Two of their proudest moments came when YP-289 rescued downed pilots. Prior to World War II, Joe had a reputation for sharp “fisherman’s eyes,” among the best in the San Diego tuna fleet. He could make out specks on the horizon: a leaping yellowfin, excited birds, even ripples signaling schools of fish. During the war, his binoculars sought life jackets and rafts bobbing up and down in the blue swells. “Thank God we saved their lives,” Ed recalled with pride. “Nobody ever would have found them, I don’t think.”
When far out at sea, YP-289 got a radio call: “Pilot down, search at these coordinates.”
On the way, Joe spotted a metallic glint — a life jacket? — a mile off. Ed radioed: they might have found the pilot. Wrong coordinates, said the voice on the radio, continue to target area.
“If Joe says he sees something,” Ed shot back, “he sees something!”
And he did. The speck was the lost pilot.
They often functioned as a shuttle service. Ed’s wife Lucile recalls: “Anyone wanting to go to a different island, Ed would take them — even a leper, once.”
Their least favorite duty: “Avgas” — 55-gallon drums of aviation fuel fastened to the deck. They weren’t only dicey to transport, the crew also had to cover their faces with handkerchiefs to block the nauseating fumes.
By November 1942, around-the-clock “island hopping” had become so routine that, when Ed received an order to pick up cargo at Efate Island in the New Hebrides, he assumed it was “another trip to some isolated base with gasoline and bombs.”
On August 7, 1942, the First Marines stormed Red Beach, a slit of bright brown sand on Guadalcanal Island. This was the initial land invasion by U.S. ground troops in the Pacific theater. By early November, fighting had become so intense (it would continue so until February 8, 1943) that the Japanese renamed Guadalcanal “The Island of Death”; Americans called it “the Green Hell.”
At Efate Island, YP-289 and YP-290 (the 128-foot Picaroto, commanded by Victor Rosa) had orders to transport 160 tons of cargo to Guadalcanal. Ed had no idea what his crew was stacking in the clipper’s deep holds — many boxes, when shaken, clinked like cans of B-rations — only that the contents were so vital that a destroyer would be escorting them.
During the war, the passage between Guadalcanal and Tulagi Island, 20 miles northeast, was called “The Slot,” a deadly gauntlet patrolled by destroyers and subs from both sides. At war’s end, it became “Iron Bottom Sound,” since the remains of 65 ships lay strewn across the bottom.
The clippers sailed down the Slot at night. As they approached, Red Beach was so blacked out, they couldn’t see the shore or the destroyer escorting them. In a briefing, an officer had warned Ed about a line he shouldn’t cross, since the Marines held very little of the jungle-clotted island. But Ed “overshot” the line, “and it was still dark.”
Blasting batteries shook the night. Seven or eight high-pitched death whistles streamed over YP-289. At the wheel, Joe Madruga spun the boat from harm’s way. Since this was the first time they’d been fired upon, Ed assumed it was “across our bow,” a warning that “we were going beyond where we should be.” Others believed the shells were either poorly aimed or that the warning had come from the destroyer.
Off Red Beach, Marines unloaded the cargo onto Higgins-PT boats in double-time.
“Do you know what they took off us?” asks Ed. “It wasn’t bombs or gasoline. Our holds were filled with boxes of turkeys and potatoes and cans of cranberry sauce and all the fixins.”
President Franklin Roosevelt had promised the troops on Guadalcanal a Thanksgiving dinner. It was a gift twice over: not only did exhausted GIs enjoy a festive meal, they didn’t have to eat “gummy bully beef,” renowned not only as the worst food in creation, but downright evil.
After the delivery, on November 8, YP-289 sailed southeast in a convoy to New Caledonia. Enemy subs had been spotted on their route.
As they sailed down Indispensable Strait, from Guadalcanal south to San Cristobal, sheets of rain hammered the convoy, to the delight of Ed and Joe. One man’s miserable drenching was another’s safe conduct. The monsoon made them all but invisible.
About 60 miles from New Caledonia, the E.A. Poe (IX-103), a Liberty-class cargo ship named for the writer, trailed a mile or two behind YP-289 and the rest of the group. The Matsumura, an enemy sub, fired a single torpedo. The Poe couldn’t break away, and the explosion blasted a 28-foot-wide hole on the port side. It destroyed the engine room and blew up two boilers. While crewmen worked frantically to plug the gap, gunners on deck fired from fore and aft. One from each hit the sub, 300 yards away.
Somehow, the Poe remained afloat, and a minesweeper towed it to the Marine base at Noumea. Navy brass took one look and declared it CTL: “constructive total loss.”
YP-289 made it safely to Noumea. In the harbor, Joe told historian August Felando, “as the YP came abeam” — of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and other Navy vessels — “each anchored warship lowered her flag.” Joe believed “This was a silent salute given to ships returning from the Solomon Islands Campaign.”
Less than a month later, writes William Manchester, 60 American “merchant ships” had anchored at Noumea. Most were large Liberty cargo craft with duties similar to the YPs. The skippers staged a protest aimed at the War Shipping Administration. They refused to carry rations to Guadalcanal “unless granted exorbitant pay for overtime and service in combat zones.”
Some YP skippers protested as well. With good reason. Liberty ships were built specifically to supply 6000 tons of cargo in wartime. But at 441 feet, six inches long, they were three times the size of the tuna clippers, and with a three-inch gun forward and a four-inch astern, were far better armed than all-but-defenseless YPs making similar runs.
Part 1: Tuna boats go to war | Part 3: End of things behind enemy lines