Tuesday, October 30, 2007

USS Erie (PG-50)

Designed as one of the last true gunboats for the US Navy, the 2,000-ton USS Erie (PG-50) was built by the New York Navy Yard and was commissioned on 1 July 1936. Her main function was to “show the flag” and protect American lives and property in South and Central America. To accomplish this mission the Erie had an all-gun armament of four 6-inch guns. She was rather large for a gunboat (almost 329 feet long and more than 41 feet wide) and had a crew of 243 officers and men.

Ironically, the Erie’s first mission sent her to Spain on 31 October 1936, where she was part of an American task force assigned to protect US citizens during the Spanish Civil War. After visiting numerous European ports, the Erie evacuated refugees from the northern coast of Spain. She then returned to the United States by the end of December 1936.

After briefly being used as a training ship for midshipmen at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the Erie was sent to Balboa, Panama, on 3 February 1938. While there, she served as the flagship for the Special Service Squadron, which operated along the coasts of Central and South America. The primary function of the Special Service Squadron was to conduct exercises with various ships within the fleet and to protect the Panama Canal.

After America entered World War II on 7 December 1941, the Erie was based in Panama where she continued to patrol the coasts of Central America. On 10 June 1942, the Erie rescued 46 survivors from the torpedoed merchant ship SS Fort Good Hope and, six days later, rescued another 53 survivors from the SS Lebore.

By this time, the Erie was converted into a convoy escort and, although she only had a top speed of 20 knots (which made her unsuitable for fleet operations), she proved to be useful for escorting slow-moving convoys. She escorted convoys to the Yucatan Channel and to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On 28 September 1942, after successfully escorting approximately 11 merchant convoys, the Erie left Coco Solo, Panama, to escort yet another convoy to Trinidad.

After completing this mission, the Erie was to act as Escort Commander for convoy TAG-20 sailing from Trinidad to Aruba and then on to Guantanamo Bay. On 10 November 1942, the convoy left Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, and consisted of 13 merchant ships. Two days later, four tankers from Aruba joined the convoy and then another five tankers were added to the convoy after leaving Curacao. A total of seven warships were assisting the Erie as escorts (five American and two Dutch) by the time all the ships left Curacao for the final leg of the journey to Guantanamo Bay.

At approximately 3:30 PM on 12 November 1942, the German U-boat U-163, while operating independently, located the convoy and fired torpedoes at the merchant ships. Fortunately, all of them missed. But a few minutes later, the U-163 fired another three torpedoes at the convoy and one of them hit the Erie in her starboard quarter. A 45-foot hole was ripped below the waterline and the resulting explosion ruptured oil tanks and set off massive fires that ignited the charges for the Erie’s 6-inch guns. Seven men were killed and 17 others were injured. With the fires spreading out of control, the order was given to “abandon ship.” After the Erie was abandoned, the surviving crewmembers were picked up out of the water by the Dutch warship HMNS Van Kinsbergen.

Incredibly, the Erie remained afloat and continued to burn for four days. A salvage ship was sent to put out the fires and determine if the ship could be brought back to port for repairs. After the crew from the salvage ship boarded the Erie and put out the fires, the gunboat was towed to Willemstadt Harbor in Curacao for repairs. However, before the repairs could be completed, the burnt out hulk of the ship began to list to starboard and then suddenly capsized, sinking on 5 December 1942. Although there were still a number of gunboats sailing throughout the world, the loss of the Erie somehow symbolized the passing of an era. Newer antisubmarine destroyers and destroyer escorts were now in demand and the old “all gun” gunboats that were made so famous in places like China, Mexico, and South and Central America were no longer needed. The few that remained would soon disappear into the pages of naval history.


Figure 1 (Top): The USS Erie at sea in May 1940. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2 (Middle, Top): The USS Erie off Coco Solo, Panama, after completion of long-range battle practice, 7 April 1938. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3 (Middle, Bottom): The USS Erie traversing the Panama Canal, circa 1939. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4 (Bottom): Photograph of the damaged and burning USS Erie taken by a Dutch photographer. From the U.S.S. Erie PG-50 Web Site. Click on photograph for larger image.

NOTE: If you would like additional information on the USS Erie, please go to: http://usseriepg50.org/erie_main_001000.html
It is an excellent web site that has an enormous amount of data on and photographs of the USS Erie.