The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Tucker (DD-374) sank at Bruat channel on August 5, 1942.
  • The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Tucker (DD-374) sank at Bruat channel on August 5, 1942.
  • Image by PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE U.S. NAVY
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YP-346 Goes to War

Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Vince Battaglia thought the war in the Pacific would be “a big joke. You know, we’d win it in a week.” Assigned to YP-346, in May 1942, Battaglia sailed to Pearl less than a week after joining the Navy: “No military training at all.” YP-346, a 120-foot tuna clipper (the Prospect) converted to a Yard Patrol boat, became hounded by the dogs of war.

The captain, Joaquin “Jack” Theodore, had been navigator of the Monarch, one of the San Diego tuna fleet’s most successful boats. When the Army drafted a friend, Theodore knew he’d get his notice soon. “Oh, my God,” he said, “I don’t want to go into the Army.” So he volunteered for the Navy in April. Because of his expert seamanship — he had a master’s license — Theodore was made warrant officer and captain of YP-346. Asked if he was nervous, Theodore replied, “No, I wasn’t scared. I was at sea. That was my life.”

Soon after Pearl Harbor, the Navy ordered all tuna boats to return to the nearest port. The Prospect had a Japanese-American crew. When it moored at the customs dock at Point Loma, writes Daniel Shapiro, “the crew was removed under marine guard and the cargo of tuna unloaded.” The Van Camp Sea Company, which owned the boat, had no say. “The government seized the clipper.” Later, it shipped the crew to the relocation camp at Poston, Arizona, along with 2000 other Japanese-Americans from San Diego.

At the time, California had over 1500 registered Italian-American seamen. According to the Pacific Fisherman, the government, fearing that they might be spies, refused to allow “Italian nationals to work on market boats or around fishing docks.” Hundreds of San Diegans suddenly became unemployed. Battaglia, an Italian, joked that “Half the guys couldn’t speak English.” That the government questioned their patriotism offended them to the core.

At San Diego, the ships received several coats of slate-gray paint, plus two .50 caliber machine guns aft and one in front of the pilothouse. From afar, the YPs looked like sleek yachts. But painted battleship-gray made them “floating targets.”

“We got no training,” Theodore recalled years later. “They gave me the slip that I was commanding officer. That was it.”

“We made mistakes,” said Battaglia. “We didn’t know how to salute,” but “they couldn’t teach us anything about seamanship…so they didn’t fool with us…. If you had a first-class petty officer, it didn’t mean anything. I’m second class, and I knew more than the chief did.”

San Diegans today remember Battaglia as quiet and down-to-earth. “A really nice guy,” says one, and “not the type to outspeak anybody.” The war, and lack of respect for YPs, changed him for a spell.

Many among the 600 tuna fishermen from San Diego wore uniforms deliberately askew and left the decks unswabbed, as silent protests against the dangers they risked daily. “Nine months without any mail,” says Battaglia, “seven months without any pay, no clothes, we looked like hooligans. I looked like a spy!”

Newspapers coined jazzy names for the YPs: “Pork Chop Express,” “Errand Boys of the Pacific,” “Yippies.” Battaglia and many others preferred the “Hooligan Navy.” They made the long hauls and got the jobs done, whenever possible, on their own terms.

When YP-346 arrived at Pearl Harbor on May 18, 1942, the sight overwhelmed Battaglia: battered, blackened wreckage; tall cranes refloating sunken vessels from oil-slicked waters; military personnel everywhere, scraping grit from hulls or waiting restlessly to be shipped out.

Battaglia said he’d never forget the barges “filled with a lot of clothing” — from the dead. “It was spooky to see these things.”

Each YP crew combined sailors and tuna men. The first time the gunnery officer tested a machine gun, it toppled over. “No support,” said Battaglia.

“Those .50 calibers,” recalled Theodore, “were good for nothing. I didn’t even use them when I got hurt.”

The boat also had 12 depth charges astern on racks over the bait box. When they tested one, it fizzled. “I think we had a misfire.” said Battaglia. “But, hell, we tried.”

Assured they’d have safe, dull duty far from battle zones, the YPs soon learned otherwise.

When YP-346 was stationed at Pearl Harbor awaiting orders, word came of an “accident.” Four YPs had transported fuel and supplies from Pearl to La Perouse Pinnacle, 260 miles south of Midway. Heat made the fuel drums so hot, crews had to hose them down every two hours. The convoy knew the harbor at La Perouse was mined. But only the lead boat, the Challenger (YP-239), had a map, since the Navy kept information about its defensive minefields to a minimum.

On May 23, the YPs entered the harbor single file, following the Challenger. Suddenly, the Triumpho (YP-277), the third in line, exploded — then exploded again. Bud Leavitt, motor machinist on the Cabrillo (YP-348), saw the Triumpho in flames. As it pitched to the left of the column, a third, monster explosion disintegrated the ship.

Historian August Felando: “The total number of fatalities is unknown [though most YP boats had crews of 17]. San Diego waterfront talk was that only the cook survived.” The explosion shot him through a small window in the galley. The three other boats, loaded with explosive gas, finally entered the harbor, guided by the PT base commander. Lookouts armed with rifles on the crows’ nests had orders to shoot at any mine they saw.

What caused the initial explosion was never resolved. Some say a mine, others an accident with the fuel (a few even suggest friendly fire from the base). Tony Mascarenhaus: “Actually, this sort of incident was reenacted over and over again and was just another hazard one had to contend with.”

Vince Battaglia heard the news while still waiting for assignment at Pearl. “One of them blew up.” After the Triumpho, the first Yard Patrol casualty of the war, “we had no idea what was going to happen to us.”

Read Unforgettable: Floating Target, part 2

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x76 May 22, 2013 @ 7:07 a.m.

I love a good sea story and this series has been fantastic!

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