Tales from sea

View a documentary by Henrico County Television Channel 17 about the USS Henrico.

From the storming of the beaches at Normandy in World War II, to the testing of an atomic bomb in Bikini Atoll, to the invasion of Okinawa, Henrico played a prominent role in some of the United States’ most significant wartime events.

Not Henrico County, however – the USS Henrico.

The Henrico carried the legacy of its namesake county around the globe in peacetime and during conflict for nearly a quarter century, transporting sailors and soldiers to and from some of the bloodiest battles and most significant conflicts in modern times, earning 36 medals and commendations for its efforts.

For its legacy, and for the significance of the events it witnessed and in which it took part, the USS Henrico earned the No. 23 spot on the Henrico Citizen’s list of the 24 most significant events in Henrico history. The Henrico is the only component of the list that did not occur in Henrico County itself.

But the history of the Henrico is one befitting one of the most historic locales in the United States.

A history of service
The Henrico (known as APA-45) began its career as the SS Sea Darter in 1942 but became an attack transport ship the following year, as part of a military build-up by the United States in anticipation of significant involvement in World War II. The ship was commissioned Nov. 26, 1943 by the U.S. Navy. Its primary responsibility was to move sailors and soldiers to and from their destinations in battle, and it did so repeatedly during its career.

That a locality had a Naval ship named after it was not, and is not, particularly noteworthy. At any given point in U.S. history, dozens upon dozens of ships have borne the names of such locales throughout the country.

In the Richmond region alone, three ships in the Navy’s history have been known as the USS Richmond (the first being a brig launched in 1798; the second a wooden steam ship launched in 1860; and the third a CL-9 launched in 1921 and decommissioned in 1945). The USS Hanover served as an attack transport for one year during WWII, and the USS Chesterfield County (named jointly for its namesakes in Virginia and South Carolina) was a tank landing ship that operated between 1944 -55 and in the late 1960s.

No fewer than six ships have carried the name USS Powhatan, in honor of the Native American chief and father of Pocahontas who lived on land generally believed to be in present-day Henrico County.

But none of those ships boast the history of service of the USS Henrico, which saw action in some of the most famous engagements in WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Local connections
When its first Naval crew boarded the Henrico at Hoboken, N.J. in 1943, one of the young ensigns who climbed on board was Harry Roberts, a communications officer who had just been commissioned a month earlier himself. The ship’s captain was John H. Willis, a well-liked leader who promised – and delivered – equitable treatment of officers and crew members.

Roberts, the youngest of seven children, was not far removed from his days as a student at the University of Richmond in the 1930s, when tuition cost $150 a year. (“I got a half scholarship – $75,” he recalled with a chuckle during a 1999 interview.) He had been raised in Richmond, where his family still lived.

When the ship arrived in Norfolk – on a quick stop before its first trip across the Atlantic Ocean – Robert received permission to return to Richmond for a day to visit his family. During his day off, he made sure to stop at the Franklin Street home of a Mrs. Willis – the mother of Henrico’s captain.

“Of course you know I was making brownie points,” Roberts recalled in the 1999 interview, during which he clutched a smooth, pewter napkin ring with the number “25” engraved on the side. Each sailor received a similar ring, which served as a reminder that Willis was a man of his word. “He told us that the officers were going to eat the very same thing that the crew ate, and we did,” Roberts said in the interview.

Roberts served on the ship for six months, during which time he sailed with it to the United Kingdom as part of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s Transport Division Eleven. There, it practiced amphibious landings in preparation for the invasion of Europe that was to come.

On May 19, 1944, Roberts was transferred off the Henrico and onto the USS Barrett, after the Henrico crew determined it had too many communications officers. Nine days later, while in Portland, England, the Henrico responded to heavy air attack by firing its weapons in battle for the first time.

Little more than one week later, the Henrico and the 1,400 men on board were part of the first attack wave of Allied forces on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France on June 6 – D-Day. The ship carried wounded soldiers and sailors back to England later that day.

Less than a year later, following time in the Mediterranean, Henrico was in Kerama Retto, a group of six Japanese islands, helping to prepare for an invasion of nearby Okinawa, when a kamikaze fighter crashed into the ship, exploding two 250-pounds bombs below its deck. Forty-nine sailors and soldiers were killed in the deadliest attack the ship ever witnessed.

Among the dead was the ship’s new captain, Chief Quartermaster James Shaw.

One war ends, another looms
During its solemn trip back to the mainland, Henrico once again came under the control of Willis, who served as captain for a month and a half. The mood aboard the ship, whose nickname was the “Happy Hank,” likely was anything but cheerful.

The ship’s damage was repaired within about a month, and it headed back to the Pacific in anticipation of more action. But the Japanese surrendered, ending the war.

For nearly five months during the following year, 1946, Henrico shuttled American soldiers home. Later that year, it took part in Operation Crossroads, an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific.



Four years later, a new conflict developed and the Henrico sailed for Korea, arriving to participate in the landing at Inchon Sept. 15, 1950, when 40,000 United Nations troops defeated the North Korean army and earned a telling victory. Henrico saw action in Korea during parts of the next several years. It also traveled to Hong Kong to represent the United States in ceremonies recognizing the death of England’s King George VI in 1952.

When the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in late 1962, Henrico sailed toward the conflict, only returning to the West Coast from the region after the crisis was averted.

In 1965, Henrico again was front and center in conflict, as part of the group that landed the first United States combat unit in Vietnam. It served in the region during a nine-month stint from 1966-67 before heading back to San Diego, where it was recommended for deactivation. Henrico’s final trip concluded in Puget Sound, Wash., where it was decommissioned Feb. 14, 1968. The ship was sold by the United States Maritime Administration in 1979 and used for scrap metal.

During its service time, the ship earned 36 commendations, medals and ribbons for its performance.

Full circle

For Roberts – the sailor from Richmond who was part of the Henrico’s first crew – the story came full circle. In 1996, he and his wife moved from Richmond to Henrico County.

“It was all good duty,” he recalled in his 1999 interview, shaking his head slowly at the memories of war and the blessings that saw him home safely. “Lucky, just lucky.”

Roberts was the only crew member known to have lived for a time in the county whose name the ship carried around the world for so many years. He died in 2006, and with him, a small piece of Henrico history fell silent.
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