Warship Wednesday Dec. 16, 2015: The Long Legged Bird of the Java Sea
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Dec. 16, 2015: The Long Legged Bird of the Java Sea
Here we see the humble Lapwing-class minesweeper USS Heron (AM-10/AVP-2), while fitting out at her builders in late 1918, being rushed to completion to help serve in the Great War. While her service “over there” was rather quiet in the end, her trip to the other side of the world and experiences in another world war would prove more exciting.
When a young upstart by the name of Franklin D. Roosevelt came to the Navy Department in 1913 as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, he helped engineer one of the largest naval build-ups in world history. By the time the U.S. entered World War I officially in 1917, it may have been Mr. Wilson’s name in the role of Commander in Chief, but it was Mr. Roosevelt’s fleet.
One of his passions was the concept of the Great North Sea Mine Barrage, a string of as many as 400,000 (planned) sea mines that would shut down the Kaiser’s access once and for all to the Atlantic and saving Western Europe (and its overseas Allies) from the scourge of German U-boats. A British idea dating from late 1916, the U.S. Navy’s Admiral Sims thought it was a bullshit waste of time but it was FDR’s insistence to President Wilson in the scheme that ultimately won the day.
While a fleet of converted steamships (and two old cruisers- USS San Francisco and USS Baltimore) started dropping mines in June 1918, they only managed to sow 70,177 by Armistice Day and accounted for a paltry two U-boats gesunken (although some estimates range as high as 8 counting unaccounted for boats).
And the thing is, you don’t throw that many mines in international shipping lanes without having a plan to clean the up after the war (while having the bonus of using those mine countermeasures ships to sweep enemy-laid fields as well).
That’s where the 54 vessels of the Lapwing-class came in.
Inspired by large seagoing New England fishing trawlers, these 187-foot long ships were large enough, at 965-tons full, to carry a pair of economical reciprocating diesel engines (or two boilers and one VTE engine) with a decent enough range to make it across the Atlantic on their own (though with a blisteringly slow speed of just 14 knots when wide open on trials.)
Not intended to do much more than clear mines, they were given a couple 3-inch pop guns to discourage small enemy surface combatants intent to keep minesweepers from clearing said mines. The class leader, Lapwing, designated Auxiliary Minesweeper #1 (AM-1), was laid down at Todd in New York in October 1917 and another 53 soon followed. While five were canceled in November 1918, the other 48 were eventually finished– even if they came to the war a little late.
Which leads us to the hero of our tale, USS Heron.
Laid down at the Standard Shipbuilding Co. in Boston, she was the first U.S. Navy ship to carry that name, that of a long-legged seabird of the Gulf Coast. Like all her sisters, they carried bird names.
Commissioned 30 October 1918, the war ended 12 days later but she was still very much needed to help take down that whole barrage thing. Therefore, she arrived in the Orkney Islands in the spring of 1919 where, along with 28 of her sisters and a host of converted British trawlers, she scooped up Mk.6 naval mines from the deep for the rest of the year.
When she returned home, she was transferred to the far off Asiatic Fleet, sailing for Cavite PI in October 1920.
There, she was laid up in 1922, with not much need of an active minesweeper.
Then, with the Navy figuring out these economical little boats with their shallow draft (they could float in ten feet of seawater) could be used for any number of side jobs, started re-purposing them.
Six of the “Old Birds” were reclassified as salvage ships (ARSs) while another half-dozen became submarine rescue ships (ASRs). The Coast Guard picked up USS Redwing for use as a cutter during Prohibition while the U.S. Coast & Geographic Survey acquired USS Osprey and USS Flamingo and the Shipping Board accepted USS Peacock as a tug.
A few were retained as minesweepers in the reserve fleet, some used as depot ships/netlayers, one converted to a gunboat, another to an ocean-going tug, three were sunk during peacetime service (USS Cardinal struck a reef off Dutch Harbor in 1923 while USS Curlew did the same off Panama in 1926 and USS Sanderling went down in 1937 by accident in Hawaii) while nine– Heron included– became seaplane tenders.
While these ships could only carry 1-2 seaplanes on deck, they typically milled around with a converted barge alongside that could park a half dozen or more single-engine float planes for service and support.
Recommissioned in 1924 (later picking up the hull number AVP-2, as a Small Seaplane Tender), Heron was photographed with a variety of floatplanes including Grumman JF amphibians and Vought O2U-2 scout planes in the 20s and 30s.
She continued her quiet existence in the South China Sea and elsewhere in Chinese and Philippine waters, filling in as a target tower, survey ship, and gunboat when needed.
Stationed at Port Ciego, Philippines when the balloon went up, Heron was luckier than several of her sisters in the same waters, with six sunk in six months.
- USS Tanager (AM-5), Sunk by Japanese shore battery fire off Bataan, 4 May 1942.
- USS Finch (AM-9), Damaged by Japanese bomb (near miss), 9 Apr 1942 while moored at the eastern point of Corregidor. Abandoned, 10 Apr 1942. Salvaged by Imperial Japanese Navy; renamed W-103. Sunk for good by US carrier aircraft in early 1945.
- USS Quail (AM-15) Damaged by Japanese bombs and guns at Corregidor, she was scuttled 5 May 1942 to prevent capture.
- USS Penguin (AM-33) Damaged by Japanese aircraft in Agana Harbor, Guam, 8 Dec 1941; scuttled in 200 fathoms to prevent capture.
- USS Bittern (AM-36) Heavily damaged by Japanese aircraft at Cavite Navy Yard, Philippines; scuttled in Manila Bay to prevent capture.
- USS Pigeon (AM-47) Sunk by Japanese aircraft at Corregidor, 4 May 1942.
Heron was ordered to leave the PI for Ambon Island, part of the Maluku Islands of then Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), a strategic key to the area held by some 3,000 Dutch and Australian troops. There, along with USS William B. Preston (AVD 7), she supported PBYs of Patrol Wing TEN until the going got tough and the island was overrun in February 1942.
It was during this time at Ambon that Heron became a legend. Upon hearing that the four-piper USS Peary (DD-226) was damaged, she sortied out to help assist or tow if needed but was caught by Japanese flying boats and proceeded to fight them off over several hours.
As noted dryly in the combat narrative of the Java Sea Campaign:
The Heron, which was sent north to assist the Peary, was herself bombed in a protracted action in Molucca Strait on the 31st. Shrapnel from near hits penetrated the ship’s side and started fires in the paint locker and forward hold. About the middle of the afternoon, a 100-pound shrapnel bomb struck the foremast near the top and sprayed the ship with splinters, which did considerable damage. The Heron acquitted herself well, however, in spite of her 12-knot speed, and succeeded in shooting down a large enemy seaplane.
For her valiant action during this period, Heron received the Navy Unit Commendation.
The rest of her war service was less eventful, serving in Australian waters as a patrol boat and seaplane tender until 1944 when she began moving back to the PI with the massive Allied armada to retake the archipelago. She conducted search and rescue operations and assisted in landings where needed, still providing tender service until she was decommissioned at Subic Bay, Philippines 12 February 1946, earning four battle stars for the War.
Sold for scrap to a Chinese concern in Shanghai in 1947, Heron‘s ultimate fate is unknown but she may have lingered on as a trawler or coaster for some time or in some form.
As for the rest of her class, others also served heroically in the war with one, USS Vireo, picking up seven battle stars for her service as a fleet tug from Pearl Harbor to Midway to Guadalcanal and Okinawa. The Germans sank USS Partridge at Normandy and both Gannet and Redwing via torpedoes in the Atlantic. Most of the old birds remaining in U.S. service were scrapped in 1946-48 with the last on Uncle Sam’s list, Flamingo, sold for scrap in July 1953.
Some lived on as trawlers and one, USS Auk (AM-38) was sold to Venezuela in 1948, where she lasted until 1962 as the gunboat Felipe Larrazabal. After her decommissioning she was not immediately scrapped, and was reported afloat in a backwater channel as late as 1968. Her fate after that is not recorded but she was likely the last of the Lapwings.
For Heron‘s memory, the Navy passed on her name to two different mine countermeasures ships since WWII.
The first, the 136-foot USS Heron (MSC(O)-18/AMS-18/YMS-369), was renamed in 1947 and went on to win 8 battlestars in Korea before serving in the Japanese Self Defense Forces as JDS Nuwajima (MSC-657) until 1967.
The second and, as of now final, U.S. Navy ship with the historic name, USS Heron (MHC-52) was an Osprey-class coastal minehunter commissioned in 1994 and transferred while still in her prime to Greece in 2007 as Kalipso.
But that’s another story.
Displacement: 950 tons FL (1918) 1,350 tons (1936)
Length: 187 feet 10 inches
Beam: 35 feet 6 inches
Draft: 9 feet 9 in
Propulsion: Two Babcock and Wilcox header boilers, one 1,400shp Harlan and Hollingsworth, vertical triple-expansion steam engine, one shaft.
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph); 12~ by 1936.
Complement: 78 Officers and Enlisted as completed; Upto 85 by 1936
Armament: 2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts as commissioned
2 x 3″/50 DP singles
4 Lewis guns
2 x 3″/50 DP singles
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts
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