A few days ago, I received an invitation to a birthday party for a U.S. Navy veteran turning 100 on June 17. His name is Roy L. McClellan. I met this great American about 15 years ago at a reunion of World War II Navy veterans who served on a class of heavily armed shallow draft warships called Landing Craft Support (Large) or LCS for short.
One hundred and thirty of these ships were designed and built in a hurry in 1943 and 1944 to provide heavy close-in firepower to protect American soldiers and Marines as they assaulted the beaches of Pacific islands.
Some of those islands had famous names like Iwo Jima and Okinawa and others with names that most Americans would not recognize such as Rendova and Vella Lavella in the Solomons Islands or Chichi Jima where former President George H.W. Bush survived being shot down during an American air raid on the island in September 1944.
My father had served as the commanding officer of one of those high firepower ships from-1944-1946 and, after his passing in 1990, I started attending the reunions of this group of World War II vets.
Over the years since then, I had the opportunity to spend time with hundreds of these sailors who served in the Pacific war and was exposed to their many stories. To a man, they were humble and convinced they were just doing their duty.
With Memorial Day just days away and the 100th birthday invitation in hand, I decided to do a little deeper research on the service of my friend Roy McClellan and another sailor whose name is Joe Konyndyk who served as an electrician’s mate 3rd class on my father’s ship, the LCS 18.
Roy L. McClellan was born in Texas in 1921 and graduated from Texas Tech University in 1942. He enlisted in the Navy shortly after graduation. After boot camp he went to Radioman’s school and then was assigned to a new kind of amphibious combat unit called Argus 11. Argus units were assigned the mission of deploying communications and surveillance equipment on Pacific islands, often in locations behind enemy lines. He received training in a new technology called radar (for Radio Detection And Ranging) and he also got some extra training in combat and survival skills before he and his unit shipped out to the Pacific.
After surviving several months in the hot and dangerous jungles of the Solomon Islands, Roy got lucky and received orders to return to the U.S. to attend Officer Candidate School at Columbia University. He earned a commission as an ensign in August of 1944 and was assigned to the Amphibeous forces as the communications officer for the newly commissioned LCS 124 which was destined for immediate deployment in the western Pacific.
Roy’s ship saw quite a bit of action in the last few months of the war including during the battle of Okinawa and in the waters of the Philippine Islands. He also saw duty as a part of the Occupation of Japan in the months after the war had ended.
After his naval service, Roy returned to his hometown of Spearman, Texas … got married; had a family and went on to become a county judge.
Roy still lives in the Spearman, and everyone there still calls him “Judge.” At the age of 99 he is still mobile although, by his own admission, he gets around more slowly than he used to. He is hoping to attend the upcoming reunion in Sacramento in September and see the last remaining LCS ship (the LCS 102) which is a floating naval museum in Vallejo, California.
Another of those brave LCS sailors from the Pacific war is Joe Konyndyk. He was born in Michigan in 1925 and served from 1944-46 as an electrician’s mate aboard my father’s ship the LCS 18. His job was to maintain the ship’s generators and, when called to battle stations, man an anti-aircraft gun on the starboard side of the ship. By his own admission, he said recently that the men of the LCS 18 saw plenty of action during the battle for Okinawa when the kamikaze attacks were “hot and heavy.”
Sadly, Joe is the sole remaining member of a crew of 78. At 96 years of age, he is having to use a wheelchair to get around. In a phone call last week, he said he could not guarantee he would make the reunion in September but, “Lord willing” he was sure going to try.
Thinking about these two young men who went off to war and served their country made me once again realize just how fortunate we 21st-century Americans have been.
We are the beneficiaries of Roy McClellan and Joe Konyndyk’s courage and their sacrifice and we are blessed to have then still with us. Together with millions of their fellow veterans, living and dead, they helped defeat tyranny and keep our nation free.
This Memorial Day, let us all take some time to think about Electrician’s Mate 3rd class Joe Konyndyk and Radioman 3rd class Roy McClellan and their families. Let us also remember the tens of thousands of Americans who lost their lives in World War II and never had the opportunity to live to a ripe old age. Let us also remember the many families who lost loved ones and try, in some special way, to be deserving of their sacrifice.
If anyone would like to send a note to Joe Konyndyk (in Mancos, CO 81328) or a birthday card to Roy McClellan (in Spearman, TX. 79081), I am confident that the postmasters in their hometowns know how to get mail to them.
• Christopher M. Lehman Sr. served in the U.S. Navy 1969-1971 and later served as special assistant for national security affairs to President Ronald Reagan. He has two sons who are Marines.