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 October 12, 2016: The sometimes frosty but always dedicated Forster
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Catalog #: NH 55886
Here we see the Edsall-class destroyer escort USS Forster (DE/DER-334/WDE-434) underway at the narrows in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with her crew at quarters, circa 1958-1962. She would be one of the longest serving destroyer escorts of her time, and filled a myriad of roles over her span under several flags.
A total of 85 Edsall-class destroyer escorts were cranked out in four different yards in the heyday of World War II rapid production with class leader USS Edsall (DE-129) laid down 2 July 1942 and last of class USS Holder (DE-401) commissioned 18 January 1944– in all some four score ships built in 19 months. The Arsenal of Democracy at work–building tin cans faster than the U-boats and Kamikazes could send them to Davy Jones.
These 1,590-ton expendable escorts were based on their predecessors, the very successful Cannon-class boats but used an FMR type (Fairbanks-Morse reduction-geared diesel drive) propulsion suite whereas the only slightly less prolific Cannons used a DET (Diesel Electric Tandem) drive. Apples to oranges.
Armed with enough popguns (3×3″/50s, 2x40mm, 8x20mm) to keep aircraft and small craft at bay, they could plug a torpedo into a passing enemy cruiser from one of their trio of above-deck 21-inch tubes, or maul a submarine with any number of ASW weapons including depth charges and Hedgehogs. Too slow for active fleet operations (21-knots) they were designed for coastal patrol (could float in just 125-inches of seawater), sub chasing and convoy escorts.
The hero of our story, USS Forster, is the only ship named for Machinist Edward W. Forster, a resident of the District of Columbia who was a posthumous recipient of the Purple Heart for his actions on the doomed heavy cruiser USS Vincennes (CA-44) lost at the Battle of Savo Island, 9 August 1942.
The ship was laid down at Consolidated Steel Corporation, Orange, Texas 31 August 1943 and, a scant 73-days later, the war baby was born and commissioned into the fleet, LCDR I. E. Davis, USNR, in command.
According to DANFS, she went immediately into her designed field of study and proved adept at it:
Beginning her convoy escort duty in the Atlantic Forster sailed from Norfolk 23 March 1944 in a convoy bound for Bizerte. Off the North African coast 11 April, her group came under heavy attack from German bombers, several of which Forster splashed. When a submarine torpedoed sistership USS Holder (DE-401) during the air attack, Forster stood by the stricken ship, firing a protective antiaircraft cover and taking off her wounded.
Coming to the Battle of the Atlantic late in the game, Forster made six more voyages across the Atlantic to escort convoys to Bizerte, England, and France. Between these missions, she served as school ship for pre-commissioning crews and gave escort services along the east coast and to Bermuda.
With the war in Europe over, she sailed for the Pacific in July 1945, arriving just in time for occupation duty in the Western Pacific, primarily escort assignments between the Marianas and Japan in the last part of the year. Leaving for Philadelphia just after Christmas, she was, like most DEs, of little use to the post-war Navy.
Forster, winner of one battlestar, was decommissioned and placed in reserve at Green Cove Springs, 15 June 1946.
The Korean War brought a need for some more hulls and, in an oddball move, 12 Edsall-class destroyer escorts were taken from red lead row and dubbed “WDEs” by the Coast Guard starting in 1950. These boats were not needed for convoy or ASW use but rather as floating weather stations with an embarked 5-man met team armed with weather balloons.
During the Korean War, four new weather stations were set up in the Pacific from 1950-54 to support the high volume of trans-Pacific military traffic during that period. Two were northeast of Hawaii and two were in the Western Pacific.
Forster’s sister, the Edsall-class USS Durant (DE-389/WDE-489/DER-389) in her Coast Guard livery. Note the WWII AAA suite is still intact. Forster carried the same white and buff scheme
According to the Coast Guard Historians Office, our subject became USCGC Forster (WDE-434) when she was turned over to the service on 20 June 1951. Converted with a balloon inflation shelter and weather office, she served on ocean station duty out of Honolulu and proved a literal lifesaver.
This included duty on stations VICTOR, QUEEN, and SUGAR and voyages to Japan. She also conducted SAR duties, including finding and assisting the following vessels in distress: the M/V Katori Maru on 17 August 1952, assisting the M/V Chuk Maru on 29 August 1953, the M/V Tongshui on 1-3 October 1953, and the M/V Steel Fabricator on 26 October 1953.
Although excellent wartime escorts, the DEs were rough riding and not generally favored as ocean station vessels. All were returned to the Navy in 1954.
Forster was picked to become a radar picket ship, and given a new lease on life, recommissioned into the Navy at Long Beach, Calif., 23 October 1956 as DER-331.
The DER program filled an early gap in the continental air defense system by placing a string of ships as sea-based radar platforms to provide a distant early warning line to possible attack from the Soviets. The Pacific had up to 11 picket stations while the Atlantic as many as nine. A dozen DEs became DERs (including Forster) through the addition of SPS-6 and SPS-8 air search radars to help man these DEW lines as the Atlantic Barrier became operational in 1956 and the Pacific Barrier (which Forster took part of) in 1958.
To make room for the extra topside weight of the big radars, they gave up most of their WWII armament, keeping only their Hedgehog ASW device and two Mark 34 3″ guns with aluminum and fiberglass weather shields.
Gone were the 3″50 cal Mark 22s…(Photo via Forster Veteran’s Group)
Detail of masts. Note the WWII AAA suite, one of the 3″ guns, and centerline 21-inch tubes have been landed
DER conversion of Edsall (FMR) class ships reproduced from Peter Elliot’s American Destroyer Escorts of WWII
However, much like their experience as Korean War weather stations, the DEW service proved rough for these little boats and they were replaced in 1960 by a converted fleet of Liberty ships. While Atlantic Fleet DERs were re-purposed to establish radar picket station to monitor the airspace between Cuba and Southern Florida for sneaky Soviets post-Castro, those in the Pacific went penguin.
As noted by Aspen-Ridge.net, a number of Pacific DERs performed work as “60° South” pickets during the annual Deep Freeze Operations in Antarctica through 1968.
The DE(R)’s mission was multifaceted; including measuring upper atmosphere weather conditions for the planes flying between McMurdo Station and Christchurch, New Zealand, establishing a Tactical Air Navigation (TACAN) presence for navigational purposes, and in an emergency to act as a Search and Rescue platform in the event a plane ever had to ditch in the ocean. The chances of survival in the cold Antarctic waters made even the thought of an ocean ditching an absolute last resort. Fortunately, I don’t recall any Deep Freeze aircraft ever having to ditch.
USS Forster DER -334, as photographed from USS Wilhoite on Deep Freeze duty
More pics of Forster bouncing around in the Antarctic here
She was a tip-top ship, and won the Arleigh Burke Fleet Trophy plaque in 1962.
Then, further use was found for her in the brown waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in February 1966, after she escorted the nine Point-class cutters comprising Division 13 of Coast Guard Squadron One from Naval Base Subic Bay to Vung Tau in South Vietnam.
USS Forster at South Elizabeth Street Pier. Maritime Museum of Tasmania P_CR_56557 . Note her large radar array
Forster would linger on in those waters, participating in Operation Market Time, patrolling the Vietnam coast for contraband shipping and providing sea to shore fire when called upon. It was a nifty trick being able to operate in 10 feet of water sometimes. These radar pickets were used extensively to track the North Vietnamese arms-smuggling trawlers.
Men from USS Forster check a sampan for contraband cargo. The chain is to be passed under the sampan’s hull to detect cargo that might be hidden below the waterline. South China Sea, March 1966. Catalog #: USN 1142219
USS FORSTER (DER-334) Lays among Vietnamese trawlers as the destroyer escort conducts visit-and-search operations off Vietnam, 15 April 1966. Catalog #: K-31525 National Archives. Original Creator: Photographer, Chief Journalist Robert D. Moeser
Tommy guns, aviators and khakis! Ensign Caldwell of Houlton, Maine, stands guard in a motor whaleboat with a .45 caliber submachine gun M1928AL (it is actually an M1A1) off the coast of South Vietnam. The Vietnamese men wait as their junk is searched by USS FORSTER (DER-334) crewmembers, 15 April 1966. Catalog #: K-31208. Copyright Owner: National Archives Original Creator: Photographer, Chief Journalist Robert D. Moeser
U.S. Navy Signalman McCachren of Johnstown, Pennsylvania (note the tattoos and Korean war-era flak jacket with no shirt), is attached to USS FORSTER (DER-334) and rides a motor whaleboat toward a Vietnamese junk off the coast of South Vietnam, 15 April 1966. Catalog #: K-31205 Copyright Owner: National Archives. Original Creator: Photographer, Chief Journalist Robert D. Moeser
By the 1970s, the Navy’s use of DERs was ending. With that, and the new Knox-class DEs (later reclassified as FFs) coming online with the capability to operate helicopters and fire ASROC ordnance, the writing was on the wall for the last of these WWII tin cans.
1968 location unknown – The escort ship USS Forster (DE 334) underway. (U.S. Navy photo by PHCM L. P. Bodine)
Forster was decommissioned and stricken from the NVR 25 September 1971, loaned the same day to the Republic of Vietnam who placed her in service as RVNS Tran Khanh Du (HQ-04). This new service included fighting in one of the few naval clashes of the Southeast Asian conflicts, the Battle of the Paracel Islands, on 19 January 1974 between four South Vietnam Navy ships and six of the PLAN. She reportedly sank the Chinese Hainan-class submarine chaser #271 and escorted the heavily damaged frigate RVNS Ly Thuong Kiet HQ16 (ex-USS/USCGC Chincoteague AVP-24/WHEC-375) under fire to Da Nang Naval Base for emergency repairs.
Forster/Tran Khanh Du would serve the South Vietnamese Navy for just under four years until that regime fell to the North.
Written off by the U.S. Navy as “transferred to Vietnam” on 30 April 1975, the day after Saigon fell; the new government liked the old Forster and renamed her VPNS Dai Ky (HQ-03). They kept her around for another two decades equipped with 2 quad SA-N-5 Grail launchers for AAA use, and she reportedly saw some contact during the “War of the Dragons” — the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.
She was taken off the patrol line as a training ship in 1993, was still reportedly seaworthy in 1997, and in 1999 was reduced to a pierside training hulk. She is still carried by some Western analysts on the rolls of the Vietnamese Peoples’ Navy.
Forster/Dai Ky, if still being used, is the almost the last of her class still clocking in. Her only competition for the title or the hardest working Edsall is ex-USS Hurst (DE-250) which has been in the Mexican Navy since 1973 and is currently the training ship ARM Commodore Manuel Azueta (D111).
As for their 83 sisters, the Navy rapidly disposed of them and only one, USS Stewart (DE-238), is still in U.S. waters. Stricken in 1972, she was donated as a museum ship to Galveston, Texas on 25 June 1974 and has been there ever since, though she was badly beaten by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and is reportedly in extremely poor material condition.
Forster is remembered by a vibrant veterans organization and her plans are in the National Archives.
Displacement: 1200 tons (light), 1590 tons (full)
Length: 300′ (wl), 306′ (oa)
Beam: 36′ 10″ (extreme)
Draft: typical 10′ 5″
Propulsion: 4 Fairbanks-Morse Mod. 38d81/8 geared diesel engines, 4 diesel-generators, 6000 shp, 2 screws
Speed: 21 kts
Range: 9,100 nm @ 12 knots
Complement: 8 / 201
3 x 3″/50 Mk22 (1×3),
1 twin 40mm Mk1 AA,
8 x 20mm Mk 4 AA,
3 x 21″ Mk15 TT (3×1),
1 Hedgehog Projector Mk10 (144 rounds),
8 Mk6 depth charge projectors,
2 Mk9 depth charge tracks
Two Mark 34 3″ guns, Hedgehog
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