In the Crosshairs of History, Part Two: YP-289 Goes to War
Who knew what they were in for? By May 1942, the government had conscripted over 50 tuna clippers — most from San Diego — as a supply fleet for the war effort. Painted battleship gray and saddled with obsolete weaponry, they transported food, fuel, munitions, and soldiers to islands and atolls in the Pacific. Told they’d deliver “beans, bacon, and mail,” said Ed Madruga, captain of the Paramount (YP-289), they found themselves in the “crosshairs of history.” Twenty-one did not return. It’s a wonder the others did.
For its first mission, YP-289 sailed 2300 miles from Pearl Harbor to Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa, where the 7th Defense Battalion built a marine staging area. As the boat neared an outer reef, Ed did what came naturally: he sent out jig lines and trawled for tuna.
The boat had eight Navy men onboard, and whatever they thought about their civilian shipmates at first, an admiration grew. For starters, YP-289 was as immaculate as any Navy craft. While some YPs developed reputations for grime (William Manchester described them as “smelly speedboats which emitted deafening chugs and clouds of sparks”), Ed Madruga insisted on spotlessness. And his crew, including brother Joe, who served as first mate, were master seamen.
A big fish hit. Joe steered such an unexpectedly tight turn, the maneuver impressed the sailors. The tuna were Pacific bluefin so large they required two bamboo poles, one line, and a large hook to bring them in. The Navy men watched with dropped jaws as the civilians slung 40- to 50-pound fish out of the soup and onto the deck in precise, two-pole harmony.
As YP-289 entered Pago Pago (pronounced “pong-go pong-go”) Harbor, an odd sight approached from the point where the blue water and dense, emerald-green backdrop joined: wooden canoes, paddled by dozens of natives.
“We’re new to the South Pacific,” Ed said years later. And “these are great big guys handling this at least 30-feet-long, one piece of wood — and [the men in the canoes] look like bruisers.”
The natives climbed onboard. Instead of inspecting the two .50-caliber machine guns astern, they stared in awe at 25 giant tuna browning on the skillet-hot deck.
“They didn’t talk English,” said Ed, “but I knew what they wanted…I said, ‘Sure.’”
One pulled out a long knife and slit the throat of a bluefin. Then all blessed Ed and drank the blood with relish. “These are like cannibals,” Ed thought. He didn’t know they re-enacted the slaying of “Tuna,” a sea-demon, by the dragon-god Roko, who saved the sacred center of the universe from harm: in Samoan sa means “sacred” and moa, “center.”
Along with the 150-foot Azorena (skippered by Ed Varley), the Conte de Blanco, and the Camagna (a small, lumber-hauling steamer), American Samoa became the Paramount’s home base for the next six months.
Newspapermen dubbed the tuna fleet the “Pork Chop Express” and the “Errand Boys of the Pacific.” Ed and Joe said these jazzy handles made perilous missions sound like a harbor cruise. The brothers didn’t mind “yippie,” which came from their designation as a “yard patrol” (YP) vessel. But they preferred “tuna boat.” It set their vulnerable craft apart from massive, reinforced-steel ships built for war.
YPs traveled such vast distances, often on short notice, that 1000 miles was a “short run.” Like aircraft carriers and destroyers, they sailed in zigzags to make it hard for subs to take a bead. “Any time you run one thousand miles and you get rough weather,” said Ed, “it gets pretty miserable. All of these islands were new to us at first, and there are thousands of them…we were always there when they [Navy and Marines] were jumping around.”
As YP-289 “island-hopped,” the crew grew accustomed to blast-furnace temperatures, which made the steel walls sweat, and to heat lightning, relentless squalls, and assaults by malaria-carrying mosquitoes: the ones with black-and-white wings. There were even cases of dengue (“bone-break”) fever and elephantiasis. But, Joe Madruga confessed to wife Adeline after the war, they never got used to the “kids.”
The Marines they transported were “so young,” said Joe, “and always so seasick.” Lying on the deck, dizzy and groaning, they couldn’t reach the railing to vomit. On several occasions, Joe turned the fire hose on them to wash the stench away.
YP-289 also carried wounded troops from combat. Caked with mud or coral dust, the “kids’” faces looked years older than their actual age. Jungle diseases were as prevalent as wounds. “Elephantiasis,” said Ed, “a lot of that in Guadalcanal and all those islands, and malaria. We used to bring 30, 40, or 50 of those guys at a time.”
The Madrugas didn’t anticipate the friendships they’d make with pilots of Marine Air Group-13, stationed a few miles southwest of Pago Pago. MAG-13 was organized in San Diego in March 1942, which gave the fishermen and airmen a local connection.
As a joke, pilots nose-dived their Chance Vought F4U Corsairs at YP-289 — straight down, up to “9 Gs,” Joe told Adeline. Just above the crow’s nest, it seemed, they’d miraculously pull out. The only sign they weren’t enemy fighters: Corsairs had inverted “gull” wings.
One day, with the sun behind them, three Corsairs swept in low, just above the water, as if for a torpedo run. Without time to go to battle stations, the crew grabbed for life jackets and prepared to jump ship. But instead of white wakes of havoc fish-tailing toward the clipper, bombs of white powder burst on the hull. The planes strafed YP-289 with sacks of flour “just for fun,” said Joe, and scored direct hits.
Between runs, the crew played baseball with the pilots at Tutuila. The rocky diamond, bulldozed by Seabees in July, made for bad hops and close games. Often, when YP-289 returned, the game would resume without the opposing pitcher or the flashy third baseman — shot from the sky. The Madrugas couldn’t believe that a man who’d made a diving catch the day before was suddenly gone.
Part 1: Tuna boats go to war | Part 3: End of things behind enemy lines