Sunday, February 28, 2010

Patrol Frigates in North Pacific/BeringSea

Of the twelve frigates built by Kaiser Cargo Company at Richmond on San Francisco Bay, none served in tropical waters, thus from the cool West Coast to the cold of the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea. the Kaiser frigates escaped the below decks stifling conditions that plagued frigates serving in the Southwest Pacific. ALBUQUERQUE, assigned as lead ship of Escort Division 27, was first to the Bering Sea, followed by EVERETT, HOQUIAM, PASCO, SASAULITO and TACOMA. PUEBLO, CASPER, GRAND ISLAND and GRAND FORKS worked weather patrol and plane guard out of San Francisco on a schedule of three weeks at sea and two weeks in port.BROWNSVILLE worked out of San Diego, assigned to West Coast Sound School, underway every Monday morning with whatever array of ships had assembled for shakedown exercises. Later, working out of San Francisco, BROWNSVILLE laid a string of flairs in the dead of night to guide a B29 from Hawaii for ditching having radioed engine failure. The B29 lost its last engine several miles short of the flairs and plunged into the sea. The frigate raced to the ditching, successfully recovering fifteen survivors and three bodies for delivery to SanFrancisco. On patrol in October 1944, GRAND FORKS answered a distress call late in the night from a PB2Y about to make an emergency landing in a sea where swells were running up to six feet. Racing to the location and firing off flares and star shells, GRAND FORKS guided the aircraft to a safe landing, quickly taking on board fifteen crewmen and passengers as well as 114 sacks of mail. POCATELLO was the only West Coast frigate to spend her entire career on weather duty. She worked out of Seattle, alternating with the old 240 ft cutter HAIDA on Station Able, 49 degrees N. Latitude - 149 degrees W Longitude or about 1500 miles west of Seattle and 500 miles south of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska.

War in the North Pacific and Bering Sea had little influence on the outcome of WWII, and even though early in the war the Japanese saw the Aleutians "pointing like a dagger at the heart of Japan," naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison had it right when he wrote; ". . .No operations in this region of almost perpetual mist snd snow accomplished anything of importance . . . It was a theater of frustrations. Both sides would have done well to leave the Aleutians to the few Aleuts unfortunate to live there. . ." However as part of the Midway offensive in 1942, the Japanese occupied Attu and Kiska at the western end of the chain, and as such, the Americans were obliged to retake these United States owned islands. In March 1943 Admiral Hosogaya with a fleet of heavy cruisers and destroyers and supply vessels bound for Attu and Kiska broke off engagement turning his entire force west on a heading for Japan after spirited exchange with a smaller fleet under Admiral "Soc" McMorris in the Battle of the Komandorskis. American forces landed on Attu on 11 May 1943, securing the island by the end of the month. Kiska was invaded by 35,000 American and Canadian troops in July, only to find that 5000 Japanese troops had slipped away under the cover of bad weather and fog. As Morison put it, "During the rest of the war the Aleutians offer little of interest. Harassing raids on Paramushiro were varied by various shore bombardments and feeble Japanese retalitory raids on Attu, Kiska and Adak. . . In any case, it was wonderful practice ground for armed forces, after a tour of duty in the Aleutians, every other field of action seemed good." And so it was, from 1943 to 1945 with weather the common enemy, Task Force 94 made up of old four stacker cruisers and accompanying destroyers swung at anchor in Kulak Bay, Adak, between periodic bombardment of Paramushiro and Matsuwa in the Japanese Kurile Islands across the Bering Sea. In the worst of flying conditions the "Forgotten" Eleventh Air Force in tired old B-24s and B-25s carried out in excess of 1,500 sorties by war's end from Adak and Navy Patrol Wing Four flying PV-1 Ventura bombers flew numerous sorties from Attu against the Kurile bases. With the Japanese gone and the Aleutians secured, the Joint Chiefs abandoned any thought of invasion of the Kuriles, 650 miles across the Bering Sea from the western Aleutians, partly because of the eternal hostile weather that both sides knew as the common enemy. The Aleuts called the Aleutians the "Birthplace of bad weather" - wind, rain, snow, sleet,fog, clouds and storms. The Aleutians enjoy no calm or dry season and no station records as many as ten partly clear days a year. The great arc of the Aleutian chain forms the battle front where moist unstable air warmed by the the subtropical Kurashio (Japan) Current clashes with cold, dry Siberian air sweeping south across the chilled Bering Sea, Following the Attu campaign, Admiral King stated, "That chain of islands provides as rugged a theater for warfare as any in the world. Not only are the islands mountainous and rocky, but the weather in the western part is continuously bad. The fogs are almost continuous and thick. Violent winds with accompanying heavy seas make any kind of operation in that vicinity difficult and uncertain." In this hostile environment the Coast Guard had known a long and honored tradition. By the 1890s the Bering Sea Patrol of the Revenue Cutter Service had earned the respect of smugglers and the welcome of ice-locked Eskimo villages. So it was that on 11 April 1944, six days out of Seattle, Scotch Cap light guarding Unimak Pass arose to starboard at 0315, announcing ALBUQUERQUE's arrival in the bleak and barren Aleutian Islands and authorizing entrance into the Bering Sea for passage to Dutch Harbor and the beginning of a 14 month tour ending in June 1945. The frigate returned to Seattle in June for refit in preparation for transfer under Lend Lease to the USSR at Cold Bay in August. ALBUQUERQUE and EVERETT arrived in the Aleutians on schedule in April. Protracted post-shakedown availability delayed arrival of HOQUIAM until 27 August, SAUSALITO until 5 October, PASCO until 15 October and lastly, troubled-plagued TACOMA avoided the Bering Sea until 21 October.

Arriving Dutch Harbor on 11 April and following refueling and divers removing twelve feet of bilge keel that had broken away from its welding. ALBUQUERQUE was underway in late afternoon leading a convoy out of Dutch Harbor, through Unimak Pass into the Gulf of Alaska to a prearranged convoy separation point. At departure the log entry read: ". . . Unmoored and standing out of Dutch Harbor with convoy formed up in the following manner - SS TURIALBA in position 11 (convoy guide), USAT WILLIAM L, THOMPSON position 21, SS HENDERSON LUELLING position 31. SS CHEIF WASHAKIE position 12, SS WILLAIM T. SHERMAN position 22 in accordance with U.S. Naval Op. Base, Dutch Harbor, confidential orders, this vessel ahead standard speed 135 rpm, zigzagging patrol station ahead of convoy. 2000-2400 maintain speed 10 knots." All this was standard procedure, a routine the ship would follow with each departure. From April to August 1944, ALBUQUERQUE led twenty-two convoys for a total of eigthy-four days at sea in stop and go fashion from Dutch Harbor to Adak to Attu with occasional convoys in and out of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska. In mid-August, the frigate was assigned her first seven day patrol on Guard Ship Station off the Russian Komandorski Islands in participation with the Eleventh Air Force and Navy Air Wing 4 bombing raids over the Japanese Kurile Islands. Guard Ship Station duty included IFF (identification friend or foe signal, rescue in case of ditching and radar readiness.) By February 1945, ALBUQUERQUE completed five guard ship patrols, all under the usual miserable weather of the Bering Sea. On the 19 April, moored in Dutch Harbor, several days after the first convoy mission. the crew was aroused at 0427 for a mission to render assistance to the distressed Liberty ship JOHN W. STRAUB, reported sinking off Sanak Island near Cold Bay, 200 miles distance. Making for Unimak Pass, SS TALOA passed to port at Scotch Cap light and blinkered a message, "We have no survivors of STRAUB aboard." At exactly high noon, lookouts called out a sighting, within minutes identified as the stern section of the ill-fated STRAUB. Through scattered dunnage and lumber, several rafts, one capsized boat and countless fifty-gallon oil drums, no survivors or bodies were sighted. At this point an army crash boat from Fort Randall hove into view signaling the rescue of fifteen men from a nearly swamped lifeboat. ALBUQUERQUE then maneuvered to leeward and lowered her whaleboat for boarding STRAUB. Away from the ship for thirty minutes, the boarding party returned to report no sign of life aboard the Liberty ship and no sign of fire. The sinking claimed the lives of the captain and four ship's officers, thirty-five merchant seamen, fourteen Navy men and the cargo security officer, fifty-five in all. The Navy believed that the sinking was the result of an internal explosion. Later the Coast Guard credited the sinking to a mine, but there remained unanswered the possibility of a torpedo sinking by the Japanese submarine I-180, sunk by GILMORE DE-18 on 26 April, less than 400 miles from the STRAUB sinking. Late in th afternoon of the 19th, ALBUQUERQUE prepared to sink the derelict. when with a rumble of escaping air the last of the JOHN W. STRAUB slipped below the grey swells at 1550 hours.

ALBUQUERQUE was involved in two additional ship in distress actions, one in October the other in December 1944. HOQUIAM and SAUSALITO were on scene by early October and PASCO and TACOMA on their way north, but none were available to steam in company with ALBUQUERQUE during a violent storm episode out of Kodiak beginning on 7 October. Standing out of Women's Bay near nightfall on the 7th in company with PCE 880 bound for Unimak Pass and Dutch Harbor, herding Liberty ship tanker JOHN P. ALTGELD and freighter TALOA, a rapidly falling bsrometer vouched for coming dirty weather. At change of watch at 0800 on the 8th winds were gusting at a shrieking 80 knots, seas to fifty feet from crest to trough, clouds of spindrift flying to leeward of heightened crests of waves and convoy progress down to six knots. Shortly into the midwatch ALTGELD signaled fear of breaking up as a crack was progressively lengthening across the width of her main deck immediately abaft the midship superstructure. ALBUQUERQUE came about to keep ALTGELD in close view as the tanker maneuvered to take the seas on her quarter and then she hove to signaling that deck break had worsened and now stretched rail to rail. Little could be done in preparation for rescue other than keeping the distressed vessel under close observation in the fading afternoon light. At 1630 hours a flashing blinker message from ALTGELD read "Captain reports she is cracking more but thinks he can ride it out," followed a few minutes later with, "We have dumped some cargo to relieve stress." In the failing light the struggling tanker was instructed not to darken ship, show all navigation and other lights, and that ALBUQUERQUE would maintain searchlight cover after nightfall. At 1800 hours ALTGELD signaled more cargo discharged and cracking had stopped. When asked if advisable to proceed to destination or return to port of departure, ALTGELD quickly replied, "Ship unable to stand rough weather, Captain advises return to port of departure." Near midnight with winds falling off, the tanker set a course for return to Kodiak, speed three knots, the frigate in the lead, PCC-880 and TALOA instructed to proceed to destination, Dutch Harbor. Twenty-four hours later the frigate led the tanker into Kodiak.

A long and welcome dalliance in Dutch Harbor ended abruptly on 14 December, midway through the evening mess deck film, with the piping of special sea detail and immediate departure on orders from Harbormaster NOB in response to distress call from USAT NORTH WIND hard aground and breaking up in heavy sea on an outer island in the Shamagins off Cold Bay, a point about 200 miles east of Unimak Pass and at least fourteen hours steaming time from Dutch Harbor. Under heavy weather steaming, the small island of Chernabura was abeam at 1450 hours on the 15th. USAT DAVID W. BRANCH was identified maneuvering in sight of the wreck, the NORTH WIND clearly beyond salvage and breaking up stranded on a reef. BRANCH advised that two boats had cleared the wreck before her arrival and that her motor lifeboat was alongside to rescue the remaining crew. In the face of an icy wind the frigate stood in toward the wreck to form a lee for the lifeboat. The boat departed the wreck but lost headway when a wave swamped her engine. Oars were broken out but then the boat lost the first line fired by Lyle gun from the frigate. A second line was fired and held fast for passing along the four inch tow line. Once secured and at the shout of "haul away,"the boat in no time scraped alongside the frigate's fantail. From an all but swamped boat, eighteen NORTH WIND survivors and BRANCH's boat crew scrambled aboard the frigate. All NORTH WIND hands were accounted for when a radio message from Liberty ship CARL SCHURZ reported that remaining crew from two lifeboats were safely aboard. SCHURZ joined up and in line of three, the frigate zigzzaging in the lead, the convoy made for Dutch Harbor arriving unannounced at 0315 Sunday, 17 December. The Seattle Post Intelligencer, 5 January 1945. carried a front page story: "Dramatic details of a hazardous North Pacific rescue of 55 men from the stricken army supply freighter North Wind were disclosed by the army and the coast guard here yesterday with the arrival in Seattle of 18 of the survivors. Participating in the daring mercy operation in pounding, gale-whipped waters off Cold Bay, in the Aleutians, were a coast guard vessel and the army transport David W. Branch. Thanks to the cooperation of the two services, not a life was lost in the nearly 12 hours it took to save the crew after the ship was swept off course in a storm late on the night of December 14."

Typical sea conditions were on hand as the new year 1945 approached. ALBUQUERQUE and TACOMA had cleared Kulak Bay, Adak, bound for Attu on 21 December escorting old fleet oiler BRAZOS AO-4 and Liberty ship CARL SCHURZ. The usual dirty winter weather developed into a nasty storm by dawn on the 22nd. On the morning watch, BRAZOS steaming 400 yards off ALBUQUERQUE's starboard quarter surfaced from time to time awash in foam only to disappear in a plunge into the next giant sea. The Liberty ship trailing the tanker labored to the crest of wind-heightened seas, her stern lifting skyward to reveal an aimlessly turning propeller whose blades upon digging in on the down slope slapped the water with a pow! pow! pow! sounding very much like the distant firing of a 40mm gun. After dark, conditions were perfect for a surprise burst of St. Elmo's Fire. The first discharge of white light outlined the mast, spar and radar antenna. A few moments later a second discharge sped around the top of the forward main battery gun tub. St Elmo's Fire commonly occurs in cold water seas, most frequently in bad weather. Following a brief rest in Attu, ALBUQUERQUE made for Akak on the 27th escorting SCHURZ for a quick turn around while TACOMA readied to relieve PASCO on Guard Ship Station off the Komandorskis. On 6 January the frigate departed Adak for return to Attu, arriving on the 7th to moor alongside PASCO. PASCO had been through a particularly violent bit of bad weather on patrol that came close to disaster when experiencing more than one roll in excess of 60 degrees. As it turned out ALBUQUERQUE was in for an extended tour of lonely patrols lasting until mid-February in unending beastly weather, twice relieved by TACOMA and twice by EVERETT. TACOMA, ailing after four months in the Bering Sea, limped off stateside for extensive overhaul, while PASCO shortly received orders to slip away to Seattle for duty along the Northwest coast. Upon departure of the two, Commander Task Force 91 sent a communication -- 0501042 CONFIDENTIAL -- CTF91 SENDS TO COMCORTDIV 27 WHO GIVES BY HAND TO TACOMA X ALSO ACTION SAUSALITO, HOQUIAM, ALBUQUERQUE, EVERETT AND PASCO X ALL HANDS CARRY OUT WITH YOU IN ADDITION TO MEMORIES OF FOG, RAIN AND WIND A SINCERE NAVY QUOTE WELL DONE UNQUOTE. Checking in one-by-one in January 1945, sentenced to the Aleutians to end their WWII days before transfer to the USSR, came the Philippine veterans BISBEE, GALLUP, ROCKFORD, MUSKOGEE, CARSON CITY AND BURLINGTON. By April it was clear that the war was winding down in the Aleutians. Port time was more the order of the day with fewer ships to escort,as need for supplies declined and reduction in forces along the chain progressed. Further evidence that wartime conditions were waning occurred with the return of the Aleuts who had been evacuated to southwestern Alaska in 1942. ALBUQUERQUE escorted the first returning Aleuts aboard the DAVID W. BRANCH into Nazan Bay, Atka Island, on 27 April. By early June all eleven Bering Sea frigates were awaiting orders to proceed to Seattle for refit and July-September transfer to the USSR at Cold Bay.

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