Onboard USS Knox: a Home Movie from the Pacific Theater of Operations During World War II

UntitledIn 1943, John Herchak, an experienced naval officer of nearly a decade, was assigned to USS Knox to set sail for the Pacific Theatre of Operations. Prior to WWII, Herchak had served aboard the battleships New York and Texas. During the early years of American involvement in WWII, he had been assigned to the transport ship USS Chateau Thierry, which participated in the invasions of Africa and Sicily.

Untitled2Knox was a newly converted attack transport ship, named in honor of Knox counties in 9 different states. In April of 1943, the ship set out from the East coast of the US and travelled, via Panama, to the Pacific, arriving in Pearl Harbor at the end of April, and continuing on to Honolulu in May. This attack ship and her crew of 51 officers and 524 enlisted men were involved in the assaults on Saipan and Iwo Jima, as well as operations at Tinian, Leyte and Luzon. There were also stops on this tour at the Marshall Islands, Eniwetok, Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, the Philippines, Hollandia (now Jayapura), the Admiralty Islands, New Guinea, the Caroline Islands, and Japan (Wakanoura, Wakayama and Nagoya).

The ship, which was awarded 5 battle stars and multiple combat and campaign medals during WWII, was assigned to occupation service after the war ended. Decommissioned in 1946, she was renamed as the SS Steel Recorder, and in 1969 became the SS Constitution State. She was scrapped in Taiwan in 1971.

Untitled3Luckily, John Herchak captured for posterity a small portion of this ship’s outstanding journey on Kodachrome color film. In 1945, at the very tail end of WWII, Herchak filmed bits of life on and off the ship, including a boxing match between the men, with many involved and even more crowded round to watch.

Untitled4The film also details an elaborate shellback ceremony, with the men dressing up to conduct the traditional rights of passage initiation when the ship crosses the equator, involving the court of King Neptune. Between these scenes of onboard life there are several stops at islands to load and unload cargo, landing crafts on beaches, trips to shore for the men, and scenes of the streets of Japanese towns where the men were given leave.

Untitled5A few of the stops show Japanese streets and towns. With some research we think we may have identified the stops as being the towns and villages around Wakanoura, Wakayama, and Nagoya. The scenes include people walking on a rural road, people on a train, a sign on the street of a Japanese town map, a Japanese house and garden, and people watching from a bridge as the ship sails by. Herchak shot general street scenes with people walking about, including men in Japanese army uniforms, as well as American Army and Navy personnel. There are shots of the coastline from the ship, and domestic scenes of markets, children playing in the streets, people boarding trams, shopping, drying fish in the sun, fishing, farming, and tending their gardens.

Untitled7Herchak filmed images of the beachside with landing craft, and of the dockside with an Army jeep. There are many boxes piled up onboard ship, followed by shots of cargo, and a military truck being winched out of the hold for transfer to a waiting landing craft. He captured naval boats gathered in harbors, and landing craft transporting men to and from the beaches and docks.

Untitled8This film is a wonderful snapshot of a man’s life from the end of an historic period. We don’t know much more about John Herchak either before or after this occasion. We do know that he was a naval officer for a number of years, prior to and following WWII. He eventually left the Navy in 1953, after 20 years of service, at the rank of Chief Commissary Steward. During his time in the Navy received number of decorations, commendations for outstanding performance of duty, as well as National Defense, American Defense, European Theatre, Asian-Pacific Theatre, Liberation of the Philippines, and Occupation of Japan medals.

Herchak retired to Charleston, SC, where he was assigned at the time. He became a car salesman for the W.T. Smith Company, then operating in Charleston. He was married to Mary Herchak and had two children, Mary Agnes and John Alexander Herchak. He died in 2007, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, but not before donating this home movie to MIRC in 1999.

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A shot from what might be the only footage of him can be seen here, as we believe him to be dressed up as a chaplain for the line-crossing ceremony. Thank you, Mr. Herchak, for this wonderful film of life aboard ship at the end of a momentous historical occasion, and for the record of these young men serving their country, while having some fun at the same time.

Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

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