Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 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, May 12, 2021: Linguine with Clam Sauce
Here we see the lead ship of her class of motor torpedo boat tenders, USS Oyster Bay (AGP-6/AVP-28), anchored in the Leyte Gulf of the Philippines in December 1944 with a brood of her PT boats alongside. Don’t let the designation think she couldn’t fight. With destroyer lines and comparable armament, she would both defend her boats and deliver shore bombardment during WWII.
Originally laid down as Barnegat-class small aircraft tender AVP-28 on 17 April 1942 at Lake Washington Shipyard, Houghton, Washington just four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on 1 May 1943 she was reclassified AGP-6, her role switched to taking care of PT boats instead.
The 41 Barnegats were 2,500-ton, 311-foot armed auxiliaries with destroyer lines capable of floating in 12 feet of water. They had room for not only seaplane stores but also 150 aviators and aircrew. Their diesel suite wasn’t fast, but they could travel 8,000 miles at 15.6 knots. Originally designed for two 5-inch/38-caliber guns, this could be doubled if needed (and often was) which complemented a decent AAA armament helped by radar and even depth charges and sonar for busting subs. All pretty sweet for an auxiliary.
While we’ve covered them in the past to include the former “Queen of the Little White Fleet,” USS Duxbury Bay (AVP-38); the horse-trading and gun-running USS Orca (AVP-49), and the 60-year career of USS Chincoteague (AVP-24) but, as noted already, Oyster Bay was to be a somewhat different animal.
CPT Robert J. Bulkley, Jr., USNR’s superb work on wartime PT-boats, “At Close Quarters” speaks to the conversion of Oyster Bay and her three direct sisters, USS Mobjack (AGP-7), USS Wachapreague (APG-8), and USS Willoughby (APG-9):
Beginning with the Oyster Bay, commissioned in November 1943, four ships originally laid down as seaplane tenders were completed as PT tenders by their builder, the Lake Washington Shipyards, Houghton, Wash. These were 310 feet long, about 2,800 tons. They were fine, sleek ships, built along destroyer lines, and each carried, in addition to antiaircraft batteries, two 5-inch guns. Though they were faster than the ungainly LST type, they had limited shop space and had no means of raising a PT from the water unless they towed a drydock. In certain types of operations, however, where speed and firepower were required, they proved superior to the LST type.
Besides the provision for 48 replacement torpedoes, the PT boat tenders had other improvements that enabled them to support over a dozen “mosquito boats” at any given time. Modified from the standard Barnegat layout, the Oyster Bays lacked a windscreen/splinter shield around the front of the bridge and, instead of the normal #2 5″/38DP Mark 30 mount forward of the bridge, mounted a pair of twin 40mm Bofors. Their sterns were also different, to accommodate a larger torpedo and engine repair shop.
For comparison, look at this image of Barnegat.
And contrast it to our subject:
Commissioned 17 November 1943, Oyster Bay would spend the rest of the year in shakedowns on the West Coast, notably taking the following load of duty munitions aboard for her battery, in addition to tons of .50 cal BMG and 48 Mk. 13 Mod 2A torpedoes for her PT boats and shells set aside for structural test firing:
600 rounds 5″/38 ser
100 rounds 5″/38 illum
19,200 rounds 40mm AA service
31,680 rounds 20mm HEI, service
15, 840 rounds 20mm HET, service
She was headed to war.
Leaving San Diego in early 1944 for Milne Bay, Oyster Bay would pick up two full torpedo boat squadrons, MTBRon 18 and MTBRon 21, then escort them to Admiralty Islands where the little armada would arrive 10 March.
There, Bulkley notes:
Although the 1st Cavalry Division, under Maj. Gen. Innis P. Swift, had landed on Los Negros 10 days before, the island was not yet under control. The perimeter defenses of the harbor were still in dispute. Snipers still fired occasionally at the tender and PTs at anchor. Fortunately, there were no casualties.
With her boats immediately heavily involved in the landings on Japanese-held Pityilu Island, the tender was called upon to plaster the holdouts there with 60 rounds of 5-inch on 14 March. She later evacuated 42 wounded Army personnel to the field hospital on Finschafen before heading back to the line.
By April, Oyster Bay, supporting MTBRon 7 and MTBRon 18, was moved up to Hollandia where her boats would pitch in on the fight against Japanese barge traffic, landed several Army scouting parties, and made nightly patrols, later joined there by MTBRon 12 in May.
June brought a shift to operate from Wakde.
For the first eight nights located there, high altitude Japanese bombers came in to keep the troops awake, and, aided by the Army’s searchlights ashore, Oyster Bay‘s 5-inch crews tried to reach for the phantoms. On the night of 13 June, 29 5-inch shells at a choice bomber were rewarded with a 500-pound bomb that exploded just 100 yards off the ship’s bow, killing one and injuring two. However, the smoking bomber reportedly crashed into the hills south of the ship. Her 5-inchers would do more work for the Army, providing NGFS on the nights of 23 and 25 June. Turned out that it pays to have a vessel with a 13-foot draft and 5-inch guns.
The following month, while anchored off Brisbane, a RAAF Vultee Vengeance dive bomber flying at mast level would clip Oyster Bay, an act that proved fatal to the Australians aboard and would put the tender at Hamilton Warf for repairs.
By September saw Oyster Bay, joined by sistership Mobjack, with CDR Selman S. Bowling (USNA 1927), Commander Motor Torpedo Boat Squadrons, Seventh Fleet, flying his flag from the tender a shift to Morotai in the Halmaheras where they would support 41 PT’s of MTBRons 9, 10, 18, and 33.
Off Morotai later that month, her gun crews were busy. Against a low-flying Japanese Betty bomber, they logged 140 40mm and 487 20mm rounds expended with the plane observed to “lurch violently” and to be last seen losing altitude over land. In return, four small bombs were observed to strike within 700 yards of the ship.
On 13 October, Oyster Bay, and her sisters Wachapreague and Willoughby, again with Bowling aboard, gathered a group of 45 mostly new PT boats from MTBRons 7, 12, 21, 33, and 36, then set off from Mios Woendi in the Schouten Islands southeast of Biak (codenamed Stinker) in a combat-ready convoy for the Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, with the boats repeatedly being refueled en route.
They arrived there at dawn on October 21, a day after the major assault landings on the island of Leyte. Bulkley would describe this 1,200-mile voyage as “the largest and longest mass movement of PTs under their own power during the war, and every one of the 45 boats covered the full distance under its own power.”
The PT boats were soon not only involved in supporting the landings in the Gulf, carrying out liaison missions with local guerilla scouts and parties, as well as performing extensive escort and reconnaissance duties but would also play a role in the Battle of the Surigao Strait.
In that engagement, 39 PTs, in 13 three-boat sections, waited to sucker punch VADM Shōji Nishimura’s battleship/cruiser force on 24 October in what would be a late-night/early morning melee that would be joined by a larger American force and seal Nishimura’s fate. During this “tripwire” action, PT-137 (” The Duchess” under LTJG Mike Kovar of MTBRon 7, sailing from Oyster Bay) landed a Mk 13 in the boiler room of the Japanese Nagara-class light cruiser Abukuma in the pre-dawn darkness which forced the 5,600-ton vessel to try to make for Dapitan for repairs, escorted by the destroyer Ushio. Found limping along by USAAF B-24s the next morning, Abukuma would be on the bottom by noon.
With VADM Jesse B. Oldendorf’s larger force crossing the Japanese “T” the next morning, Nishimura was killed during the battle when his flagship, the Yamashiro, was sunk after being hit multiple times from the U.S. battleships.
Very soon after arriving at the Leyte Gulf, the American force became target number one for successive waves of Japanese air attacks, often numerous times a day. In Oyster Bay‘s 21 November war diary, the ship reported 221 air raid alerts in the preceding 40 days putting a “severe physical and mental strain on all hands.”
As at Morotai, her gun crews were successful, spotting enemy planes close enough to take a shot at on no less than 23 occasions in October and November. On 25 October, she credited downing a Val. On 21 November, a Jake. On 26 November, she bagged three Zekes. During the same period, PTs 195, 522, and 324 were each credited with a plane while being “tended.”
December saw the air raids abate, slacking down to an average of “just” three per day.
She would continue her operations in the Philippines, participating in the invasion of Zamboanga in March 1945, supporting her PT boats in Sarangani Bay, Mindoro, where they carried the war to the Japanese in the Davao Gulf for the first time since 1942. Then came Samar and a quiet period of mop-up work. From 18 May to 6 August, she reported “tender operations without incident.”
By mid-August, with the Japanese throwing in the towel, her crews and those of her related MTBRons were involved in the work of “decommissioning PT-boats,” which meant stripping and burning.
On 10 November 1945, Oyster Bay hoisted her anchor, broke out her homebound pennant, and departed the PI for the West Coast, with 120 passengers aboard.
She had earned five battle stars for her war in the Pacific.
Steaming into San Francisco Bay just after Thanksgiving, she would be decommissioned on 26 March 1946. With the task of tending PT-boats no longer seen as a thing, she was re-designated while in mothballs to a seaplane tender in 1949, picking up her intended AVP-28 hull number for the first time.
Laid up in Stockton, it was decided by the State Department and the Pentagon a few years later that Oyster Bay was going on to live a second career, abroad.
Bound for Italia!
Transferred to the government of NATO-allied Italy 23 October 1957 to help rebuild that country’s navy from the ashes of the old Regia Marina. As such, Oyster Bay was stripped of her armament, sent packing with just a 3″/50 forward, and, after a brief overhaul and sensor upgrade at the San Francisco Naval Shipyard, became the support ship Pietro Cavezzale (A-5301).
She later picked up two 40mm guns and a tripod mast was installed in place of the original mast and went on to grace the pages of Jane’s Fighting Ships for the next 36 years. While the ships around her changed, she remained the same.
Cavezzale was frequently photographed around the Med during those years and was used as a floating base for Italian frogmen of COM.SUB.IN., the successors to the famed Decima Flottiglia MAS of WWII.
She got operational with her divers in 1982, supporting a deployment to Lebanon under the auspices of the UN.
In 1984, she again shipped out, responding to the demining operations in the Red Sea, where a suspected Libyan merchant ship littered the waters with infernal devices. Using Soviet/East German “export” bottom mines of a type not previously known in the West, the mystery vessel’s deadly seeds damaged at least 17 ships. There, she would support three Italian minehunters operating predominantly in the Gulf of Suez for two months as part of the international effort (Operation Harling/Operation Intense Look) to clear the waters.
Kept on the rolls long past her prime– almost all her sisters had long been sent to the scrappers– Oyster Bay/Cavezzale was decommissioned in October 1993 and sold for dismantling in February 1996, bringing a very active 43 years to a close.
Oyster Bay’s activities are mentioned extensively in Bulkley’s “At Close Quarters” (pgs. 71, 73, 222, 227, 230, 239, 246, 250, 259, 368-369, 373, 377, 392, 394, 426, 429, 434.)
Going back to the original source material, most of her war diaries, her war history, and engineering drawings are digitized and available online in the National Archives.
An amazing scale model diorama, created by Carl Musselman, was produced in 2004 depicting Oyster Bay and her brood in her Leyte Gulf days.
A total of 18 Barnegats transferred to Coast Guard in the 50s and 60s to become the “Casco” or “311” class (for their length) of heavy weather endurance cutters, WHEC, with pennant numbers 370 to 387. Many were renamed traditional USCG names, e.g after past Treasury Department Secretaries. Many of these were subsequently transferred a second time to overseas allies such as the Republic of Vietnam and the Philippines.
As for Oyster Bay‘s immediate PT-boat tender sisters, Mobjack transferred to the U.S. Department of Commerce after the war as the ocean survey ship Pioneer (OSS31) and operated with the Coast and Geodetic Survey for 20 years off the West Coast before meeting the scrapper in 1966.
USS Willoughby (AGP-9) went on to serve as the USCGC Gresham (WAVP/WHEC/WAGW-387), through 1973 before being scrapped in Holland, seeing service in Vietnam where it was found that her 5-inch forward mount could still provide NGFS in shallow water when needed. Funny thing.
Finally, USS Wachapreague (AGP-8), also served with the Coast Guard as USCGC McCulloch (WAVP/WHEC/WAGW-386) before transfer to the South Vietnamese Navy in 1972 as Ngo Kuyen (HQ-17). When Saigon fell, she was one of the diasporas of former RVN vessels to make the sad trip to the Philippines where she was eventually taken into Filipino service as Gregorio de Filar (PS-8) for a few years. In poor condition, she was slowly stripped of anything useful and faded away sometime in the 1980s.
When it comes to the Barnegat class, they have all gone on to the breakers or been reefed with the final class member afloat, ex-Chincoteague (AVP-24/WHEC-375)/Ly Thuong Kiet (HQ-16)/Andres Bonifacio (PF-7) scrapped in the Philippines in 2003. None remain above water.
Displacement 1,766 t.(lt) 2,800 t.(fl)
Length 310′ 9″
Beam 41′ 2″
Draft: 12′ 3″ (full load) 13′ 6″ (limiting)
Speed 18.6 knots. Fuel Capacities: Diesel 1,955 Bbls; Gasoline 71,400 Gals
Propulsion: two Fairbanks Morse Diesel 38D8 1/4 engines, single Fairbanks Morse Main Reduction Gear, two propellers, 6,080shp
Ship’s Service Generators: two Diesel-drive 100Kw 450V A.C., one Diesel-drive 200Kw 450V A.C.
Radars: SL, SC-2, ABK
Sonar: YG homing equipment, QC sonar,
Complement: 215 but with accommodations for 152 men of accompanying PT Boats
1 x 5″/38 (12.7 cm) Mark 12 in Mark 30 shielded mount, forward
1 x 5″/38 (12.7 cm) Mark 12 in Mark 21 open mount, aft
8 x 40mm/60 Bofors in 4 x twin mounts
4 x 20mm/70 Oerlikon singles
2 x stern depth charge racks, some plans show 2 DT throwers but likely not fitted.
Changes before transfer to Italy
Radars: RCA SPS-12 air search radar, I-band navigation radar
1 x 3″/50 DP mount, later two 40mm mounts added
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