pacific Theater. The concept of island-hopping was to minimize casualties and to divide and conquer the enemy in the quickest time. Islands were selected for their military potential but especially for their airstrips from which could be launched "softening-up" missions, with Japan itself as a special target. Since the assaulted islands would have sustained considerable damage to extant facilities the AAF wanted to provide a means to accelerate repairs and provide aircraft support. The concept of a floating project came into being. Twenty new Liberty ships were to be converted into floating depots. The Army Aircraft Repair Ship (Liberty Class) would be committed to repairing everything but engines. they did, in fact, repair control surfaces, paint, fabric, props, cameras, electrical, batteries, instruments, radios, radar, sheet metal, plating, tires, armament, carburetors, and also packed parachutes. The ships stocked the smallest items, the largest ones and everything in between. View another story at Eagle Speak

The implementation of the project moved quickly. Its uniqueness lay in its manning. Each ship was to be commanded by an AAF lieutenant colonel, but the ship's captain, deck officers and engine room crew would be Army Transport Service (Merchant Marines). The Navy would provide sailors to man the armament and the remainder of the crew, even the deck hands, would be AAF.

Either through the interdiction of 'lady luck' or a stroke of genius, the right man for training AAF people in seagoing skills was found. Col. Matthew Thompson (now retired in florida) of the Army Air corps was recalled from the European theater. He had been involved in landing mainly Italy. curiously enough, his background included 14 years service with the British royal Navy. Called back from Anzio in May, 1944, he quickly organized a training program.
The Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama became the training site. Merchant Marine and Coast Guard instructors began the schooling on July 10, 1944. AAF officers and enlisted men were soon awash in basic seamanship and aquatic training. They began to use navy terms such as deck for floor, bulkhead for wall, hatch for door, 'smoking lamp' being lit for permitting smoking period, and kept time by a ship's bell. Additional training took place at Brookley Field near Mobile and at Bates field where modification and repair facilities were available.
The courses given included swimming, special calisthenics, marching drill, navigation, ship identification, signaling, cargo handling, ship orientation, sail making, amphibious operations and more. Two men from each ship were even trained to be underwater divers.

Ivory Soap consisted of six Liberty  and eighteen F/S ships made it into service before the war ended. they saw service in the Philippines, Guam, Tinian, Okinawa and Iwo Jima. those at Iwo were able to repair P-51s and B-29s damaged over Japan, so they could get back to the depot on Guam.
A typical story of these ships is that of the B J Lyon. First commissioned as the SS Nathaniel Scudder 
named after a Revolutionary War hero. It was a Liberty Ship  which have EC2-S-C1 hulls. The 440' ship had been constructed in Houston and modified in Mobile. Initially it was identified as the 6th Floating Air Depot and later the 6th Aircraft Repair Unit (floating) or the 6th ARUF for short. Its armament included a 5" gun and 40mm AA guns.
Its crew was activated March 15, 1944 at Kelly field, Texas. When the final work on the ship was completed in Biloxi, its AAF crew traveled there to board. Col. Leland D. Crawford was assigned commanding officer. The organization chart shows a complement of 23 officers and 362 enlisted men.
                                     Click ship below for detauils

John Nasal, assigned to the Lyon on its way to the Pacific Theater, had this to say on his stint:
"God we were lucky! when you look back at our adventures in the Pacific. I must confess that the day we left the Panama Canal I assumed we'd join a big convoy with naval vessels, etc. the next few days I couldn't believe it. We were alone and with thousands of miles of ocean to cross and an unknown destination. Between Eniwetok and Palau we passed within hundreds of miles of the Caroline Islands where an American heavy cruiser with all hands on board was sunk. Somewhere in Leyte we ran aground and did heavy damage to the hull of the ship and lost most of our fresh water. We had good luck at Palawan and then the end was in sight when we were in Manila preparing for the assault on Japan. the typhoon and the passage into tokyo Bay was no picnic either."

Upon arrival in the Philippines the maintenance began immediately on the many B-24's operating from Palawan. Palawan was strategically important as planes operating from it could seal off the South China Sea lanes. All had an added incentive to succeed. This was because Palawan held sad memories for many serviceman and their families. Here American defenders were defeated in Japan's swift attack. An infamous event occurred. 150 American POW's were killed in a direr massacre; only three escaped. the massacre lead to the conviction and death sentences for 30 Japanese officers and camp guards. General Mac Arthur ordered the sentences reduced to five years each in order not to upset the peace talks then in process.
Doing what the Air Force called 'fourth echelon' work the ARUF's promptly returned to combat many planes that otherwise would have been abandoned or returned to major bases in the U.S.  Priority parts were often flown in from the major depot in Oakland.

After the passage of 45 years, shipmates of the B J Lyon began to contact one another. Stan Adams and Charles Ross were the spark plugs in collecting information. A photo filled book called "The Buccaneer" which chronicled the Lyon and its men had been put together in Japan in 1945. This became one resource. a reunion attended by more than 75 shipmates was held in Nashville in august, 1989. a second one was held in Cincinnati in august, 1990. This location was selected among other reasons because of its proximity to the AF Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB. Dayton. In 1991 a reunion is scheduled for Plainview, Texas.
'Sailors' in the Army Air Force were unique. That they ever existed is known to few. Belated as it may be, they deserve recognition. We pay tribute to them for their valuable service. ***

The crew's naval training was put to good use when amphibious craft known as 'ducks' were used to transport items from ship to shore. The 6th had three Sikorsky R-4 helicopters in operation, and later R-6s Click image left, were sent to the ship when it was in Manila. The ARUF's had a special landing platform to accommodate the 'coptors'. from The Diecast Hanger
First Lt. James H. Brown and second Lt. John r. Noll were each awarded an air Medal for meritorious achievement. In what may have been one of the earliest uses of helicopters to evacuate wounded soldiers, the two assigned to the Lyon
had volunteered to fly behind enemy lines on Luzon. They successfully evacuated 34 casualties from the front lines in the last two weeks of June, 1945.

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