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.
“Horrible mistake,” replied Madruga. He had his crew rig for bad weather. They tied down every loose object on deck and double-tied hatches and lifeboats; this, it turns out, was accomplished just in the nick of time.
A “hellish” storm lashed the fleet, recalled Ed. “And when I say rough, really, I know what rough weather is, and believe me, it’s a terrible, terrible ocean that kicks up there.”
Violent winds churned the green water iron-gray to the horizon and beyond. Foam turned the troughs between swells white as snow. Gusts buckshot anyone on deck with salt and sand, and could flick a man overboard in a flash.
The fleet scattered into a thousand whitecaps and vanished out to sea. Each had radio equipment, but since few men knew Morse code, several lost touch. The commander’s decision had SNAFU written all over it. “They were actually lost,” Ed Madruga remembered. “A couple almost went down.”
To traverse 25- and 30-foot vertical faces, skippers angled their bows to the southwest. They kept the wind off their portside quarter and climbed the canyon-like walls of water on a diagonal. The narrow lane over swells was the only safe course: too far left or right, they’d capsize.
The maelstrom blew for days. Every minute demanded lifesaving decisions at the helm. If Tehuantepec was a boot camp, the tuna “fleet” didn’t need one. Proof came between eight and ten days later as, one by one, the clippers trickled into Panama’s Balboa Harbor. All were battered and dazed but intact, thanks to medal-worthy, “blue water” seamanship.
(The Navy is the Navy, and an order is an order. About a year later, YP-289 was in a large convoy off the New Hebrides. When a huge storm blew, the admiral in an aircraft carrier radioed that he’d set the course. And he did, right into the tempest. “But he was in an aircraft carrier,” says Ed Madruga’s wife, Lucile. “Ed remembered the debacle at Tehuantepec, and said, ‘The hell with him. I’m setting my own course.’ And he did.”)
Another SNAFU greeted the first clipper to arrive at Panama. When captain Frank Gonsalves steered the Liberty (YP-278) into Balboa Harbor, “we went through a minefield we didn’t even know was there.”
More confusion followed. Instead of patrolling, YP-289 lay at anchor “doing absolutely nothing,” says Ed. “Nobody knew what the hell was going on.”
Several days later, the Navy ordered YP-289 and five other clippers back to San Diego to be refitted for the Pacific theater.
The Campbell Machine shipyard “put a few more tools on the boat,” Madruga laughed. “A handful, to be honest.” They put two .50 caliber machine guns astern and replaced a bolted down, .20 millimeter cannon on the bow with two .50 caliber cannons. The “pea-shooters” were holdovers from WWI. “They’d get red-hot,” says Madruga. “We’d dunk [one] in a barrel of water and put another that’s cool back on.”
YP-289 had six depth charges stacked astern on racks above the bait tanks, where the chummer tossed sardines and anchovies to attract tuna. Along with ammonia gas catching fire in the refrigeration system, the “ash cans” were a major worry: “A collision on a dark night or a shell from a plane hitting the charges would have blown a clipper to matchsticks.”
YP-289 sailed in a convoy to Hawaii. When the Madrugas reached Pearl Harbor, they saw World War II for the first time. Black clouds of smoke didn’t billow from sinking ships, flames didn’t spire from the water, and though a surprising number of vessels had been resurrected — the salvage division was trying to refloat the Oglala with a huge crane when they arrived — reminders of the December 7 assault were legion.
Pearl Harbor smelled like old tar. Gallons and gallons of crude oil and high-test gasoline leaked from sunken vessels on Battleship Row. Long streaks with slimy globules, like the tops of mushrooms, stretched for thousands of yards. A grimy black slick a foot deep ran along the shores of Ford Island and around the harbor. Sludge and sticky tar balls, laced with prism-like flecks, gathered where the tide ceased.
Hundreds of men scraped and cleaned the salvaged ships. Each one wore a gas mask.
Mail from the Pacific theater often took months to reach the States, if at all. In every letter the Madrugas wrote home, a censor drew thick black lines across anything that could endanger the war effort. In one that arrived free of editing, Joe wrote his fiancée Adeline, “You could always tell a ship from Pearl by the ring of tar around the hull.”
Another sign: patrols were everywhere. Joe enjoyed the occasional cigar. MPs warned him that if he even tried to light one up — the fire hazard was so severe — they had orders to shoot him where he stood. Neither MP smiled.
In late April, YP-289 sailed for American Samoa, that telltale ring of tar on the hull. For the next four years, the small, badly armed tuna boat would ferry troops and provisions through submarine-infested waters.
Next time: From Turkeys to TNT.
- 1. San Diego Union, July 23, 1943: “They might not approach the spit-and-polish navy of peacetime United States…but by all that is holy they were good sailors.”
- 2. John Bunker: “To hundreds of tired and grimy troops on a fever-riddled island in the South Pacific, the little Paramount is more important than a battleship.”
- 3. Clarence Gonzales: “We were so slow that almost anything could have caught up with us and sunk us from long range.”
- Brown, John, “As the Yippies Went to War,” San Diego Union, July 10, 1960.
- Bunker, John, “Tuna Skippers Bare Wartime Role,” San Diego Evening Tribune, February 26, 1957.
- Felando, August J., “Tuna Clippers & World War II,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, volume 44: 1 & 2.
- Joyce, Barry Alan, A Harbor Worth Defending: A Military History of Point Loma, San Diego, 1995.
- Madruga, Adeline (wife of Joe), and Joseph Madruga, Jr., interview.
- Madruga, Lucile (wife of Ed), interview.
- Shapiro, Daniel, “The Pork Chop Express: San Diego’s Tuna Fleet, 1942–1956,” MA thesis, University of San Diego, 1993.
- Zolezzi, Julius H. and Lawrence D. Bradley, Jr., “The Story of the San Diego Tuna Fleet,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, volume 44, 1 & 2.
- “Blue Water Men of Tuna Fleet Write Sea Saga of Democracy,” San Diego Union, July 23, 1943.