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, Oct. 28, 2020: Horse Trading and Gun Running
Here we see the Barnegat-class seaplane tender USS Orca (AVP-49) showing off the welcome sign “Where the occident meets the Orient by accident,” signed by her skipper, CDR Morton K. Fleming, Jr, while in Philippine waters, likely Ormoc Bay, in December 1944.
The 41 Barnegats were 2,500-ton, 311-foot armed auxiliaries with destroyer lines capable of floating in 12 feet of water. They had room for not only seaplane stores but also 150 aviators and aircrew. Their diesel suite wasn’t fast, but they could travel 8,000 miles at 15.6 knots. Originally designed for two 5-inch/38-caliber guns, this could be doubled if needed (and often was) which complemented a decent AAA armament helped by radar and even depth charges and sonar for busting subs. All pretty sweet for an auxiliary.
We’ve covered them in the past to include the former “Queen of the Little White Fleet” USS Duxbury Bay (AVP-38) and the 60-year career of USS Chincoteague (AVP-24) but don’t worry, they have lots of great stories.
Our armed tender was (kind of) the fourth Orca in the U.S. Navy, as submarine USS K-3 (SS-34) carried the name as a PCU in 1911 but never served as such. The second Orca was an 85-foot steam yacht out of Boston taken into service as SP726 for patrol operations in the 1st Naval District during World War I. The third Orca was to be a Balao-class fleet submarine (SS-381) but, like SS-34, was changed before commissioning, in this case to USS Sand Lance, a boat that subsequently served until 1972, completing five WWII war patrols.
The hero of our study, which was officially named after Orca Bay, Alaska, in line with the naming convention for seaplane tenders to be named after bays and lakes, was laid down 13 July 1942, built by the Lake Washington Shipyards, Houghton, Washington, and commissioned 23 January 1944.
After shakedown, she shipped out for the 7th Fleet off Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea, arriving there 26 May 1944. There, she would be the floating home to Patrol Bombing Squadron 11 (VPB-11) whose black-painted PBY-5 Catalinas were busy wrecking Japanese shipping and bases in night attacks while clocking in for air-sea rescue during the day.
Over the course of the war, Orca would go on to support VPB-33 and finally VPB-34, with all three squadrons being so active as to earn Presidential Unit Citations.
In early November, Orca moved into the Leyte Gulf area in the PI, where the next month her Cats proved lifesavers in Ormoc Bay right under the noses of the Japanese as they taxied around the bay for nearly an hour picking up survivors of the Sumner-class destroyer USS Cooper (DD-695), sunk the previous night by Long Lances from the Japanese destroyer Take.
From her 18-page War History, in the National Archives:
For his role in the Cooper rescue, VPB-34’s Lieutenant Frederick J. Ball, the lead pilot, would receive the Navy Cross.
Orca would then go on to have repeated run-ins with air attacks and later “the kamikaze boys” as her diary states, with her crew sending up reportedly impressive amounts of fire to meet incoming Japanese planes. The report comes from Tokyo Rose, who announced that, following a raid in an area where Orca was the primary ship, “The volume of Ack-Ack which met the previous night’s raid, indicated that a U.S. battleship of the Wisconsin class had been sighted by Japanese planes…” which is certainly something to brag about for a seaplane tender.
While in the Lingayen Gulf, raids were so heavy that she experienced attacks for six nights in a row, bagging a couple aircraft but coming out unscathed. As her diary states, “Fortunately for us, our first attackers appeared to have not been confirmed Lodge members- Kamikaze Local No. 269, for none of them made suicide dives unless actually hit and out of control.”
Then came the, often frustrating, efforts to recover downed Japanese aircrew.
Other rescues by Orca’s Cats and later Mariners while operating in the PI included the 12 crew and passengers of an Army C-47– which included female nurses– a P-51 pilot, five survivors of a downed B-25 from a raid over Formosa, nine Filipino women whose fishing vessel had capsized 20 miles offshore leaving them to cling to wreckage for three days, and the curious case of CDR McPherson B. Williams of Augusta Georgia. Williams, who was Yorktown’s ComAirGrp 3, had been downed and rescued by Filipino guerillas who kept him out of Japanese hands for seven weeks and, in a twist of fate, was picked up by a Mariner piloted by his Annapolis roommate.
Speaking of Filipino guerillas, Orca would spend much of her time in local waters supporting Gen. Walter Kreuger’s Sixth Army’s effort to arm, support, and equip bands of insurgents behind Japanese lines, running guns, uniforms, radio equipment, and medicine to these plucky freedom fighters.
VJ Day found Orca at sea, having just completed an overhaul at Manus Island in preparation for “the big push” on Tokyo. On 26 September, Orca arrived at Okinawa to assist in the occupation of the Japanese Islands.
After supporting the Bikini Atoll A-bomb tests, Orca then decommissioned on 31 October 1947 and joined the reserve fleet in San Francisco. According to her War History, 82 percent of her plank owners, the majority of which were green on commissioning, completed the war with the tender.
She had earned three battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation for service in the conflict.
Orca re-commissioned 15 December 1951, as the push was on in Korea, and went on to serve the rest of the decade in a variety of West Pac cruises and training evolutions, including tense China service, with much of her WWII armament landed.
To the Horn of Africa!
Decommissioned in March 1960, at Tongue Point Naval Station, Astoria, Oregon, she was subsequently laid up in the Pacific Reserve Fleet, Columbia River Group. Her second stint in mothballs, however, did not last long and the following year she was towed to SFNSY and reactivated for transfer to the brand-new Imperial Ethiopian Navy in January 1962, named, well, Ethiopia (A01). Along with a group of 95-foot PGMs and some surplus LCMs, they would prove the backbone of the force.
Formed in 1955 with a group of retired British naval personnel served as advisers and training supervisors, Ethiopia’s Navy was not a huge armada, with our repurposed seaplane tender being the fleet’s largest vessel, training ship, and flagship/imperial yacht for three decades. It was from her deck that Emperor Haile Selassie regularly inspected visiting foreign ships for the country’s annual Navy Day each January, an event that often saw a decent turnout.
After Selassie was deposed in 1974, and the socialist regime pivoted towards Moscow and away from the West by 1978, Soviet advisors replaced the Brits, Americans, Dutch, and Norwegians. By the 1980s, the force tripled in size as Petya, Osa and Turya-class fast attack craft arrived as military aid to help with the country’s low-key wars with its Western-backed neighbors.
Still, Orca/Ethiopia endured as the largest ship.
By 1990, Ethiopia had lost its ports as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front had captured Massawa, prompting the
Ethiopian admiralty to pull stumps and migrate their homeless fleet to nearby Yemen. This situation came to a head when Eritrea gained de jure independence. In 1993, the Yemenis pulled the plug on the Ethiopian nautical squatters and asked them to leave in a bar closing sort of way (you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here…).
However, at that point, Orca/Ethiopia could no longer fire up her engines and, with her ~200 crewmembers interned as refugees, was sold for scrap to pay off delinquent dock fees in 1995.
As for the Ethiopian Navy, over the past couple of years, there has been an effort to reboot it, a curiosity for a land-locked country. The general plan would seem to be for the force to work out of Djibouti. Nonetheless, last year Adm. Foggo, commander of Naval Forces Africa, met with Brig. Gen. Kindu Gezu, Ethiopian Head of Navy in “the first staff to staff talks.”
Here in the U.S., Orca’s ship engineering drawings as well as 30 assorted war diaries and reports are digitized in the National Archives. She is also remembered on the Commemorative Plaque Wall at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington.
As for her sisters, they have all gone on to the breakers or been reefed with the final class member afloat, ex-Chincoteague/Ly Thuong Kiet/Andres Bonifacio scrapped in the Philippines in 2003.
Displacement 1,766 t.(lt) 2,800 t.(fl)
Length 310′ 9″
Beam 41′ 2″
Draft 13′ 6″ (limiting)
Complement: 73 officers, 294 enlisted (including 152 members of embarked seaplane squadron)
Fuel Capacities: Diesel 1,955 Bbls; Gasoline 71,400 Gals
Propulsion: two Fairbanks Morse Diesel 38D8 1/4 engines, single Fairbanks Morse Main Reduction Gear, two propellers, 6,080shp
Ship’s Service Generators: two Diesel-drive 100Kw 450V A.C., one Diesel-drive 200Kw 450V A.C.
3 single 5″/38 cal dual-purpose gun mounts
1 quad Bofors 40mm AA gun mount, 2 twins
4 twin Oerlikon 20mm AA gun mounts
Stern depth charge racks
Changes as a training ship, 1960:
Radars: RCA SPS-12 air search radar, I-band navigation radar, RCA/General Electric Mark 26 I/J-band fire control
1 single 5″/38 cal dual-purpose gun mount
1 single Bofors 40mm AA gun mount, 2 twins
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