Yorktown, Virginia - Sailors and civilians walk by it every day on their way to services at Nelson Chapel aboard Naval Weapons Station (WPNSTA) Yorktown. It stands just outside the chapel entrance, an ordinary bell but with an incredible history in three wars.
The Nelson Chapel Bell has been part of the largest amphibious assault of World War II, the deadliest battle in the Pacific and witnessed the compassion of American Sailors. It's the ship's bell of the attack transport USS Bayfield (APA 33).
Bayfield was first of a class of 16,100-ton attack transports, built in San Francisco, California, as a freighter, SS Sea Bass. The ship was acquired by the Navy at the end of June 1943, placed in reduced commission and steamed via the Panama Canal to Brooklyn, N.Y., where it was converted to an amphibious warfare ship. Commissioned in November, Bayfield sailed to the British Isles in February 1944, preparing for the invasion of France, better known as "D-Day".
During the June 1944 Normandy operations, Bayfield was the flagship for the "Utah" Beach landings. Moving to the Mediterranean in July 1944, Bayfield also participated in the invasion of southern France. The transport returned to the U.S. for overhaul in September 1944 before travelling to the Pacific in November 1944, spending the next two months in amphibious training in Hawaiian waters.
In February 1945, Bayfield landed Marines on Iwo Jima and, at the beginning of April, took part in the Okinawa invasion. The transport was employed for the rest of the war on logistics duties.
"Think about it... This bell was aboard in the invasion of North Africa, then at D-Day when the Bayfield was the flagship for Omaha Beach," said Cmdr. Vinson Miller, command chaplain, WPNSTA Yorktown. "Later, it was at two of the fiercest battles in the island campaign of the Pacific (Iwo Jima and Okinawa), survived transit through the Battle of the Atlantic, was present at the Bikini Atoll atomic tests, and in the next war it brought to safety the 'Chosin Frozen' from North Korea and much more."
After World War II, during the last four months of 1945 and in early 1946, Bayfield supported the occupation of Japan and Korea, bringing veterans home as part of Operation "Magic Carpet" as well as participating in the atomic testing off the Bikini Islands. Bayfield continued to operate in the Pacific during the Korean War, providing logistics support for combat operations there. In August 1954, during one of her many Far East deployments, Bayfield took part in Operation "Passage to Freedom." This effort transported more than 300,000 refugees, nearly 70,000 tons of cargo and more than 8,000 vehicles from northern to southern Vietnam between August 1954 and May 1955.
In 1967, Bayfield returned to Vietnam where it served as a floating barracks at Danang, South Vietnam, carrying Marines to-and-from the combat zone and took part in landing operations. In late June 1968, after 25 years of active service, Bayfield was decommissioned.
"In some way, she served all branches of the Armed Forces with her World War II crew, which was largely Coast Guard (USCG came under the Navy for the duration of World War II) and the rest Sailors," Miller added, "Including Gunner's Mate 1st Class Yogi Berra, who ran the ship's landing craft to the beaches in every battle in which the Bayfield served.
"All told, Bayfield earned a total of 4 battle stars from World War II, another from Korea and a last one from Vietnam. Talk about serious history!"
So the next time you visit Nelson Chapel, don't just walk by the Bayfield bell. Stop for a moment and reflect on the history this bell has been a part of; a history that honors the sacrifice made by those in defense of the nation.