Tuesday, April 19, 2011

USS Luzon (PG-47, PR-7)

Figure 1: USS Luzon, date and place unknown. US Naval Institute photograph, Dudley Knox Library, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey California, Yangtze River Patrol Memorial Exhibit. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: "River Gun Boat -- Tunnel Stern Type," September 8, 1924. Preliminary design plan for a river gunboat for operation in Chinese waters. This drawing represents the final preliminary design forwarded on 8 October 1924 to the Secretary of the Navy and approved on 16 December 1924 for ships that were planned to be built under the Fiscal Year 1924 building program. This design was based on diesel machinery and propellers aft operating inside tunnels. However, the six ships built at this time [two each of the Guam (PG-43), Panay (PG-45), and Luzon (PG-47) classes] used plans provided by the Chinese shipbuilder that differed in detail from this preliminary design. This plan provided two 3-inch guns, diesel machinery, and a speed of 15 knots in a ship 180 feet long on the waterline, 27 feet in beam, and with a normal displacement of 385 tons in fresh water. Note: The original document was ink on linen (black on white). The original plan is in the 1911-1925 "Spring Styles Book." US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the main island in the northern Philippines, USS Luzon (PG-47) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 1 June 1928, Luzon 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 500-ton Luzon was approximately 210 feet long, had a beam of 31 feet, but only had a draft of 6 feet, making her ideal for steaming in some of the shallower waters of the Yangtze. She was armed with two 3-inch guns and ten .30-caliber machine guns, and had a top speed of 16 knots. Luzon also had a complement of 80 officers and men.

Although designated PG-47 when she was commissioned on 1 June 1928, Luzon was re-designated PR-7 on 15 June. From that time until December 1938, Luzon served as the flagship for the Yangtze Patrol and was based at Hankow. She usually patrolled the waters between Nanking, Chunking, and Shanghai, protecting American lives and property in a part of China that was infested with bandits and under almost constant political instability. In August 1937, after invading Japanese forces attacked Shanghai, Luzon also evacuated the American Embassy staff there and brought them safely to Chunking.

In December 1938, Luzon arrived at Shanghai and relieved USS Augusta (CA-31) as the station ship there. Aside from periodic trips to Nanking, Wuhu, and other ports along the Yangtze River, Luzon remained based at Shanghai until 1941. In 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 (arriving in Manila on 10 December 1941). 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.

After the war began on 7 December 1941, Luzon spent most of her time patrolling Manila Bay, trying to stop Japanese troops from infiltrating behind the lines by sea at night. Luzon completed several patrols of Manila Bay during the month of January 1942, but by 15 February there was a desperate shortage of fuel oil for the few remaining American warships in the area. What little oil remained was divided between the gunboats Luzon and Mindanao and was to be used only “in case of an emergency.”

Well, the emergency arrived on 6 April 1942. American intelligence reports discovered that the Japanese were going to make an amphibious landing behind the American lines on the Bataan peninsula. Luzon and Mindanao were given the task of stopping it. For nearly seven hours, the two gunboats searched Manila Bay east of Bataan but found nothing. Then, at roughly 0200, the two gunboats spotted 11 small Japanese landing craft steaming towards Bataan. Luzon and Mindanao opened fire with everything they had, which was a combined total of four 3-inch guns and roughly 30 machine guns of various calibers. Some cloud cover temporarily blocked the moonlight which, in turn, hid the landing craft, but Mindanao quickly fired star shells which illuminated the small Japanese ships. As the American gunboats kept up their fire, Japanese shore batteries joined in the battle, firing shells that landed close to both Luzon and Mindanao. The two American gunboats decided that it was time to leave the area, but they had managed to sink four of the Japanese landing craft and seriously damaged several others. The remaining Japanese landing craft also turned back for home, ending what some called “The Battle of Manila Bay.”

The fighting on Bataan ended on 9 April 1942. The remaining American and Filipino troops withdrew to the island fortress of Corregidor in Manila Bay. Both Luzon and Mindanao were anchored at Corregidor but, with no oil, there was little left that they could do. The crews of both ships were ordered to leave their gunboats and assist in manning the huge artillery batteries that were on the island. Luzon’s crew was ordered to operate Battery Gillespie, which consisted of two huge 14-inch guns which were to be used against the inevitable Japanese amphibious landing.

The end was near for what was left of the old American China gunboats. On 2 May 1942, Japanese aircraft bombed Mindanao and the proud little warship sank. Seeing that all really was lost, Luzon was scuttled on 6 May 1942 to prevent her from falling into the hands of the Japanese Navy. In an amazing twist of fate, the Japanese discovered the wreck of the gunboat Luzon after the fall of Corregidor and managed to re-float the ship. Luzon then was overhauled by the Japanese Navy and re-named Karatsu. The former American gunboat served in the Japanese Navy for almost two years until she was sunk in the Philippines for the last time by the American submarine USS Narwhal (SS-167) on 3 March 1944. An amazing little warship, USS Luzon received one battle star for her service during World War II.