Tuesday, June 21, 2011

USS Mindanao (PG-48, PR-8)

Figure 1: USS Mindanao (PR-8) circa June 1928 undergoing sea trials. US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Mindanao (PR-8), date and place unknown. US Navy photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after the second largest island in the Philippines, USS Mindanao (PG-48) was one of six American gunboats built by the Kiangnan Dockyard and Engineering Works in Shanghai, China. Commissioned on 10 July 1928, Mindanao 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 560-ton Mindanao was approximately 210 feet long, had a beam of 31 feet, but only had a draft of 5 feet 7 inches, 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. Mindanao also had a complement of 65 officers and men.

Although designated PG-48 when she was under construction, Mindanao was re-designated PR-8 when commissioned on 10 July 1928. The gunboat left Shanghai on 28 July 1928 and conducted her shakedown cruise up the Yangtze River and reached Chungking and Wansien before returning to Shanghai on 31 August. Mindanao continued steaming up and down the Yangtze River on convoy and patrol duty until 28 December, when she returned to Shanghai for an overhaul. The overhaul was completed by 21 March 1929 and Mindanao returned to her patrol duties up the Yangtze River, occasionally returning to Shanghai to protect American lives and property in that politically unstable city. On 2 May, Mindanao steamed to Hong Kong and then Canton, arriving there on 14 June. After her arrival, Mindanao was made flagship of the South China Patrol Force of the US Asiatic Fleet. For more than 12 years, Mindanao remained in that area patrolling the southern coast of China while based alternately at Hong Kong and Canton. Her primary duties included protecting American interests in the area as well as fighting piracy, which was a major problem at that time in China. By October 1938, after Japan had invaded southern China and seized Canton, Mindanao’s primary function was to not only protect American citizens, but to also enforce America’s neutrality in China by not taking an active role or choosing sides in the Sino-Japanese conflict.

On 2 December 1941, with the situation in China deteriorating and war between Japan and the United States imminent, Mindanao received orders to leave Hong Kong and sail to the Philippines. This was no small trip for a shallow-draft gunboat like Mindanao, which had rudders and propellers almost at the water’s surface. But the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Alan Reed McCracken, had to make do with what he had. The tug Ranger, from the Luzon Stevedore Company, was ordered to escort Mindanao to Manila in the Philippines. So McCracken did everything in his power to make the ships ready for the journey. According to an article written by A.B. Feuer for Sea Classics Magazine (September 2006), McCracken stated that:

“Heavy spare parts, which had been stowed ashore, were packed on board the Ranger, along with 800 rounds of 3-inch shells. Other machinery was lashed to the fantail of the Mindanao to help keep her stern down and her propellers underwater. The gunboat was also loaded with a quarter-million rounds of .30-caliber ammunition. We had stored six-months’ supply of food staples in Hong Kong. Half of this amount was brought aboard the ship, while the remainder was left at the disposal of the American Consul General, Mr. Southard.”

The ship also had no life rafts for the trip. Fortunately, a Chinese boat yard, working throughout the night, was able to build four rafts for Mindanao. By the early morning of 4 December 1941, Mindanao was finally ready to leave. Ranger wasn’t ready, though, but it was thought the faster tugboat wouldn’t have any problems catching up to the much slower gunboat.

Once leaving Hong Kong harbor, though, the weather deteriorated rapidly. Heavy seas and severe winds made it almost impossible for the little ship to go anywhere. Commander McCracken stated, “Our course put us in the trough of the water, and the ship tossed so violently that it appeared the engines might loosen from their mountings. Therefore, we turned to an easterly direction, on the assumption that the weather would abate sufficiently in a few days so that we would be able to resume a direct route to Luzon.” Mindanao rode the top of every wave, not daring to plunge her small bow into the sea for fear of sinking the ship. Mindanao’s radio operator tried to contact Ranger and let her know that the gunboat had changed course because of the weather, but no one could be reached. Then the weather got worse, and Mindanao had to make numerous course changes simply to keep the ship from being crushed by the huge waves. After three days of being pounded by the ocean, McCracken decided to change course again, this time to head back to the Chinese mainland and calmer waters.

On Sunday morning, 7 December 1941, Mindanao reached Swatow, China. But by that afternoon, McCracken tried once again to head for Luzon in the Philippines. By this time the sea had moderated a bit, but the ship still had to deal with some heavy rolling. On Monday morning, 8 December, Mindanao received word that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan. McCracken prepared his ship for battle and continued his journey to the Philippines. That same day, Mindanao spotted a 60-foot Japanese fishing boat and decided to board her. After overtaking the trawler, a boarding party was sent on board the vessel to inspect it. The Americans found bundles of military uniforms hidden in the fishing boat’s holds, so McCracken decided to capture the ship as a prize of war. The 10 crewmen of the fishing boat were brought on board Mindanao, the first Japanese prisoners captured during the war. Mindanao took the fishing boat in tow for possible use as a harbor patrol craft, but the Japanese ship wallowed behind them and soon became too difficult to tow. McCracken made the difficult decision to cut the boat adrift, losing their prize.

On 10 December 1941, Mindanao reached the Philippines and anchored in Manila Bay. The Japanese prisoners were quickly placed on shore. Two other American river gunboats, USS Luzon (PR-7) and USS Oahu (PR-6), had already arrived. Mindanao was assigned to inshore patrol duties in Manila Bay and a few days later took turns with the other two gunboats in patrolling the waters east of Bataan at night. But, by the end of March 1942, the severe fuel shortage in the Philippines forced an end to these patrols. Mindanao then was assigned to guard against any Japanese boats or landing barges heading for the American island fortress of Corregidor. On the afternoon of 25 March, the US gunboats intercepted nine Japanese landing barges and turned them back. On the night of 6 April, Mindanao and Luzon intercepted 11 Japanese small boats or barges heading for Bataan. Both gunboats immediately opened fire and sank four of the Japanese boats, while damaging several others.

But on 9 April 1942, American and Filipino forces had given up Bataan peninsula and now a last stand was made on Corregidor. With no fuel left and little ammunition, Mindanao was docked at Corregidor and its crew was ordered to Fort Hughes on Caballo Island to man four large 12-inch mortars that were built around 1912. After a little practice, Mindanao’s crew soon became rather proficient at using the mortars. But the Japanese were preparing a major assault and time was running out for all of the Americans on Corregidor. Mindanao was stripped of any useful gear that was on board the ship for use by the sailors who were still fighting on land. On 2 May 1942, USS Mindanao was badly damaged by some bombs dropped by Japanese aircraft. The tough little ship was allowed to sink rather than let her be captured by the oncoming Japanese. Many of Mindanao’s crew was captured on Corregidor and a few managed to survive the war. One of those lucky survivors was Lieutenant Commander McCracken. He received the Navy Cross for his actions on board Mindanao and he retired from the US Navy a Rear Admiral. As for Mindanao, she received one battle star for her service during World War II.