Tuesday, February 5, 2008

USS Avocet (AM-19, AVP-4)

Figure 1: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. USS Avocet (AVP-4) at Berth Fox-1A, at Ford Island, prior to 1045 hrs. on 7 December, when she moved to avoid oil fires drifting southward along the shore of Ford Island. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. Gunners on board USS Avocet (AVP-4) look for more Japanese planes at about the time the air raid ended. Photographed from atop a building at Naval Air Station Ford Island, looking toward the Navy Yard. USS Nevada (BB-36) is at right, with her bow afire. Beyond her is the burning USS Shaw (DD-373). Smoke at left comes from the destroyers Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375), ablaze in Drydock Number One. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. USS Nevada (BB-36) headed down channel after being attacked by Japanese dive bombers. Photographed from Ford Island, with USS Avocet (AVP-4) in the foreground and the dredge line in the middle distance. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941. USS Nevada (BB-36) aground and burning off Waipio Point, after the end of the Japanese air raid. Ships assisting her, at right, are the harbor tug Hoga (YT-146) and USS Avocet (AVP-4). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Named after a long-legged, web-footed shore bird, the USS Avocet (AM-19) was a 950-ton Lapwing-class minesweeper that was built by the Baltimore Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company, Baltimore, Maryland, and was commissioned on 17 September 1918. She was approximately 180 feet long, 35 feet wide, and had a top speed of 14 knots and a crew of 72 officers and men. The Avocet originally was armed with two 3-inch guns, but would eventually receive several .30 caliber machine guns as well.

From July to October 1919 the Avocet, along with three other minesweepers (the USS Quail, Lark, and Whippoorwill), was sent to Europe and assigned to minesweeping duties in the North Sea, clearing away deadly mine fields that were laid during World War I. The Avocet acted as the flagship of the small minesweeping division and had to battle horrible weather while trying to avoid hitting old British contact mines. The four minesweepers were based primarily in Kirkwall, England, and clearing the old North Sea Mine Barrage proved to be a tedious yet extremely dangerous task for all of the ships involved. The Avocet itself came perilously close to being blown to pieces by one of these mines. On 1 October 1919 the Avocet was sent to Brest, France, on the first part of her journey back to the United States. She left France with the minesweeper USS Thrush on 16 October and, after making stops in the Azores and in Bermuda, the two ships finally arrived in New York City on 17 November. On 24 November, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels reviewed the ships of the Minesweeping Squadron and praised them for their accomplishment of clearing the North Sea Mine Barrage. The next day the Avocet led nine of her sister ships to Charleston, South Carolina, arriving there on 28 November and she remained there throughout the rest of the year.

In 1920 the Avocet was assigned to the Pacific Fleet. She arrived in San Diego in January 1920 and was shifted to various west coast ports until August 1921, when she was sent to Pearl Harbor. In October 1921, she left Pearl Harbor and arrived on 2 November at Cavite in the Philippine Islands to join the Asiatic Fleet’s minesweeping detachment. The Avocet was based at Cavite until she was placed out of commission on 3 April 1922. The Avocet was re-commissioned at Cavite on 8 September 1925 and converted into an auxiliary aircraft tender assigned to the Asiatic Fleet’s air squadrons. She not only tended to aircraft, but also participated in training exercises as well (usually towing targets). In May 1928 the Avocet was sent to China as a plane tender and to provide towing and target services for the larger American warships based there. For the next few years, the Avocet spent most of her time in China and the Philippines, either tending planes or towing targets. In 1932 the Avocet was sent to Pearl Harbor, where she was stationed at the Fleet Air Base and tended to large amphibious aircraft, also known as “flying boats.” Although the Avocet did make trips to California and to Alaska, Pearl Harbor was her primary base of operations for most of the 1930s. In March 1938 the Avocet was reclassified from AM-19 to AVP-4, officially becoming a small seaplane tender. From 1938 to 1941 the Avocet shifted operations between Pearl Harbor and San Diego, but by June 1941 she was, once again, based at Pearl Harbor.

On the morning of 7 December 1941, the Avocet was moored to the port side of the Naval Air Station dock at Pearl Harbor. At approximately 0745, the security watch on board the ship spotted Japanese planes bombing the seaplane hangers at the south end of Ford Island. General Quarters was sounded and the ship’s crew sprang into action. Ammunition was brought up from below and the crew quickly opened fire with the two 3-inch guns and machine guns. Remarkably, the first shot from the Avocet’s starboard 3-inch gun scored a direct hit on a Japanese aircraft that had just scored a torpedo hit on the battleship California (BB-44) moored nearby. The plane streaked down from the sky and crashed on the grounds of the naval hospital. The Avocet was not far from the battleship Nevada (BB-36), which was desperately trying to leave the harbor. As the Nevada tried to break away from where she was moored, numerous Japanese planes attacked it. The Avocet, being so close to the Nevada, tried to assist her by shooting at the attacking planes. During the attack, the Avocet fired 144 rounds from its 3-inch guns and 1,750 rounds from its .30 caliber machine guns.

Once the Japanese attack ended, the Avocet was ordered to use her pumps and fire hoses to help fight the raging fires that were spreading throughout the California and the Nevada. After steaming alongside the California and assisting with that fire, the Avocet was then directed toward the seriously damaged Nevada. Mooring to the Nevada’s port bow at 1240, the Avocet assisted in the beaching of the battleship to prevent it from sinking in the main channel. The Avocet proceeded slowly ahead, pushing the battleship aground while, at the same time, using its fire hoses to help fight the Nevada’s fires. For two hours the Avocet continued to pour water onto the Nevada, eventually extinguishing most of the flames. After that, the Avocet went to the assistance of the cruiser Raleigh (CL-7), which was torpedoed alongside Ford Island during the attack. The Avocet steamed alongside the stricken cruiser at 1547 and remained there throughout the night providing steam and electricity.

The Avocet stayed at Pearl Harbor until May 1942, when she was sent to Alameda, California, for a major refit. On 24 July 1942, the Avocet set sail for Kodiak, Alaska. While in Alaskan waters, the Avocet supported PBY Catalina flying boats of Fleet Air Wing 4 by tending and fueling planes. She also transported people, plane parts, ordnance, and supplies, performed patrol duties and participated in survey work. In addition, the Avocet participated in rescue missions and salvage operations (she assisted the seaplane tender Casco after it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and towed it to safety). The Avocet underwent overhauls at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in November 1942 and July 1944, but, aside from that, she spent the rest of the war in the Aleutian Islands. On 7 October 1945, the Avocet left the Aleutians for Seattle, Washington, and arrived there on 16 October. The ship was inspected on 20 November 1945 and was found to be “beyond economical repair.” The Avocet was worn out. She was decommissioned on 10 December 1945 and sold to the Construction and Power Machine Company in Brooklyn, New York, on 12 December 1946 to be used as a hulk. The Avocet was eventually scrapped a few years later.

The remarkable thing about a ship like the Avocet is that she spent most of her life helping other ships, planes, and people. Whether it was clearing mines in the North Sea, assisting as an aircraft tender, towing targets during fleet exercises, helping stricken warships during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, or performing patrols, salvage operations and rescue duties off the coast of the Aleutian Islands, the Avocet helped a lot of people throughout its lifetime. That certainly is an admirable legacy.