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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
2 × 3-inch/23 single mounts
2 x 3″/50 DP single
2 x .30-06 Lewis guns
2 x 3″/50 DP single
Several 20mm Oerlikons and M2 12.7mm mounts
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