Warship Wednesday Dec. 7, 2016: The eclipsing old bird of Battleship Row
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. 7, 2016: The eclipsing old bird of Battleship Row
Here we see the Lapwing (“old bird”)-class minesweeper-turned-seaplane tender USS Avocet (AVP-4) from atop a building at Naval Air Station Ford Island, looking toward the Navy Yard. USS Nevada (BB-36) is at right, with her bow afire. Beyond her is the burning USS Shaw (DD-373). Smoke at left comes from the destroyers Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375), ablaze in Drydock Number One. The day, of course, is December 7, 1941 and you can see the gunners aboard Avocet looking for more Japanese planes (they had already smoked one) at about the time the air raid ended.
Inspired by large seagoing New England fishing trawlers, the Lapwings were 187-foot long ships that 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″/23 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 Avocet, named after a long-legged, web-footed shore bird found in western and southern states– the first such naval vessel to carry the moniker. Laid down as Minesweeper No. 19 on 13 September 1917 at Baltimore, Maryland by the Baltimore Drydock & Shipbuilding Co, she was commissioned just over a year later on 17 September 1918– some seven weeks before the end of the Great War.
After spending eight months assigned to the Fifth Naval District, where she drug for possible German mines up and down the Eastern seaboard, she landed her 3-inchers and prepared to ship for the North Sea where she would pitch in to clear the great barrage of mines sown there to shut off the Kaiser’s U-boats from the Atlantic. Setting out with sisterships Quail (Minesweeper No. 15) and Lark (Minesweeper No. 21), the three sweeps made it to the Orkney Islands by 14 July 1919 where they joined Whippoorwill (Minesweeper No. 35) and Avocet was made flag of the four-ship division.
Spending the summer sweeping (and almost being blown sky high by a British contact mine that bumped up against her hull) Avocet sailed back home in October, rescuing the crew of the sinking Spanish schooner Marie Geresee on the way.
It would not be her last rescue.
After being welcomed by the SECNAV and inspected at Hampton Roads, Avocet would transfer to the Pacific for the rest of her career. Assigned to the Asiatic Fleet’s Minesweeping Detachment in 1921, she would become a familiar sight at Cavite in the Philippines where she was decommissioned 3 April 1922 and laid up.
Reactivated in 1925, she was converted to an auxiliary aircraft tender taking care of the seaplanes of VT-20 and VT-5A (with men from that squadron living on board a former coal barge, YC-147, moored alongside) as well as visiting British flying boats and Army amphibian aircraft at Bolinao Harbor while putting to sea on occasion to tow battle raft targets for fleet gunnery practice.
In 1928, she got her teeth back when she was rearmed with a single more modern 3” /50 gun, and survived being grounded during a typhoon in Force 8 winds.
By 1932, Avocet was transferred to Hawaii to support Pearl Harbor-based flying boats. There, she was the first to support seaplanes at the remote French Frigate Shoals and outlying lagoons at Laysan and Nihoa as well as Midway.
In 1934, the aging tender served as flagship for Rear Adm. Alfred W. Johnson and was used in expeditionary missions in Nicaragua, crossing into the Caribbean to Haiti, then back to the Pacific. Talk about diverse!
In August 1934, Avocet supported VP-7F and VP- 9F in Alaskan waters with early Douglas PD-1 floatplanes to test the ability of tenders to provide advance base support in cold weather conditions.
As Trans-Pacific clippers came into their own, Avocet increasingly found herself in remote uninhabited tropical atolls, exploring their use for seaplane operations. This led her to bringing some 2-tons of high explosive to Johnson Atoll in 1936 to help blast away coral for a land base there.
On 6 May 1937, Avocet embarked the official 16-member National Geographic-U.S. Navy Eclipse Expedition under Capt. Julius F. Hellweg, USN (Ret.), the superintendent of the Naval Observatory to observe the total solar eclipse set to occur on June 8, 1937 with its peak somewhere over Micronesia.
The expedition took aboard 150 cases of instruments, 10,000 ft. of lumber and 60 bags of cement, remaining at sea for 42 days. In the end, they would watch the eclipse from Canton Island in the Phoenix chain, midway between British Fiji and Hawaii.
According to DANFS, the event went down like this:
While returning to Enderbury to land observers on 24 May, the ship remained at Canton for the eclipse expedition through 8 June. Joined by the British sloop HMS Wellington on 26 May, with men from a New Zealand expedition embarked, Avocet observed the total eclipse of the sun at 0836 on 8 June 1937. Sailing for Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of 9 June, the ship arrived at her destination on the 16th, disembarking her distinguished passengers upon arrival.
According to others, when HMS Wellington arrived at Canton Island– whose ownership was disputed at the time between the U.S. and HMs government– she fired a shot over Avocet‘s bow when the latter refused to cede the choicest anchorage spot to the British vessel after which both captains agreed to “cease fire” until instructions could be received from their respective governments.
While this may or may not have happened, what is for sure is there was an exchange of official diplomatic cables about the interaction on Canton that in the end led to a British reoccupation of the island in August 1937.
Where was Avocet by then? She was supporting the huge flattop USS Lexington (CV-2) by transferring avgas to her at Lahaina Roads for her aviators to use in searching the Pacific for the lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart, that’s where.
Then came more seaplane operations, supporting in turn the early Douglas T2D twin-engine torpedo bombers, Consolodated P2Y, and Martin PM2s of VP-4F, 6, 8 and 10 at varying times as well as the smaller single-engined T3/T4Ms of several VT squadrons while searching for lost flying boats including the famed Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-42B “Samoan Clipper.”
Avocet was in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 moored port side to the NAS dock where she had a view of Battleship Row.
At about 0745 on Sunday, 7 December 1941, Avocet‘s security watch reported Japanese planes bombing the seaplane hangars at the south end of Ford Island, and sounded general quarters. Her crew promptly brought up ammunition to her guns, and the ship opened fire soon thereafter. The first shot from Avocet‘s starboard 3-inch gun scored a direct hit on a Nakajima B5N2 carrier attack plane that had just scored a torpedo hit on the battleship California (BB-44), moored nearby. The Nakajima, from the aircraft carrier Kaga‘s air group, caught fire, slanted down from the sky, and crashed on the grounds of the naval hospital, one of five such planes lost by Kaga that morning.
Initially firing at torpedo planes, Avocet‘s gunners shifted their fire to dive bombers attacking ships in the drydock area at the start of the forenoon watch. Then, sighting high altitude bombers overhead, they shifted their fire again. Soon thereafter, five bombs splashed in a nearby berth, but none exploded.
From her veritable ringside seat, Avocet then witnessed the inspiring sortie of the battleship Nevada (BB-36), the only ship of her type to get underway during the attack. Seeing the dreadnought underway, after clearing her berth astern of the burning battleship Arizona (BB-39), dive-bomber pilots from Kaga singled her out for destruction, 21 planes attacking her from all points of the compass. Avocet‘s captain, Lt. William C. Jonson, Jr., marveled at the Japanese precision, writing later that he had never seen “a more perfectly executed attack.” Avocet‘s gunners added to the barrage to cover the gallant battleship’s passage down the harbor.
Although the ship ceased fire at 1000, much work remained to be done in the wake of the devastating surprise attack. She had expended 144 rounds of 3-inch and 1,750 of .30 caliber [that’s a lot of 47-round Lewis machine gun drums!] in the battle against the attacking planes, and had suffered only two casualties: a box of ammunition coming up from the magazines had fallen on the foot of one man, and a piece of flying shrapnel had wounded another. Also during the course of the action, a sailor from the small seaplane tender Swan (AVP-7), unable to return to his own ship, had reported on board for duty, and was immediately assigned a station on a .30-caliber machine gun.
Fires on those ships had set oil from ruptured battleship fuel tanks afire, and the wind, from the northeast, was slowly pushing it toward Avocet‘s berth. Accordingly, the seaplane tender got underway at 1045, and moored temporarily to the magazine island dock at 1110, awaiting further orders, which were not long in coming. At 1115, she was ordered to help quell the fires still blazing on board California. Underway soon thereafter, she spent 20 minutes in company with the submarine rescue ship Widgeon (ASR-1) in fighting fires on board the battleship before Avocet was directed to proceed elsewhere.
Underway from alongside California at 1215, she reached the side of the gallant Nevada 25 minutes later, ordered to assist in beaching the battleship and fighting her fires. Mooring to Nevada‘s port bow at 1240, Avocet went slowly ahead, pushing her aground at channel buoy no. 19, with fire hoses led out to her forward spaces and her signal bridge. For two hours, Avocet fought Nevada‘s fires, and succeeded in quelling them.
No sooner had she completed that task than more work awaited her. At 1445, she got underway and steamed to the assistance of the light cruiser Raleigh (CL-7), which had been torpedoed alongside Ford Island early in the attack and was fighting doggedly to remain on an even keel. Avocet reached the stricken cruiser’s side at 1547, and remained there throughout the night, providing steam and electricity.
That night, at 2105, Avocet again went to general quarters as jittery gunners throughout the area fired on aircraft overhead. Tragically, these proved to be American, a flight of six fighters from the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6). Four were shot down; three pilots died.
Avocet was awarded one battlestar for her actions at Pearl Harbor.
However, her war was not over.
Augmented with 20mm guns, she was assigned to support the PBY flying boats of Fleet Air Wing 4, she arrived in Alaskan waters in July 1942. Despite the often bad flying weather, the Catalina-equipped squadrons tended by Avocet carried out extensive patrols, as well as bombing and photo missions over Japanese-held Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutians.
She came to the rescue of the torpedoed USS Casco (AVP-12), landed Navy Seebees and Army combat engineers on barren Alaska coastline, and served as a guard and rescue ship station throughout the Aleutians Campaign where she helped feed and care for Patrol Squadrons VP-41, 43, 51, and 62 (totaling some 11 PBY and 20 PBY-5A amphibious flying boats) which provided support for the cruisers and destroyers of Task Force Tare.
Avocet would meet the Japanese in combat at least one more time when on 19 May 1944, she sighted what she identified as a twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 “Betty” land attack plane west of Attu. The plane strafed the tiny ship and Avocet opened up with all she had, but both sides managed to retire from the field of battle without casualties.
She only left Alaskan waters in October, a month after the end of hostilities. When inspected on 20 November 1945 she was found beyond repair and soon decommissioned and struck from the Navy List.
Avocet was sold to a shipping company who used her as a hulk until at least 1950, and she is presumed scrapped sometime after.
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)/USC&GS Discoverer 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. (Update, she is still apparently in the channel, in pretty bad shape)
As for Avocet‘s name, it was given in 1953 to the converted USS LCI(L)-653, which was pressed into service as a minehunter and sonar training ship for the Naval Electronics Laboratory out of San Fran. She was disposed of in 1960 and there has not been an “Avocet” on the Navy List since.
About the only tangible reminder of Avocet is the series of postal cancellations issued aboard her during the 1934 flying boat inaugural in Hawaii and the 1937 solar eclipse at Canton Island.
Her old “foe” at Canton, HMS Wellington, survived WWII and since 1947 has been preserved as the floating headquarters ship on the River Thames in London for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners.
Still, we can remember Avocet when we see the sun, or when the calendar hits December 7 each year, as the little unsung tender likely saved the lives of many grateful bluejackets and Marines in the inferno that was Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago today.
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; Upton 85 by 1936
Armament: 2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts as commissioned
1 x 3″/50 DP single
4 Lewis guns
1 x 3″/50 DP single
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts
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Felipe Larrazabal wreck still in place as of 2015: http://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?240132
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