Tuesday, January 20, 2009

USS Elcano (PG-38)

Figure 1: USS Elcano (PG-38) somewhere in China. Courtesy U.S. Warships of World War I. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: Some of the ships of the US Navy's Yangtse River Patrol at Hangchow, China, during the 1920s, with several local junks and sampans also present. US Navy ships are (from left to right): USS Isabel (PY-10); USS Villalobos (PG-42); and USS Elcano (PG-38). Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Shark (Submarine # 8) in the Dewey Dry Dock, Olongapo Naval Station, Philippines, circa 1910. The gunboat Elcano also is in the dry dock, in the right background. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1978. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Lieutenant Commander A. G. Winterhalter was the first commanding officer of the USS Elcano, Gunboat No. 38. Winterhalter would eventually be promoted to the rank of Four Star Admiral on 9 July 1915. On that day, he also was appointed Commander-in-Chief, US Asiatic Fleet (CINCAF). Courtesy Library of Congress, photo ggbain 21511. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: US Navy photograph of USS Elcano (PG-38), date unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Elcano was a 620-ton iron gunboat built in 1895 by the Carraca Arsenal at Cadiz, Spain. Spain sent her to the Philippines and she was captured by the United States during the Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May 1898. Elcano was officially turned over to the US Navy on 9 November 1898 and was outfitted at the Cavite Naval Yard, Philippines, for use as a gunboat. The ship was officially commissioned into the US Navy on 20 November 1902 as USS Elcano (Gunboat No. 38), Lieutenant Commander A.G. Winterhalter in command. Elcano was approximately 165 feet long and 26 feet wide, had a top speed of 11 knots, and had a crew of 103 officers and men. The gunboat was armed with four 4-inch guns and four 6-pounders.

Elcano left Manila on 26 December 1902 with two other ex-Spanish gunboats, Villalobos and Pompey, and arrived in Shanghai in February 1903. These three small ships officially inaugurated the US Yangtze River Patrol and their assignment was to protect American lives and property in China, as well as promote friendly relations with the Chinese. Although many small American gunboats had been sent to China in the past, this was the first time an official unit within the US Navy was created to specifically patrol the Yangtze River. Elcano remained on station in Shanghai until 20 October 1907, when she was sent back to Cavite and decommissioned on 1 November 1907.

Elcano was re-commissioned on 5 December 1910 and sent back to China in March 1911. She was based at Amoy until the start of World War I. The small gunboat was recalled to Manila in April 1917 and was assigned to patrol the waters off Mariveles and Corregidor until the war ended in November 1918. Elcano returned to Shanghai on 3 February 1920 and once again became a part of the Yangtze Patrol. On 17 July, the ship was reclassified PG-38.

For more than eight years, Elcano was an important part of the Yangtze River Patrol, fighting in numerous skirmishes with Chinese warlords and pirates. These small “incidents” were common on the Yangtze and US gunboats were called on numerous occasions to rescue American citizens as well as protect American property, consulates, and embassies. In July 1921, Elcano assisted in the landing of US Marines at Ichang and remained on station there until September 1922. She also continued operations out of Shanghai and “showed the flag” by visiting numerous ports where American citizens lived and worked. Elcano’s officers also went on shore on many occasions to confer with local officials and American consuls. Many young officers got their initial training with the Yangtze Patrol and this experience was of immense value to them later on in their careers.

During the Chinese revolution in 1926 and 1927, Elcano’s crew confronted a nation in chaos. On numerous occasions they faced dangerous situations and had to reply with just the “right” amount of force. The commanding officer of Elcano did not want to create a major international incident over a relatively minor matter, so great judgment and tact were needed when dealing with heavily armed Chinese warlords and pirates, many of whom were determined to kill and rob any foreigner they came into contact with. On several occasions, Elcano even transported refugees from deep within the interior of China and brought them back to the coast. On 24 March 1927, Elcano played a critical role in a major battle with Chinese warlords in the city of Nanking, where the American Consul General and others were besieged on Socony Hill and were eventually rescued by armed American sailors. Elcano assisted in the shelling of Chinese positions around the base of the hill, which prevented the American diplomats from being slaughtered.

In November 1927, the elderly gunboat was given a new assignment and served as the receiving ship at Shanghai for crews gathering there for duty on board new gunboats that were under construction. Elcano was decommissioned on 30 June 1928 and sunk as a target ship on 4 October of that same year.

USS Elcano had an amazing career considering the fact that she was never originally built for the US Navy. Few warships are actually captured in modern warfare and fewer still remain for many years in the navy that captured them. But Elcano gave the US Navy almost three decades of fine service and provided excellent experience for young officers and men. At the same time, she helped protect American diplomats, citizens, and property in a country that was constantly wracked by political and military turmoil. She also was one of the founding members of the Yangtze Patrol, a unit that wasn’t disbanded until shortly after America’s official entry into World War II on 7 December 1941.