Warship Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021: A Minesweeper Dressed as a Frigate for Halloween
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, Sept. 29, 2021: A Minesweeper Dressed as a Frigate for Halloween
Here we see the Valle-class patrulla oceánica ARM Valentín Gómez Farías (PO-110) of the Armada de México stirring the bottom as she gets underway for a regular offshore patrol circa 2020. In the background, far more modern Durango-class OPVs remain at the dock, content for the old lady to take the watch. Now in her 79th year afloat, the former Auk-class minesweeper is still on the job.
The Auks were a prolific series (95 hulls) of oceangoing escort minesweepers that were essentially slight upgrades of the preceding USS Raven (AM-55) and USS Osprey (AM-56), the latter of which was the first ship sunk off Normandy on D-Day. Some 1,250 tons, these 221-footers could make 18 knots on their diesel-electric plant and carried a 3-inch gun forward as well as a couple of 40mm Bofors AAA mounts amidships, their sterns clear for sweeping gear. Added to this were 20mm Oerlikons and depth charges, giving these ships an armament roughly equivalent to the larger 2,500-ton Tacoma-class patrol frigates or 1,800-ton Buckley-class destroyer escorts of the day, which is impressive.
While class leader USS Auk (AM-57) was built at the Norfolk Navy Yard, the other 94 were farmed out to at least nine small commercial yards around the country. Easy to construct, they were turned out rapidly.
Long before she was Farías, the subject of our tale was launched as USS Starling (AM-64) by the General Engineering and Drydock Co., Alameda, on 11 April 1942; and commissioned on 21 December 1942 after a 17 month construction period. As with all American minesweepers of the era, she carried the name of a bird and was the second such vessel on the Naval List to do so, with the previous USS Starling being a 141-foot fishing boat converted during the Great War for use as a coastal minecraft.
The only known WWII-era photo of Starling:
As a well-armed minesweeper built on the West Coast in 1942, it was obvious Starling would soon be deployed to the meatgrinder along the front lines of the War in the South Pacific.
Joining a convoy to Pearl Harbor in January 1943, she was soon in heavy use throughout the Solomons, and Guadalcanal was involved in patrol work, coastal escort duty, and, of course, clearing mines when found. Working with sisterships USS Dash (AM-88) and Constant (AM-86), she swept Ferguson Passage off Kolombangara in late October, destroying at least 135 Japanese mines. The group then cleared the minefield in Kula Gulf and swept Vella Gulf into November.
Then came more convoy duty well into mid-1944 when Starling transitioned to the Southern Attack Force for Operation Forager, the amphibious assault against Japanese-occupied Guam, and the follow-on Mariana and Palau Islands campaign through mid-October.
Off Guam in June as part of the anti-submarine screen for Task Group 53.3, she spent much of her time on alert against Japanese airstrikes.
This brought comment by her skipper in the report for the landings of:
After a refit on at Mare Island– that included a radar installation– Starling sailed for the Marshall Islands in February 1945 to join Minesweeper Group I, TG 52.4, for the invasion of the Ryukyus and was off Okinawa by early April. Next came a full month of aggressive zigzagging, patrolling station, constant underwater sound search (she dodged a torpedo track on 8 April), night radar search, and fighting at every opportunity, with the crew never far from their stations. There, besides supporting the landings with Mine Squadron Five, she was engaged in no less than three documented anti-aircraft actions.
The first, at sunrise on 6 April, saw her 40mm, 20mm, and .50 caliber batteries open on a Japanese A6M5 (Zeke) that dived on the ship from 5,000 feet and caught fire as it plunged to her deck, ultimately crashing 3,000 feet behind the steaming minesweeper. The sweeper recovered the body of a Japanese Navy petty officer and transferred the papers collected from the body to an intelligence group on the nearby command ship USS Eldorado (AGC-11) then buried the man at sea with full military honors.
The second attack, by three Japanese Yokosuka P1Y Ginga (Frances) bombers who approached on the night of 22 April at an altitude of 1,000 feet, saw Starling open up with everything she had, expending three 3-inch, 18 40mm, 250 20mm, and 40 .50 cal rounds inside of eight seconds. The results, one Frances splashed down 25 yards dead ahead of our minesweeper, which suffered no damage herself.
The third attack, a morning rush by a sole Japanese Nakajima B5N (Kate) bomber approaching just 300 feet off the deck on 4 May saw the plane “disintegrated and splashed” in a hail of 3-inch and 40mm fire. The Kate had initially approached a nearby troopship off Kerama Retto, but Starling’s fire seemingly caused it to divert and go after the minesweeper.
Whereas several destroyers survived hits from kamikazes, some even after multiple strikes, such damage would be fatal for a 221-foot minesweeper. Case in point, one of Starling’s sister ship, USS Swallow (AM-65), was sunk by a kamikaze near Okinawa, 22 April 1945– the same day Starling fought off the three Frances– sent to the bottom just three minutes after the Japanese plane impacted. Another sister, USS Sentinel (AM-113), was lost due to German Messerschmitt Me-210 bombers off Anzio.
Starling also came to the rescue while off Okinawa. When the transport USS Pinkney (APH-2) was rocked by an explosion on her stern from a low-flying kamikaze on 28 April, our minesweeper moved in to assist in firefighting, recover casualties, provide AAA screen for future attacks, and cover the whole scene in a smokescreen cover.
After her time in the barrel, Starling then sailed for the Philippines. From Leyte, the ship moved to Iwo Jima and back to Okinawa which she reached on 18 August, three days after hostilities ended. She then switched to post-war clean-up, sweeping Japanese sea mines off the China coast, from 7 September to 30 October before switching operations to Japan’s home waters for similar duties throughout the rest of the year.
Mothballs and a new life
No less than 11 Auks were lost during the war to a variety of causes including mines and submarines. The butcher’s bill carried USS Skill (AM-115), torpedoed by U-593 off the North African coast in 1943, and three sweepers in British service lost to German midget subs off Normandy.
With 21 other sisters transferred to overseas allies for good, the Navy was left with 63 remaining Auks in 1946. One of these, ex-USS Toucan (AM-387), sailing with the Republic of China Navy as ROCS Chien Men (PCE-45), was lost in an engagement with Chicom naval assets in 1965.
Starling received three battle stars for World War II service and was placed “in reserve, out of commission,” on 15 May 1946 in San Diego. Towed to Long Beach in 1948, she lingered in mothballs where she was, along with the rest of her class, administratively reclassified a Fleet Minesweeper (Steel Hull) and received hull number MSF-64 in 1955.
Struck from the Naval Register 1 July 1972, ex-USS Starling (MSF-64) was sold to the Republic of Mexico on 16 February 1973 along with nine of her sisters. The Mexicans apparently really liked the class as they had already bought 10 laid-up Auks on 19 September 1972. Together, the 19 WWII-era escort minesweepers, their armament reduced to just the forward 3-inch gun and two 40mm Bofors, would be more patrol craft than mine warfare ships.
While under a Mexican flag, the Auks were first designated as corbetas (corvettes) with “C” pennant numbers, then as a Guardacostas Cañonero, a coastal gunboat, with IG pennant numbers. Starling, therefore, became ARM Valentín Gómez Farías (IG-11) and has served in the Mexican Pacific fleet ever since, spending her entire life in that body of water.
- USS Starling (AM-64) transferred as ARM Valentín Gómez Farías (C79/IG11/P110)
- USS Herald (AM-101) as ARM Mariano Matamoros (C??/IG17/P1??)
- USS Pilot (AM-104) as ARM Juan Aldama (C85/IG18/P116)
- USS Pioneer (AM-105/MSF-105) as ARM Leandro Valle (C70/IG01/P101)
- USS Sage (AM-111) as ARM Hermenegildo Galeana (C86/IG19/P117)
- USS Sway (AM-120) as ARM Ignacio Altamirano (C80/IG12/P111)
- USS Symbol (AM-123) as ARM Guillermo Prieto (C71/IG02/P102)
- USS Threat (AM-124) as ARM Francisco Zarco (C81/IG13/P112)
- USS Velocity (AM-128/MSF-128) as ARM Ignacio L. Vallarta (C82/IG14/P113)
- USS Champion (AM-314/MSF-314) as ARM Mariano Escobedo (C72/G03/P103)
- USS Chief (AM-315/MSF-315) as ARM Jesús González Ortega (C83)
- USS Competent (AM-316) as ARM Ponciano Arriaga (C??/IG04/P1??)
- USS Defense (AM-317) as ARM Manuel Doblado (C73/IG05/P104)
- USS Devastator (AM-318) as ARM Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada (C74/IG06/P105)
- USS Gladiator (AM-319/MSF-319) as ARM Santos Degollado (C75/IG07/P106)
- USS Spear (AM-322) as ARM Ignacio de la Llave (C76/IG08/P107)
- USS Roselle (AM-379/MSF-379) as ARM Melchor Ocampo (C78)/Melchor Ocampo (IG10)/Manuel Gutiérrez Zamora (P109)
- USS Scoter (AM-381) as ARM Gutiérrez Zamora (C84)/ARM Melchor Ocampo IG16/ Felipe Xicoténcatl (P115)
In 1994, Starling/Farías was updated to pennant GC-79 after the ship received a modernization that included two new Caterpillar 3516B diesel engines, commercial navigation radars, marine GPS and electronics; and an elevated stern deck to support a light helicopter. The platforms were for the dozen 12 Bo105-CBS helicopters the Mexican Navy acquired from MBB in West Germany in the late 1980s.
Farías later changed in 2001 with the redesignation of a Patrulla Oceánica, pennant PO-110.
Today, at least eight of the 19 Auks in Mexican service have long since been retired, their components used to keep their re-engined sisters in operation.
However, 11 of these hardy mine boats are still in service, known as the Valle class although Valle herself was hulked in 2008. Those still around have had a similar upgrade to the same helicopter deck/Catapiller diesel format as Farías.
Mexico is the last country to operate the Auks in any form, with the Philippines retiring the last of their two examples in 2020. They remain hard at work in trying to root out smugglers crossing Mexican waters and engage in multinational exercises such as RIMPAC and UNITAS frequently.
The Krogen 42 trawler liveaboard MY Dauntless, during its circumnavigation of the globe in 2018, was the recipient of a literal “shot across the bow” from the old minesweeper turned OPV that “splashed a hundred feet off our bow. Thick black smoke poured from the funnel of the WWII vintage ship as she pushed thru the seas at her full speed of 18 knots.”
Kinda nice to know the old girl is still out there.
As far as her echoes in the U.S., I can find no veterans group, as there are likely few if any of her WWII crew still around on this side of Poseidon. The only ghost of her in the country is her engineering drawings and war diaries in the National Archives.
Displacement 890 t.
Length 221′ 2″
Beam 32′ 2″
Draft 10′ 9″
Propulsion: Two 1,559shp ALCO 539 diesel-electric engines, Westinghouse single reduction gear, two shafts.
Speed 18.1 kts
One 3″/50 Mark 20 dual-purpose gun mount
2 x 40mm gun mounts, single
8 x 20mm guns, single
2 x depth charge tracks
5 x depth charge projectors
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