In the crosshairs of history, part three
YP-289 goes to war
Hurry up and wait. San Diego’s tuna clippers conscripted for World War II saw far more downtime than action. Like the much larger Liberty ships designed for the purpose, the clippers made supply runs to backwater islands and obscure atolls. When they reached a destination, boats were so backed up they had to anchor outside before unloading cargo — sometimes for days, even a week. Often when they finally did, un-canned A-rations had rotted.
In Thomas Heggens’s novel Mister Roberts, the USS Reluctant, a Liberty ship, had a “regular run from Tedium to Apathy and back, about five days each way. It made an occasional trip to Monotony.”
The Paramount (YP-289) became an exception. Although the 110-foot clipper from San Diego delivered “beans, bacon, and mail to tiny rocks,” the Navy brass gave it special duty. Captain Ed Madruga and younger brother Joe, first mate, found themselves “exploring the end of things” behind enemy lines.
On one of their first trips to Espiritu Santo Island, in the New Hebrides, as YP-289 entered Bruat Channel, the radio blurted frantic dots and dashes: Morse Code for “Stop at once! You’re in a minefield!”
As a defensive barrier, the Navy had stretched two rows of Mark VI mines across the channel. A large rock, painted white, pointed the way through the lethal maze. But no one had informed YP-289.
Joe Madruga shut the boat down. As they waited, they prayed they wouldn’t drift into a “roundball” mine and the 1600 tons of TNT inside. What seemed like hours later, a Liberty ship sailed in. “We took a chance,” Joe told his son, Joe Jr., “and moved right behind it. We followed it in, and matched all its turns.”
In May 1942, YP-289 shipped two colonels to Wallis Island to survey a potential air base. There wasn’t a soul on the donut-shaped coral lagoon. Within ten days, SeaBees had leveled an airstrip, and planes were making sorties. “There’s where we came in,” Ed Madruga recalled. “We were actually the pioneers going to Wallis Island.”
When not sailing reconnaissance missions, YP-289 went “island-hopping” or “jumping.” These are misnomers, because a “jump” could range from 500 to 1000 miles — on a tight schedule, with a top speed of ten knots. “They didn’t care what the weather was,” said Vincent Battaglia, machinist mate on YP-346. “Go. Come back. We used to tear the hell out of those boats. That was spooky.”
YP-289 delivered everything from 55-gallon drums of aviation gas to Thanksgiving turkeys. One of their most valued cargoes, under the circumstances, was cases of liquor. “These had a habit of not reaching the officers’ clubs,” said Ed, thanks to pilfering SeaBees.
Ed had to discipline his crew only once. At Pago Pago, they loaded 12 cases of bonded whiskey into the bait box astern. They were headed for British Samoa, a mere 60-mile “milk run.” “Make sure it gets there,” the Navy’s top commander ordered Madruga. But one didn’t.
“So, I’m the head man,” Ed recalled, “and back at American Samoa, the commander asks, ‘What happened to the extra case?’ I said, ‘God help me, I don’t know.’ And to this day I don’t.”
The commander ordered Madruga to put his men on 30-day report for stealing. “My crew [was] a good batch of guys.” So Madruga signed a statement that he’d followed orders, “but never did place them on report.”
Yard Patrol boats had strict orders never to fraternize with the natives. Returning from a long “hop,” YP-289 developed rudder trouble. Ed decided to make repairs at Aitutaki, the remote atoll in the southern Cook Islands. Its discoverer said it “had a most fruitful appearance…innumerable cocoanuts and other trees, the higher grounds beautifully interspersed with lawns.” The year was 1789, the writer, Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty, whose crew mutinied 18 days later.
No ship had anchored at Aitutaki in over a year. They “were just so happy to see somebody,” Ed recalled. “This wasn’t supposed to be done, but I said, ‘Let’s take a side of beef and have a luau on the beach.’ And these people were the most grateful I’d seen.”
The barbecue evolved into a rollicking dance, accompanied by the thump of large drums. The chief was so appreciative, he went to his hut and returned with a heavy woven-grass bowl. He tipped it forward, and bonfire-light flickered on large pearls. The chief offered them to Ed.
“That bowl was full,” recalls Ed’s wife Lucile today. “Ed said he couldn’t take them. And he didn’t, even though the chief insisted several times.”
The next day, natives showed Ed where to dive for pearls in Aitutaki’s pristine, turquoise lagoon. “My wife even has some of those pearls today,” he said in 1993.
“I still do,” says Lucile. “Ed would only take the ones he dove for. When he came home and told me about the others,” she laughs, “I said, ‘Oh, Ed!’ how could you?’”
Along with pearls, Lucile has a hand-sized piece of twisted black shrapnel from Nukufetau.
In August 1943, the marines established an air base defense unit at the rectangular atoll in the Tuvalu chain. The base, with crisscrossing runways, stood on Motololo, a swampy island dense with palm trees and salt brush. Ships could only enter the lagoon through a slit between thick coral ridges. But the water was so shallow, only the smallest could go inside.
In September, after discharging 100 Marines at the base, YP-289 began offloading cargo. From the east came a low metallic humming, like far-off bees. Sunlit flashes of “bogeys” — unidentified aircraft — emerged from a cloudbank in two long rows. Fighters from the Marine 2nd Airdrome Battalion, the Madrugas assumed, back from a mission.
But the planes held a high altitude. Then strings of black beads tumbled from between their silver wings: bombs.
Pillars of water burst in giant rows. Sirens screaked. Marines scrambled for foxholes. Plane after plane popped from the pure white clouds — 40 in all. The frantic ack-ack of small-arm antiaircraft fire began, followed by the deep voom-voom of the big guns, peppering the sky with black splotches.
More in this series: Part 1: Tuna boats go to war | Part 2: The Pork Chop Express was no pleasure cruise