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.”

The diesel-powered boat had a top speed of ten knots. For several months, YP-346 hauled supplies to remote islands. Whenever possible, Theodore trawled for tuna. “I always had the lines, you know, so we caught quite a bit.” If they returned to port with too many, they’d be declared derelict of duty. So they threw them back or “traded” them with the natives.

In interviews, Theodore and Battaglia hesitated to use the word “smuggling.” But since they often carried “groceries” from one island to another, said Battaglia, “we’d buy material one place and sell it to the natives someplace else. So we did a little bit of ‘trading’ in between islands.” Most exchanges included cloth or fish. “We’d make a buck on the side.”

Captain Theodore also gave the Navy preferential treatment, until he got caught. Throughout the South Pacific, supplies went first to the Army, which allocated them to the other branches. “The Army was supplying the Navy, I guess,” said Theodore, who decided to skip the middleman. At the Fiji Islands, cargos of meat kept filling Navy freezers. When the Army found out, Theodore confessed. “I had to tell them, ‘Yes, yes. I did give them something’ (but I gave them quite a bit of stuff).”

When YP-346 went to Espiritu Santo Island in the New Hebrides (today’s Vanuatu), Theodore unloaded his cargo for the Army. But his reputation preceded him. On a blisteringly hot afternoon, Theodore took a siesta. A major shook him awake: “‘You still favor the Navy?’ ‘No, sir,’” Theodore replied, not wanting to get “into any more trouble.”

He had enough en route. The Navy had two sets of signal codes: one for “major war vessels,” another for “minor war vessels,” conscripted civilian craft like Liberty and Yard Patrol boats. No one told Theodore.

At midnight on August 3, YP-346 neared Point Victor, on the way to Espiritu Santo. The USS Tucker (DD-374) flashed an urgent message: “Identify yourself at once!” The signalman expected the proper code, but the communications officer at Tulagi never issued one to the Yard Patrol boat.

Communications misfired. So Theodore shouted to his signalman: “Tell ’em who we are. Tell ’em where we’re going. Tell ’em what we’re carrying — in plain English!”

After a pause, the destroyer let them pass. YP-346 continued northwest, the crew shaken that they might have been blown “out of the sea.” (A lieutenant JG from the Tucker said later that if they “didn’t come out with that answer…we got four torpedoes and all of them straight on to you!”) The next time they saw the Tucker, it was cut in half.

Just after midnight on August 3, 1942, the USS Gamble, USS Tracy, and USS Breese laid 171 mines at three entrances to Espiritu Santo. They blocked Bruat Channel and left only a narrow passage up the northeast side of Segond Channel to reach the island. Mark VI mines floated just below the surface, held under by cables connected to dollies on the seabed. Each dark, round shape, which someone said resembled “a large turtle,” contained 1600 pounds of TNT.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the USS Tucker, a 1500-ton, Mahan-class destroyer, was moored at the East Loch of Pearl Harbor. As planes “wheeled above like hawks,” GM2c W.E. Bowe manned a machine gun before the general alarm sounded. His efforts, and those of the ship’s five-inch guns, shot down at least two — possibly three — enemy aircraft.

For the next five months, the Tucker escorted convoys throughout the South Pacific. On August 3, at 2145 hours, the destroyer led the SS Nira Luckenbach, a freighter, into the Segond Channel. The captains had just exchanged signals. Neither knew about the minefields.

In total darkness, a gold mushroom blazed near the Tucker’s forward boiler room, almost lifting it out of the water. The ship buckled. As teams raced to damage-control stations, six feet of water flooded the main deck amidships. Three men died instantly.

Thinking he’d been torpedoed, Captain W.R. Terrell knew it was a “mortal hit.” When he realized it was a mine, he ordered his crew to defuse and jettison racks of depth charges, along with all ammunition, and loose gear topside.

Even though the Tucker drifted (it had passed through safely), the captain of the Nira refused to tow the destroyer for fear of hitting a mine. Terrell understood but wanted to beach the ship to make salvage operations easier.

Around midnight, YP-346 entered Segond Channel. Captain Terrell requested a tow from Theodore.

“The only thing I knew,” said Theodore, “there [were] mines there, so I was careful.” He slowly retraced the destroyer’s trail and “went alongside.” Terrell threw him a line, “and I pulled him into eight fathoms (I had a fathom meter).”

As YP-346 towed the ship toward the shore, the hull made cracking screeches. The Tucker was coming apart. Believing he had towed it close enough, and not wanting to hit a mine along the way, Theodore cut the line. YP-346 went to the beach at Malo Island and rescued 165 survivors.

Set adrift, the Tucker began to jackknife. Captain Terrell and a skeleton crew abandoned ship, which soon grounded, its back broken. The next day, thinking the two large metallic objects in the channel were enemy subs, American aviators bombed the Tucker.

In his report, Terrell wrote: “No notification had been addressed directly to the Tucker [about the minefield], nor had the Tucker been included in a collective call notifying all ships of its existence.” The Navy exonerated Captain Terrell but didn’t announce the sinking until August 10, 1945 — for “security reasons.” They also delayed an announcement regarding the SS President Coolidge, a luxury liner–turned–troop ship, which sank in the same channel, under the same circumstances, on October 26.

Although Theodore risked the lives of his crew by venturing into dangerous waters, Terrell’s report criticized him for cutting the tow line: “He could have…towed the ship into the beach without danger of grounding YP-346.” Shallower water would have facilitated salvaging. Terrell softened his charge by saying the YP boat provided some assistance. No one asked Theodore’s opinion.

“American accounts of the Guadalcanal campaign have normally omitted Tucker from its figures,” writes Peter Stone, “as her demise came three days before the official start of the campaign.” But because several military historians believe that the transit time of the assault force should be considered…Tucker’s loss came during this period and occurred at a principal base in the theater.”

Guadalcanal was YP-346’s next assignment. It would not return. ■
— Jeff Smith

QUOTATIONS:

  • 1. Clarence Gonzales, skipper of the Victoria: "We were so slow that almost anything could have sunk us from long range."
  • 2. Andrew F. Smith: "While the Japanese [Americans] were in camps, the Navy requisitioned some of their tuna boats and used them with minimal upkeep and repairs for three years. When the Japanese [American] fishermen returned from the internment camps in 1945, they found the surviving boats leaking badly and in need of complete restoration."
  • 3. Peter Stone: "The edge of a minefield is no place to procrastinate."

SOURCES:

  • Felando, August J., “The Errand Boys of the Pacific: Tuna Clippers & World War II,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, vol. 44: numbers 1 and 2.
  • Mascarenhaus, Tony, “The Loss of the Triumpho USS YP,” Boletin, July 1981, 20, and August 1981, 21.
  • Rottman, Gordon L., World War II Pacific Island Guide: A Geo-Military Study, Westport, 2002.
  • Shapiro, Daniel M., “The Pork Chop Express: San Diego’s Tuna Fleet, 1942–1945,” M.A. thesis, University of San Diego, 1993.
  • Smith, Andrew F., American Tuna: The Rise and Fall of an Improbable Food, Berkeley, 2012.
  • Stone, Peter, The Lady and the President: The Life and Loss of the S.S. President Coolidge, Victoria, 1997.
  • Terrell, W.R., “Action Report: Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, Sinking of U.S.S. Tucker,” August 12, 1942.

Toll, Ian W., Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942, New York, 2012.

Articles in the San Diego Union, the San Diego Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times.

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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