Tuesday, February 24, 2009

USS Tutuila (PG-44)

Figure 1: USS Tutuila (PG-44) in China, date and location unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Tutuila (PG-44) in Chungking, China. Date unknown. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Tutuila (PG-44) in China, circa 1928. US Navy photo from Jane's Fighting Ships. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Tutuila (PG-44) circa 1928 on the Yangtze River. Photo from the Tutuila (ARG 4), 20th Birthday edition (1964) Welcome Aboard pamphlet. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: The gunboat USS Tutuila sits at anchor across from Chungking in 1941. On the day this picture was taken five bombs narrowly missed the vessel. Photo by Carl Mydans for Life magazine. Photo from the October 1973 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: USS Tutuila (PG-44) at Chungking during bombing raid. US Navy photo from the July 1978 edition of All Hands magazine. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: US gunboat in the midst of a Japanese bombing raid on Chungking, China. USS Tutuila, the only American gunboat in Chinese nationalist waters, is shown standing by the American embassy on the “south bank” of Chungking, as Japan’s air forces rained incendiary bombs on the Chinese capital. Clouds of smoke swirled around the little river craft and although bombs and shells fell close to her, Tutuila was not injured. Photo from the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: “Far Yangtze Station” by artist Tom Freeman. USS Tutuila standing watch at Chungking, China, in 1939. Signed by artist Tom Freeman and Rear Admiral Kemp Tolley, who was the Executive Officer on board Tutuila. Print available for purchase at the US Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after an island in American Samoa, USS Tutuila (PG-44) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 2 March 1928, Tutuila was part of the US Asiatic Fleet and was built specifically for patrolling China’s Yangtze River. The ship was approximately 159 feet long and 27 feet wide, had a top speed of 14.37 knots, and had a crew of 61 officers and men. Tutuila had a fully-loaded draft of only 5 feet 5 inches, which made her ideally suited for some of the shallower waters of the Yangtze River. The gunboat also was armed with two 3-inch guns and approximately ten 30-caliber machine guns.

As part of the famous Yangtze Patrol (YangPat), Tutuila was re-designated from a gunboat to a river gunboat (PR-4) on 15 June 1928. She went on her shakedown cruise up the Yangtze River from Shanghai to I’Chang, where she rendezvoused with her sister ship USS Guam (PR-3) in mid-July. Their principal missions included convoying river steamers through the upper parts of the Yangtze, conducting armed patrols of the river, providing armed guards for American flagged steamers, “showing the flag” and protecting American lives and property in a country that was plagued by bandits, pirates, warlords, and civil war.

American gunboats on the Yangtze drew occasional sniper fire from shore by bandits and warlord troops in the 1920s and 1930s and Tutuila was no exception. During one such incident in 1929, Tutuila was fired on by some troops loyal to a local warlord. Lieutenant Commander S. E. Truesdell, commanding officer of the gunboat, went on shore to discuss the matter with the warlord. During the meeting, the Chinese warlord stated that his men were mere “country boys, who meant no harm.” Truesdell replied that he, too, had some “country boys” on board his ship and that they were pointing one of the ship’s 3-inch guns right at the warlord’s headquarters. The sniper fire from the warlord’s troops ended immediately after the meeting.

By 1937, duty on the Yangtze had changed dramatically. The Sino-Japanese war had escalated in July and had quickly spread to the Yangtze valley in August and September. Japanese military activity along and on the Yangtze soon proved dangerous to gunboats from other nations. On 12 December 1937, the American gunboat USS Panay (PR-5) was sunk by Japanese aircraft. Japan claimed it was an accident, even though Panay was clearly marked and identified as an American warship. On 3 August 1938, Tutuila followed her sister ship USS Luzon (PR-7) up the Yangtze to Chungking, carrying the American Ambassador, Nelson T. Johnson, to the embassy there. However, the Japanese eventually captured Hankow in October 1938, effectively cutting off Chungking from the entrance to the Yangtze. The Japanese Navy prevented any ships from leaving the area, which meant that Tutuila was basically stranded at Chungking, where she would remain until 1941.

After the fall of Hankow, the Chinese moved their capital up river to Chungking, where Tutuila was stationed. She now was officially the American station ship for Chungking, which was a rather hollow title considering that there was no hope of rescuing, let alone relieving, this stranded little warship. Japanese forces began advancing on Chungking, bombing it repeatedly from the air. Although many bombs fell on the city and on the river, Tutuila managed to avoid all of them. But on 31 July 1941, a near miss seriously damaged the gunboat, blowing a hole at her waterline and causing some flooding. The ship, though, remained afloat.

Towards the end of 1941, the situation on the Yangtze seemed desperate. Two of YangPat’s last remaining four river gunboats (USS Luzon and USS Oahu, PR-6) managed to leave Shanghai and made a remarkable voyage to Manila on 28 November 1941. Of the other two gunboats, USS Wake (PR-3) stayed at Shanghai as station ship while Tutuila remained stranded at Chungking. On 5 December 1941, the Yangtze Patrol was officially deactivated. A few days later, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Wake was captured by Japanese forces at Shanghai. Tutuila remained isolated, but still was under American control deep inside China.

Unfortunately, the small gunboat’s days were numbered. The crew of Tutuila (which now numbered only two officers and 22 enlisted men) eventually was ordered to abandon their ship and leave Chungking. Although saddened at the prospect of leaving their ship, these tough old Asiatic Fleet veterans probably knew a hopeless situation when they saw one. What remained of Tutuila’s crew was flown out of Chungking and the Naval Attache attached to the American Embassy in that city formally handed over the ship to representatives of the Republic of China on 16 February 1942. The ship was renamed Mei Yuan (which roughly translates to “of American origin”) and the gunboat officially was stricken from the US Navy list on 25 March 1942. The ship remained with Nationalist Chinese forces until after World War II and was scuttled sometime in 1948 to prevent her from being captured by Chinese communist forces.

American gunboats served all over the world and were always considered to be small and expendable warships. But real people served on board those “expendable” ships, often facing dangerous situations with little recognition and even less hope of success when confronted by a larger and more powerful enemy. Cut off from the rest of the fleet, the men of Tutuila held out as long as they could before having to give up their ship. Remarkably, this tough little gunboat survived the war only to go down in yet another conflict along the troubled Yangtze River.