Category Archives: US Navy

Santa’s Reindeer, TBM edition

December 25, 1943: “On Christmas Day, Santa Claus arrives aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6) in a dive bomber with six torpedo planes bearing names of his steeds, to distribute gifts. Lt. Louis L. Bangs (Air Group 10) plays the part. ‘Vexen’ in background.”

National Archives 80-G-207814 via NARA https://catalog.archives.gov/id/148728468

Several other TBMs of “Santa’s” team were photographed that day as well. 

According to DANFS, Enterprise began December 1943 in heavy action, raiding Japanese shipping around Kwajalein and Wotje Atolls at the close of Operation Galvanic— the Tarawa campaign– with her airwing damaging the light cruisers Isuzu and Nagara and sinking the cargo ship Tateyama Maru, among others.

Returning to Pearl Harbor on 9 December, she “stood down the channel and trained two days before Christmas 1943, and early in the New Year (4–7 January 1944) qualified planes flying from NAS Punnene. The ship’s next action occurred during Operation Flintlock — the occupation of the Marshalls.”

As for “Santa,” Bangs, a Kansan, would go on to earn the Navy Cross with VB-10 from Enterprise’s decks in the Philippines Sea just six months after the above image was snapped. Turns out, Kris Kringle could fight.

Magnolia Christmas in the Big Apple

New Yorkers gazing at the brand new New Mexico-class dreadnought USS Mississippi (Battleship No. 41) as she lies at anchor in the Hudson River for the Great War victory fleet review, Christmas Eve, 1918.

Note the red flag and two stars of a Junior Rear Admiral flying from the main. Photo by Underwood & Underwood. National Archives Identifier: 45513317 Local Identifier: 165-WW-337D-7.

Under the command of CAPT William A. Moffett (USNA 1890, MoH recipient, and future “Air Admiral”), at the time of these images, she was the newest U.S. battleship in commission at the time.

“A deck view of the new MISSISSIPPI, one of the mightiest fighting ships afloat December 25, 1918.” NH 123911

Commissioned 18 December 1917, she had spent her first world war on a series of training and workups along the East Coast and did not have a chance to fire a shot in anger.

Her second world war would be a lot less tranquil.

Christmas at Sea

The ship-rigged screw sloop-of-war USS Monongahela under sail, with starboard studding sails spread in very light wind, while serving as U.S. Naval Academy Practice Ship in 1894-99. Courtesy of Edward Page, 1979. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 89732

Christmas at Sea (by Robert Louis Stevenson)

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor’wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ’twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.

All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets, and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For very life and nature we tacked from head to head.

We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made we brought the North Head close aboard:
So’s we saw the cliffs and houses, and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.

The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every ‘long-shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.

The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessèd Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.

O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.

And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way,
To be here and hauling frozen ropes on blessèd Christmas Day.

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
‘All hands to loose top gallant sails,’ I heard the captain call.
‘By the Lord, she’ll never stand it,’ our first mate, Jackson, cried.
… ‘It’s the one way or the other, Mr. Jackson,’ he replied.

She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.

And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Warship Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020: All I Want for Christmas is a New SSK

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time 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, Dec. 23, 2020: All I Want for Christmas is a New SSK

Photo via the Taiwanese MNA

Here we see the beautifulTench-class diesel attack sub, ROCS Hai Shih (SS-791) of the Republic of China Navy during a celebration at Keelung Port last summer. Formerly USS Cutlass (SS-478), the Taiwanese boat is the oldest operational submarine in the world, at some 76 years young, and is set to continue to hold that title for a few more years.

Designed by the Bureau of Ships in conjunction with the Portsmouth Navy Yard and Electric Boat, the Tenches were the epitome of WWII U.S. Navy fleet boats. Some 311-feet overall, these 2,000-ton boats were an enlarged version of the preceding Balao-class. Strong, with 35-35.7# high-tensile steel pressure hull plating and eight watertight compartments in addition to the conning tower, they had a 400-foot operating depth. Their diesel-electric arrangement allowed a surfaced speed of just over 20-knots and a submerged one of 8.75 while a massive fuel capacity granted an 11,000nm range– enough to span the Pacific.

Some 80 Tenches were planned (some reports say over 120) but most– 51– were canceled in the last stages of the war when it became clear they would not be needed.

Janes’s referred to the class in 1946 somewhat curiously as the Corsair-class.

With construction spread across three yards– Boston NSY, Electric Boat and Portsmouth– the subject of our tale, the first and only U.S. Navy ship to be named after the Cutlass fish, was laid down at the latter (as were most of those that were completed) and commissioned 5 November 1944.

After shakedowns, she headed for the Pacific and left out of Pearl Harbor on her maiden war patrol on 9 August 1945 from Midway. By the night of the 14th she reached the Kurile Islands, some 1,700 miles to the West.

As described in her 17-page patrol report, by 0700 on 15 August, Cutlass received the initial news that the Japanese may be surrendering while surfaced seven miles offshore of the enemy’s coastline.

As noted by a history of Cutlass on a reunion site:

Everyone was at his station when the Chief Radioman yelled up the open hatch from the control room, ‘Sir, they are celebrating, in New York; the war is over”

Nonetheless, Cutlass was still in an active war zone and soon busied her crew with the task of sinking floating mines, a sport she spent the next two weeks pursuing. After detonating one such floating device on the 24th, her log noted, “the explosion came as a surprise because the mine was old, rusty and filled with barnacles.”

Mooring at Midway again on 27 August, Cutlass’s war was effectively over and the next month she departed the Pacific for the East Coast, hosting curious visitors for Navy Day in New York on 24 September.

USS Cutlass, likely in 1948, with only one 40mm gun mounted. USN photo # 80-G-394300 by Cdr. Edward J. Steichen

Spending most of the next two years on a spate of service around the Caribbean– tough duty– she entered Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in March 1949 for modernization.

A New Life, a New Look

She was to become a GUPPY, specifically an SCB 47 GUPPY II series conversion, ditching her topside armament, picking up a new sail, better batteries, and, most importantly, a snorkel.

Of the 48 GUPPY’d WWII diesel boats that were given a second life in the Cold War. Cutlass was one of the 14 Type II conversions

Cutlass (SS-478) port side view, circa the 1950s with stepped “Portsmouth Sail” as an early Guppy type. Photo courtesy of John Hummel, USN (Retired) via Navsource.

In her Cold War career, she spent the early 1950s at Key West, then shifted to Norfolk for the bulk of her career before returning to Florida to cap it. This included hosting President Truman on at least one occasion in March 1950.

Via NARA

Note the differences in sails. Cutlass (SS-478), Trutta (SS-421), Odax (SS-484), Tirante (SS-420), Marlin (SST-2) & Mackerel (SST-1), alongside for inspection at Key West. Wright Langley Collection. Florida Keys Public Libraries. Photo # MM00046694x

USS Cutlass (SS-478) Torpedoman’s Mate Second Class William Meisel prepares to load a torpedo in one of the submarine’s torpedo tubes, circa 1953. Photographed from inside the tube. #: 80-G-688314

Cutlass: Quartermaster Seaman Ronald Petroni and Henry Seibert at the submarine’s diving plane control, circa 1953. 80-G-688318

On 28 June 1961, Cutlass was given the task of testing Mark 16 War Shot torpedoes, by sinking the ex-USS Cassiopeia (AK-75) (Liberty Ship, Melville W. Fuller, Hull No. 504), 100nm off the Virginia Capes. She did so with a brace of four fish, earning the sub the distinction of claiming 10,000 tons on her tally sheet.

She would later receive the partial GUPPY III treatment in the early 1960s to include a tall, streamlined fiberglass sail and fire control upgrades but not the distinctive BQG-4 PUFFS passive ranging sonar. This much-changed her profile for the third time in as many decades. 

USS Cutlass (SS-478), early 1960s NH 82299

Cutlass photographed 9 May 1962, while operating with USS LAKE CHAMPLAIN (CVS-29). USN 1107442

Cutlass (SS-478) at Genoa Italy, 29 June 1968. Note the windows in the sail. Photo courtesy of Carlo Martinelli via Navsource

USS Cutlass (SS-478) photographed circa 1970. NH 82301

Busy throughout the 1950s and 60s, she would hold the line during the Cuban Missile Crisis and deploy to the 6th Fleet on Med cruises at least four times, one of which she would extend by a tour around the Indian Ocean, operating with the Pakistani Navy– a fleet that would go on to use a few of her sisters (losing PNS/M Ghazi, ex-USS Diablo in the Bay of Bengal in 1971).

She ended her career as part of the rusty and crusty GUPPYs of SUBRON12 in Key West, tasked primarily with being a target vessel for destroyers, aircraft, and SSNs to test out their sonar and fire control on, often making daily trips out to the Florida Straits to be the “fox” for the hounds.

An anecdote from that time:

While on these operations, CUTLASS was a target for destroyers going through Refresher Training. During the week CUTLASS would outwit the destroyers by firing beer cans from the signal gun, so as to give the destroyers a false target for their Sonar while the CUTLASS evaded them. Then on Saturday CUTLASS went out to get “Sunk” so as to allow the destroyers to pass their exercise.

On her last Med Cruise in early 1972, she was able to get close enough to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt to fire a signal flare within torpedo distance of her in an exercise, to the reported dismay of FDR’s destroyer screen. It wasn’t just American carriers the 28-year-old diesel boat counted coup upon that cruise, she also came close enough to the Soviet Moskva-class helicopter carrier Leningrad to get a snapshot. 

Nonetheless, she was not long for the U.S. Navy. 

Another New Life

Finally, as SUBRON12 was disbanded and the last GUPPYs were liquidated in the early 1970s, many were gifted to U.S. allies overseas. With that, Cutlass was refurbished, her torpedo tubes sealed, then was decommissioned, struck from the Naval Register, and transferred to Taiwan under terms of the Security Assistance Program, 12 April 1973. 

There, she was renamed Hai Shih (Sea Lion) (SS-1) and was intended to serve as an ASW training platform, essentially an OPFOR for Taiwan’s destroyer and S-2 fleet.

1973 entry in Jane’s, noting that Cutlass and Balao-class near-sister USS Tusk (SS-426), were the country’s first submarines.

As a matter of course, the long-held belief is that the Taiwanese soon got both Cutlass and Tusk’s combat suite up and running with a combination of assistance from freelance Italian experts and West German torpedoes.

While the GUPPY combat record in 1982 wasn’t impressive, it should be noted that even old SSKs can prove extremely deadly in a point defense role of an isolated island chain when operating on home territory. They can basically rest with almost everything but their passive sonar off and wait for an enemy invasion force to get within torpedo range. After all, there are only 13 beaches that are believed suitable for an amphibious landing in Taiwan.

She recently underwent extensive refurbishments of her hull, electronics, and navigational systems to allow her to continue operations for another six years. 

Those tubes sure look well-maintained for being sealed dead weight.

Check out the below video of Cutlass/Hai Shih in action (go to the 2:58 mark).

 

While Taiwan currently has Cutlass on the books until 2026 (Tusk is sidelined as a pier-side trainer) and operates a pair of 1980s vintage Dutch-built Zwaardvis/Hai Lung-class boats, the country is set to produce their own design moving forward and is requesting MK-48 Mod6AT torpedoes and UGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles from the under FMS sales. 

It would be interesting if Cutlass came “home” in 2027 after her then-54-year career with Taipei. At that point, she will be well into her 80s.

As for her remnants in America, the Cold War logbooks, WWII war diaries, and ship drawings of USS Cutlass remain in the National Archives, with many of them digitized. Two of her classmates, the “Fleet Snorkel” converted USS Requin (SS-481) and USS Torsk (SS-423), are preserved as museums in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, respectively. 

A Cutlass reunion site was updated as late as 2018 and has some interesting ship’s lore archived. 

Specs:
(1945)
Displacement: 1,570 tons (std); 1,980 (normal); 2,415 tons submerged
Length: 311 ft. 8 inches
Beam: 27 ft. 3 inches
Operating depth: 400 feet
Propulsion: diesel-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks Morse main generator engines, 5,400HP, two Elliot Motor Co. main motors with 2,740HP, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers.
Speed: 20 surfaced, 10 submerged
Fuel Capacity: 113,510 gal.
Range: 11,000nm @ 10 knots surfaced, 48 hours at 2 knots submerged, 75-day patrol endurance
Complement 7 officers 69 enlisted (planned), actual manning 10 officers, 76 men
Radar: SV. APR and SPR-2 receivers, TN tuning units, AS-125 antenna, SPA Pulse Analyzer, F-19 and F-20 Wave Traps, VD-2 PPI Repeater
Sonar: WFA projector, JP-1 hydrophone
Armament:
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 28 torpedoes max or up to 40 mines
1 x 5″/25 deck gun
2 x 40mm guns
2 x .50 cal. machine guns

(1973, as GUPPY II+)
Displacement: 1,870 tons (std); 2,420 tons submerged
Length: 307.5 ft.
Beam: 27 ft. 3 inches
Propulsion: 3 Fairbanks Morse (4) (FM 38D 8 1/8 x 10) diesels, 2 Elliot electric motors, 504 cell battery, 5400 shp, 2 shafts
Speed: 18 surfaced, 15 submerged
Range:  
Complement: 80
Armament:
10 x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft

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ADM S. Claus

From MCPON

The Department of the Navy issued orders today to ADM S. Claus, recalling him to active duty, with a report date of Dec. 24, 2020. A reservist, with 1,743 years of service, this Naval Aviator specializes in vertical delivery of high-value items. He is carrier flight deck qualified. He is also a Public Affairs Officer.

Also recalled, were LCDR Dasher, Master Chief Dancer, Senior Chief Prancer, LT Vixen, CDR Comet, LCDR Cupid, AW1 Donner, and AW1 Blitzen, Individual Augmentees from the Naval Reserve. ENS Rudolph is also authorized to report for duty; however, he must first successfully complete Carrier Qual training, which he has failed three times.

Although the above Sailors are on orders for only 24 hours, it is anticipated that they will submit a travel claim for 24,901 miles at .56/mile, using a POV. Suitable government transportation is not available.

As a special operations unit, each member is granted a high level of uniform flexibility, as well as relaxed grooming standards. Per diem is authorized and has been modified to include large quantities of hot cocoa and cookies.

This tracks to a degree:

USS New York (Battleship #34), Santa Claus distributing toys to poor children, December 25, 1916

Personnel of USS LEXINGTON celebrate Christmas with make-shift decorations and a firefighting, helmeted Santa Claus., 12/1944 80-G-471841

201208-N-YO638-1007 Lake Charles, La. (Dec. 8, 2020) The U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels, supported the Marine Toys for Tots program Dec. 8th, 2020 by delivering toys and games to families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and recovering from multiple hurricanes in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The team conducted the event in collaboration with Hasbro, Inc., product philanthropy nonprofit organization Good360, and, of course, Santa Claus. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Cody Hendrix)

Somebody lose a sub? Or twice sunk, twice found!

Word from Maryland is that a dive team from Atlantic Wreck Salvage spotted something interesting on their side-scan sonar off the coast of Ocean City. On further research, it appears they have located ex-USS R-8 (Submarine No. 85).

USS R-8 found by Atlantic Wreck Salvage,

The 569/680-ton R-type diesel boat, some 186-feet overall, was laid down in 1918 at Fore River in Quincy, Mass but was completed too late for the Great War.

USS R-8 (SS-85) In a harbor, during the 1920s, with a great view of her 3-inch deck gun. In addition, she carried, as did the rest of her class, four forward torpedo tubes. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph Catalog #: NH 41516

R-8 fitted out at Boston during the fall of 1919 and spent some time in the Gulf of Mexico and points south, operating out of P-cola, prior to transfer to the Pacific Fleet in June 1921. Based at Pearl Harbor for almost 8 years, she notably searched for the missing Dole Flight Aviators in August 1927.

Ordered back to the east coast for inactivation in 1930 at the ripe old age of 11, she was decommissioned 2 May, berthed at Philadelphia until 1936, accidentally sinking at her moorings that February. Raised, the ruined sub was stricken and towed off Hampton Roads in August to be used as a target vessel for an aerial bombing test.

As noted by DANFS, “Four near misses with 100 lb. bombs sank her 71 miles off Cape Henry, Va.”

USS R-8 (SS-85) in near-miss by a 100-pound aircraft bomb during target tests in the Atlantic, 18 August 1936. Splashes around the ship are from bomb casing fragments. NH 85199

Atlantic Wreck Salvage reportedly will continue to document the wreck, which was previously undiscovered.

Goodbye RIVRONs, hello MESF

The Navy announced recently they have “officially changed the name and mission of the Coastal Riverine squadrons to reflect their role amid a new era of great power competition; they are now known as the Maritime Expeditionary Security Force.”

The prerequisite moto video, tying the new units to the old Brown Water PBR gang of Southeast Asia (although the SWCC guys of SBT22 will most likely dispute ownership of this lineage, as they carried the dim candle of the small boat shop at Rodman for decades):

“As we maintain a connection to our legacy we must honor those warriors that come before us and learn from their heroism,” said RADM Joseph DiGuardo, commander NECC, “we must continuously evolve to meet the needs of the Navy and the Nation for Great Power Competition, crisis, and conflict. The change to Maritime Expeditionary Security Force clearly articulates the mission of our sailors to reinforce lethality in the blue water and dominate in the littorals.”

The MESF now consists of two groups; one in San Diego and one in Virginia Beach. The force includes two expeditionary security detachments in Guam and Bahrain, seven Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadrons, and 31 Maritime Expeditionary Security Companies.

The original three Coastal Riverine squadrons of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (RIVRON 1, 2, and 3) were all formed in 2006-07, modeled after the Marines Small Craft Company (SCCO) of 2D MAR Div– then the only specialized small boat company in the Marines– which had been disbanded the year prior although that forgotten unit of Devil Dogs in tiny boats had been bloodied and proved their mandate in the marshes and reservoirs around Haditha, fighting the kind of war that was familiar to Vietnam. Their Riverine Assault Craft, zodiacs, and Raider boats were handed over to the Navy, although Big Blue soon bought lots of new go-fasts.

Marines from Small Craft Company tether their Riverine Assult Crafts together during a break in training. Marines from Small Craft Company, 2nd Marine Division, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, demonstrated their capabilities to Paraguayan Marines in the Joint Training Exercise Unitas. The exercise was conducted in Asuncion, Paraguay. USMC Photo by LCPL Tyler J. Mielke. 29/09/1999

“People think it’s money or manpower problems, but no one knows for sure why they’re getting rid of us,” said Marine Gunnery Sgt. Brian Vinciguerra, who had spent 14 years with the SCCO, on the occasion of the unit’s disbandment in Feb. 2005. “The capabilities we provided to the Marine Corps, Special Forces, and Navy SEALS in Iraq are too big to be gone for long. We’re leaving an avenue of approach open for the enemy now,” he said. “I think Small Craft Company will be back in a few years when people realize what we brought to the fight.”

Now, after a similar 14-year run, the Navy’s trio of RIVRONs have a name change, and, notably, are moving to more 80+ foot platforms such as the MKVI. Not a lot of “river” about that.

Oh well, at least SBT22 and NAVSCIATTS are still around, keeping that lamp tended for the next time.

Harrier Carrier, 1976

As we did Warship Wednesday on a Monday this week, try these historical maritime shots on for size, taken 44 years ago today.

Official Caption: “USS GUAM (LPH-9) Operating with Marine AV-8A Harrier VTOL aircraft in the Mediterranean Sea, 9 December 1976, she drew these planes from USS FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT for her goodwill visit to Kenya.”

Note the four airborne Harriers in a diamond formation, flown by VMA-231 “Ace of Spades” squadron Marines, and at least five more on deck. Catalog #: USN 1169189

Guam, a 17,000-ton Iwo Jima-class large amphibious transport (helo), commissioned 16 January 1965 and had already been extensively used by the Navy, first off the Dominican Republic in the intervention there, then in the space program.

Importantly, she had served between 1971 and 1973 as the Interim Sea Control Ship, derived from ADM Elmo Zumwalt’s idea for a 15,000-ton light carrier equipped with Sea Kings for ASW and Harriers for self-defense/anti-shipping, which made her ideal for embarking the V/STOL craft once again in squadron-quantity in 1976.

USS Guam (LPH-9) Underway in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Africa, on 9 December 1976. Her crew is forming KENYA 76 on the flight deck in conjunction with her visit to Mombasa, Kenya for the celebration of that nation’s independence. Adams-class destroyer USS Claude V. Ricketts (DDG-5) is steaming in company. Guam is shown carrying 13 AV-8A Harrier jet aircraft and two Marine CH-53D helicopters on her flight deck. FDR had deployed with 14, meaning one Harrier is either airborne or below-deck. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, Photographer: PH3 Greg Haas, Atlantic Fleet Audio Visual Command. NH 107675

Guam would go on to serve off Somalia and in the first Gulf War, then was decommissioned and stricken on the same day, 25 August 1998, and disposed of as a target three years later.

As for the accident-prone AV-8As, derived from the original British Hawker Siddeley aircraft, the Marines purchased 102 AV-8A and 8 TAV-8A models between 1971 (just two years after the Harrier GR.1 entered service with the RAF) and 1976, later replacing them with the larger, marginally safer, more advanced, and more American-built McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II in the mid-1980s.

Which brings us back to the Aces of VMA-231, who are still flying the Harrier today, one of the few who are.

Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 231 “Ace of Spades” AV-8B+ at Boca Chica Field, NAS Key West, Dec.1, 2020. U.S. Navy photo by Danette Baso Silvers

Warship Wednesday (on a Monday), Dec. 7, 2020: Battle Tug Edition

Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time 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 (on a Monday), Dec. 7, 2020: Battle Tug Edition

Photographed by Vernon M. Haden, San Pedro California. Donation of Ted Stone, 1977. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 85837

Here we see, resplendent with her peacetime fancy hull number and with her #1 3″/50 mount trained rakishly to port and #2 mount to starboard, the “Old Bird” Lapwing-class minesweeper USS Vireo (Minesweeper No. 52) with assembled officers, crew, and mascot, circa winter 1934. Don’t let this seeming refugee from a TinTin comic fool you, Vireo always seemed to be there when it counted, even when she couldn’t always tip the scales when needed.

Inspired by large seagoing New England fishing trawlers, the Lapwings were 187-foot ships that were large enough, at 965-tons full, to make it across the Atlantic on their own (though with a blisteringly slow speed of just 14 knots).

They could also use a sail rig to poke along at low speed with no engines, a useful trait for working in a minefield.

Lapwing-class sister USS Falcon AM-28 in Pensacola Bay 1924 with the Atlantic submarine fleet. Note her rig

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.

Speaking of which, our subject, the first on the Navy List named for the small green migratory bird, was laid down on 20 November 1918 by the Philadelphia Navy Yard and commissioned on 16 October 1919, with Navy Cross-recipient, LT Ernest Robert Piercey, USN, in command– the first of her 21 skippers across an unbroken span.

USS Vireo (AM-52) Anchored in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, January 1920. NH 43603

Vireo would spend a decade on the East Coast performing the typical routine duties of a peacetime minesweeper– pulling targets; transporting men, mail, and materiel; repairing buoys and beacons; and operating with the fleet on annual maneuvers.

This was broken up by towing several former German warships to sea off the Virginia capes in the summer of 1921, where they were sunk by Army aircraft in attempts by Billy Mitchell to prove that capital ships were vulnerable to attack from the air– an ironic footnote to her story that you will get later.

Phosphorus Bomb Test 1921 Sinking of the Cruiser Frankfurt and SMS Ostfriesland

Phosphorus Bomb Test, 1921 Sinking of the Cruiser Frankfurt and SMS Ostfriesland

It was about that time that the Navy figured 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 and 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.

USS Vireo (AM-52) In the harbor, March 1922. USS Rail (AM-26) is in the left background. NH 50207

A few were retained as minesweepers in the reserve fleet, some used as depot ships/net layers, 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– including past Warship Wednesday alumni Avocet and Heron included– became seaplane tenders.

As for Vireo, she was one of the few who was never sidelined. Tasked to support the Puerto Rican – Nicaraguan Aerial Survey, serving as an ersatz seaplane tender to three Loening amphibian airplanes, in early 1931 then detailed transferred to the Pacific Fleet, she remained busy her entire career.

Group photograph of the officers and the sailors of the Puerto Rican-Nicaraguan Aerial Survey group in front of Vireo, 24 January 1931 in their whites. Note the officers with their swords, and chiefs in double-breasted jackets. She has the traditional U.S. aviation roundel on her bow, typical of seaplane tenders in this era, but does not have her twin 3-inch guns mounted which are in the photo at the top of this post. National Archives photo 80-G-466337

USS Vireo Docked in San Juan, 6 February 1931, a better view of her seaplane tender markings

USS Vireo (AM-52) in a West Coast port, 1932. Note she has dropped the tender premise and is back to being a sweeper now, with her big hull number back. NH 50320

In 1940, with the fleet’s general shift from California to Hawaii as part of the decay of relations with the Empire of Japan, Vireo moved to Pearl Harbor and was involved in the pre-war buildup on Palmyra and Johnston Island.

The Day that would live in Infamy

On 7 December 1941, Vireo along with three sisterships, Rail (AM-26), Bobolink (AM-20), and Turkey (AM-13) were tied up at the coal docks at Pearl Harbor in upkeep status. Three other sisters converted as seaplane tenders and submarine rescue ships, Avocet (AVP-4), Swan (AVP-7) and Widgeon (ASR-1) were at the submarine rail. Meanwhile, a seventh sister, Grebe (AM-43), was in overhaul.

From the ship’s action report, signed by skipper LCDR Frederick Joseph Ilsemann, about that Infamous Day 79 years ago, in which Vireo claimed at least one of the 29 Japanese aircraft swatted down during the attack:

About 0800 an explosion was heard. This was investigated. Immediately planes bearing the Japanese insignia was seen. General Quarters was immediately sounded and at about 0815 a second group of enemy planes flew over toward Hickam Field. This vessel immediately opened fire and expended 22 rounds of 3″ A.A. ammunition.

About 0830 this vessel brought down one enemy plane flying forward of the bow, toward seaward, over Hickam Field, from left to right. The bursts of #2 A.A. gun of this vessel were definitely spotted in the path of this plane and the plane was seen to land in the vicinity of Hickam Field. 400 rounds of .30 caliber Machine Gun ammunition was expended. Battery consists of 2-30 caliber machine guns, and 2-3″/50 A.A. guns.

There was no damage to this vessel nor loss of life. At 0830 there was one personnel casualty to the radioman, PRICE, Aubrey Evan, RM2c, USN, on watch at the telephone on dock astern of this vessel. He received a shrapnel wound in jawbone and neck. This casualty was immediately transferred to the hospital at Pearl Harbor and returned to duty this date.

This vessel was immediately put into Condition ONE at General Quarters, engines put together and ship made ready for getting underway.

During the action, the conduct of all officers and the crew was commendable. Everyone did his job 100%. There was no hysteria but commendable coolness and control.

At 1348 this vessel received orders to get underway and to report to Commander Base Force at Ten-ten dock. This vessel was ordered to West Loch to bring u 5″, 3″, and .50 cal. ammunition for the U.S.S. California which was badly in need of ammunition. At 1455 while waiting for ammunition to arrive at the Ammunition Depot, West Loch, hauled an ammunition lighter loaded with 14″ powder away from Ammunition Depot dock, where it was a menace, and moored it alongside the old Navajo. Returned to Depot, picked up ammunition and delivered it to U.S.S. Argonne at 1730.

At 2100 moored alongside U.S.S. California and commenced salvage work.

View of USS California (BB-44), taken a day or two after the Japanese raid. USS Bobolink (AM-20), at left, USS Vireo (AM-52), and YW-10 are off the battleship’s stern, assisting with efforts to keep her afloat. The “birds” would stay at California’s side for three days. Morison noted in his book, “Although minesweepers Vireo and Bobolink closed the battleship and applied their pumps, and numerous ‘handy billies’ (portable gasoline-driven pumps) were obtained from other vessels, California slowly settled.” Collection of Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, USN(Retired), 1975. NH 95569

Tragically, late that night Vireo was one of the ships that filled the skies over Pearl Harbor with ack-ack on the report of approaching unidentified aircraft.

At about 2110 anti-aircraft fire commenced and a plane was seen shot down and an aviator fell astern of this vessel. This vessel immediately rescued the aviator and identified him as an Enterprise aviator who had been shot down. A dispatch was immediately sent to assure control that planes in the air were Enterprise planes. The aviator was transferred to the U.S.S. California and then to the hospital.

Ensign Eric Allen, Jr., USN (1916-1941) USNA class of 1938. On 12 August 1940, the day after he reported to NAS Pensacola to commence his flight training. He had just come from a tour of duty in USS TRENTON (CL-11). Ultimately assigned to VF-6 in ENTERPRISE (CV-6). He was shot down by U.S. anti-aircraft fire on the night of 7 December 1941 at Pearl Harbor; picked up by USS VIREO (AM-52), he died at the Ford Island Dispensary soon thereafter. NH 96617

Over the next several months, Vireo supported the Pearl Harbor salvage effort whenever she was not off conducting minesweeping and patrol operations in the Greater Hawaii area, including runs to Johnston Island and the Port of Hilo.

Midway

With a huge naval clash on the horizon, on 28 May 1942, under secret orders, Vireo left Pearl at nine knots to escort the tanker Kaloli (AOG-13) to Midway Island. During the voyage, Vireo was reclassified as an ocean-going tug (AT-144) and would arrive at the atoll on 3 June, ordered to hold up off Hermes Reef and await orders.

The next day saw the pivotal stage of the battle there, with the Japanese losing four carriers in exchange for Yorktown (CV-5) which was left dead in the water. With the carrier ordered largely abandoned, Viero was called into action to take the stricken American flattop in tow, arriving at 1135 on 5 June and getting underway by 1308– at three knots, a 1,350-ton minesweeper hauling a crippled 30,000-ton leviathan. The next day, the destroyer Hammann (DD-412) came alongside Yorktown to help with the salvage task while five other tin cans provide a screening force.

That is when Japanese Type KD6 submarine I-168 came on the scene.

As noted by Combined Fleets:

I-168 arrives and sights the carrier and her screen. For seven hours, LCDR Tanabe Yahachi skillfully makes his approach, steering by chart and sound with only a few periscope sightings. Undetected, he penetrates the destroyer and cruiser screen. At 1331, from 1,900 yards, he fires two torpedoes at the overlapping formation, followed by two more three seconds later. The first torpedo hits HAMMANN, breaks her back and sinks her in about four minutes. As she goes down, her depth charges explode and kill 81 of her 241-strong crew. At 1332, the next two torpedoes strike YORKTOWN starboard below the bridge. The fourth torpedo misses and passes astern.

Battle of Midway, June 1942 Diorama by Norman Bel Geddes, depicting the explosion of depth charges from USS Hammann (DD-412) as she sank alongside USS Yorktown (CV-5) during the afternoon of 6 June 1942. Both ships were torpedoed by Japanese submarine I-168 while Hammann was assisting with the salvage of Yorktown. USS Vireo (AT-144) is shown at left, coming back to pick up survivors, as destroyers head off to search for the submarine. 80-G-701902

DANFS:

Vireo freed herself from the carrier by cutting the towing cable with an acetylene torch and then doubled back to commence rescue operations.

Up her sides clambered carriermen and destroyermen alike, while she maneuvered near the carrier’s canting stern to take on board members of the salvage party who had chosen to abandon the carrier from there. She then proceeded to secure alongside the wounded flattop in the exact spot where Hammann had met her doom. Yorktown rolled heavily, her heavy steel hide pounding the lighter former minecraft’s hull with a vengeance as the ships touched time and time again during the rescue operations. This mission completed, battered Vireo stood away from the sinking carrier, which sank shortly after dawn on the 7th.

Her rudder damaged by Hammann’s depth charge seaquake, Vireo ran aground on her way back to Midway harbor and after she made it back to Pearl under her own power, she was given a complete overhaul and drydocking.

USS Vireo (AT-144) At Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, following repairs from Battle of Midway and overhaul, 20 August 1942. Catalog #: 19-N-34748

James Claude Legg, Lieutenant USN ID photo taken circa 2 May 1942. Lieutenant Legg commanded USS VIREO (AT-144) during the Battle of Midway, earning a Navy Cross for his performance of duty in towing the damaged USS YORKTOWN (CV-5). From service record book in NMPRC, St. Louis, MO., 1984. Catalog #: NH 100171

As for I-168, the Japanese boat would never see the end of the war, presumed lost with all 97 hands in the area north of Rabaul after she is hit by four torpedoes from USS Scamp (SS-277) in 1943.

The Rest of the War

Overhauled and assigned to ComAmphibForSoPac, the now green-camouflaged painted Vireo set out for the Guadalcanal area on 12 October, to take part in resupply operations for the Marines of the Cactus Air Force at Henderson Field. The little convoy, consisting of the freighters Alchiba (AKA-23) and Bellatrix (AKA-20), was screened by the gunboat Jamestown (PG-55) along with the destroyers Meredith (DD-434) and Nicholas (DD-449), with the freighters and Jamestown each pulling “a barge carrying barrels of gasoline and quarter-ton bombs” without any air cover whatsoever at 10-knots.

I repeat, pulling “a barge carrying barrels of gasoline and quarter-ton bombs” without any air cover whatsoever at 10-knots.

On the 15th, the world’s most flammable convoy was warned that a Japanese carrier task force was headed its way and was ordered to turn around with Meredith and Vireo breaking off in one element with a fuel barge in an (expendable) effort to keep the Marines flying. They got close, within 75 miles of Guadalcanal, before they spotted Japanese scout planes.

The skipper of the destroyer, LCDR Harry Hubbard, feeling the slow minesweeper-turned-tug was a sitting duck, ordered the ship abandoned and, with the vessel’s fuel barge tied to it, was going to send her to the bottom so that she wouldn’t fall into the hands of the Japanese then beat feet. That’s when 38 aircraft (21 low-level bombers and torpedo planes, 8 dive bombers, and 9 fighters) from the carrier Zuikaku arrived on the scene and, concentrating on Meredith, sent her to the bottom with no less than 14 bombs and 7 torpedoes– enough ordnance to sink the Bismarck!

Remarkably, the abandoned Vireo, saved from one of Meredith’s torpedoes by none other than the Japanese, was still afloat.

From RADM Samuel J. Cox’s H-Gram 011:

However, Vireo was drifting away, and only one raft-load of Meredith and Vireo survivors reached the tug, where they were later rescued. The other rafts, filled with burned and mangled Sailors, became a preview of what would happen to Sailors on the USS Juneau (CL-52) and USS Indianapolis (CA-35) later in the war. As the rafts and wreckage drifted for three days and three nights, numerous Sailors died from wounds, exposure, salt-water ingestion (and resulting mental incapacity and hallucinations), and from particularly aggressive shark attacks. One shark even jumped into a raft and ripped a chuck from an already mortally wounded Sailor. There was not enough room on the rafts, so the less-injured Sailors treaded water, hanging on to the rafts, and had to fight off the sharks as best they could. Most of the injured, including burned and blinded Hubbard, perished in the rafts.

Finally, the destroyers USS Grayson (DD-435) and USS Gwin (DD-433) found 88 survivors of Meredith and Vireo adrift. (About another dozen had earlier been found on the Vireo.) However, 187 from Meredith and 50 from Vireo died in a desperate attempt to get fuel to the Marines on Guadalcanal.

Grayson recovered Vireo and the other barge and returned them to Espiritu Santo. During her return, the Vireo was manned by a salvage crew from the Grayson and survivors from Meredith and Vireo. The intact fuel barge, recovered by the tug Seminole, was delivered to Henderson Field under escort by Grayson and Gwinn, meaning the mission was ultimately somewhat successful if pyrrhic.

With a largely new crew, Vireo remained at the sharp end, coming to the assistance of the cruisers Pensacola (CA-24) and Minneapolis (CA-36) following damage they received at the Battle of Tassafaronga.

Near the USS Aaron Ward (DD-483) when that Gleaves-class destroyer was hit by three Japanese bombers in April 1943, Vireo came tried unsuccessfully to rescue the crushed tin can but had to break the tow when she dived to the bottom just short of Tulagi.

Nonetheless, Vireo continued in her role and came to the assistance of the Battle of Kula Gulf’s “cripples division,” the broken cruisers Honolulu (CL-48), St. Louis (CL-49), and HMNZS Leander, towing the bowless Honolulu in to Tulagi.

USS Honolulu (CL-48) in Tulagi Harbor, Solomon Islands, for temporary repair of damage received when she was torpedoed in the bow during the Battle of Kolombangara. USS Vireo (AT-144) is assisting the damaged cruiser. 80-G-259446 (More detail on the curious sign, penned by Captain Oliver O. “Scrappy” Kessing, USN, commander of the Tulagi Naval base, here)

Then came the support of the liberation of the Philippines, and other hairy stops on the island-hopping campaign to Tokyo (see= Okinawa, see= kamikazes).

VJ Day came with Vireo in the PI, as her war history notes:

The news of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and the Japanese left everyone aboard just a little bit bewildered, anxious to get started home, and with rosy visions of the plastic post-war world. This missive leaves the Mighty V at Manila, the burned and ruined Pearl of the Orient, the Japs defeated, the Vireo still very very much afloat and still towing strong.

Jane’s 1946 entry on the three Old Birds still around which were classified at the time as tugs, Owl, Vireo, and Woodcock. They would soon be retired.

When the war came to an end, the old tug, surplus to the needs of the Navy, arrived at San Francisco on 5 February 1946 and reported to the Commandant, 12th Naval District, for disposition. That disposition was that she be declared surplus and disposed of, stricken 8 May and transferred to the Maritime Commission the next year. Her ultimate fate is unknown, but there is a report that she was headed to Latin America in early 1947, intended to be converted for service as a Panamanian-flagged lumber boat carrying hardwoods between Long Beach and Panama.

Epilogue

As for the rest of her class, other “Old Birds” served heroically in the war.

Pearl Harbor vet Avocet would spend most of the war in Alaskan waters, caring and feeding PBYs while fending off Japanese air attacks during the Aleutians Campaign. Heron received the Navy Unit Commendation for saving the damaged destroyer USS Peary (DD-226) in the Molucca Strait and repeatedly fighting off a horde of attacking Mavis seaplanes in the process. Six of the class– Tanager, Finch, Quail, Penguin, Bittern, and Pigeon, were lost in the Philippines invasion as part of the doomed Asiatic Fleet. Scuttled at Corregidor, a 36-foot whaleboat from Quail filled with 18 officers and men, but sailing with virtually no charts or navigational aids, transversed 2,060 miles of often Japanese-held ocean reaching Australia after 29 days. The Germans sank USS Partridge at Normandy and sent both Gannet and Redwing via torpedoes to the bottom of 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 is still reported afloat but abandoned in a backwater channel. She is likely the last of the Lapwings.

Vireo’s name was recycled for a Bluebird-class minesweeper (MSC-205) which, commissioned at the naval station at Tacoma, Wash., on 7 June 1955. The little boat would see some hot action in Vietnamese waters during Operation Market Time, engaging in surface actions with North Vietnamese smuggling trawlers. She was decommissioned in 1975 and went on to serve the nation of Fiji as the Kuva for another decade.

USN 1131998 USS VIREO (MSC-205)

There has not been a Vireo on the Navy List since 1975, a shame. However, much of the ship’s WWII war diaries are available in digitized format in the National Archives

Corsair Armada released a scale model of this hard to kill old bird.

Specs:

Seagoing Minesweeper plan 1918 S-584-129

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. (1942: Two Babcock and Wilcox header boilers, one 1,400shp Chester Shipbuilding 200psi saturated steam vertical triple expansion reciprocating engine.)
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph); 12~ by 1936. 14 again after 1942.
Range: 1,400 nm at 14 knots on 275 tons fuel oil
Complement: 78 Officers and Enlisted as completed; Up to 85 by 1936
Armament:
(1919)
2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts
(1928)
2 x 3″/50 DP single
2 x .30-06 Lewis guns
(1944)
2 x 3″/50 DP single
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts

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Well Convoyed

Dec. 1918, Offical caption on this Underwood & Underwood news photo shows what is likely a Northern Mine Barrage veteran:

“Well Convoyed” This bluejacket just back after six months service in the North Sea, has been captured, so to speak, by this quartette. This is but one of the thousand similar scenes that can be witnessed through New York City.”

Note the cracker jacks, peacoat, and “Pancake cap” flat cap with U.S. Navy rim. National Archives 165-WW-332D-18

The Pancake, or Donald Duck, was retired in 1963 although rarely seen after WWII, and one anecdote as to their shoreside usefulness came from one article which noted, “My father wore the hat in and around Boston in 1918. The hats in that era flared out quite far at the top. He said the hat was ‘girl-bait.’ The wider the flare the saltier you were.”

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