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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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Battleship No. 39 Reopens

The USS Arizona Memorial has been closed since May 2018 for a $2.1 million stabilization and limited reconstruction, but it will be reopened on September 1, 2019 (Sunday). The National Park Service, in coordination with the Navy and contractors, completed the final phase of construction this month, with CPO selectees putting the finishing touches on the monument.

“The National Park Service is excited to welcome our visitors back to the USS Arizona Memorial very soon,” said Pearl Harbor National Memorial Acting Superintendent Steve Mietz in a statement. “It is a great honor to share the stories of the men of the USS Arizona, and all of those who served, suffered and sacrificed on Oahu on December 7, 1941. That is the cornerstone of our mission here, and restoration of public access to this iconic place is critical as we continue to tell their stories and honor their memory,” Mietz said.

The Tombstones of Battleship Row

In the 1930s, the Navy built 16 fixed concrete moorings to relieve congestion at Pearl and to provide additional berthing space for capital ships. Established in pairs designated F1 through F8, North and South, the eight along Ford Island’s southeast side became known as the famed “Battleship Row.”

Today, the quays remain as tombstones to the opening act of the Pacific War. However, they were important far past 7 December 1941.

As noted by the NPS:

From the quays, American salvage workers accomplished unprecedented feats in the recovery of sunken battleships. Workers raised the USS California, USS West Virginia, and righted and refloated the USS Oklahoma. Extensive salvage work was performed on the USS Arizona. The quays were the foundations of the recovery, which lead ships like the West Virginia fighting throughout the remainder of World War II.

Now, as noted by the Park Service, “for the first time since 1941, the fleet moorings of Battleship Row are being examined, repaired, and architecturally reviewed in order to preserve these historic structures. It’s all part of a joint program with the Concrete Preservation Institute and the National Park Service to preserve and restore the moorings along Battleship Row.”

More on that, here 

Warship Wednesday Dec. 7, 2016: The eclipsing old bird of Battleship Row

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday Dec. 7, 2016: The eclipsing old bird of Battleship Row

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-32445

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-32445

Here we see the Lapwing (“old bird”)-class minesweeper-turned-seaplane tender USS Avocet (AVP-4) from atop a building at Naval Air Station Ford Island, looking toward the Navy Yard. USS Nevada (BB-36) is at right, with her bow afire. Beyond her is the burning USS Shaw (DD-373). Smoke at left comes from the destroyers Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375), ablaze in Drydock Number One. The day, of course, is December 7, 1941 and you can see the gunners aboard Avocet looking for more Japanese planes (they had already smoked one) at about the time the air raid ended.

Inspired by large seagoing New England fishing trawlers, the Lapwings were 187-foot long ships that were large enough, at 965-tons full, to carry a pair of economical reciprocating diesel engines (or two boilers and one VTE engine) with a decent enough range to make it across the Atlantic on their own (though with a blisteringly slow speed of just 14 knots when wide open on trials.)

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.

Which leads us to the hero of our tale, USS Avocet, named after a long-legged, web-footed shore bird found in western and southern states– the first such naval vessel to carry the moniker. Laid down as Minesweeper No. 19 on 13 September 1917 at Baltimore, Maryland by the Baltimore Drydock & Shipbuilding Co, she was commissioned just over a year later on 17 September 1918– some seven weeks before the end of the Great War.

USS AVOCET (AM-19) at Baltimore, Maryland, 28 September 1918. Catalog #: NH 57468

USS AVOCET (AM-19) at Baltimore, Maryland, 28 September 1918. Catalog #: NH 57468. Note the large searchlight on her fwd mast.

After spending eight months assigned to the Fifth Naval District, where she drug for possible German mines up and down the Eastern seaboard, she landed her 3-inchers and prepared to ship for the North Sea where she would pitch in to clear the great barrage of mines sown there to shut off the Kaiser’s U-boats from the Atlantic. Setting out with sisterships Quail (Minesweeper No. 15) and Lark (Minesweeper No. 21), the three sweeps made it to the Orkney Islands by 14 July 1919 where they joined Whippoorwill (Minesweeper No. 35) and Avocet was made flag of the four-ship division.

Spending the summer sweeping (and almost being blown sky high by a British contact mine that bumped up against her hull) Avocet sailed back home in October, rescuing the crew of the sinking Spanish schooner Marie Geresee on the way.

It would not be her last rescue.

After being welcomed by the SECNAV and inspected at Hampton Roads, Avocet would transfer to the Pacific for the rest of her career. Assigned to the Asiatic Fleet’s Minesweeping Detachment in 1921, she would become a familiar sight at Cavite in the Philippines where she was decommissioned 3 April 1922 and laid up.

Reactivated in 1925, she was converted to an auxiliary aircraft tender taking care of the seaplanes of VT-20 and VT-5A (with men from that squadron living on board a former coal barge, YC-147, moored alongside) as well as visiting British flying boats and Army amphibian aircraft at Bolinao Harbor while putting to sea on occasion to tow battle raft targets for fleet gunnery practice.

Tending the flock: Avocet with two T4M floatplanes of VT-5 in Manila Bay circa early 1932. One aircraft is afloat under the ship's aircraft handling boom aft while the other is on a wooden Navy open lighter (YC-147) amidships. Men from the aircraft squadron also lived in the tents on the barge. Luxury, you are the Asiatic Fleet! The T4M, the ultimate evolution of the Martin SC-1 series, was a hearty torpedo bomber scout with a range pushing 700 nms. The Navy ordered 102 of the planes and they remained in service until the late 1930s.

Tending the flock: Avocet with two T4M floatplanes of VT-5 in Manila Bay circa early 1932. One aircraft is afloat under the ship’s aircraft handling boom aft while the other is on a wooden Navy open lighter (YC-147) amidships. Men from the aircraft squadron also lived in the tents on the barge. Luxury, you are the Asiatic Fleet! The T4M, the ultimate evolution of the Martin SC-1 series, was a hearty torpedo bomber scout with a range pushing 700 nms. The Navy ordered 102 of the planes and they remained in service until the late 1930s. As for VT-5, they later flew carrier-based TBD Devastators from Yorktown (CV-5) and Saratoga until the type was retired in favor of the TBF-1 Avenger, at which point VT-5 was resurrected for the new Yorktown (CV-10)

In 1928, she got her teeth back when she was rearmed with a single more modern 3” /50 gun, and survived being grounded during a typhoon in Force 8 winds.

By 1932, Avocet was transferred to Hawaii to support Pearl Harbor-based flying boats. There, she was the first to support seaplanes at the remote French Frigate Shoals and outlying lagoons at Laysan and Nihoa as well as Midway.

Heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) steaming past the Fleet Air Base at Pearl Harbor, T.H., January 1933. USS AVOCET (AM-19), serving as an aircraft tender, is at the dock. Note cane fields being burned at upper right. Catalog #: 80-CF-21338-4

Heavy cruiser USS Augusta (CA-31) steaming past the Fleet Air Base at Pearl Harbor, T.H., January 1933. USS AVOCET (AM-19), serving as an aircraft tender, is at the dock. Note cane fields being burned at upper right. Catalog #: 80-CF-21338-4

In 1934, the aging tender served as flagship for Rear Adm. Alfred W. Johnson and was used in expeditionary missions in Nicaragua, crossing into the Caribbean to Haiti, then back to the Pacific. Talk about diverse!

In August 1934, Avocet supported VP-7F and VP- 9F in Alaskan waters with early Douglas PD-1 floatplanes to test the ability of tenders to provide advance base support in cold weather conditions.

Image of Avocet as a seaplane tender likely in the late 1920s with what looks like a Martin T3M-2 torpedo bomber from the Pearl Harbor-based Torpedo Squadron 3 (VT-3) on her stern. The Navy ordered an even 100 of the planes in 1926 and they served in both torpedo patrol squadrons and carrier-based scouting squadrons (on Lexington and Saratoga) into the early 1930s.

Image of Avocet as a seaplane tender likely in the late 1920s with what looks like a Martin T3M-2 torpedo bomber from the then-Pearl Harbor-based Torpedo Squadron 3 (VT-3) on her stern. The Navy ordered an even 100 of the planes in 1926 and they served in both torpedo patrol squadrons and carrier-based scouting squadrons (on Lexington and Saratoga) into the early 1930s. VT-3 itself, later flying TBD Devastators from the USS Yorktown, was annihilated at Midway.

As Trans-Pacific clippers came into their own, Avocet increasingly found herself in remote uninhabited tropical atolls, exploring their use for seaplane operations. This led her to bringing some 2-tons of high explosive to Johnson Atoll in 1936 to help blast away coral for a land base there.

On 6 May 1937, Avocet embarked the official 16-member National Geographic-U.S. Navy Eclipse Expedition under Capt. Julius F. Hellweg, USN (Ret.), the superintendent of the Naval Observatory to observe the total solar eclipse set to occur on June 8, 1937 with its peak somewhere over Micronesia.

The expedition took aboard 150 cases of instruments, 10,000 ft. of lumber and 60 bags of cement, remaining at sea for 42 days. In the end, they would watch the eclipse from Canton Island in the Phoenix chain, midway between British Fiji and Hawaii.

canton

According to DANFS, the event went down like this:

While returning to Enderbury to land observers on 24 May, the ship remained at Canton for the eclipse expedition through 8 June. Joined by the British sloop HMS Wellington on 26 May, with men from a New Zealand expedition embarked, Avocet observed the total eclipse of the sun at 0836 on 8 June 1937. Sailing for Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of 9 June, the ship arrived at her destination on the 16th, disembarking her distinguished passengers upon arrival.

According to others, when HMS Wellington arrived at Canton Island– whose ownership was disputed at the time between the U.S. and HMs government– she fired a shot over Avocet‘s bow when the latter refused to cede the choicest anchorage spot to the British vessel after which both captains agreed to “cease fire” until instructions could be received from their respective governments.

The Grimsby-class sloop HMS Wellington (U65), some 1,500-tons with a battery of 4.7-inch MkIX guns was more than a match for the humble Avocet.

The Grimsby-class sloop HMS Wellington (U65), some 1,500-tons with a battery of 4.7-inch Mk IX guns was more than a match for the humble Avocet.

While this may or may not have happened, what is for  sure is there was an exchange of official diplomatic cables about the interaction on Canton that in the end led to a British reoccupation of the island in August 1937.

Where was Avocet by then? She was supporting the huge flattop USS Lexington (CV-2) by transferring avgas to her at Lahaina Roads for her aviators to use in searching the Pacific for the lost aviatrix Amelia Earhart, that’s where.

Then came more seaplane operations, supporting in turn the early Douglas T2D twin-engine torpedo bombers, Consolodated P2Y, and Martin PM2s of VP-4F, 6, 8 and 10 at varying times as well as the smaller single-engined T3/T4Ms of several VT squadrons while searching for lost flying boats including the famed Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-42B “Samoan Clipper.”

Avocet was in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 moored port side to the NAS dock where she had a view of Battleship Row.

From DANFS:

At about 0745 on Sunday, 7 December 1941, Avocet‘s security watch reported Japanese planes bombing the seaplane hangars at the south end of Ford Island, and sounded general quarters. Her crew promptly brought up ammunition to her guns, and the ship opened fire soon thereafter. The first shot from Avocet‘s starboard 3-inch gun scored a direct hit on a Nakajima B5N2 carrier attack plane that had just scored a torpedo hit on the battleship California (BB-44), moored nearby. The Nakajima, from the aircraft carrier Kaga‘s air group, caught fire, slanted down from the sky, and crashed on the grounds of the naval hospital, one of five such planes lost by Kaga that morning.

Initially firing at torpedo planes, Avocet‘s gunners shifted their fire to dive bombers attacking ships in the drydock area at the start of the forenoon watch. Then, sighting high altitude bombers overhead, they shifted their fire again. Soon thereafter, five bombs splashed in a nearby berth, but none exploded.

USS Avocet (AVP-4) at Berth Fox-1A, at Ford Island, prior to 1045 hrs. on 7 December, when she moved to avoid oil fires drifting southward along the shore of Ford Island. She is wearing Measure 1 camouflage (dark gray/light gray). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-32669

USS Avocet (AVP-4) at Berth Fox-1A, at Ford Island, prior to 1045 hrs. on 7 December, when she moved to avoid oil fires drifting southward along the shore of Ford Island. She is wearing Measure 1 camouflage (dark gray/light gray). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-32669

From her veritable ringside seat, Avocet then witnessed the inspiring sortie of the battleship Nevada (BB-36), the only ship of her type to get underway during the attack. Seeing the dreadnought underway, after clearing her berth astern of the burning battleship Arizona (BB-39), dive-bomber pilots from Kaga singled her out for destruction, 21 planes attacking her from all points of the compass. Avocet‘s captain, Lt. William C. Jonson, Jr., marveled at the Japanese precision, writing later that he had never seen “a more perfectly executed attack.” Avocet‘s gunners added to the barrage to cover the gallant battleship’s passage down the harbor.

USS Nevada (BB-36) headed down channel past the Navy Yard's 1010 Dock, under Japanese air attack during her sortie from Battleship Row. A camouflage Measure 5 false bow wave is faintly visible painted on the battleship's forward hull. Photographed from Ford Island. Small ship in the lower right is USS Avocet (AVP-4). Note fuel tank farm in the left center distance, beyond the Submarine Base. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 97397

USS Nevada (BB-36) headed down channel past the Navy Yard’s 1010 Dock, under Japanese air attack during her sortie from Battleship Row. A camouflage Measure 5 false bow wave is faintly visible painted on the battleship’s forward hull. Photographed from Ford Island. Small ship in the lower right is USS Avocet (AVP-4). Note fuel tank farm in the left center distance, beyond the Submarine Base. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 97397

Although the ship ceased fire at 1000, much work remained to be done in the wake of the devastating surprise attack. She had expended 144 rounds of 3-inch and 1,750 of .30 caliber [that’s a lot of 47-round Lewis machine gun drums!] in the battle against the attacking planes, and had suffered only two casualties: a box of ammunition coming up from the magazines had fallen on the foot of one man, and a piece of flying shrapnel had wounded another. Also during the course of the action, a sailor from the small seaplane tender Swan (AVP-7), unable to return to his own ship, had reported on board for duty, and was immediately assigned a station on a .30-caliber machine gun.

Fires on those ships had set oil from ruptured battleship fuel tanks afire, and the wind, from the northeast, was slowly pushing it toward Avocet‘s berth. Accordingly, the seaplane tender got underway at 1045, and moored temporarily to the magazine island dock at 1110, awaiting further orders, which were not long in coming. At 1115, she was ordered to help quell the fires still blazing on board California. Underway soon thereafter, she spent 20 minutes in company with the submarine rescue ship Widgeon (ASR-1) in fighting fires on board the battleship before Avocet was directed to proceed elsewhere.

Underway from alongside California at 1215, she reached the side of the gallant Nevada 25 minutes later, ordered to assist in beaching the battleship and fighting her fires. Mooring to Nevada‘s port bow at 1240, Avocet went slowly ahead, pushing her aground at channel buoy no. 19, with fire hoses led out to her forward spaces and her signal bridge. For two hours, Avocet fought Nevada‘s fires, and succeeded in quelling them.

USS Nevada (BB-36) aground and burning off Waipio Point, after the end of the Japanese air raid. Ships assisting her, at right, are the harbor tug Hoga (YT-146) and USS Avocet (AVP-4). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-33020

USS Nevada (BB-36) aground and burning off Waipio Point, after the end of the Japanese air raid. Ships assisting her, at right, are the harbor tug Hoga (YT-146) and USS Avocet (AVP-4). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Catalog #: 80-G-33020

No sooner had she completed that task than more work awaited her. At 1445, she got underway and steamed to the assistance of the light cruiser Raleigh (CL-7), which had been torpedoed alongside Ford Island early in the attack and was fighting doggedly to remain on an even keel. Avocet reached the stricken cruiser’s side at 1547, and remained there throughout the night, providing steam and electricity.

That night, at 2105, Avocet again went to general quarters as jittery gunners throughout the area fired on aircraft overhead. Tragically, these proved to be American, a flight of six fighters from the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6). Four were shot down; three pilots died.

Avocet was awarded one battlestar for her actions at Pearl Harbor.

However, her war was not over.

Augmented with 20mm guns, she was assigned to support the PBY flying boats of Fleet Air Wing 4, she arrived in Alaskan waters in July 1942. Despite the often bad flying weather, the Catalina-equipped squadrons tended by Avocet carried out extensive patrols, as well as bombing and photo missions over Japanese-held Attu and Kiska, in the Aleutians.

USS Avocet (AVP-4) In Elliott Bay, Seattle, Wash., on 1 March 1944. Her single 3"/50 (circled) gun is mounted in the original large tub that previously held two of these weapons. Photo No. 19-N-63708 Source: U.S. National Archives, RG-19-LCM

USS Avocet (AVP-4) In Elliott Bay, Seattle, Wash., on 1 March 1944. Her single 3″/50 (circled) gun is mounted in the original large tub that previously held two of 3″/23s when she was commissioned for the First World War. Also note her original foremast is gone, replaced by a lighter aerial between the wheelhouse and stack. Photo No. 19-N-63708 Source: U.S. National Archives, RG-19-LCM

She came to the rescue of the torpedoed USS Casco (AVP-12), landed Navy Seebees and Army combat engineers on barren Alaska coastline, and served as a guard and rescue ship station throughout the Aleutians Campaign where she helped feed and care for Patrol Squadrons VP-41, 43, 51, and 62 (totaling some 11 PBY and 20 PBY-5A amphibious flying boats) which provided support for the cruisers and destroyers of Task Force Tare.

Avocet would meet the Japanese in combat at least one more time when on 19 May 1944, she sighted what she identified as a twin-engine Mitsubishi G4M Type 1 “Betty” land attack plane west of Attu. The plane strafed the tiny ship and Avocet opened up with all she had, but both sides managed to retire from the field of battle without casualties.

She only left Alaskan waters in October, a month after the end of hostilities. When inspected on 20 November 1945 she was found beyond repair and soon decommissioned and struck from the Navy List.

Avocet was sold to a shipping company who used her as a hulk until at least 1950, and she is presumed scrapped sometime after.

As for the rest of her class, others also served heroically in the war with one, USS Vireo, picking up seven battle stars for her service as a fleet tug from Pearl Harbor to Midway to Guadalcanal and Okinawa. The Germans sank USS Partridge at Normandy and both Gannet and Redwing via torpedoes in 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)/USC&GS Discoverer 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 was reported afloat in a backwater channel as late as 1968. Her fate after that is not recorded but she was likely the last of the Lapwings (Update, she is still apparently in the channel, in pretty bad shape)

As for Avocet‘s name, it was given in 1953 to the converted USS LCI(L)-653, which was pressed into service as a minehunter and sonar training ship for the Naval Electronics Laboratory out of San Fran. She was disposed of in 1960 and there has not been an “Avocet” on the Navy List since.

About the only tangible reminder of Avocet is the series of postal cancellations issued aboard her during the 1934 flying boat inaugural in Hawaii and the 1937 solar eclipse at Canton Island.

vp-10-related-mass-hawaii-flight-uss-avocet

This 1934 cancellation, for which Avocet served as plane guard, was for 6 P2Y-1 aircraft of VP-10F (pictured), Lieutenant Commander Knefler McGinnis commanding, that made a historic nonstop formation flight from San Francisco, California, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 24 hours 35 minutes. The flight bettered the best previous time for the crossing; exceeded the best distance of previous mass flights; and broke a nine-day-old world record for distance in a straight line for Class C seaplanes with a new mark of 2,399 miles (3,861 km).

n3838

For the “Battle of Canton Island”

enderbury1937eclipse-cover-cantonisland

Ditto

Her old “foe” at Canton, HMS Wellington, survived WWII and since 1947 has been preserved as the floating headquarters ship on the River Thames in London for the Honourable Company of Master Mariners.

Still, we can remember Avocet when we see the sun, or when the calendar hits December 7 each year, as the little unsung tender likely saved the lives of many grateful bluejackets and Marines in the inferno that was Pearl Harbor, 75 years ago today.

Her dock at Ford Island, as seen today. U.S. Navy photo illustration by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Diana Quinlan

Her dock at Ford Island, as seen today. U.S. Navy photo illustration by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Diana Quinlan

Specs:

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.
Speed: 14 knots (26 km/h; 16 mph); 12~ by 1936.
Complement: 78 Officers and Enlisted as completed; Upton 85 by 1936
Armament: 2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts as commissioned
(1928)
1 x 3″/50 DP single
4 Lewis guns
(1944)
1 x 3″/50 DP single
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts

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