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The Return of the Mighty

Photo of Bill Mason

Thanks to Bill Mason and a group of fellow veterans, more people are learning how a fleet of small ships made a big difference during World War II.

Bill Mason (M.A., ’54) was 18 when he stepped aboard a World War II gunboat with 64 fellow enlisted men. For nearly two years they shared tight quarters, slept four high, and depended upon each other -- and their small ship -- for their lives. “I’m glad we had that little ship,” says Mason, a professor emeritus of economics. “It brought us home.”

Their Landing Craft Support (LCS) vessel had no name, only a number. It was one of 130 ships nicknamed Mighty Midgets. Small enough to navigate close to beachheads during invasions, LCSs provided artillery support to destroyers and battleships. Their crews also fought fires, pulled sailors from the waters and cared for the wounded.

During the Battle of Okinawa, Mason was a gunner struggling to stop kamikaze planes before they completed their missions. “It was a 9/11 experience every day,” he says, recalling the frightening flash of planes hitting ships around him. When the U.S.S. William D. Porter was hit, Mason and his crew were on hand to rescue sailors. The destroyer would be the only ship sunk during the war without the loss of life.

The Mighty Midgets made a major difference throughout World War II, but unlike larger vessels that had press corps and cameras, “Nobody knew about us,” says Mason, who has worked to bring these small ships out of the shadows of history.

His six-year campaign paid off this fall when the last remaining LCS came home to U.S. waters. In November, the LCS 102, which wound up with the Royal Thai Navy following World War II, was officially accepted at Mare Island National Historical Park.

Mason led the group of fellow veterans who managed to convince Thai officials to transfer ownership of the ship to their organization, the National Association of USS LCS (l) 1-130. “It’s been time well-spent,” says Mason during his office hours at SF State where he teaches two classes in economics.

While one of these little ships brought him home in 1945, he points out that hundreds of LCS crew members were not so lucky. Many were wounded or died in their supporting roles. “Without this ship, the story of the U.S. Navy would not be told,” Mason says. “I don’t want to glorify war at all. No one likes war but we need to think about the men and women out there who put their lives on the line.”

World War II wasn’t the last time Mason saw combat. He also served in the Korean War, then decided on a career in education. His wife Janice Mason (B.A., ’50) pointed him in the right direction for his training. “I almost went to Berkeley but my wife said, ‘Come to San Francisco State. They know how to prepare teachers.’” Their two children would later earn their degrees at the University.

They brought Mason’s four grandchildren to the ship’s acceptance ceremony. “You do it for them,” he says, explaining that the ship can tell its story to museum visitors for generations to come.

Support for today’s vets: Priority course registration for veterans begins Jan. 1, 2008 at SF State. The new CSU-wide priority registration policy will be offered to students who are active members of the military or have left active duty within the past two years. For more information: www.sfsu.edu/~veterans

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