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Sunday, October 19, 2003

Skipper’s skill beat difficult straits

Jerry Bowen

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Tide of tales runs deep in yard’s history

Quite a few of you responded to my last article on Mare Island and inquired as to whether I had any more stories.
Well, of course! But, before I go on, I need to correct an error in the last story. I’d like to thank Philip Gilbert for pointing out my blunder.

The paragraph was written as follows; “One of Mare Island’s record-setting ships, the USS Ward, DD-139, was also in drydock at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese struck the fleet on Dec. 7, 1941.”

Actually, the Ward was on patrol outside Pearl Harbor and sank the midget submarine just before the attack.

Now, about more stories:

Often, little is known of the superior seamanship exhibited by many ship captains due to protocol and the laws that prevent them from being showcased. However, one day in 1919 an incident occurred that demonstrated the exceptional capabilities of a skilled captain.

Originally built as a German passenger liner, the Mount Vernon was the focal point of an unusual incident in the Mare Island Channel.

Her original name was Kronprinzeson Cecilie and she was a huge ship for her day, 706-feet long, displacing 19,505 tons. Commandeered in 1917 for use as an Army transport, she was renamed the Mount Vernon.

World War I had ended, and in 1919 the ship was sent to Siberia to transport troops based there to San Francisco. After offloading the troops, she was scheduled to go to Mare Island for repairs. At the time, she was the largest ship to ever sail through the Carquinez Straits.

Ships were not permitted to enter Mare Island Channel without a pilot. The Mount Vernon entered the channel before authorities were able to signal the skipper to stop. Once notified, the Army captain turned the huge ship around in the narrow channel between Mare Island and Vallejo and sailed back into the Carquinez Straits to pick up the pilot and the attendant tugboats that were required by naval protocol.

According to Sue Lemmon and Ernie Wichels in their book about Mare Island, “Sidewheelers to Nuclear Power,” “Many waterfront experts thought the skipper had done a better job than the pilot.

The Mount Vernon was decommissioned two years later and scrapped at Boston in 1940.

***

Freak accidents have claimed many ships in the past and probably will continue to do so in the future. One of the more unusual misfortunes claimed the cruiser Milwaukee C21 in an unusual incident that began with the submarine, USS H-3 that ran aground Dec. 16, 1916, on Samoa Beach near Eureka, California.

The H-3 ended up on a sandy beach surrounded by quicksand. At low tide, she was 75 feet from the water, but at high tide, the ocean reached almost 250 feet beyond her hull.

The Navy advertised for salvage operations. An old logger offered to transport the submarine across the beach and launch it into Eureka Bay for $5,000. To the logger, the job of transporting the submarine would be no different than moving heavy redwood logs by rolling them along atop smaller logs.

Well, the Navy just couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. The cruiser USS Milwaukee just happened to be in drydock at Mare Island undergoing an overhaul and conversion to become a tender. She was fitted out with a million dollars worth of towing lines and salvage equipment, sent up to Eureka and anchored seaward of the grounded submarine. The Navy was confident the power of the cruiser’s 24,000 horsepower engines would pull the 500-ton submarine off the beach.

A Coast Guard boat was sent out with a line to haul the heavy metal hawsers that were to be attached to the submarine. They just managed to get the line aboard the Milwaukee when the Coast Guard boat flipped end for end in the heavy surf, spilling the sailors into the sea. The boat and men were rescued, and after retrieving the lines the next phase of the operation began.

With 3,000 feet of wire hawsers attached to H-3, in a fog and at high tide on Jan. 13, 1917, the operation began. The Milwaukee pulled in the bow anchor that had kept her from being forced to the shore by the current. The tugboat Iroquois with a line attached to the Milwaukee’s starboard bow and the monitor Cheyenne with a line attached to the cruiser’s stern started to pull in unison seaward.

Then everything went wrong. A heavy swell raised the cruiser up and then with the current running hard, the big ship was slammed onto the sandy bottom. The Iroquois pulled desperately but was soon in danger of going aground itself and finally had to cast off the lines. Mother nature did the rest. The Milwaukee was washed further ashore with each successive swell and deposited firmly aground.

The crew was safely removed from the cruiser and the Navy was left with a very embarrassing $7,000,000 wreck.

The submarine finally was transported from the beach and refloated in Humboldt Bay on April 20, 1917, by the Mercer-Fraser Company, a commercial salvage company ... on logs, just as the logger had proposed. She later returned to San Pedro, where she served as the flagship of Submarine Division 7, participating in exercises and operations along the West Coast until 1922.

On July 25, 1922, she was sent to Hampton Roads, Va., where the little sub was decommissioned. It was subsequently scrapped on Sept. 14, 1931.

As for the Milwaukee, she could not be refloated and was decommissioned on March 6, 1917. A November storm broke her hull in half the following year. She was removed from the Navy List in June of 1919 and sold to a salvage firm for scrap in August of the same year.

***

I cannot end this article on an embarrassing note for the Navy, for there are far more successful outcomes than failures. One such story is that of the USS Nautilus. No, not the nuclear submarine most of us are familiar with.

This submarine, designated V-6, was the first to be built at Mare Island Navy Yard. The keel was laid on Aug, 2, 1927, and V-6 was commissioned in July 1930. At the time, she was one of the largest submarines in the world at 371 feet in length. She was renamed Nautilus in February 1931 and her hull number re-designated SS-168 in July 1931.

Prior to World War II most of her operations were in the Pacific, based at Pearl Harbor and at San Diego. She underwent modernizing in July 1941, and returned to the fleet April 1942.

During her first war patrol, she was involved in the Battle of Midway, and credited with assisting in the sinking of a Japanese aircraft carrier while under heavy depth charge attack. Later, during the same patrol, while off Japan, she sank the destroyer Yamakaze. The first combat photograph ever taken from a periscope was made while the Yamakaze was sinking.

On her second war patrol she carried marines of the 2nd Raider Battalion to Makin to stage an attack to divert Japanese attention from the Solomon Islands. During the attack, the submarine’s six-inch guns were used to provide support against enemy positions. After the attack, the surviving marines were picked up by Nautilus and returned to Pearl Harbor.

During the third patrol, the Nautilus returned to Japanese waters to join the submarine blockade chain that stretched from the Kuriles to the Nansei Shoto and she added more than 12,000 tons to her scorecard of sunken enemy ships.

After an overhaul at Mare Island, she departed on her sixth war patrol in 1943 where she conducted photo reconnaissance at Tarawa, Kuma, Butaritari, Abemam and Makin. The information, including continuous panoramic coastline pictures and chart corrections, when she returned to Pearl Harbor on Oct. 17, proved to be among the most useful intelligence gathered of the area.

The Nautilus returned to Tarawa where she was mistaken for an enemy boat and fired upon by an American destroyer. Once repairs were made, she was able to land a 78-man scouting party on an island to conduct operations and provide gunfire support.

Time and time again the Nautilus provided transport for personnel on special operations and gunfire support, suffering through many depth charges and aircraft attacks. During her last three patrols, she returned to the central Philippines, landed personnel and supplies on Mindanao and Luzon, and carried evacuees to Australia. During the 12th patrol, she grounded on Iuisan Shoal.

Forced to lighten her load, her evacuees, mail, captured documents, and cargo were sent ashore. All secret materials were burned. Her reserve fuel tanks were blown dry, variable ballast was blown overboard and six-inch ammunition jettisoned. With the blowing of her main ballast tanks, she was finally free of the reef despite the receding tide, and cleared the area by dawn.

After 14 hair-raising patrols, the Nautilus earned the Presidential Unit Citation for her aggressive war patrols in enemy controlled waters as well as 14 battle stars for her service during World War II.

The Nautilus was decommissioned on June 30, 1945, and struck from the Navy List on July 25. She was sold the following Nov. 16 to the North American Smelting Co., Philadelphia, Penn., for scrap.