Tag Archives: Asiatic Fleet

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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Warship Wednesday, July 22, 2020: A Hard 73 Days

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, July 22, 2020: A Hard 73 Days

U.S. Navy Department Photograph. Catalog #: NH 42868

Here we see the Clemson-class “four-piper” destroyer USS Peary (DD-226) sometime during the early 1920s. This humble flush-decker was completed too late for one World War but made up for it in her brief 10-week career in a second.

One of the massive fleets of Clemson-class flush decker destroyers, like most of her sisters, Peary came too late to help lick the Kaiser. 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.

The subject of our story today was the first warship named after RADM Robert Edwin Peary, famed for his Arctic explorations in which he went down in the history books as being in the first successful dash to the North Pole.

This guy.

Peary died in February 1920, and his crossing of the bar gave natural inspiration to the naming of a new destroyer in his honor. USS Peary (DD-226) was constructed at William Cramp and Sons, Philadelphia, and launched 6 April 1920– two months after the famed explorer’s passing– sponsored by his daughter, Mrs. Edward Stafford. The new tin can was commissioned on 22 October 1920.

USS Peary (DD-226) at anchor, circa 1921.NH 50902

After shakedown, Peary passed through the ditch and kept going, assigned to the Asiatic Fleet for the rest of her service. With her shallow draft, she spent most of that period providing the muscle to the exotic “Sand Pebbles” Yangtze Patrol Force.

See the world! View at Amoy, China taken from Kulangsoo showing the port and U.S. destroyers anchored there, circa 1928. Two of the ships identifiable are USS PEARY (DD-226), on right, and USS PRUITT (DD-347) on left. Sightseeing Sailors in crackerjacks and Marines in dress blues are on the foreground. NH 50709

This sometimes-tense peacetime service, which saw lots of bumping up against increasingly cold Japanese forces in the region during the latter’s undeclared war with China, turned very hot after 7 December 1941.

Less than 48 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Peary was caught in Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines during a Japanese high-altitude bomber strike on the yard.

As noted by her damage report of the incident her foremast caught a 250-pound bomb dropped from about 25,000 feet. The bomb detonated on impact with the mast and rained the vessel’s decks with a deadly storm of shrapnel which in turn started a fire that was quickly extinguished.

The effect was to destroy her gun director, torpedo director, degaussing girdle, sound gear, radio receivers, bridge overheads, charts, sextants, and navigational equipment– so possibly the most devastating 250-pound bomb in naval history!

The ship’s skipper and Engineer Officer were severely injured and sent ashore for hospitalization. Her XO was dead. Just two days later, her torpedo officer, the most senior afloat, was steaming her around the harbor without defenses to avoid another Japanese attack.

On 14 December, LCDR John Michael Bermingham (USNA 1929), the former XO of the Peary’s sister ship, USS Stewart (DD-224), who had completed his tour on 1 December and was in Manila waiting for transportation home., became Peary’s new skipper. The plan– displace and live to fight another day.

Escape and Regroup

As the Japanese poured into the Philippines, the Asiatic Fleet increasingly was pressured out of the islands. Ordered to proceed to Australia for repair, Peary’s masts were removed and the ship camouflaged with green paint and palm fronds in an effort to avoid Japanese bombardiers on the way. LT. William J. Catlett, Jr. a Mississippian and the ship’s First Lieutenant, held on to her original commissioning pennant.

In such a manner, the damaged Peary managed to survive very close air attacks on both the 26th and 27th of December. In both incidents, she reportedly only avoided enemy bombs and torpedoes which passed as close as 10 yards.

By New Year’s 1942, she was safe in Darwin. Well, reasonably safe anyway.

Patched up, she soon joined in an ill-fated effort by way of Tjilatjap and Koepang in the Dutch East Indies to resupply Australian forces on Timor in early February. The force consisted of the Northampton-class “medium” cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) and the two Australian sloops, HMAS Warrego and HMAS Swan.

C 1942-02. The Timor Sea. USS Peary. The photograph was taken from HMAS Swan by a member of the crew probably during the abortive Koepang voyage. AWM P01214.008

Darwin, Nt. C.1942-02. USS Peary and USS Houston (CA-30) in the Harbor. These Ships, together with HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego Formed the Naval Escort of the Convoy Which Made an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reinforce the Timor Garrison. Houston was sunk in the Battle of the Java Sea less than a month after this image was taken. AWM 134952

Looking from the Australian Bathurst Class Corvette, HMAS Warrnambool (J202), towards the American Northampton class heavy cruiser, USS Houston (CA30) (right), with the Destroyer USS Peary (DD226) alongside. AWM P05303.011

Houston and Peary sailed back towards Tjilatjap on 18 February, but Peary soon broke off her escort to chase a suspected submarine, and burned up so much oil in doing so that she was diverted back to Darwin instead of continuing with Houston back to Java.

The hard-working tin can arrived in Australia late that evening, with her crew no doubt eager to have a quiet morning the next day after being at sea since the 10th.

The Attack on Darwin

The Japanese air raid on Darwin on 19 February 1942, by artist Keith Swain. Japanese aircraft fly overhead, while the focus of the painting is the Royal Australian Navy corvette HMAS Katoomba, in dry dock, fighting off the aerial attacks. Peary can be seen in the distance to the right. AWM ART28075

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, who had also led the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, was in the air over Darwin 73 days after.

As noted by the Australian War Memorial:

Early on the morning of 19 February, 188 aircraft were sighted by observers on Bathurst and Melville islands to Darwin’s north. The attack on Darwin began when Zero fighters began strafing an auxiliary minesweeper, HMAS Gunbar, as it passed through the boom protecting the entrance to Darwin harbor. Soon, ships in the harbor and buildings and installations ashore came under attack. For 40 minutes the aircraft bombed and machine-gunned the harbor and town. They shot down nine of the 10 United States Army Air Force P-40E Warhawks over the town and sank eight of the 47 ships in the harbor, including the motor vessel Neptuna. Its cargo included 200 depth charges which exploded as the ship lay beside the Darwin wharf. Another victim was the US Navy destroyer USS Peary which sunk with great loss of life.

LCDR Bermingham, aboard Peary at the time, managed to slip anchor and get his ship underway. The four-piper tried to build up steam and maneuver in the restricted water of the harbor while her crew filled the air with as much lead as they could, but Peary was hit with at least five bombs. Incredibly, her stern may have been blown off very early in the action, as recently it was discovered that her props and shafts are several kilometers from where she rests today on the seafloor.

Nonetheless, by all accounts, the doomed ship kept fighting.

USS PEARY (DD-226) afire shortly after being attacked. Courtesy of Arthur W. Thomas NH 43644

Darwin Raid, 19 February 1942 Wharf and SS NEPTUNIA burning at left. USS PEARY (DD-226) and SS ZEALANDIA can be seen faintly at right. Courtesy of Arthur W. Thomas NH 43657

USS PEARY (DD-226) afire and beginning to drift from where she was moored at the time of the attack. Australian hospital ship MANUNDA is at right. Courtesy of Arthur W. Thomas NH 43651

The description from DANFS tells the tale as:

At about 10:45 a.m. on 19 February Peary was attacked by single-motored Japanese dive bombers and suffered 80 men killed and 13 wounded. The first bomb exploded on the fantail, the second, an incendiary, on the galley deckhouse; the third did not explode; the fourth hit forward and set off the forward ammunition magazines; the fifth, another incendiary, exploded in the after engine room. A .30 caliber machine gun on the after-deck house and a .50 caliber machine gun on the galley deck house fired until the last enemy plane flew away. Peary sank stern first at about 1:00 p.m.

A .30-06 Lewis gun, recovered from the wreckage and now in the collection of the NHHC, may very well have been the above-mentioned machine gun.

In a two-page war diary held in the collection of the National Archives, Peary’s crew’s actions were described by doctors on the nearby Australian hospital ship Manuda as being heroic, speaking of “gun crews who remained at the stations firing their anti-aircraft guns until the water came up around them, and then swam away as the ship went down. No men abandoned ship until the ship sank completely under them.”

The Aftermath

Of the more than 60 Japanese air raids on Darwin in 1942-43, the 19 February strike went down in history as the most deadly, credited as the largest single attack ever mounted by a foreign power on Australia.

A third of the dead were American.

Kaname Harada, a Zero pilot who saw the attack on Peary, later said, “It was a dive-bomb attack from 5000m and the plume of smoke went up 200m in the air. When the smoke was gone, there was nothing left.” Harada would be shot down over Guadalcanal and died in 2016, aged 99. The four Japanese carriers that participated in the attack on Darwin whose planes sent Peary to the bottom– Akagi, Kaga, Hiryū, and Sōryū— were later “scratched” at Midway.

Bermingham and at least 80 of Peary’s crew went down with the ship, reportedly leaving just 54, mostly injured survivors, struggling in her oil slick. The late skipper’s family was posthumously presented his Navy Cross and an Evarts-class destroyer escort was named in his honor the next year.

John Bermingham. Of note, the Navy Cross recipient was in the same class at Annapolis with Robert A. Heinlein.

Speaking of legacies, Peary’s name was soon installed on a new Edsall-class destroyer escort (DE-132) with LT. Catlett providing the old destroyer’s pennant and the departed explorer’s widow breaking the bottle. After an active career, DE-132 was scrapped in 1966.

In 1972, a Knox-class destroyer escort/fast frigate, DE-1073/FF-1073, became the third USS Richard E. Peary and served two decades with the Pacific fleets then another quarter-century with the navy of Taiwan, only being expended in a submarine exercise last week.

In 2008, an MSC-crewed 40,000-ton Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship, USNS Robert E. Peary (T-AKE-5), received the name fit for a destroyer.

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 Clemsons 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.

For more information on the Clemsons and their like, read CDR John Alden’s book, “Flush Decks and Four Pipes” and/or check out the Destroyer History Foundation’s section on Flushdeckers. 

In memoriam

Resting in just 87 feet of water on a silty seabed, Peary was extensively salvaged– ironically by a Japanese firm– in 1959 and 1960. Today, however, the remains are protected by Australia’s Heritage Conservation Act which brings heavy fines ($50,000) and threats of jail time to souvenir-seeking skin divers.

In Darwin, an extensive memorial in the city’s Bicentennial Park– centered around one of the Peary’s 4-inch guns pointing towards the site where she remains as a war grave– was erected in 1992. The event was attended by an honor guard provided from FF-1073.

Further, in 2012 on the 70th anniversary of her loss, a plaque was lowered to the seabed over her hull.

The Peary memorial is frequented by both U.S. and Australian forces.

Commanding Officer HMAS Coonawarra, Commander Richard Donnelly, lays a wreath at the USS Peary Memorial Ceremony. Defense personnel joins local dignitaries in Darwin to commemorate the Japanese air raids on the city on 19 February 1942, the largest single attack by a foreign force on Australia. RAN Photo

Lt. Col. Matthew Puglisi, the officer in charge, Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, places a wreath at the USS Peary monument. The USS Peary lost 89 of its crewmembers after an air raid by Japanese forces at Darwin Harbor, Feb. 19, 1942. USMC Photo by Sgt. Sarah Fiocco

Specs:

Inboard and outboard profiles for a U.S. Navy Clemson-class destroyer, in this case, USS Doyen (DD-280)

Displacement:
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
Propulsion:
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
Range: 4,900 nmi (9,100 km) @ 15 knots
Crew: (USN as commissioned)
8 officers
8 chief petty officers
106 enlisted
Armament:
(1920)
4- 4″/51 cal guns
1 x 3″/23 cal AAA
12 × 21-inch torpedo tubes (4 × 3) (533 mm)

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The broken Hart

Awakened about 3:00 A.M., 8 December 1941 (2:00 P.M. Washington, D.C., time; 8:30 A.M. Pearl Harbor time, both 7 December), Admiral Thomas C. Hart scribbled this message to alert his fleet.

“Asiatic Fleet, Priority
Japan started hostilities. Govern yourselves accordingly.”

With the Philippines indefensible from a naval standpoint, by 14 December Hart had managed to withdraw his outgunned fleet in good order to Balikpapan, Borneo and continue operations from there. While his submarines kept slipping through the Japanese blockade of the PI, he engaged the Japanese at the Battle of Balikpapan Bay and came out ahead.

Hart held the command of the U.S. Navy Asiatic Fleet in WWII until 5 February 1942, at which point the command ceased to exist though not a single ship was lost while he was in charge of the force.

An excellent 95-page overview of the two months between the two bookend dates is here

The Corregidor lifeboat 1911 relic

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Corregidor Lifeboat Colt 1911 Pistol In May 1942, the minesweeper USS Quail

Image via National Firearms Museum

In May 1942, the “Old Bird” Lapwing-class minesweeper minesweeper USS Quail (AM-15) was the last surviving American vessel as the Japanese invaded Philippines. [We covered her luckier sister USS Heron (AM-10/AVP-2) in a Warship Weds last month]

When Quail was disabled at Corregidor, an island near the entrance to Manila Bay, Lt. Commander J.H. Morrill had the ship scuttled and gave his crew the choice of surrendering to the Japanese or striking out across open ocean. Seventeen sailors chose to join him on the desperate voyage. With this pistol recovered from a dead serviceman as their only armament, and virtually no charts or navigational aids, they transversed 2,060 miles of ocean in a 36 foot open motor launch, reaching Australia after 29 days.

LCDR Morrill received the Navy Cross and eventually retired at the rank of Rear Admiral.

As noted by Navsource: “Although the Quail was lost, some of its crew decided that surrendering to the Japanese on Corregidor was not an option. Even though the odds against them were enormous, these incredibly brave men in their small boat managed to avoid Japanese aircraft and warships while, at the same time, battling the sea as well as the weather. But like so many of the men in the old U.S. Asiatic Fleet, they simply refused to give up. It was a remarkable achievement by a group of sailors who were determined to get back home so that they could live to fight another day.”

The gun is currently on display at the NRA Museum in Fairfax, VA.

Quail, U.S. Navy photo from the January 1986 edition of All Hands magazine, via Navsource

Quail, U.S. Navy photo from the January 1986 edition of All Hands magazine, via Navsource

One of the Quail‘s “loaner officers” who didn’t make the trip south was Lt. Jimmy Crotty, USCG. A mine warfare/EOD specialist who graduated from the USCGA in 1934 at the head of his class, he was serving with the Joint In-Shore Patrol Headquarters when the war kicked off and spent several months on Quail working the mine fields around Manila Bay.

When Quail was sunk, he volunteered to move to Corregidor where he worked with the Navy’s headquarters staff and was captured while working one of the last 75mm guns with the Marine Fourth Regiment, First Battalion. He died two months later under the unspeakably harsh conditions at Cabanatuan Prison Camp #1.

The USCGA Football team dedicated their 2014 season to him and his Bronze Star and Purple Heart are in the custody of the Academy.