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, Mar. 9, 2022: The Chart Maker
Here we see the white-hulled seagull that was the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey’s vessel Pathfinder being converted to a naval vessel, at the Lake Washington Shipyard, Houghton, Washington, on 9 March 1942, 80 years ago today. Note the barge alongside, full of wood paneling torn from the vessel to make it more battle-ready. While this is not a traditional “warship,” it was said that, “The road to Tokyo was paved with Pathfinder’s charts,” which I think deserves some recognition.
Carrying on the name of the Lewis Nixon-designed clipper-bowed yacht that was taken into Naval service for the Spanish-American War then went on to serve the USC&GS for forty years, mapping most of the Philippines for the first time, the above Pathfinder was purpose-built for her survey work.
Laid down at Lake Washington in peacetime– February 1941– she was 229-feet overall, with a DeLaval steam turbine fed by twin Babcock and Wilcox header-type boilers. Just 2,175-tons, this 2,000shp engineering suite allowed the vessel to touch a paint-peeling 14.7 knots on her builder’s trials.
Acquired by the Navy after Pearl Harbor, she was converted and commissioned 31 August 1942, as the haze-grey USS Pathfinder (AGS-1). She picked up a pair of 3-inch guns forward, another pair of 20mm cannons aft, depth charge racks, and two old Colt M1895 “potato digger” machine guns.
Following a short shakedown, she arrived at Funa Futi in the Ellice Islands (today’s Tuvalu) on the day after Christmas 1942.
As noted by DANFS:
For nearly two years Pathfinder operated along the dangerous New Guinea-New Britain-Solomon Islands are as allied land-air-sea forces fought to break the Japanese grip on the area. An isolated reef, an uncharted harbor, a lonely stretch of enemy hold coastline-each presented a different problem. At Bougainville, Treasury Island, Green Island, Emirau, and Guam, advance Pathfinder parties were sent ashore under the noses of the Japanese to work in close cooperation with Allied amphibious elements in laying out harbor charts or surveying inland channels.
She survived no less than 50 bombing raids while in the Solomons in 1943, including at least one in which her gunners bagged enemy aircraft.
On 7 April, while off Guadalcanal, she was attacked by 18 Japanese fighters and dive bombers coming in high and fast. Responding with 11 rounds from her two 3″/50s, 597 rounds from her 20mm Oerlikon, and 202 from her ancient Colt .30-06s, she downed two planes in two minutes. Her only damage was some 7.7-caliber holes in her survey launch.
Following charting efforts around New Guinea, Pathfinder was sent back home to California at the end of September 1944 for a three-month refit in which she would pick up even more guns.
Pathfinder was part of the push to liberate the Philippines, assisting with the landings in Casiguran Bay, Luzon in March 1945, where she withstood other air attacks.
Her luck ran out on 6 May 1945 while in “Suicide Slot” off Okinawa. A Japanese kamikaze plane crash-dived into the survey ship’s after gun platform killing one man, starting fires, and setting off ready ammunition. Emergency parties quickly brought the flames under control.
The action resulted in two Silver Stars.
Licking her wounds, Pathfinder remained off Okinawa and by August 1945 was at General Quarters 170 times in four months. She ended her war in a series of surveys among Japan’s home islands posy VJ-Day to assist the Allied occupation.
Arriving at Seattle on Christmas Eve 1945, Pathfinder decommissioned on 31 January 1946 and was transferred to the Commerce Department, being struck from the Navy List on 13 November 1946.
She received two battle stars (Solomons and Okinawa Gunto) for her World War II service. For more information on that period, her war diaries and history are digitized in the National Archives.
USC&GSS Pathfinder (OSS-30), her guns hung up and her original white scheme reapplied, continued her survey work, only without as much threat from kamikazes, mines, and enemy submarines– although she still had her gun tubs well into the late 1950s!
Retired from NOAA service in 1971, the year after the new organization absorbed the USC&GS, Pathfinder was sold for scrapping to General Auto Wrecking Company, Ballard, WA. in 1972.
Currently, the US Navy still maintains a survey ship honoring the old name, the USNS Pathfinder (TAGS-60), a 4,762-ton ship that has been in commission since 1994.
Displacement 2,175 t.
Length 229′ 4″
Speed 14.7 kts (trial)
Propulsion: one DeLaval steam turbine, two Babcock and Wilcox header-type boilers, 310psi 625°, double DeLaval Main Reduction Gears 2000shp
Complement: (Navy 1942) 13 Officers, 145 Enlisted
2 x 3″/50 dual-purpose gun mounts
4 x 1 40mm gun mounts
two depth charge tracks
two depth charge projectors
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