Warship Wednesday, Sep 25, 2019: The Unsung Hero of Dutch Harbor at 100

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday, Sep 25, 2019: The Unsung Hero of Dutch Harbor at 100

3 US Navy PT-boats Aleutians in June 1943 eaplane tender GILLIS AVD12 PBY Catalina Higgins boats Mk 19 torpedo tubes.

Official USN Photographs (National Archives) 80-G-K-9454 (Color).

Here we see three, in a beautiful original color photograph, a trio of Higgins-type PT-boats belonging to Motor Torpedo Squadron 13, moored alongside the old seaplane tender destroyer, USS Gillis (AVD12, ex-DD260) in Casco Cove, Massacre Bay, Attu Island, Aleutians, 21  June 1943. Note the PBY-5 Catalina flying-boat astern of our aging tin can.

One of the massive fleets of Clemson-class flush decker destroyers, like most of her sisters, Gillis came too late for the Great War. An expansion of the almost identical Wickes-class destroyers with a third more fuel capacity to enable them to escort a convoy across the Atlantic without refueling, the Clemsons were sorely needed to combat the pressing German submarine threat of the Great War. At 1,200-tons and with a top speed of 35 knots, they were brisk vessels ready for the task.

USS Gillis is the only ship named for Commodore John P. Gillis and RADM James Henry Gillis.

Commodore John P. Gillis was a native of Wilmington, Delaware. He fought in the Mexican-American War where he was captured at Tuxpan. Subsequently, between 1853 and 1854, he sailed with Perry to open Japan to the West. Gilles later served in the Civil War by providing support to the Union blockade effort, commanding the warships Seminole, Monticello, and Ossipee, in turn.

RADM James Henry Gillis (USMA 1854), a Pennsylvania native, during the Civil War, commanded Michigan, Franklin, the flagship of the European Squadron, Lackawanna, Minnesota, and Hartford, the flagship of the Pacific Squadron before retiring from the Navy in 1893 “having never lost a man at sea.”

USS Gillis was built by the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp., Quincy, Mass. and commissioned 3 September 1919, LCDR Webb Trammell in command– some 100 years ago this month.

Destroyer USS Gillis (DD-260), 29 May 1919, Fore River Shipyard, Quincy, Massachusetts.

Her peacetime service was brief. Gillis sailed from Newport, R.I., 17 December 1919 and moored at San Diego 20 January 1920. She joined the Pacific Fleet Destroyer Force in tactics and maneuvers along the West Coast until decommissioned at San Diego 26 May 1922.

NH 53731

In all, Gillis spent just under two years with the fleet in her first stint on active duty.

Gillis (DD-260) Laid up at San Diego, California, circa 1929 in rusty and crusty condition. Photographed by Lieutenant Commander Don P. Moon, USN. Note the ship’s rusty condition. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1973. NH 78286

When the drums of war started beating in Europe and Asia in the late 1930s, Gillis was recommissioned in ordinary 28 June 1940, then soon reclassified as seaplane tender destroyer AVD-12, a mission that importantly saw her fitted with an early radar set. Following conversion, which included swapping out her torpedo tubes for aviation store space and some extra AAA guns and depth charges, she was placed in full commission at San Francisco, 25 March 1941.

USS Gillis (AVD-12) Photograph dated 14 February 1941. The ship appears to be painted in Camouflage Measure One. Catalog #: 80-G-13141

As noted by DANFS:

Gillis was assigned as tender to Patrol Wing 4, Aircraft Scouting Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. In the following months she performed plane guard patrol between San Diego and Seattle with time out for aircraft tending duties at Sitka, Alaska (14-17 June); Dutch Harbor and Kodiak (15-31 July). After overhaul in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard she returned to Kodiak 16 October 1941 to resume tending of amphibious patrol planes in Alaskan waters. She was serving at Kodiak when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Just six months later, she was at rest in Dutch Harbor on the morning of 3 June 1942. Almost simultaneously with their attack on Midway, a strong task force under Japanese RADM Kakuji Kakuta, comprising the carriers Ryujo (10,000 tons) and Jun’yo (25,000 tons) as well as their escorts and a naval landing force, attacked the Aleutians in Alaska.

But Gillis had the upper hand.

In the harbor that morning with the two old flush-deck destroyers King and Talbot, the submarine S-27, Coast Guard cutter Onondaga, and the U.S. Army transports President Fillmore and Morlen, Gillis had the advantage of radar and her operator picked up the incoming Japanese airstrike at 0540. With that, she and the other ships weighed anchor and stood out with all hands at battle stations. Likewise, the Army detachment at nearby Fort Mears was alerted.

Had they been sunk at their moorings and Dutch Harbor more badly damaged, the effort to keep/hold/retake the Aleutians would have surely been a tougher task, diverting key U.S. assets from other theaters– such as Guadalcanal.

Further, the Japanese, in turn, got a bloody nose that morning from the old school 3-inch M1918 AAA guns and .50 cal water-cooled Browning of Arkansas National Guard’s 206th Coast Artillery (Anti-Aircraft), which splashed a few Japanese planes. Meanwhile, a PBY that Gillis was tending stitched up 19-year-old PO Tadayoshi Koga’s Zero (which crashed and was recovered in remarkable condition– an intelligence coup) and a group of Army Col. John Chennault’s P-40s out of Unamak accounted for a few more. The Gillis claimed two planes shot down. No ship was damaged.

Koga’s Zero

Not a bad day’s work for an isolated outpost.

Three days later, while on air-sea rescue patrol, Gillis made three depth charge runs on an underwater sound contact.

DANFS= “A Japanese submarine violently broached the surface revealing its conning tower and propeller, then disappeared. Gillis was unable to regain contact. She was credited with damaging this underseas raider in the combat area off Umak Island.”

Starting on June 9, PBYs of VP-41, operating from Dutch Harbor, initiated what became known as the “Kiska Blitz,” a series of extreme long-range shuttle attack bombing missions by the flying boats of PatWing Four to plaster the Japanese ships at that occupied Aleutian island, using Gillis, which had forward-deployed closer to the action, at Nazan Bay off Atka island. This took amazing 48-hour sorties with the old tender providing fuel, hot meals and extra 250-pound bombs to the Catalinas until she was out of bombs to give. This lasted for several days, with Catalinas of VPB-42 and 43, until a Japanese scout plane discovered the seaplane tender and her position was compromised.

At least one PBY of VB-135 on occasion dropped 92 empty beer bottles on the Japanese at Kiska. The aircrew had discovered the bottles made a disconcerting whistling noise as they fell through the air.

This drawing was made by the intelligence units of the U.S. 11th Air Force, showing a dual Imperial Japanese Navy Type 11 Early Warning Radar site on the captured Alaskan island of Kiska in Oct 1942. It was built by the Japanese in response to the PBY blitz.

On June 13, before retiring from Atka, Gillis was ordered to carry out a “scorched earth” policy, setting fire to all buildings and a local Aleut village to leave nothing of use to the Japanese. She later fought off a sortie from three four-engine Mavis bombers from Kiska while in Kuluk Bay, Adak. To her brood, she added the plywood PT-boats of MTBRon 13.

Higgins 78-foot torpedo boats of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 13 (MTBRon 13) moored in Attu, Alaska, Jul 1943. Note PT-75 and PT-78 nested outboard of their squadron-mate and a PBY Catalina patrol plane taking off. 80-G-475727

After that, joined by four other tenders, Gillis formed the mothership backbone of Patrol Squadrons 41, 43, 51, 62; consisting of 11 PBY flying boats and 20 PBY-5As. By October 1943, however, the other tenders were withdrawn, and she was the only one in operative condition forward deployed to the Aleutians.

USS Gillis (AVD-12) leaving ARD-6 Dutch Harbor, Alaska 80-G-386650

With the theatre dying down, by April 1944 Gillis departed Dutch Harbor for the West Coast where she was given an overhaul and served as a plane guard off San Diego. She was then ordered forward into the Pacific to rejoin the shooting war.

She then sailed with RADM M. L. Deyo’s Gunfire and Covering Force, en route via the Marshalls, Marianas, and Ulithi for the Invasion of Okinawa, arriving off Kerama Retto 25 March 1945. There, Gillis guarded minesweepers and stood by UDT teams clearing approaches to the western beaches of Okinawa. After invasion forces stormed ashore 1 April, she tended observation and patrol planes at Kerama Retto and performed air-sea rescue patrol.

USS Relief -AH-1 In a Western Pacific Harbor, probably at the time of the Okinawa Campaign, circa April 1945. USS Gillis -AVD-12- is in the left background Catalog #: 80-G-K-3707

On 28 April, Gillis departed Okinawa in the screen of USS Makassar Strait, bound via Guam to San Pedro Bay, Philippine Islands. She returned by the same route in the escort screen of Wake Island (CVE-65). That carrier-launched planes 29 June to land bases on Okinawa and Gillis helped escort her back to Guam 3 July 1945.

Gillis won two battle stars, for escort and antisubmarine operations in the American area (1941-44) and Okinawa.

Gillis departed Guam for home 8 July 1945. She arrived at San Pedro, Calif., 28 July and decommissioned there 15 October 1945. Her name was struck from the Navy List 1 November 1945. She was sold to NASSCO, Treasure Island, CA, for scrapping 29 January 1946.

As for her sisters, seven Clemsons were lost at the disaster at Honda Point in 1923, and 18 (including six used by the British) were lost in WWII including one, USS Stewart (DD-224), which was famously raised by the Japanese and used in their Navy only to be recaptured by the USN and given a watery grave after the war. Those four-pipers not sold off in the 1930s or otherwise sent to Davy Jones were scrapped wholesale in the months immediately after WWII. Sister USS Hatfield (DD-231) decommissioned 13 December 1946 and was sold for scrap 9 May 1947 to NASSCO, the last of her kind in the Navy.

The final Clemson afloat, USS Aulick (DD-258), joined the Royal Navy as HMS Burnham (H82) in 1940 as part of the “Destroyers for Bases” deal. Laid up in 1944, she was allocated for scrapping on 3 December 1948.

None are preserved and only the scattered wrecks in the Western Pacific, Honda Point, the Med and Atlantic endure.


USS Gillis (DD-260/AVD-12): Outboard profile from Booklet of General Plans (NARA) 117877196

1,215 tons (normal)
1,308 tons (full load)
Length: 314 ft. 4.5 in
Beam: 30 ft. 11.5 in
Draft: 9 ft. 4 in
4 × boilers, 300 psi (2,100 kPa) saturated steam
2 geared steam turbines
27,600 hp (20,600 kW)
2 shafts
Speed: 35.5 knots (65.7 km/h)
Range: 4,900 nmi (9,100 km) @ 15 kn (28 km/h)
Crew: (USN as commissioned)
8 officers
8 chief petty officers
106 enlisted
4 x 4?/50cal guns
1 x 3″/23AA
12 × 21-inch torpedo tubes (4 × 3) (533 mm)

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