Crosshairs of History
Late Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the naval radio station at Point Loma received a message: “PEARL HARBOR UNDER ATTACK. THIS IS NO DRILL.”
Within hours, military personnel on leave flew, drove, or hitched to Fort Rosecrans. Soldiers manned batteries facing the Pacific. They camouflaged the guns with burlap and waited for an assault, since San Diego was an obvious — and poorly defended — target. That night, during a failed citywide blackout, radios reported enemies sighted all down the coast.
Within days, as the Japanese swept through Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines, the Navy blocked the entrance to San Diego Harbor with submarine nets. Winches, attached to barges on both sides, raised and lowered large metallic barrels and thick, cross-stitched cables. Local sardine trawlers became minesweepers. The Navy ordered all of San Diego’s tuna boats to “make port,” either in California or in Balboa Harbor at the Panama Canal.
As tuna clippers arrived, the government conscripted them as supply ships for the war effort. Their work was “time-charted,” a six-month, renewable lease in effect “until victory.”
“They didn’t ask,” says Ed Madruga, then 27-year-old skipper of the Paramount. “They just took them. They said, ‘We want your boat.’”
World War II was the first genuinely “world” war. For the Pacific theater, the Navy needed seaworthy supply vessels with large storage capacities able to sail 1000 miles in four days. Tuna boats were a natural. That they might provide a ready-made fleet wasn’t a new idea: as early as 1935, the government recognized their value as potential minesweepers, tugs, and “yard patrol craft.” Shortly after Pearl Harbor, Japanese admiral Isoruko Yamamoto had the same idea. He commissioned steel-hulled fishing sampans to form picket lines around Japan.
On February 16, 1942, San Diego Port Director Commander W.J. Morcott (USN Ret.) called a meeting of tuna skippers and crews at the Naval Armory Reserve. “The Navy needs men to man the [clippers] — experienced men, like yourselves. Needless to say, duty in the war zones will be hazardous.”
“When Morcott asked for volunteers,” writes Joe Brown, “six hundred hands filled the air.” The majority came from San Diego’s Portuguese and Italian fishing communities.
Though classified 4F — he was married with one child and another on the way — Ed Madruga’s hand shot up. “What the heck am I going to do around here? The government’s taken all our boats, so let’s go with them…. Four or five of my crew on the Paramount,” including his 20-year-old brother, Joe, “said, ‘Sure. Let’s go.’”
Told they lacked military training, Ed Madruga laughed. “We know that, but we know these guys are good navigators, and they can handle the boats.”
Ed Madruga, five-foot-eight, slender, with a fisherman’s master’s license, was commissioned a lieutenant. Five-feet-ten and husky, Joe Madruga became the youngest warrant officer in the Navy. “Both men were natural leaders who could get things done,” recalls Julius Zolezzi. “Ed was the quiet one, and Joe more outgoing.”
Of all the tuna boats, only the Paramount had a steel hull. The Navy coated its shining white surface with a dull slate-gray, and the 110-foot clipper became YP-289. The YP, in white letters, stood for “yard patrol.” At first, the Navy said clippers would only patrol waters around the Panama Canal. But the “yard” soon expanded to include thousands of remote islands and nameless atolls across the Pacific and the enemy-patrolled vastness in between.
The Paramount had a 17-man crew: eight Navy, nine civilian. “It was very, very informal,” says Ed Madruga. “There was no saluting. We all ate at the same table…officers and crew all sat together, and we all called each other by the first name.”
On Feburary 25, the Paramount, 15 other clippers, and 4 sardine purse-seiners sailed to Panama. This “Splinter Fleet” would patrol from the coast out to the Galapagos Islands. Whenever they sighted a ship, any ship, they had to report it. “That was the reason they gave us,” said Ed Madruga, “which was a damn good reason.”
No fisherman had basic training. There wasn’t time. Some were issued navy-blue uniforms in such haste they didn’t fit and had to be altered in Panama. The Madruga brothers and their crew left for the five-day, 3000-mile trip south in civilian mufti.
The brothers knew every cape and current from San Diego to Ecuador. Years before, off the Galapagos, Ed had found a fishing bank where upwellings release nutrients that attract fish. He named it after his boat: Paramount. Joe found Cadillac Bank, also at the Galapagos. In both cases, the brothers named their discoveries when they could no longer keep them secret.
The Madrugas certainly knew the Gulf of Tehuantepec. The Pacific side of the slender, southern isthmus of Mexico boasts some of the world’s roughest waters. Savage winds from the Gulf of Mexico sweep through a gap in the mountains — like a keyhole — and blast the eastern Pacific. They jet at such high speeds that vegetation can’t grow on the sand dunes and can blow the shoreline hundreds of yards out to sea. The farther out one sails, the more massive the swells. Sailors today call the notorious winds “T-pecer.”
When they neared the gulf, Ed Madruga and the other skippers assumed the fleet would sail “inside,” make the 210-mile crossing as close to shore as possible, since any other route was madness. Even hugging the coastline was no snap — a rule of thumb at the gulf: “keep one foot on the shore” — nor was hiding out in a cove, since straight-line winds made dragging anchor a constant threat.
The naval commander thought otherwise. His orders were to reach Panama at once. He said to sail “outside.”
“I’m not going to criticize him,” Ed Madruga said years later, “but he didn’t know exactly what we were doing.... That time of year, no tuna boat, or big ship even, goes on the outside.”
“Commander said it’ll save time,” Ed Varley, skipper of the Azorena (YP-292), told Madruga.
Part 2: The Pork Chop Express was no pleasure cruise | Part 3: End of things behind enemy lines