Seaman trained to deliver ammo

James O. Smith, U.S. Navy veteran, 1952 - 1956.

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series published each Monday between Memorial Day and Veterans Day honoring local veterans.

CHAMPION — U.S. Navy Seaman James O. Smith spent his four-year naval career during the height of the Korean War traveling the Atlantic Ocean on a ship carrying 3,200 tons of live ammunition that could be transferred at any time to naval destroyers and aircraft carriers going into battle.

Smith, 84, a Youngstown native who grew up Fowler, said he volunteered to join the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in 1952 because he felt a sense of patriotic duty.

“I didn’t tell my parents or my girlfriend what I was doing,” Smith said. “I just did it.”

He was sent to the 1,200-acre Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland, which had was after World War II but reopened in the early 1950s. At its height during its second incarnation, it had a population of more than 58,000 naval personnel and trainees. The Navy boot camp, at the time, was 11 weeks long.

After finishing boot camp, Smith returned home on Aug. 23, 1952, to marry his high school sweetheart, Marian Bishop, before he was transferred to USS Diamond Head (AE-19) ammunition ship in 1953.

“When I arrived in Norfolk (Va.), the Diamond Head had just returned to the U.S. from a six-month training tour in the Mediterranean,” Smith said. “We were sent to Maryland to unload the ammunition on the ship.”

Smith said the ammunition ships were known as volcanoes because if they were hit or damaged, the ships could explode.

“There were some areas where the communities would not allow ammunition ships like ours to go to port because of the threat of explosions,” he said. “They would have us drop anchor off shore and transport the ship’s crew back and forth on smaller boats.”

Smith joined his shipmates on his first of multiple trips to the Rock of Gibraltar, located off the southwestern tip of Europe on the Iberian Peninsula. It was off this large naval base that members of the USS Diamond Head trained in transferring hundreds of tons of ammunition from it to destroyers and aircraft carriers that sometimes were two to four times larger than it in size.

To transfer the ammunition, Smith said one of the crewmen from his ship would fire a nylon rope to the ship that moved alongside his. A cable at the end of the rope would be attached to a boom on the USS Diamond Head and the other end would be placed in the loading area on the ship receiving the ammunition.

“We had to be very careful, especially on the aircraft carriers, because the ammunition was placed in an area behind the depth chargers,” Smith said. “I was on the high line. I was required to guide the ammunition from our ship to the next. The ammunition was placed in five foot-by-five foot containers.”

The ships were sometimes as far as 25 feet from each other’s sides, and sometimes right next to one another.

“Our ship never was sent into a combat zone,” Smith said. “However, we were trained and were ready to go every day to wherever the mission would have sent us.”

While Smith was stationed overseas, two of his brothers-in-law, Van Wagner and Robert “Red” Wheeler, also were in the Navy. Wagner was stationed on an aircraft carrier and Wheeler was on a mine sweeper.

Two of Smith’s grandchildren joined the military. Michael Smith, signed up with the Army and has served for seven years, and Ryan Smith joined the U.S. Marine Corps. He died while in service.

“We’re proud of these young men,” Smith said.