Warship Wednesday: Feb. 24, 2016, Calling the Conestoga, Calling the Conestoga…

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: Feb. 24, 2016, Calling the Conestoga, Calling the Conestoga…

Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 71299

Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 71299

Here we see the civilian designed and built, ocean-going steel-hulled tugboat, USS Conestoga (AT-54) at San Diego, California, circa early 1921. Note her popgun forward. While everyone likes a happy ending to our Warship Wednesday tales, sometimes it just doesn’t work that way…and the above picture may be the last one ever taken of her.

SS Conestoga was designed as one of a pair of large seagoing tugs built to the same design by the Maryland Steel Co. Sparrows Point, MD for the Philadelphia and Reading Transportation Line of Philadelphia in 1904-1905. She and her sister, SS Monocacy, were meant to pull huge coal barges up and down the East Coast. These hardy tugs were 170 feet in length and displaced some 420 tons when fully loaded.

(American Tug, 1904) Photographed before being acquired by the U.S. Navy. This tug was USS Conestoga (SP-1128, later AT-54) from 1917 until 1921. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89793

(American Tug, 1904) Photographed before being acquired by the U.S. Navy. This tug was USS Conestoga (SP-1128, later AT-54) from 1917 until 1921. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89793

Conestoga (American Tug, 1904) in port, prior to World War I. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89794

Conestoga (American Tug, 1904) in port, prior to World War I. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89794

Commercial service suited the pair, but when the Great War came a-calling to the United States in 1917, both Conestoga and Monocacy were purchased by the Navy, on 14 September and 27 July of that year respectively, and sent to the Philadelphia Naval Yard where they were given a haze gray paint scheme, fitted with a 3″/50 gun mount and some smaller guns as well.

Both were placed in commission on 10 November with Conestoga being classified as a patrol craft, USS Conestoga (SP-1128), while her sister was renamed USS Genesee (SP-1116).

As noted by DANFS, both ships soon found themselves busy as they transported supplies and guns, escorted convoys to Bermuda and the Azores, served as standby for deep sea rescue work, and operated with the American Patrol Detachment in the vicinity of the Azores and Ireland (respectively).

USS Genesee (SP-1116) under way at Queenstown, Ireland, in 1918. Wartime fittings included the gun platform and 3"/50 gun forward and the crow’s nest on the foremast. US Naval History and Heritage Command. Photo # NH 53873, Photographed by Zimmer. Via Navsource.

USS Genesee (SP-1116) under way at Queenstown, Ireland, in 1918. Wartime fittings included the gun platform and 3″/50 gun forward and the crow’s nest on the foremast. US Naval History and Heritage Command. Photo # NH 53873, Photographed by Zimmer. Via Navsource.

Conestoga remained in the Azores for a year after the guns fell silent, towing charges as needed among the war weary shipping crossing the Atlantic, only returning to New York on 26 September 1919.

While most ships taken up from trade by the Navy were quickly disposed of in the days following the Armistice, the sea service kept Conestoga as a fleet tug, redesignating her AT-54 in 1920. Genesee was likewise reclassified as AT-55 and, sent to the Pacific, arrived at Cavite, Luzon, 7 September 1920 for permanent duty on the Asiatic Station.

Conestoga, on the other hand, was to become the station ship at Tutuila, American Samoa, the literal “gun boat” in gunboat diplomacy. As such, she was refitted first at Norfolk then at Mare Island in California after she transitioned oceans.

 

USS Conestoga (AT-54)'s six-man "Gunnery Department" posing with her sole 3"/50 gun, 1921. The Sailor at left marked "me,” may be Seaman 1st Class W.P. Burbage. US Navy photo # NH 71510, Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970, from the collections of the US Naval Historical Center. Via Navsource.

USS Conestoga (AT-54)’s six-man “Gunnery Department” posing with her sole 3″/50 gun, 1921. The Sailor at left marked “me,” may be Seaman 1st Class W.P. Burbage. US Navy photo # NH 71510, Courtesy of W.P. Burbage, 1970, from the collections of the US Naval Historical Center. Via Navsource. Burbage, luckily, was not aboard Conestoga when she left California.

USS Conestoga (AT-54) At San Diego, California, February 1921, preparing to ship to Samoa. Courtesy of H.E. (Ed) Coffer, 1988. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 102094

USS Conestoga (AT-54) at Mare Island, California, February 1921, preparing to ship to Samoa. Courtesy of H.E. (Ed) Coffer, 1988. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 102094

With a sole officer– Lt. Ernest L. Jones– in command, and a crew consisting of three chiefs and 49 men, our proud little tug sailed from Mare Island on 25 March 1921…

And was never seen again.

While the steamship Senator found what is believed to be an empty and waterlogged lifeboat from the Conestoga some 650 miles from Mexico, no other wreckage ever turned up.

Across the Pacific, mariners placed a weather eye on the horizon and burned oil and coal through the night looking for the unaccounted for ship for weeks.

Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy, Volume 15

Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy, Volume 15, June 1921

One particular piece of naval lore came from USS R-14 (SS-91), a cranky diesel submarine who left out of Pearl on 2 May with several surface vessels to search for the missing tug.

From the Submarine Force Museum:

“By 12 May,” writes LCDR Robert Douglas, “she was dead in the water…and had been that way since late afternoon of the previous day, when the diesel engines had stopped. At about the same time, the radio transmitter had failed (not an uncommon occurrence then), so the boat was also without communications to shore.” The culprit was soon found: large amounts of seawater mixed in with the fuel. Try as they might, “they could neither prevent the contamination nor purify enough oil to run the engines for more than a few minutes.” Plus, there was only enough charge in the batteries to power one of the boat’s two motors for about 100 miles, not enough to get them home.

So, the R14 used sails, and limped along until 0530 on 15 May, when Hilo came into view.

(SS-91) Under full sail in May 1921. While searching for the missing USS Conestoga (AT-54) southeast of Hawaii, the R-14 lost her power plant. As repairs were unsuccessful, her crew rigged a jury sail, made of canvas battery deck covers, to the periscope, and sailed her to Hilo. She arrived there on 15 May 1921, after five days under sail. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 52858

(SS-91) Under full sail in May 1921. While searching for the missing USS Conestoga (AT-54) southeast of Hawaii, the R-14 lost her power plant. As repairs were unsuccessful, her crew rigged a jury sail, made of canvas battery deck covers, to the periscope, and sailed her to Hilo. She arrived there on 15 May 1921, after five days under sail. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 52858

Seen in the photo above are the jury-rigged sails used to bring R-14 back to port. The mainsail rigged from the radio mast is the top sail in the photograph, and the mizzen [third sail] made of eight blankets is also visible. LCDR Douglas is at top left, without a hat.

After the extensive search by all available assets, Conestoga was declared lost with all her crew, 30 June 1921 and stricken from the Naval List, consigned to the deep as part of Poseidon’s ever-growing armada.

094705405

From what I can tell, there is no marker or monument to her.

As for her sister, Genesee spent the summer of 1921 with the Asiatic fleet at Chefoo, China, and returned to Cavite 19 September. Subsequently she operated as a tug, a ferry, and a target tow in the Philippines until she was scuttled at Corregidor 5 May 1942 to avoid capture, earning one battle star for her World War II service the absolute hardest way possible.

UPDATE:

It looks like the Conestoga has been found in 189-feet of water just off South Farrallone Island where she likely foundered and sank in a gale just a day after leaving port.

The Conestoga is a military grave protected from salvage by the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004, and is part of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

Specs:

SS Conestoga drawing published in the August 1904 issue of the journal Marine Engineering via Navsource Courtesy Shipscribe.com

SS Conestoga drawing published in the August 1904 issue of the journal Marine Engineering via Navsource/ Courtesy Shipscribe.com. Note the auxiliary sailing rig

Displacement: 420 long tons (430 t)
Length: 170 ft. (52 m)
Beam: 29 ft. (8.8 m)
Draft: 15 ft. (4.6 m)
Speed: 13 kn (15 mph; 24 km/h)
Complement: 56
Armament: 2 × 3 in (76 mm) guns, 2 machine guns (1917-19) later reduced to a single 3/50.
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval study, images, and fellowship you can find http://www.warship.org/membership.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

PRINT still has it place. If you LOVE warships you should belong.

I’m a member, so should you be!

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About laststandonzombieisland

Let me introduce myself. I am a bit of a conflict junkie. I am fascinated by war and warfare, assassination, personal protection and weaponry ranging from spud guns and flame throwers to thermonuclear bombs and Soviet-trained Ebola monkeys. In short, if it’s violent or a tool to create violence it is kind of my thing. I have written a few thousand articles on the dry encyclopedia side for such websites as GUNS.com, Univesity of Guns, Outdoor Hub, History Times, Big Game Hunter, Glock Forum, Firearms Talk.com, and Combat Forums; as well as for print publications like England Expects, and Strike First Strike Fast. Several magazines such as Sea Classics, Military Historian and Collector, Mississippi Sportsman and Warship International have carried my pieces. Additionally I am on staff as a naval consultant and writer for Eye Spy Intelligence Magazine. Currently I am working on several book projects including an alternative history novel about the US-German War of 1916, and a biography of Southern gadfly and soldier of fortune Bennett Doty. My first novel, about the coming zombie apocalypse was released in 2012 by Necro Publications and can be found at Amazon.com as was the prequel, Chimera-44. I am currently working on book two of that series: "Pirates of the Zombie Coast." In my day job I am a contractor for the US federal government in what could best be described as the ‘Force Protection’ field. In this I am an NRA-certified firearms, and less-than-lethal combat instructor.

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