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Warship Wednesday May 18, 2016: Spanish gunboats a-go-go

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 May 18, 2016: Spanish gunboats a-go-go

NHC NH 45328

NHC NH 45328

Here we see the General Concha-class cañonero (gunboat) Elcano shortly after she became the USS Elcano (PG-38) because of the activities of one Commodore Dewey. She would go on to serve 44 hard years in total.

Laid down 3 March 1882 by Carraca Arsenal, Cadiz, Spain, Elcano was a small warship, at just 157’11” between perpendiculars (165′ oal), and tipping the scales at just 620-tons with a full load. Slow, she could only make 11-ish knots. However, what she could do was float in just 10 feet of water and carry two 120mm low angle guns, a single 90mm, four Nordenfelt QFs and two Whitehead torpedo tubes around the shallow coastal littoral of the Philippines where the Spanish were having issues with the locals that often involved gunplay.

120mm 25cal Hontoria M1879 (left) in Spanish service. Elcano mounted two of these guns

120mm 25cal Hontoria M1879 (left) in Spanish service. Elcano mounted two of these guns. Note the opulent wheelhouse.

Sisters, designed for colonial service, included the General Concha, Magallanes, and General Lezo, they were officially and maybe over ambitiously listed as “Crucero no protegido de 3ª clase” or 3rd class protected cruisers.

Class leader, Cañonero de la Armada Española General Concha, 1897

Class leader, Cañonero de la Armada Española General Concha, 1897

Described as “pot-bellied,” Elcano had a quaint Victorian era ram bow and carried a mixed sailing rig for those times when coal, never plentiful in the PI, was scarce. She was commissioned into the Armada Española in 1884, arriving in Manila late that year. Like most of the 18 or so Spanish ships in the region (to include sister General Lezo), she was commanded by Spanish officers and manned by Filipino crews.

Cañonero español Elcano at commissioning. The Spanish liked dark hulls

Cañonero español Elcano at commissioning. The Spanish liked dark hulls

Her peacetime service was quiet, spending more than a dozen years puttering around the archipelago, waving her flag and showing off her guns. Then came the Spanish-American War.

Just five days after a state of war between the U.S. and Spain existed, on April 26, El Cano came across the U.S.-flagged bark Saranac—under Captain Bartaby—carrying 1,640 short tons (1,490 t) of coal from Newcastle, New South Wales, to Iloilo, in the Philippines for Admiral Dewey’s fleet and captured same with a shot across the bow.

You see the good Capt. Bartaby, sailing in the days without wireless and being at sea for a week had missed the announcement of hostilities and said into Iloilo harbor to the surprise of El Cano’s skipper, who dutifully placed the ship under arrest. Bartaby was able to cheat a Spanish prize court by producing convenient papers that Saranac had been sold for a nominal sum to an English subject just days before her capture, though she had sailed into a Spanish harbor with the Red White and Blue flying. We see what you did there, Bartaby, good show.

Dewey lamented this loss of good Australian coal, which was hard to find in the Asiatic Squadron’s limited stomping grounds after the Brits kicked them out of Hong Kong. Incidentally, the Saranac was the only U.S. ship captured during the war compared with 56 Spanish vessels taken by Yankee surface raiders.

Speaking of which…

The rest of Elcano‘s very short war was uneventful save for being captured during the Battle of Manila Bay 1 May 1898 along with the rest of the Spanish Pacific Squadron under Admiral Patricio Montojo after Dewey battered his way into the harbor.

ELCANO at Cavite Navy Yard, Philippine Island Description: Courtesy of D. M. MC Pherson, Corte Madena, California. 1967 Catalog #: NH 54354

ELCANO at Cavite Navy Yard, Philippine Island. Note the extensive awnings. Description: Courtesy of D. M. MC Pherson, Corte Madena, California. 1967 Catalog #: NH 54354

Her three sisters all had more final run-ins. General Concha fought at San Juan, Puerto Rico and narrowly escaped capture only to wreck herself on a reef off Morocco in 1913. General Lezo was ruined by a magazine explosion and sank just after Manila Bay. Magallanes, escaping destruction in Cuba, was discarded after sinking at her dock in 1903.

As for Elcano, her Spanish/Filipino crew was quickly paroled ashore at Cavite, and she languished there for six months under guard until being officially taken over by the U.S. Navy on 8 November.

USS ELCANO (PG-38) at Cavite Navy Yard, Philippine Island circa 1900, before being refitted for the U.S. Navy. Note she has been white-washed and her awning shown above in Spanish service deleted. Description: Courtesy of LCDR John E. Lewis, 1945. Catalog #: NH 54353

USS ELCANO (PG-38) at Cavite Navy Yard, Philippine Island circa 1900, before being refitted for the U.S. Navy. Note she has been white-washed and her awning shown above in Spanish service deleted. You can also make out her starboard torped tube door just above the waterline. Description: Courtesy of LCDR John E. Lewis, 1945. Catalog #: NH 54353

Refitted for use to include swapping out her Spanish armament for American 4″/40cals (and plugging her 14-inch bow tubes), she was commissioned as USS Elcano (Gunboat No. 38) on 20 November 1902– because the Navy had a special task for the shallow water warship.

You see, once the U.S. moved into the PI, they used a series of captured and still-floating near-flat bottomed former Spanish gunboats (USS Elcano, Villalobos, Quiros, Pampanga and Callao) to protect American interests in Chinese waters. These boats, immortalized in the book and film the Sand Pebbles, were known as the Yangtze Patrol (COMYANGPAT), after the huge river system they commonly haunted. The first modern patrol, started in 1903, was with the five Spaniards while two more gunboats, USS Palos and Monocacy, built at Mare Island in California in 1913, would later be shipped across the Pacific to join them while USS Isabel (PY-10) would join the gang in 1921.

Elcano was based at Shanghai from February 1903, her mission to protect American citizens and property, and promote friendly relations with the Chinese– sometime promoting the hell out of them when it was needed. She kept this up until 20 October 1907 when she was sent back to Cavite for a three-year refit.

During this time, she served as a tender to 1st Submarine Division, Asiatic Torpedo Fleet, with the small subs of the day having their crews live aboard the much larger (dry-docked) gunboat.

USS Shark (Submarine # 8) In the Dewey Drydock, Olongapo Naval Station, Philippines, circa 1910. The gunboat Elcano is also in the drydock, in the right background. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1978. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 86963

USS Shark (Submarine # 8) In the Dewey Drydock, Olongapo Naval Station, Philippines, circa 1910. The gunboat Elcano is also in the drydock, in the right background. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1978. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 86963

Recommissioned 5 December 1910, Elcano took up station at Amony in China, and resumed the monotony of river cruises in China’s decidedly strife-ridden countryside that included bar fights with British gunboat crews, welcoming visiting warlords with an open hand (and a cocked 1911 under the table), sending naval parties ashore to rescue random Westerners caught in riots and unrest, besting other USN ships’ baseball teams to the amusement of the locals, and just generally enjoying the regional color (though libo groups were ordered to always go ashore in uniform and with canteens).

In August 1911, Elcano and the rest of the patrol boats were joined by the cruisers USS New Orleans and Germany’s SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Hankow for the unrest that came along with the anti-monarchist putsch that ended the Manchu dynasty.

There, Elcano participated in an impromptu naval review along with other arriving vessels from Austro-Hungary, Japan, France, Russia and a six-ship task force dispatched by the British. The ceremony’s true purpose: keep an eye on the nearly one dozen semi-modern Chinese warships in the harbor to make sure a repeat of the Boxer Rebellion didn’t spark. During this period, Elcano‘s men joined others in the International Brigade, sending 30 bluejackets with their Colt machine guns in tow to help guard the Japanese consulate. They were relieved ashore later in the year by a company of the British Yorkshire Light Infantry and a half-regiment of Siberian Cossacks shipped in for the task.

While on the Yangtze River Patrol, circa 1917. Description: Courtesy of Arthur B. Furnas, Corte Madera, California, 1969. Catalog #: NH 69694

While on the Yangtze River Patrol, circa 1917. Description: Courtesy of Arthur B. Furnas, Corte Madera, California, 1969. Catalog #: NH 69694

During the Christmas season, circa December 1917, while in the Philippines. Note the Christmas tree on the bow and the other decorations aboard the ship. Description: Courtesy of Arthur B. Furnas, Corte Madera, California, 1969 Catalog #: NH 69697

During the Christmas season, circa December 1917, while in the Philippines. Note the Christmas tree on the bow and the other decorations aboard the ship.  She would keep up this tradition for years. Description: Courtesy of Arthur B. Furnas, Corte Madera, California, 1969 Catalog #: NH 69697

Elcano would get a short break from Chinese waters when the U.S. entered WWI, being recalled to Manila Bay to serve as a harbor gunboat, patrolling around Corregidor from April 1917-Nov. 1918, just in case a German somehow popped up. Then, it was back to the Yangpat.

Meanwhile in China, as the putsch of 1911 turned into open revolution and then Civil War, Elcano and her compatriots in the Yangpat were ever more involved in fights ashore, landing troops in Nanking in 1916 along with other nations during riots there, in Chungking in 1918 to protect lives during a political crisis, and again in March 1920 at Kiukiang (now Jiujiang on the southern shores of the Yangtze), where Elcano‘s sailors acted alone, and then at Ichang where she landed a company of Marines for the task and remained as station ship and floating headquarters until September 1922.

Some of the ships of the U.S. Navy's Yangtze River Patrol at Hangchow during the 1920s, with several local junks and sampans also present. U.S. Navy ships are (from left to right): USS Isabel (PY-10); USS Villalobos (PG-42); and USS Elcano (PG-38). Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1969. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 67127

Some of the ships of the U.S. Navy’s Yangtze River Patrol at Hangchow during the 1920s, with several local junks and sampans also present. U.S. Navy ships are (from left to right): USS Isabel (PY-10); USS Villalobos (PG-42); and USS Elcano (PG-38). Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1969. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 67127

Chinese general visiting Elcano. The commanding officer of Elcano is seen waiting to greet him at the top of the gangway, Ichang, China, circa 1920's. Also note how they have to walk right into the muzzle of the 4-incher when coming aboard-- very subtle. Look up: Gunboat diplomacy. Description: Catalog #: NH 68976

Chinese general visiting Elcano. The commanding officer of Elcano is seen waiting to greet him at the top of the gangway, Ichang, China, circa 1920’s. Also note how they have to walk right into the muzzle of the 4-incher when coming aboard– very subtle. Look up: Gunboat diplomacy. Catalog #: NH 68976

Ship's baseball team going ashore, in China, during the early 1920s. Description: Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77142

Ship’s baseball team going ashore, in China, during the early 1920s. Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77142

Rare today is a bluejacket who was a member of the Noble and Exclusive Order of the Brotherhood of Mighty River Rats of the Yangtze c.1903-1941. Photo via The Real Sand Pebbles.

Rare today is a bluejacket who was a member of the Noble and Exclusive Order of the Brotherhood of Mighty River Rats of the Yangtze c.1903-1941. Photo via The Real Sand Pebbles.

These two letters from Elcano sailors from the 1920 volume of Our Navy, the Standard Publication of the U.S. Navy. Note the mention of the ship’s baseball team, hooch at $1.20 a quart, and the retelling of how 60 bluejackets cleared the streets of Kiukiang by bayonet point:

elcano lettersDuring this service, Elcano proved a foundry for future naval leaders. Stars rained upon her deck, as no less than six of her former skippers went on to become admirals including Mississippian later Vice Adm. Aaron Stanton “Tip” Merrill, who picked up the Navy Cross at the Battle of Blackett Strait in 1943 by smashing the Japanese destroyers Murasame and Minegumo without a single casualty.

Airing her sails in Chinese waters during the 1920s. She was undoubtedly one of the last warships with canvas in the fleet. Description: Courtesy of Mr. Donald M. McPherson, Corte Madera, California, 1972. Catalog #: NH 75577

Airing her sails in Chinese waters during the 1920s. She was undoubtedly one of the last warships with canvas in the fleet. Courtesy of Mr. Donald M. McPherson, Corte Madera, California, 1972. Catalog #: NH 75577

In dry dock at Shanghai, China, circa early 1920's note the 4"/.40 caliber gun (lower) and the 3-pounder (above) Description: Courtesy of Mr. Donald M. McPherson, Corte Madera, California, 1969 Catalog #: NH 68978

In dry dock at Shanghai, China, circa early 1920’s note the 4″/.40 caliber gun (lower) and the 3-pounder (above) Courtesy of Mr. Donald M. McPherson, Corte Madera, California, 1969 Catalog #: NH 68978

In dry dock, at Shanghai, China, during the early 1920s. Note 4"/40 gun. Description: Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77143

In dry dock, at Shanghai, China, during the early 1920s. Note stern 4″/40 gun. Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77143

Between 1923-25, armed landing teams from Elcano went ashore and stayed ashore almost a half-dozen times in two extended periods in Shanghai during unrest and street fights between rival factions.

Armed guard, photographed in Chinese waters, during the early 1920s. Note Lewis machine guns. Description: Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77144

Armed guard from Elcano, photographed in Chinese waters, during the early 1920s. Note Lewis machine guns. Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77144

In March 1927, Elcano along with the destroyers USS William P. Preston, USS Noa, and the RN’s HMS Emerald took a “mob of undisciplined Nationalist soldiers” under intense naval gunfire outside of Nanking when the American Consul General John C. Davis and 166 others were besieged at the Standard Oil compound on Socony Hill.

It would be Elcano‘s last whiff of cordite.

By 1926, the seven veteran river gunboats were all worn out and the navy went shopping for replacements. With dollars always short in the Navy budget, it just made sense to build these new boats in China, to save construction and shipping costs. These new ships consisted of two large 500-ton, 210-foot gunboats (USS Luzon and Mindanao); two medium-sized 450-ton, 191-foot boats (USS Oahu and Panay) and two small 350-ton, 159-foot boats (USS Guam and Tutuila).

Once the new gunboats started construction, the five old Yangtze Patrol ships’ days were numbered. In November 1927, Elcano became a barracks ship in Shanghai for the newly arriving crews of the PCUs and by 30 June 1928, she was decommissioned after some 14 years of service to Spain and another three decades to Uncle Sam.

At Ichang China. Note trees on mastheads Description: Courtesy of Lt. Commander Merrill, USN, 1928. Catalog #: NH 54352

At Ichang China. Note trees on mastheads. Courtesy of Lt. Commander Merrill, USN, 1927. Catalog #: NH 54352

Elcano was stripped of all useful material, some of which went to help equip the new Yangpat boats, then towed off the coast and disposed of in a Sinkex by gunfire on 4 October 1928. Two of her former companions in arms suffered the same fate. Villalobos (PG-42), model for Richard McKenna’s San Pebbles, was likewise sunk by naval gunfire 9 October 1928, and joined by the ex-Spanish then-USS Pampanga (PG-39) on 21 November. The days of Dewey’s prizes had come and gone, with the Navy getting a good 30 years out of this final batch.

Of the other Spanish armada vessels pressed into U.S. Navy service, Quiros (PG-40) was previously sunk as a target in 1923, and Callo (YFB-11) was sold at Manila the same year where she remained in use as a civilian ferry for some time.

The website, Sand Pebbles.com, keeps the memory of the Yangpat and her vessels alive while scrapbooks and uniforms are preserved in the hands of private collectors.

However, in Nanjing, on an unidentified monument there, is a series of Navy graffiti left by those Yankee river rats, if you look closely, you can just make out USS Elcano under USS Chattanooga.

USS_Chattanooga_Nanjing graffitti I recently found inscribed upon a Chinese monument in Nanjing (Former Yangtze river capital 'Nanking')

They were there.

Group of crewmembers visit a joss house, in China, during the early 1920s. Description: Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77147

Group of Elcano crewmembers visit a joss house, in China, during the early 1920s. Courtesy of Frederick Cornman, Valois, New York, 1971. Catalog #: NH 77147

Specs:

Displacement: 620 long tons (630 t)
Length: 165 ft. 6 in (50.44 m)
Beam: 26 ft. (7.9 m)
Draft: 10 ft. (3.0 m)
Installed power: 1,200 ihp (890 kW)
Propulsion:
2 × vertical compound steam engines
2 × single-ended Scotch boilers
2 × screws
Rig: Schooner
Speed: 11 kn (13 mph; 20 km/h)
Complement:
Spanish Navy: 115
U.S. Navy: 99-103
Armament:
As commissioned:
2×1 120mm/25cal Hontoria M1879
1x 90/25 Hontoria M1879
4×1 25/42 Nordenfelt
2x 356mm TT (bow)
1902:
4×1 4″/40
4×1 3pdr (37mm) guns
2x Colt machine guns
1x 3-inch Field gun for landing party along with Lewis guns and rifles, handguns and cutlasses

If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO), Publishers of Warship International

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Warship Wednesday: Aug 8, 2013, The Lost Wake

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take out 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. – Christopher Eger

Warship Wednesday:  Aug 8, 2013

120904302

Here we see the river gunboat USS Guam steaming down the Yangtze river in old China. Unlike most of Uncle’s warships, she never once sailed US waters.

Built in China at the Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works, Shanghai specifically for the US Navy, she was one of the first new-built Chinese gunboats for the US. Uncle had for generations maintained a fleet of coastal and river gunboats in Chinese waters. These boats, immortalized in the book and film the Sand Pebbles, were known as the Yangtze Patrol (COMYANGPAT), after the huge river system they commonly haunted. The first modern patrol started in 1901, was with three captured Spanish shallow draft gunboats (USS Elcano, Villalobos, and Callao) that had previously been used in the Philippines. Two more gunboats, USS Palos and Monocacy, were built at Mare Island in California in 1913 and shipped across the Pacific. By 1926 these five boats were all worn out and the navy went shopping for replacements.

The_Sand_Pebbles_film_poster

With dollars always short in the Navy budget, it just made sense to build these new boats in China, to save construction and shipping costs. These new ships consisted of two large 500-ton, 210-foot gunboats (USS Luzon and Mindanao); two medium-sized 450-ton, 191-foot boats (USS Oahu and Panay) and two small 350-ton, 159-foot boats (USS Guam and Tutuila).

Guam was commissioned 28 December 1927 and carried a designation as a patrol gunboat number 43 (PG-43), then reclassified the next year as patrol-boat, river, number 3 (PR-3) six months later. This change was due to the flat-bottom hulled craft being incapable of at-sea operations. Her 5-foot draft meant she could travel all over the inland river systems and she spent the next 14-years of her US Navy career doing so.

USS TUTUILA (PR-4) or USS GUAM (PR-3) Ship’s officers and crew, photographed at Hankow, China, on 14 July 1930. Note armored covers of bridge windows, awning frames, 3″/23 gun. Description: Courtesy of Ted Stone, 1977 Catalog #: NH 85840

She had a quiet life but it was exotic. Warlords, bandits, White Russian refugees, Communist rebels, and corrupt local governments changed every few miles along the river. By 1931, Japanese interests in the country meant a dangerous future for the Yangtze Patrol.

When Americans in China were in sticky situations from 1901-1941, this is how the brown-water sailors of the US Navy's YANGPAT came ashore.

When Americans in China were in sticky situations from 1901-1941, this is how the brown-water sailors of the US Navy’s YANGPAT came ashore.

In December 1937, 12 Japanese fighter-bombers attacked and sunk the larger USS Panay in Nanking, China as the boat was evacuating Americans from the embattled city.

Ichang, China view taken 18 May 1937, showing USS GUAM (PR-3), moored astern of USS PANAY (PR-5) prior to their inspection by the Commander in Chief Asiatic Fleet. British river gunboat GANNET (1927) is in the background, seen above PANAY. Description: Courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. Philip Yarnell, 1975 Catalog #: NH 81615

Following this incident tensions grew between the Japanese and US Navy ships in Chinese waters and Guam wandered around, decked in as many US flags as could be found, keeping quiet tabs. Just before Pearl Harbor, the four larger ships were withdrawn to the Philippines but Guam and her sister Tutuila were forced to remain behind, planned to be turned over to the Chinese.

On December 5, 1941, two days before the US entered WWII, COMYANGPAT was disbanded and the USS Guam renamed USS Wake earlier in the year, was the last US Navy ship in Chinese waters. Most of her crew had already left, transferred to the larger boats, and were in the Philippines. Just the captain and 14 crewmen remained aboard, destroyed vital papers, and wired the ship with scuttling charges.

120904305

On December 8, 1941, the USS Wake surrendered to the Japanese military as crack marines of the Special Naval Landing Force stormed the ship before news of Pearl Harbor reached the naval vessel. Trapped in a no-win situation at the start of WWII, her captain did what he could to ensure the safety of his sailors who were marched off into five years of Japanese imprisonment.

Capture of USS WAKE (PR-3), 8 December 1941 Japanese special naval landing force personnel celebrate after they captured USS WAKE on the first day of World War II in the Pacific. The Shanghai “Bund” is in the background. Description: Courtesy of the Naval Historical Foundation. Catalog #: NH 96568

Japanese naval infantrymen aboard a ship off Shanghai, China, 8 Dec 1941 note captured American flag 45 1928 Thompson sub-machine guns and 12 gauge M1897 Winchester riot guns, all likely from USS Wake

She is the only US Navy ship to surrender in modern times.

It is perhaps this fact that has kept the US Navy from commissioning another USS Wake. As of this date, there has never been another. The captain and two other men escaped confinement in 1944 and walked 700 miles to Allied lines.

gunboat

The Japanese used her as a gunboat manned by their local Chinese surrogates under the name of Tatara. Surviving multiple US air raids during WWII, she was captured by the US Army in 1945 and given to the Nationalist Chinese who used her as the Tai Yuan. In a final, and fitting chapter of her life, she was captured by Mao’s Red Chinese in 1949. They kept the old girl poking around until at least the late 1960s.

Her final disposition is unknown.

Specs:
Displacement: 350 long tons (360 t)
Length:     159 ft 5 in (48.59 m)
Beam:     27 ft 1 in (8.26 m)
Draft:     5 ft 3 in (1.60 m)
Installed power:     1,900 ihp (1,400 kW)
Propulsion:     2 × triple expansion steam engines
2 × screws
Speed:     14.5 kn (16.7 mph; 26.9 km/h)
Complement: 59
Armament:     1927: 2 × 3in guns (2×1) 8 × .30-06 Lewis machine guns (8×1), infantry weapons
1942: US-made 3″ guns replaced with Japanese 3″ AA guns.
Jan 1945 several Type 93 13.2mm M.G.s installed
1946 more light machineguns added. Presumably, refit with Soviet weapons in the 1950s.

Specs:
If you liked this column, please consider joining the International Naval Research Organization (INRO)

They are possibly one of the best sources of naval lore http://www.warship.org/naval.htm

The International Naval Research Organization is a non-profit corporation dedicated to the encouragement of the study of naval vessels and their histories, principally in the era of iron and steel warships (about 1860 to date). Its purpose is to provide information and a means of contact for those interested in warships.

Nearing their 50th Anniversary, Warship International, the written tome of the INRO has published hundreds of articles, most of which are unique in their sweep and subject.

I’m a member, so should you be!

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