Tuesday, July 6, 2010

USS Guam (PG-43)/Wake (PR-3)

Figure 1: USS Guam (PG-43), launched in Shanghai on 28 May 1927, patrolling on the China Station in 1932. US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: The Yangtze River gunboat USS Wake (PR-3), formerly USS Guam (PG-43). Date and place unknown. US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

USS Guam (PG-43) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 28 December 1927, Guam was part of the US Asiatic Fleet and was built specifically for patrolling China’s Yangtze River. American ships that were assigned to the Yangtze were part of the famous “Yangtze Patrol,” which existed for almost 90 years. The 350-ton Guam was approximately 160 feet long, had a beam of 27 feet, but only had a draft of 5 feet, 3 inches, making her ideal for steaming in some of the shallower waters of the Yangtze. She was armed with two 3-inch guns and eight .30-caliber machine guns, and had a top speed of 14.5 knots. Guam also had a complement of 59 officers and men.

Guam left Shanghai on 19 January 1928 and went on her shakedown cruise up the Yangtze River. On board was Rear Admiral Yates Stirling, Jr., Commander, Yangtze Patrol (ComYangPat). The ship arrived at Hankow on 24 January and continued her journey up the Yangzte to Chungking. On 1 February, Guam was given her first assignment, which was to escort the Standard Oil Company ships Mei Lu and Mei Foo, while towing the barges Mei Yung and Mei Hung. The ships were moving through a part of the river that was plagued by bandits and soon the barge Mei Hung came under sniper fire from the riverbank. But before Guam’s gunners could respond, the sniper fire ceased, probably due to the presence of the formidably armed gunboat.

Guam successfully completed her mission and then went to I’Chang in mid-July. After that, Guam was joined by her sister ship, the gunboat USS Tutuila (PG-44), at I’Chang. The two ships escorted merchantmen up the river to Chungking, moving through areas that were controlled by bandits and warlords. On 15 June 1928, Guam was reclassified a river gunboat and given the designation PR-3.

On 5 October 1928, Guam was assigned to the South China Patrol and left for Hong Kong. She was delayed a few days because of bad weather, but arrived in Hong Kong on 14 October. Guam remained with the South China Patrol until the middle of 1929, but then returned to the Yangtze River Patrol. On 4 July 1930, Guam left Changsha and steamed to Chenglin and Yochow because there were reports that American nationals were being threatened by the communists who held those two cities. As Guam approached Yochow, she was fired on by Communist troops from the riverbank. The crew on board Guam manned their guns and returned fire, eventually silencing the enemy gunners. Unfortunately, one crewmember on board Guam was killed by sniper fire during the confrontation.

Throughout the 1930’s, Guam basically protected American lives and property all along the Yangtze River. But the always sensitive task of protecting American lives was further complicated by Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930’s. In September 1937, Guam and the gunboat USS Luzon (PR-7) evacuated the US Embassy staff from Nanking as Japanese forces approached to take that city. Guam also rescued American citizens from Nanking just before the city actually fell to the Japanese in December. The neutral American gunboat crews along the Yangtze could only look on in abject horror as Japanese troops massacred scores of Chinese civilians after the fall of Nanking, which later became known as the “Nanking Massacre” or “The Rape of Nanking.” Guam also rescued American civilians from Wuhu and Hankow in December 1937 and in 1938 she became the station ship in Hankow to protect American interests there while Chinese and Japanese forces fought each other outside of the city.

During the rest of the 1930’s, as more and more territory along the Yangtze was conquered by the Japanese, Guam gradually became surrounded by Japanese gunboats that were now a common sight on the river. Guam (which was still considered a neutral warship since America was not yet in the war) was “escorted” by a Japanese gunboat wherever she went. But Guam, as well as the other American gunboats on the Yangtze, was gradually becoming more and more isolated from the rest of the Asiatic Fleet, especially those ships from the South China Patrol.

On 23 January 1941, Guam was renamed USS Wake to free up her name for another, larger warship that was going to be built. But the ship retained her same designation, PR-3. Wake steamed downriver to Shanghai on 29 March 1941 and became the station ship there from 2 April to 5 May. On 6 July, Wake returned to Nanking and then went on to Hankow. Wake remained at Hankow until late fall and on 25 November, the ship permanently closed the US Navy’s warehouse at Hankow, giving approximately 80 tons of supplies to the Americans still living in that city. Once that mission was completed, Wake went to Shanghai.

Arriving at Shanghai towards the end of November 1941, Wake discovered that two other gunboats, Luzon and USS Oahu (PR-6), were preparing to leave China for good. With war rapidly approaching between Japan and the United States, Admiral Thomas C. Hart ordered the slightly larger gunboats Luzon and Oahu to be evacuated to Manila in the Philippines. The smaller gunboat Wake was unable to make the rough open-ocean voyage, so her supplies and most of her crew were divided up and placed on board the other two gunboats. The only people left on board the gunboat were a skeleton crew of 14 men, mostly made up of reservist radiomen who were to keep the lines of communications open with American marines who were still based in China. The man who was placed in command of Wake was Lieutenant Commander Columbus D. Smith, USNR, a former Yangtze River commercial pilot.

On 8 December 1941 in China, 7 December in Honolulu, Hawaii, a radioman on board Wake intercepted the news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Commander Smith, who was on shore at the time, was notified by telephone. He raced to the waterfront but, just as he got there, a large launch filled with Japanese troops came alongside Wake and jumped on board the ship. Wake was taken by the Japanese totally intact, the only fully operational American warship to be captured by enemy forces during World War II. A little farther downriver from Wake was the British gunboat Peterel. Unlike Wake, she put up a fight when the Japanese tried to take her. Japanese artillery on shore then began pounding the small British gunboat. Peterel quickly was blown to pieces by the Japanese. She caught fire and sank in the river, her white ensign still flying. Only six out of her crew of 14 survived the very brief battle.

The Japanese renamed the captured gunboat Tatara. Wake was officially struck from the list of US Navy ships on 25 March 1942. Incredibly, Tatara survived the war intact and was recovered by US forces in August 1945. She was then transferred to Chinese Nationalist forces in 1946 and renamed Tai Yuan. Then, in yet another twist of fate, the ship was captured by Communist Chinese forces in 1949. Her final fate is unknown.