By India Mackinson, UNC CSI Intern
The mystery of the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck in the Pamlico Sound near Rodanthe is one step closer to being solved. After mapping the site and dredging targeted areas during a month-long field school, Dr. Nathan Richards, head of the UNC Coastal Studies Institute Maritime Heritage Program, and nine East Carolina University (ECU) graduate students were able to match the stern and other diagnostic details to two related classes of World War II gunboats, Landing Craft Infantry (LCI) and Landing Craft Support (LCS) vessels. Used in the Pacific Theater, these amphibious gunboats were an essential part of beach landings in the final years of World War II.
While it’s now safe to assume that the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck navigated the waters of the Pacific Ocean before it came to rest in the Pamlico Sound, not much else about its individual story is known. To begin to pin down a history that spans decades and uncover that story, one simple, yet challenging, question needs to be answered: is it an LCI or LCS?
LCIs and LCSs are two oceangoing classes built from modified versions of the same blueprints, meaning they have the same hull dimensions, the same shallow draft, the same displacement, and the same engines. The main difference between the two is the construction of the deck, which corroded away long ago on the Pappy’s Lane wreck, leaving only a hull indistinguishable between the two vessel classes. In a departure from the archaeology-focused methods used so far in the project, historical research will narrow down the type of vessel and individual past of the wreck, exploring the LCIs and LCSs different wartime duties and post-war functions in the process.
Landing Craft Infantry – LCI
LCIs were designed to land soldiers on enemy beaches in the Pacific Theater of World War II, although many were modified into gunboats during the last two years of the war. Following the battle of Tarawa (located at an atoll that is a part of the modern day Republic of Kiribati) in 1943, in which US marines sustained particularly heavy casualties, it became clear that soldiers needed more close-in fire support during the final stages of landing. In response to this assessment, LCIs were experimentally fitted with more guns and rockets beginning in October of 1943. After a successful assault on Treasury Islands in the Solomon Islands, 200 of over 900 LCIs were converted to gunboats in the following six months. Their success ultimately led to the design and production of the LCSs.
The LCI gunboats supported landings in the Philippines, Borneo, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Their small size, shallow draft, and heavy armament made them ideal for staying close to shore, fulfilling a variety of duties. In addition to landing soldiers, they helped minesweepers detonate mines prior to beach landings, covered Underwater Demolition Teams while they cleared beaches, identified and fired on small enemy gun nests on shore, and helped salvage wrecked landing craft.
With the conclusion of the war, most were sent back to the states for scrapping, but some stayed in the Pacific for minesweeping and other various duties in Japan, Korea, and China.
Landing Craft Support – LCS
The effectiveness of the specialized LCI gunboats in supporting invasions led to a new class of amphibious vessels in the summer of 1944 that became the first line of attack in landings–the LCS. With the same flat-bottom hull as the LCI, the LCS incorporated the major features of the specialized gunboats into a more basic design with ample open deck space for gun mounts, rocket launchers and ammunition storage. To operate all the guns, the crew swelled from 25 on the LCI to 71 on the LCS.
While they were not designed to be extensively seagoing, they still had to cross thousands of miles of ocean to get to their invasion locations. Throughout their journey across the Pacific, they proved to be useful in more deepwater settings. At Okinawa, the LCSs fought kamikaze planes, put out fires on larger ships, provided damage control parties, and pulled hundreds of men from the water and off damaged ships. Because of their widespread activity in their relatively short career, they earned the nickname “Mighty Midgets.”
After the war ended, the LCSs were dispersed throughout the world. Beginning in 1946, 51 of the remaining vessel were stricken from the Navy Register and sold for scrap metal or to commercial fishing companies. In an attempt to bolster allied militaries destroyed in the war, many were transferred to foreign fleets, such as France, Vietnam, and Japan. They served less than two years for the United States during World War II, but some spent over two decades in the South Vietnamese Navy, serving as its first real warships.
When the South Vietnamese government fell in 1975, the four remaining LCSs were transferred back to the United States in the middle of the Atlantic while carrying refugees to the Philippines. By the 1980s, most were sold, scrapped, or converted to commercial fishing boats, leaving a single surviving LCS in the Thai navy, which ultimately returned to the United States as a floating museum in 2007.
Confirming the identity of the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck is no small task. Researchers will dive into historical records to distinguish the Pappy’s Lane shipwreck from a LCI or LCS vessel, systematically going through the records of over 900 LCIs and 130 LCSs. Based on evidence such as the period of time of its last recorded location, a list of candidates will be assembled. After following leads from documents and oral history, that list should eventually be narrowed down to one name and one story about the its journey from World War II gunboat to an unassuming shipwreck in the Pamlico Sound.