Tuesday, October 19, 2010

USS Oahu (PR-6)

Figure 1: USS Oahu (PR-6) circa 1930, location unknown. From the collection of Ernest Arroyo. Courtesy Jim Flynn. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: Tobacco card issued by John Player and Sons in Great Britain in 1939 showing a painting of USS Oahu (PR-6). This painting was part of a series entitled "Modern Naval Craft” and shows Oahu steaming on the Yangtze River. Courtesy Tommy Trampp. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: This photograph shows the back of tobacco card issued by John Player and Sons in 1939 and it gives a brief description of Oahu. Courtesy Tommy Trampp. Click on photograph for larger image.

USS Oahu (PR-6) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 22 October 1928, Oahu 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 450-ton Oahu was approximately 191 feet long, had a beam of 28 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 15 knots. Oahu also had a complement of 55 officers and men.

Oahu left Shanghai on her shakedown cruise on 3 November 1928. She steamed up the Yangtze to Chungking, almost 1,300 miles inland from Shanghai. Oahu made numerous stops at open treaty ports along the Yangtze and returned to Shanghai on 2 June 1929. She continued patrolling the Yangtze between Shanghai and Chungking well into the 1930s, protecting American lives and property and “showing the flag” in even some of the smallest tributaries of the river. While serving on the Yangtze Patrol, Oahu escorted American and foreign merchant ships and barges, supplied armed guards for American and British vessels on the river, landed armed sailors (or bluejackets) at treaty ports that were threatened by political turmoil, and, when necessary, evacuated American and foreign nationals in times of civil unrest.

From 1934 to 1937, Oahu became the station ship at various ports along the Yangtze. She served in this capacity at Ichang, Chungking, Hankow, Wuhu, and Nanking. Escorting ships on the river and providing naval armed guard detachments for merchant vessels became standard practice during this period. Chinese warlords and bandits were a terrible problem throughout China and the foreign gunboats provided some measure of security for American and foreign merchant ships that were trading on the Yangtze. But when Japan invaded China in July 1937 starting the Second Sino-Japanese War, the political and military situation in China began deteriorating rapidly. Japanese forces made rapid advances in China, endangering neutral warships and nationals that were caught in the crossfire. The gunboat USS Panay, sister ship to Oahu, was attacked and sunk by Japanese aircraft on 12 December 1937, an event that almost brought the United States into a war with Japan four years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Oahu raced to the scene where Panay was sunk, rescued the American survivors, and brought them to Shanghai.

As Japan made even greater advances inside China, Oahu was only allowed to patrol on the lower part of the Yangtze as far as Wuhu and Hankow. She also served as the station ship and as the radio relay vessel for American diplomats at the temporary US embassy at Nanking. Whenever Oahu ventured on the Yangtze on a regular patrol, she was escorted by a Japanese warship ordered to monitor her movements and protect her from Japanese aircraft. The Japanese were keeping a close eye on all of the foreign gunboats in the area as Japan and the western powers drifted closer and closer to war.

By 1941, the five remaining American river gunboats in China were assigned to Rear Admiral William A. Glassford, Commander of the Yangtze Patrol, whose headquarters was in Hankow. In late November 1941, Glassford was ordered to take three of the largest gunboats and try to steam to Manila in the Philippines. The two smallest gunboats, USS Wake and USS Tutuila, were thought to be incapable of making the trip to the Philippines. The gunboat USS Mindanao, which was based in Hong Kong, had to make the trip on her own. USS Luzon and Oahu left Shanghai shortly after midnight on 29 November 1941, with Rear Admiral Glassford and his staff on board Luzon. All of these river gunboats were flat-bottomed ships with no keels and they were never meant to sail on the open seas. One major wave could have tossed the little ships around like pieces of wood and few people back in Manila thought they would complete the journey alive. In fact, Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander-in-Chief of the US Asiatic Fleet back in Manila, was feeling so bad about the plight of the little gunboats that he sent the minesweeper USS Finch and the submarine rescue vessel USS Pigeon to escort the two gunboats just in case they went down in heavy seas.

The two gunboats headed south in the China Sea at a slow 10.5 knots. Unfortunately, as the ships steamed south through the Formosa Strait, they ran head-on into a typhoon. Heavy rain, huge waves, and horrific winds pounded the little ships. For four incredible days, Oahu and Luzon endured the storm. But in an amazing act of seamanship, Admiral Glassford and his officers somehow managed to keep the ships afloat. Glassford said in his report that, “For nearly 48 hours there was experienced the hardest beatings of our lives at sea. There was no sleep, no hot food, and one could scarcely even sit down without being tossed about by the relentless rapidity of the lunging jerks. The very worst of all the trip was after clearing Formosa, with a quartering sea. I recall just after dawn on the 4th of December, while clinging to the weather rail of the bridge deck, that our situation could not possibly be worse and wondering just how much longer we could stand it. Not the ships, which had proven their worth, but ourselves.”

But by dawn on 5 December 1941, there suddenly appeared a cloudless sky and a calm sea. The ships had been battered beyond belief and the men were exhausted, but they were still alive and had made it through the storm. A few hours later all of the ships arrived at Manila. After they arrived, Rear Admiral Glassford hauled down his flag on board Luzon and stated, “ComYangPat dissolved,” announcing the end of the famous Yangtze Patrol which had been formally established 22 years earlier and almost 90 years since the first American gunboat made its way up the Yangtze River. It was the end of an era in US Naval history.

Once the war began on 7 December 1941, Oahu completed several patrols next to the minefield channels protecting the island fortress of Corregidor just off the Bataan peninsula. But she spent most of her time in Manila Bay, trying to stop Japanese troops from infiltrating behind the lines by sea at night. Because of a desperate lack of fuel, these patrols ended on 27 December. Japanese aircraft heavily bombed Corregidor on 29 December, nearly sinking Oahu which was anchored nearby. But the end was near and, without any reinforcements coming from the United States, the Philippines could not stand. On 9 April 1942, Bataan fell, leaving only the island fortress of Corregidor in American hands. With no fuel or ammunition left for her guns, the crew on board Oahu was ordered to leave the ship and man several 155-mm. howitzers on Corregidor. Now defenseless, Oahu was a clear target for the oncoming Japanese. On 6 May 1942, the day Corregidor finally fell to the Japanese, Oahu was pounded mercilessly by enemy heavy artillery. After nearly being blown to pieces, the tough little gunboat sank. Though small in stature, USS Oahu proved to be a difficult ship to sink. Unfortunately, her luck ran out near the beaches of Corregidor.