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.
Read Unforgettable: Floating Target, part 2