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.
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.
“Their demands,” writes Manchester, “were rejected.”
“All of these [tuna] ships used to come down all shot up,” said Vince Battaglia of YP-346 years later. Everyone knew “that we were going to get it.” ■
Next time: YP-289 goes down.
- 1. Lucile Madruga: “‘Pork Chop Express?’ I’d never heard that name before.”
- 2. Vincent Battaglia: “Eddie Madruga…I always get mad at him. I can never find him [to] do anything wrong.”
- 3. Daniel Shapiro: “The Navy, impressed with the performance of the ships and the yippies’ crews, continued to add more tuna clippers into service to replace those that had been lost.”
Bunker, “Tuna Skipper Tells of No. 1 Morale Run,” San Diego Tribune, March 1, 1957.
Felando, August J., “Tuna Clippers & World War II,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, volume 44: 1 & 2.
Madruga, Adeline (wife of Joe), and Madruga, Joseph Jr.; interview.
Madruga, Lucile (wife of Ed); interview.
Manchester, William, Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War, London, 1982.
Rottman, Gordon L., World War II Pacific Island Guide: A Geo-Military Study, Connecticut, 2002.
Shapiro, Daniel, “The Pork Chop Express; San Diego’s Tuna Fleet, 1942–1945,” MA thesis, University of San Diego, 1993; interview with Ed Madruga, 1992, manuscript, San Diego History Center.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Tribune, and other newspapers.
Part 1: Tuna boats go to war | Part 3: End of things behind enemy lines