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WWII veteran lauded for service on gunboat

Bill Ingram and Joe Gordon raise the flag at Grandview’s Stokely Square during the annual 4th of July flag raising ceremony.

Photo by Jennie McGhan.
Bill Ingram and Joe Gordon raise the flag at Grandview’s Stokely Square during the annual 4th of July flag raising ceremony.

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O’Dell Christensen looks at photographs of landing craft infantry boats during an interview that followed Grandview’s annual 4th of July flag raising ceremony.

GRANDVIEW – Although he doesn’t feel he did anything extraordinary serving his country during WWII, O’Dell Christensen exemplifies one of this nation’s greatest generations.

Christensen was recognized at Grandview’s annual 4th of July flag raising ceremony for serving in the U.S. Navy on a landing craft infantry gunboat in the Pacific.

His grandson, Brandon, spoke of Christensen’s time serving in the Navy.

“He was drafted into the U.S. Navy just before Christmas in 1943,” the younger Christensen shared.

O’Dell was just 19, and was married with a daughter whom he left behind.

Boot camp was in Idaho and Christensen volunteered to drive a garbage truck while there. The younger Christensen said his grandfather was the only one to raise his hand, thinking his years operating farm equipment provided him the expertise needed.

“While everyone else was marching in the bitter cold and snow, Grandpa was driving a brand new International with a heater and radio,” quipped the younger Christensen.

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The Rattlesnake Mountain Ward Flute Choir performs a musical number during Grandview’s annual 4th of July flag raising ceremony.

O’Dell was assigned to the USS Wasp aircraft carrier after boot camp. The ship took him from San Diego, Calif. to Pearl Harbor, where he was assigned to LCI(G) 439, a landing craft infantry gunboat.

There were 923 landing craft infantry ships constructed during WWII. They had different purposes, including carrying the troops to beach heads.

However, the LCI(G) provided gun cover as the larger LCI(L) carried the troops.

O’Dell in a later interview said he was first assigned as a seaman, responsible for chipping away old paint and repainting the ship. He was also responsible for loading the 20 mm cannons in the early days of his service.

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During an invasion, he said, the LCI would approach a beachhead in squadrons of six. The LCI(G) would fire its 40 mm cannons upon the approach and switch to its 20 mm cannons the closer they were. At an even closer distance the gunmen would switch to rockets to create foxholes for the troops landing on the beach.

“The Higgins boats, carrying the men from the LCI(L) would pass us,” said O’Dell.

He said the rockets would continue to fire, knocking down trees as “…the boys in the Higgins boats would dive into the holes on the beach.”

O’Dell said the worst battle his boat was in was at the Orote Penninsula in Guam. He said Japanese planes were hiding within the caves and larger ships were unsuccessful in flushing them out to neutralize the situation there.

The LCI(G) 439 made two runs and “…got hit pretty bad,” he said.

O’Dell said the Japanese were firing 3-inch shells, the conning tower to his ship was riddled with holes from machine gun fire and one of the cannons he was loading had a large piece taken from it from a 3-inch shell.

“I was scared…many of my shipmates said they weren’t scared,” he said.

“There were empty shell casings all over the deck.”

O’Dell said several of those who were manning the 40 mm cannons were killed during the skirmish.

“I was further back on the ship,” he said, explaining he had some protection from the onslaught.

“I don’t think I should be honored…all I did in the Navy was my job,” said O’Dell.

Eventually, he was assigned to the engine room.

“Most of my life I lived on a farm and learned to run all kinds of machinery,” O’Dell shared.

The engine room contained eight 671 diesel engines for propelling the ship and two 371 engines that ran the generators.

O’Dell said there was one throttle for each engine and he received his orders via a speaker that was in the room.

“Everyone else was assigned to gun watch or had other responsibilities,” he said.

It was while in the engine room that O’Dell was injured by a piece of shrapnel. There were six gunboats involved in the battle of Mindoro Gulf. As they reached the gulf, Japanese warplanes began attacking the U.S. fleet.

When the Japanese pilots ran out of ammunition, they began dive bombing the ships.

“They were diving with their engines wide open,” said O’Dell.

“They kept strafing us.”

The gunners continued to fire upon the planes and one plane scraped the ship near the fantail, sending shrapnel into the engine room, where O’Dell was. A piece struck him in the thigh, but he said, “I don’t think it was anything serious.”

He said there is a scar where he was struck, but he continued to do his duty.

“I don’t think I did anything exceptional,” said O’Dell.

For his service, he was awarded four Bronze Stars for the Asiatic Conflict, two Bronze Stars for the Philippine Liberation Conflict and a Navy unit commendation.

The LCI(G) 439 was awarded five battle stars and a Navy unit commendation.

The younger Christensen at the flag raising ceremony said, “His (O’Dell) story is one example of the extreme dedication and bravery shown by the men and women who serve in the armed forces…I’m proud to be his grandson and I will always look up to him and his great example and service to this great nation.”

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