The history of the ERIE presented on this web page was written based on a number of primary and secondary sources. (At the bottom of this page, readers can view a number of notes pertaining to the information sources utilized in writing this account.) This is a work “in progress.” Changes will be made and additional details added as the webmaster is able to access more of the U.S. Navy records pertaining to the operation of this unique gunboat.
CHAPTER 1: ADMIRAL PRATT'S “BABY”
In 1930, the U.S. Navy fleet included 12 ships (patrol vessels, gunboats and converted yachts) that could be used for scouting and patrol operations around the world. All were aged and in need of replacement, but these factors were not significant in the development the ERIE-Class gunboats. Rather, the driving force behind their design and development was Admiral William Veazie Pratt.
As the senior U.S. Navy advisor and head of the U.S. delegation to the London Naval Conference in early 1930, Pratt successfully argued for the inclusion of a new class of naval surface combatants whose numbers would be unlimited by treaty. Per Article VIII (b) of the London Naval Treaty of 1930, these sloops would have: a displacement not exceeding 2,000 tons; no torpedo tubes; a maximum cruising speed of 20 knots; and, up to four guns above 3.1 inch in caliber, but with none exceeding 6.1 inch in caliber.
In his seminal work on the history of U.S. cruisers, Allen Friedman viewed the inclusion of this new, unlimited (in terms of numbers that could be constructed) class of vessels as a means of persuading the British to accept a lower cruiser tonnage limitation in the 1930 treaty. (See Note 1.)
However, Admiral Pratt (who became Chief of Naval Operations in September 1930) and other Navy senior officers appear to have had something beyond a bargaining chit in mind, in proposing this class and, ultimately, in moving this new class concept to the design and construction stages. Undoubtedly, they and Pratt saw the need to provide for a means (for Britain and the U.S.) to offset any cruiser and destroyer limitations imposed by the treaty. In arguing for the sloop and its top speed of 20 knots (versus the originally proposed 18 knots), Pratt, among other projected uses, appeared to view these new vessels as replacements for fleet screening cruisers in the U.S. battle line, which, at that time, cruised at a maximum speed of 20 knots.
After a number of preliminary design sketches had been prepared for the Navy's General Board (see below), Captain Royal E. Ingersoll, then head of the Fleet Training Division, outlined the operational roles proposed for the ERIE-class gunboats. Among these were: screening against destroyers and submarines; high-speed mine laying; tactical control of fleet submarines; plane guard duty for slower carriers; support of destroyer attacks; convoying operations; and, support of amphibious landing operations. With its anti-submarine warfare capabilities, the new gunboat would be useful in convoy operations, and would thereby relieve the U.S. destroyer deficit. Its 6-inch guns would be useful against merchant raiders and, with its limited draft and impressive firepower, it would be useful in peace time for showing the flag in Central and South American ports or in the Far East.
At a General Board meeting in late January 1931, Admiral Pratt informally requested that Construction & Engineering begin creating preliminary designs for a gunboat destined for Central American service. Events in the Far East (the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and other attempts to expand her influence throughout the area) convinced the Admiral that the new class of patrol vessels could be useful in protecting U.S. interests in that part of the world, as well.
Over the course of almost two years, the General Board considered a number of designs that were produced in response to Board debate and discussion. Admiral Pratt's intense personal interest was evidenced by his participation in every meeting where the new class of gunboats was discussed. At issue were:
- Hull design (Design would need to: reduce friction forward and wetness on the bow; enhance maneuverability at moderate speeds; provide for airplane storage and launching; and, provide ample fantail width for mine-laying or depth charge racks).
- Size and distribution of the main batteries (Should they be 5-inch or 6-inch guns? Should the mounts be twin or single? How many should be placed fore and aft?)
- Aircraft (Should it carry none, one, or, more than one? Should it be catapulted or crane launched?)
- Propulsion (Should it be diesel or steam turbine propelled?)
- Armoring (Were protected spaces allowed under the Treaty? If so, to what degree would spaces be protected without adversely affecting other design considerations?).
- Official vessel classification (Should “Gunboat” or the less aggressive and more neutral name “Sloop” be used for the class?)
Seven preliminary schemes were produced. (An eighth scheme, H, was apparently drawn and considered briefly in September 1932.) The schemes are listed below and can be viewed by clicking on each scheme name.
Scheme A (August 1931)
Scheme B (August 1931)
Scheme C (October 1932)
Scheme D (June 22, 1932)
Scheme E (July 6, 1932)
Scheme F (July 28, 1932)
Scheme G (September 7, 1932)
Thus, in the Department of the Navy Annual Report for federal fiscal year 1932 (covering Navy operations thru September 15, 1932), the Secretary of the Navy Department summarized the work completed to date by Navy design staff as follows: “A number of outline sketches of a new type 2,000 ton gunboat, illustrating a half dozen or more design conceptions, have been prepared, some in considerable detail.”
At its November 1932 meeting, the General Board concluded that it would recommend that a 2000-ton gunboat be built using a modified version of scheme G. Its hull would have a clipped bow and a counter stern. Its main batteries would consist of four, single, 6-inch guns (47 or 48 caliber), two fore and two aft. At Admiral Pratt's insistence, the gunboats would carry a single floatplane that would be offloaded via a crane located amidships. The vessel would be steam propelled and have limited armoring.
Note 1: U.S. Cruisers: An Illustrated Design History, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1984, p. 167.
CHAPTER 2: FUNDING THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE ERIE CLASS GUNBOATS AND OTHER LONDON TREATY SHIPS
Ratification of the terms of the London Treaty in July 1930 by the U.S. Senate was accompanied by Navy Department and Congressional expectations that building the Navy to the treaty limits would follow. However, it appears that, whatever his hopes toward that end, Admiral Pratt soon realized that worsening economic conditions and a pacifistic President Hoover would severely limit the construction of new or replacement ships. Thus, in December 1930 Pratt reported to the Congress that a buildup to treaty limits would not occur before 1936 and, if authorized, would cost in excess of $1 billion.
In fact, worsening economic conditions and concerns about the 1932 national elections sealed the fate of naval construction in the United States. Throughout Hoover's term, not a single new ship was authorized for construction. (While the keels for 7 cruisers authorized by the previous administration were laid during Hoover's term, only 2 proceeded to the point of commissioning.) President Hoover cut the limited funds that were appropriated for construction in fiscal year 1932, suspended all construction in fiscal year 1933 and compelled the Navy to reduce operational expenses severely.
The election of Franklin Roosevelt in the fall of 1932 did not necessarily augur well for building up the U.S. Navy to the limits of the London Naval Treaty or for the construction of any of the Erie-class gunboats. While Roosevelt had expressed support for an adequate navy during the 1932 election campaign, he had never elaborated on this position. Clearly, his attention would initially have to be focused on domestic economic woes, including 13 million unemployed Americans, massive bankruptcies and a national income level that had fallen by 50 per cent from 1930 to 1933.
Before Roosevelt's inauguration in March 1933, his newly appointed Secretary of the Navy, Claude Swanson, and the Chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee, Carl Vinson, began advocating for the building of the Navy to the limits of the London Naval Treaty.
While Swanson and Vinson were concerned about the age of many vessels in the U.S. fleet and the lack of any new ship construction, they both sought to gain Congressional and Presidential approval by making some fairly simple economic arguments. Publicly and privately, they stressed that new ship construction would substantively enhance employment figures, since shipyard records showed that 85% of every construction dollar was spent on labor costs. They also pressed the case for the use of anticipated public works funding under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) for ship construction, by stressing that that contracts for new ships could be let within 90 days of authorization and the actual construction could begin almost immediately thereafter.
By mid-April 1933, the President had informally accepted these arguments and agreed to support the use of NIRA funds for ship construction as a means to create jobs in both public and private shipyards. Thus, when he signed the NIRA into law on June 16, 1933, it included section 209 (e) that allowed the President to authorize the construction of naval vessels within the terms and conditions of the London Naval Treaty of 1930. On the same day, Roosevelt signed an executive order approving the expenditure of $238 million (over three years) for the construction of 32 new ships, including two Erie-Class gunboats.
CHAPTER 3: CONSTRUCTION, LAUNCHING AND COMMISSIONING OF THE ERIE
Within a week of the signing of the NIRA, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, H.L. Roosevelt announced that the construction of the two, 2,000-ton ERIE-Class gunboats would be awarded to the New York Navy Yard and the Charleston Navy Yard.
Less than ninety days later, on September 1, 1933, the Navy Department announced that the contracts would be let for the construction of all 32 of the NIRA-funded vessels and also announced their names. The ERIE would be constructed in New York and her sister-ship, the CHARLESTON, would be built in the Charleston Navy Yard, at a cost reported in various press accounts to be anywhere from $2 million to $4 million each. (In December 1937 hearings before the House Appropriations Committee, the Navy reported that the cost of ERIE’s construction and machinery was $4,700,216, and the cost of her armor, armament and ammunition was $1,347,000, a total of $6,047,216.) The start dates for both gunboats was November 1, 1933, and the contracts specified completion within 27 months, on or about February 1, 1936.
On June 21, 1933, Assistant Secretary Roosevelt assured New Yorkers that work would begin on the gunboat and the other new vessels assigned to the New York Navy Yard, as soon as the detailed construction plans (which were already in various stages of development) were finalized. Tasked with drawing up the initial plan sets for both gunboats was the New York Navy Yard's Central Drafting Office. Heading up the design efforts were Howard C. Fletcher, the principal naval architect, and Mandel Rosenblatt, who also played key roles in the design of cruisers NEW ORLEANS, BROOKLYN, PHILADELPHIA and HONOLULU, the battleship NORTH CAROLINA, and a number of other cruisers, battleships and destroyers. Working with them was a staff of 66 draftsmen.
In late September 1933, the commandant of the New York Navy Yard, Rear Admiral Yates Sterling, expressed the view that the gunboat plans would be completed within six months. However, even though the Central Drafting Office made concerted efforts toward that end, the initial construction plans for both gunboats would only be finalized on July 31, 1934. (During the course of her construction, the ERIE's initial plans would undergo at least five revisions.)
In January 1934, the Navy Department placed orders for almost 9,500 tons of steel plates, shapes and bars to be used in the construction of the gunboats ERIE and CHARLESTON, and of the cruisers BROOKLYN and PHILADELPHIA. In late February, the Department awarded constructs for the purchase of 1.5 million pounds of aluminum (primarily sheets and rods) to be used in the construction of these vessels and several destroyers.
While her plans were being rushed to completion, prefabrication of some portions of the ERIE's hull began, and by July 1934 some 300 workers were already employed in these prefabrication tasks. (The number of tradesmen employed in the construction of the ERIE would peak at around 650 in November 1935.)
Rather than erecting the ERIE on one of the Yard's slanted building ways, New York Navy Yard officials decided to build the vessel in Dry Dock Number 1, a “first” at the Yard. (Use of the Yard's dry docks for new ship construction would become the norm during WW II.) Early in December 1934, the wooden staging platform was completed within the dry dock, and the ERIE's prefabricated keel was lowered into the staging platform.
On December 17, 1934, in a rather low-key ceremony, the first rivets were driven into the ERIE's keel, first by hand and then pneumatically. In another “first” for the New York Navy Yard, the rivets were driven by civilian employees instead of ranking Navy officers. Robert H. Hanlon (labor foreman) was the rivet heater. William H. Jennings (master electrician) served as rivateer and Charles E. Botts (master rigger) was the holder-on. Victor Carissime (master boilermaker) and Frank Connors (master ship fitter) were the rivet-passers.
Observing the keel-laying ceremony were the Commandant of the Third Naval District and the Yard, Rear Admiral Yates Sterling, Captain Charles Dunn, industrial manager of the Yard, and Mrs. Edmund (nee Ida May Illig) Knoll, the ERIE's sponsor (even though she would only be formally announced as the sponsor in October 1935). It is interesting to note that, while the outbreak of WW II was years away, participation in the keel-laying ceremony was restricted to the persons named above, about 150 Navy Yard civilian employees and news reporters; news photographers were required to get formal approval of any photos proposed for publication. (As best as can be determined, no newspaper reports about the ceremony included photographs.)
Over the next six months, most of the structural work on the ERIE's hull, platform, second and main decks was completed. In May 1935, after he graduated from the Naval War College at Newport R.I., Commander Edward W. Hanson was directed to the New York Navy Yard, with orders to see to the fitting out of the ERIE and to captain the vessel when she was placed in commission. In late August 1935, the Navy's Bureau of Navigation distributed a request for applications from enlisted personnel for duty in connection with the fitting out and ongoing service aboard the ERIE and 26 other vessels then under construction at various shipyards in the U.S.
From June 1935 through mid-January 1936, significant progress was made in the construction of the ERIE's main deck components, her navigational bridge, pilothouse and chart house. About the third week in January 1936, her hull work was about 80 percent complete, and about 50 percent of the machinery and equipment had been installed.
On January 24, 1936, the Third District Commandant's Office formally announced that the ERIE would be launched in the afternoon of January 29. (See Note 2.) The Erie Club of New York took responsibility for the launching ceremony, along with a contingent of notables from the City of Erie, headed by John Mead, Jr., Vice President of the Times Publishing Company, and Mrs. Edmund Knoll (nee Ida May Illig), the ERIE's sponsor.
On January 29, 1936, about 1,000 spectators braved bitter cold temperatures to witness the launch of the ERIE. At 3:30 PM, the flood valves for Dry Dock No. 1 were opened and seawater from the Navy Yard Basin began to slowly float the ERIE off her keel blocks. After brief speeches by John Mead and Rear Admiral Yates Sterling, Commander of the Yard, Mrs. Knoll stepped forward at 4:20 PM and cut the long ribbon bearing the ceremonial champagne bottle, christening the ERIE. While the bottle smacked into the bow, it failed to break. A Navy Yard construction worker, after three additional tries, finally succeeded in shattering the bottle on the bow plates, followed by wild cheers from the onlookers. A private reception for dignitaries followed at the residence of Admiral Sterling; in the evening, the Erie Club hosted a dinner honoring the Admiral and the officers of the newly launched gunboat.
In the five months following the launching ceremony work continued at a fast pace, with the expectation that construction would be completed in time for a May 1, 1936 commissioning. However, when it became apparent that the state of construction would not allow a May commissioning, the Acting Commandant of the Third District, J. K. Taussig, requested and received permission from the Chief of Naval Operations to move the ceremony to July 1.
In early June, the ERIE’s sea-going Marine Detachment of sixteen men was formed up by Sergeant Henry E. Bucci at the Marine Barracks, Quantico, Virginia. They were shipped by rail to the Marine Barracks at the New York Navy Yard, where, on June 15, 2nd Lt. Donald J. Decker took command of the Detachment. (The Marines occupied their rather spacious quarters aboard the ERIE immediately following the commissioning ceremony.)
Though only 98 percent complete (her six-inch guns had not yet been installed) the commissioning of the ERIE proceeded on July 1, 1936, with the vessel moored across the dock from and dwarfed by the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS, which was being overhauled.
At 1:00 PM, the brief but highly traditional commissioning ceremony began with the piping aboard of Rear Admiral Harris Laning, the newly appointed Commandant of the Third Naval District, and Captain Roe Adams, Captain of the New York Navy Yard. With the ERIE's crew at attention on her afterdeck, the Admiral read the formal orders directing him to place the ERIE in full commission. The ERIE's first captain, Commander Edward W. Hanson, signed a formal receipt for the ship and proceeded to read his orders assigning him command of the gunboat. After this, Hanson called out his first official order, “Sound the colors.” As boatswain pipes wailed and the ERIE's Marine detachment presented arms, the national ensign and commissioning pennant were hoisted aloft. And so the 2,000-ton plus gunboat, the U.S.S. ERIE PG-50, was officially added to the U.S. Navy List.
Note 2: It was customary to launch ships as soon as all external work needed to make them seaworthy had been completed, and as long as the completion of other construction, the installation of equipment, etc., would not be adversely affected by the vessel being afloat.
CHAPTER 4: JULY 1936 THROUGH OCTOBER 1936
As indicated in the previous section, the ERIE was commissioned without her six-inch guns installed and with other aspects of her construction uncompleted. Work continued on these details throughout July and on August 1, 1936, Yard managers reported that her hull and machinery spaces were now, respectively, 98.8% and 95.1% complete, and they established an end of construction date of August 15, 1936.
On August 17, 1936, the ERIE left the New York Navy Yard and sailed out into the Atlantic, her first day at-sea. Her initial sea trials were generally satisfactory, but some malfunctions were discovered in her propulsion system and so she stood in at New York late in the afternoon of the 17th. On August 26, she stood out from the New York Navy Yard and underwent formal power trials. Additional corrective work was required back in the Yard, after which the ERIE put out to sea again on September 2 for further testing, returning to the Yard two days later.
On September 14, Commander Hanson received a communication from the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) providing operational orders for the remainder of 1936: Until October 31, further tests and trials, at sea and in port, were to be performed, and the vessel fitted out and otherwise prepared for her shakedown cruise to Europe, where she would serve with the Navy's Special Service Squadron (40-T).
The ERIE was also directed to participate in two late-October events in New York Harbor, the October 27 Navy Day festivities and the special ceremonies commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty on October 28. The CNO also advised that the previously proposed dates for the ERIE's shakedown cruise (October 31 through December 19) had now been confirmed and all necessary diplomatic notifications submitted to countries where the ERIE would make ports of call.
The fitting out and testing of the ERIE continued through mid-October. In the first week of October, the ERIE's six-inch guns were mounted with their blast shields, fore and aft on the vessel. On October 19, she departed from the New York Navy Yard for a brief cruise to the Norfolk Naval Operating Base. She arrived late in the day on October 20 and two days later she retraced her route to the New York Navy Yard, where she docked on October 23, just in time to make preparations for her participation in the 1936 Navy Day festivities.
From Sunday, October 25 through Tuesday, October 27, the ERIE, the cruisers INDIANAPOLIS and NEW ORLEANS and the destroyers MAHAN and FLUSSER held open houses while docked in the Yard. The general public, while welcomed aboard the ships, were taken on guided tours that did not venture into all areas of these vessels. Aboard the ERIE, members of her Marine detachment explained the workings of the ship’s guns and escorted visitors around certain areas of the ship. (These tour limitations were apparently imposed because of suspicions that damage discovered during a recent overhaul of the INDIANAPOLIS was attributable to saboteurs.) During Sunday’s Navy Day Parade, sailors and Marines from the ERIE marched the four-mile parade route through Jamaica along with similar contingents from the INDIANAPOLIS, the NEW ORLEANS and the TAYLOR.
On October 28, New York City and its flamboyant mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, hosted special celebrations commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the gift of the Statue of Liberty to the United States by the nation of France. In addition to the Mayor, the main dignitaries and speakers for the occasion were President Roosevelt, the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, Andre de Laboulaye and Francois de Tessan (both serving as special representatives of the French government) and, via a radio broadcast, the President of France, Albert Lebrun.
As President Roosevelt approached Bedloe’s Island on the ferry MURRAY HILL, he was greeted by twenty-one gun salutes from the U.S.S. INDIANAPOLIS and the U.S.S. ERIE that were anchored just off the island. Both vessels were decked out in bright bunting. The rails of both these ships and that of the U.S.S. TAYLOR were manned by their crews standing stiffly at attention. Landing on the south side of Bedloe’s Island (See Note 3.), the President proceeded by car through lines of soldiers, bluejackets and Marines to the speaker's stand. Then, he and the French government representatives rededicated themselves and their respective counties to the ideals embodied in Miss Liberty and the principles for which the U.S. and France stood.
A second, twenty-one gun salute was fired by the ERIE and the INDIANAPOLIS, as the President departed Bedloe’s Island for a speech on the lower East Side of Manhattan. After concluding its responsibilities in New York Harbor, the ERIE returned to the Navy Yard, in order to complete preparations for its shakedown cruise to Europe.
Note 3: Bedloe’s Island, the island southwest of Manhattan on which the Statue of Liberty stands, became Liberty Island in 1956, by an act of the U.S. Congress.
CHAPTER 5: SHAKEDOWN CRUISE (OCTOBER 31 THROUGH DECEMBER 30, 1936)
On October 31, 1936, the ERIE undocked at the New York Navy Yard and steamed down the East River, headed for Western Europe on her shakedown cruise. Commander E. W. Hanson captained the crew of 173 enlisted men (including 17 Marines) and 11 officers. The ERIE was tasked to perform temporary service with the U.S. European Squadron 40-T, in order to give the cruiser RALEIGH and the destroyers KANE and HATFIELD opportunity for overhauls and shore leave. As part of her service, the ERIE was to aid in the evacuation of American and other nationals who were seeking to flee the ravages of the Spanish Civil War.
The ship sailed through fairly rough seas most of her way across the Atlantic, but after passing the Azores, the ERIE encountered gale force winds. By one account, the ship rolled as much as 33 degrees to either side. At the height of the storm, ERIE’s Supply Officer, Lt. Commander Charles S. Bailey, was slammed to the deck and suffered serious injuries. His injuries necessitated hospitalization as soon as the ERIE reached her first port of call, Plymouth, England. (He was admitted to Plymouth Hospital and not released until early in January 1937.)
As the ERIE entered Portsmouth Sound on November 11, her crew was amazed to be greeted by twenty-one and seventeen gun salutes, before the vessel tied up at Pier 1 in the Royal Navy Dockyard. Sailors and Marines spent the next week sightseeing in Plymouth and the surrounding area, as arranged by their Royal Navy and Royal Marine hosts. The ERIE’s Marine Detachment were invited to tour the Plymouth Marine Barracks, where they were treated to a “Church Parade” performed by the Band of HM Royal Marines, viewed historical artifacts and dined and made merry the last two nights of their stay in Plymouth.
At 1400 on November 18, the ERIE stood out for Antwerp, Belgium. Upon docking, a warm welcome was extended by several Belgian Army Generals who inspected the ERIE’s full Marine Honor Guard. Many of the officers and enlisted men went sight-seeing in Brussels and from there traveled to Waterloo to observe the battlefield where Napoleon was defeated. During her four-day stay at Antwerp, her Marine Guard accompanied Commander Hanson at a wreath-laying ceremony at the Soldiers’ Monument (a sculpture group honoring the heroes and victims of World War I), a tribute from the U.S. Navy.
The ERIE then headed south for La Havre, France, where, on November 26, Commander Hanson reported for formal duty with Squadron 40-T. While there, the crew was granted three-days’ leave, and most used this time to visit Paris.
On December 3, the ERIE left La Havre for La Rochelle where she anchored in La Pallice harbor. Two days later she received orders to make a number of port calls along the coast of northern Spain (in the Basque Republic), to check on the status of American citizens and other foreign nationals, and to remove them, if need be.
Aboard the ERIE were three U.S. consular officials, including William Chapman and Manuel Codoner, consul and vice consul, respectively, at the U.S. Consulate in Bilbao and Walter Thurston, counselor for the American embassy in Madrid. They were tasked with accrediting travel documents of any American or other nationals that were seeking to be evacuated. Their presence essentially converted the ERIE into a floating consulate.
On December 13, the ERIE dropped anchor in the harbor at Bilbao, Spain. There she was welcomed by the H.M.S. FEARLESS whose crew would later come aboard the ERIE for the nighttime viewing of a movie on her quarterdeck. Not wanting to be mistaken for a Spanish warship or other belligerent vessel, the ERI flew ensigns on both her masts, and these were well illuminated during the night. While in Bilbao, negotiations between U.S., British and Basque government officials led to the release of some $400,000 in security assets owned by the New York City-based International Utilities Company. Some 5,000 certificates weighing 120 lbs. were conveyed to the ERIE for shipment to New York City.
The ERIE steamed out of Bilbao harbor on December 15, intending to check on the status of U.S. nationals residing in the port towns of Satander and Gijon. About 0800 on December 17, the ERIE dropped anchor in Port Musel (Gijon) and immediately began preparing a shore party that would bring aboard any persons seeking to be evacuated.
About an hour later, the ERIE suddenly found herself in the path of a naval bombardment launched by the rebel Spanish battleship ESPANA. Her twelve-inch guns lofted three rounds into the harbor area, one landing within 300 yards of the ERIE. The ERIE'S crew was called to General Quarters and preparations made to evade the ESPANA's shelling. No return fire was ordered, and almost immediately the ESPANA steamed away toward the Bay of Biscay.
While newspapers across the United States headlined the episode as an attack on the ERIE (some articles asserted that as many as seven rounds were fired at the ERIE, with one landing within 100 yards of the vessel), it appears that the rebel battleship's offensive action was merely part of ongoing operations against loyalist forces who controlled the town of Gijon.
Commander E. W. Hanson clearly believed this to be the case, since his initial radio communications to Washington reported that the ERIE was not hit and that there was no basis to conclude that the ESPANA had targeted the ERIE. For this reason, the U.S. State Department deemed the incident inadvertent and one that required no action by the U.S. Government.
The ERIE's only detailed, public statement on the incident was made by her Executive Officer, Lt. Commander Herman P. Knickerbocker, shortly after the ship returned to the New York Navy Yard. Knickerbocker's account (published in the New York Times on January 3, 1937) was as follows:
“At 8 AM we dropped anchor behind the breakwater at Port Musel near Gijon in the Basque Republic, a Loyalist stronghold overlooking the Bay of Biscay. Our mission was to evacuate Americans and other accredited nationals.
Mist surrounded the horizon to the seaward and clung above the snow-capped Cantabrian Mountains inland. Boats were dipping alongside the lowered gangway as we prepared to send a party ashore. Twenty or thirty men stood by on deck.
The Officer of the Deck called attention to a rising plume of dirt on the hillside a mile away, thought it blasting in the quarry. We heard no sound. Some reported a second upheaval, but still we paid little attention.
Nearby, a second later, the crashing sound of a large shell landing was accompanied by the sight of harbor water and sand cascading on high. The distance away was equivalent to seven short city blocks. A trolley passing leisurely along the waterfront leaped forward, clanging madly, as the motorman drove to safety.
We supposed the town was under bombardment. It never occurred to us that we might be the target. Commander Hanson ordered all hands to stand by and to move out of range. Large United States ensigns flew at the flagstaff aft and on the foremost top, although it is doubtful if they could be recognized far away.
Identification of a battleship's silhouette six miles at sea indicated the intruder was the rebel warship ESPANA. At any event, before we changed position, she sailed off on a westerly course in a cloud of black smoke.”
On December 18, the ERIE began to re-trace her route across northern Spain, heading for the most southern port in France, St. Jean-de-Luz. There she landed the consular officials and eight Filipino, Puerto Rican and Polish evacuees, and received an order to return immediately to the United States. Dispatched from Squadron 40-T, the Erie set sail through heavy seas for the Azores and reached Punta del Gada on December 22. The next day she headed out into the Atlantic, bound for the New York Navy Yard. High seas and gale-force winds were again encountered. The ERIE was so severely battered that several of her hull plates were damaged; at times, it was impossible to set up mess tables and Christmas 1936 in the mid-Atlantic was less than memorable. On the morning of December 30, 1936, the ERIE moored at the New York Navy Yard, completing her two-month long shakedown cruise.
The general assessment of the ship's performance was that all systems and the power plant performed well (though her cruising speed was kept well below her maximum speed of 20 knots). The ERIE's raked clipper bow appeared to do well in keeping “green water” (water that flows on to deck in heavy seas) off the forward six-inch gun turret, even in very rough sea conditions. In addition to damage to her hull, some issues with the ship's radio direction finder were reported; these were dealt with early in 1937, as the ERIE was prepped for standardization trials.
CHAPTER 6: 1937
After the ERIE returned to the New York Navy Yard, four-day furloughs for Navy and Marine personnel followed. Because of damage to her hull, the ship was placed in dry dock for repairs, system checks and re-fitting of the vessel in preparation for her formal standardization trials.
Over an 11-day period from January 13 to 24, the lower Ohio Valley was devastated by heavy rains (16 inches total) that resulted in massive flooding. In response, President Roosevelt established a Disaster Board made up of the heads of six federal agency heads (including the Navy Department), to assist the Red Cross in relief efforts.
As part of the Navy Department's response to the President's call to action, 102 sailors from the ERIE, the destroyer MAHAN and other Navy vessels docked at the New York Navy Yard (as well as 22 power boats from these vessels) were assigned to the relief effort. They were transported to Jersey City, New Jersey on January 28, where they joined a contingent of 40 Coast Guardsmen and 15 boats bound by train for Cairo, Illinois. The flood relief detail worked throughout the Ohio and Mississippi valleys for several weeks in February. This was not without consequence, as 11 ERIE crew members lost or had their clothing stolen while on the flood relief detail (necessitating special federal legislation in the summer of 1937 to reimburse them and 29 other Navy personnel for personal effects that they lost).
In late February, the ERIE was still dry-docked at the New York Navy Yard. After a number of rivets were replaced and seams re-caulked, her hull was repainted, before heading out to sea on March 1 (and then docking at Tompkinsville, NY). The next she day got underway for a brief voyage to the Naval Operating Base at Norfolk. Back at New York on March 5, her commander learned that the ERIE was assigned to duties at the Naval Academy in May, to be followed by her service as the lead vessel for the Coastal Cruising Detachment that would take members of the Academy's Second (Junior) Class on cruises to North Atlantic ports throughout the summer.
On March 6, the ERIE departed New York for her formal sea trials at Rockland, Maine, anchoring in the harbor on March 8. Mid-morning on March 9, the ERIE's Board of Inspection and Survey convened its first meeting. The Board consisted of 10 members (presided over by Rear Admiral John D. Wainwright) and was joined by two Navy observers and 7 civilian assistants from the New York Navy Yard. Shortly before noon, the ERIE proceeded to the trial course in West Penobscot Bay where draft and displacement recordings were taken before 10 standardization runs were made at speeds of 9, 12 and 15 knots. At the conclusion of the runs, the ERIE anchored again in Rockland Harbor at 1758.
On March 10, the ERIE was underway at 0558 to the trial course in West Penobscot Bay, where she performed 6 standardization runs at 15 and 20 knots and had her anchor gear tested. She then sailed to the Portsmouth Navy Yard where she berthed at 1712, in order to re-fuel.
On March 11, the ERIE got underway at 0529 and proceeded to sea for a 4-hour endurance and fuel oil consumption trial at 15 knots. After the noon meal, she performed 6 standardization runs at 17.5 and 20 knots and returned to Rockland Harbor at 1827.
The next day, the ERIE was underway at 0532 for the trial course. Most of the morning was spent performing standardization runs at 9 and 12 knots, followed by a 4-hour endurance and fuel oil consumption trial and tests of steering gear and engine reversals while operating at full power. She anchored again in Rockland Harbor at 1842.
On March 13, the Erie performed a 3-hour endurance and fuel oil consumption trial at 12 knots and later that day she returned to Rockland Harbor, with her formal trials completed.
On March 14, the ERIE's Commander, E.W. Hanson, was given a lengthy memo from the Board of Inspection and Survey, requesting that the ERIE's machinery be opened and exhaustively inspected as soon as practical, as well as a report presented to the Board on the twenty-six items that were detailed in the memo. With the report in hand, the Commander ordered the ERIE to get underway for the New York Navy Yard where she berthed on March 15.
Immediately, the intensive examination of the ERIE's machinery requested by the Board began at the Yard. About a week later, Commander Hanson submitted a preliminary report on the findings made to date and on April 9 he submitted his formal response to the Board's March 14 request, detailing all the inspections made, the internal parts cleaned, re-machined or replaced, and noting that the ship's machinery was generally in excellent condition.
On April 6, the ERIE's aviation unit (SOC-2 scout plane) departed for one month's shore-based service at the Naval Air Station at Norfolk. The ERIE did not put out to sea again until May 4, when she left the New York Navy Yard for the Norfolk Naval Operating Base. Shortly after her arrival on May 6, the ship's aviation unit and SOC-2 scout plane re-boarded the ERIE.
On May 7, the ship was underway again, this time bound for the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis where she would be utilized by midshipmen for routine drills either while docked or on short afternoon training cruises in the Chesapeake Bay. Notably, on her return from one drill on May 11, the vessel rammed the Santee Dock, while being berthed. The crash resulted in a foot-deep indentation in the ERIE's clipper bow that necessitated repair before leaving on her June cruise with the Coastal Cruising Detachment.
On May 29, the Naval Academy hosted Japanese officials at a colorful pageant on the Severn River and at the Dewey Basin, re-enacting the 1853 friendship visit of Commodore Matthew Perry to Japan. The ERIE and the destroyers MANLEY and DECATUR illuminated the festivities with their searchlights, and they and a number of sub chasers and small patrol boats paraded around the basin, following a fireworks display enjoyed by 10,000 spectators.
On June 7, the first third (200+ midshipmen) of the Naval Academy's Second Class departed on a 24-day tour of Eastern U.S. ports, aboard the ERIE (in command) and the destroyers CLAXTON, FAIRFAX, JACOB JONES, J. FRED TALBOTT and the ROPER. The Coastal Cruising Detachment made stops in Dahlgren (where the test-firing of Navy guns, including anti-aircraft guns that would eventually be part of ERIE’s armament, was witnessed), Newport, New London, New York and Norfolk, before returning to Annapolis on July 2, 1937.
The Coastal Cruising Detachment repeated this tour with the other thirds of the Second Class on cruises that occurred from July 6 through July 30 and August 2 through August 25. The cruises were not without incident. On the second cruise, after departing Dahlgren and at sea headed for Newport on July 9, an ERIE Seaman 2nd Class disappeared from her deck around 1700. The Detachment spent about four hours searching for the missing sailor and was then ordered to proceed to Newport. A Navy Board was convened aboard the ERIE during her weeklong layover in Newport. The Navy concluded that the Seaman's disappearance was not accidental and that his suicide was most likely related to having been chronically despondent.
On the lighter side, the second cruise was highlighted by an overnight cruise up the Hudson River on July 20, in order to “attack” the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The midshipmen may have gained some river navigation experience, but the purpose of the visit was purely social. While at West Point, the 210 midshipmen and almost 600 other Navy personnel enjoyed a movie, observed the Corps of Cadets parading and were entertained at a dance, before heading back down the Hudson and out to sea.
The highlight of the coastal cruise for the final third of the Second Class was their participation in festivities surrounding the America’s Cup yacht races, while in Newport from August 4 to August 16. The ERIE was used as a spectators’ boat during the races. On the day that the ERIE and the destroyers departed, Senator David Walsh, Chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee boarded the ERIE (He disembarked at New York on the return trip.)
During the third summer cruise, the ERIE received the first of a number of communications from the Chief of Naval Operations regarding her deployment to the Canal Zone, to relieve her sister ship the CHARLESTON (PG-51) and serve as flagship for the Special Service Squadron headquartered in Panama. The first departure date proposed was October 18, 1937, a date that would be altered a number of times in the ensuing months and that would ultimately be set for late January 1938.
With the return of the last contingent of midshipmen from the coastal cruise, the ERIE got underway for Oyster Bay, Long Island on August 26. There she participated in festivities related to the international yacht races held from August 27 until September 3. On the 3rd, the ERIE returned to the New York Navy Yard where the crew and Yard employees engaged in upkeep activities for the next few weeks.
When the American Legion held its annual convention in New York City from September 20 through 23, the ERIE, the battleships TEXAS and NEW YORK, the destroyers DAHLGREN, J. FRED TALBOTT, JACOB JONES and ROPER were moored at the 125th and 135th Street piers, for public tours. The ERIE and the other six vessels also provided a 30-minute searchlight demonstration for the visiting Legionnaires, while anchored in the North River on September 22 and 23. (A photo of this demonstration can be viewed in “Ship” Photo Album.)
Life aboard the ERIE took on a more serious nature, as the vessel departed on September 25 for a 10-day cruise to Nantucket, Gloucester and Boston, Massachusetts, during which time she was at sea conducting general training and gunnery drills during daylight hours.
On October 6, 1937, the ERIE was berthed again at Annapolis, where she reported for duty with the Superintendent of the Naval Academy. The ERIE was utilized for afternoon training sessions until October 25, when she was at the Washington Navy Yard in order to participate in Navy Day festivities on October 27.
On October 29, she departed for the New York Navy Yard. Shortly after her arrival, she began almost 2½ months of overhaul activity and ordinance installation, and was otherwise made ready for her service as flagship for the Special Service Squadron (hereafter referred to as SPERON, the official Navy acronym for the squadron) at the Panama Canal Zone.
CHAPTER 7: 1938
Around January 20, preparations for the ERIE's Central American deployment concluded, and crew members were granted their last shore leaves. On January 24, she got underway for the Naval Operating Base at Norfolk. Arriving at Norfolk on the 25th, aviation equipment and spares were turned in and ammunition taken aboard. The following day the ERIE sailed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arriving four days later. After overnighting, she got underway on January 31 for Panama. Arriving at Cristobal on February 3, 1928, the Erie immediately transited the Panama Canal for the first time, berthed at Balboa (the Canal’s Pacific terminus), and reported for duty with SPERON. Balboa would become her homeport until the ERIE was transferred for duty with the Offshore Patrol-Atlantic of the Panama Sea Frontier (and subsequently) to the Caribbean Sea Frontier task force in 1942.
On February 21, the SOC-2 scout planes were removed and the aviation units aboard both the CHARLESTON and the ERIE were decommissioned. In his report for fiscal year 1938, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral William Leahy reported that the planes were removed because of technical difficulties in handling the aircraft.
The formal transfer to the ERIE of the SPERON flag, the squadron's Commanding Officer, Rear Admiral Yancey S. Williams, and all flag personnel occurred on March 1, 1938, the same day that the CHARLESTON headed north to her home yard at Charleston, South Carolina.
In April, the command of the ERIE also changed hands. Commander Edward Hanson departed on April 27 to assume (on June 26, 1938) command of the Naval Station at Tutuila, Samoa. There he served as the island's 26th Naval Governor. Earlier that month, Commander Allan W. Ashbrook had come aboard (after being reassigned from duties at Mare Island), California, in order to take command of the ERIE upon Hanson's departure.
The other major events in the ERIE's 1938 service record were a three-month goodwill tour to ten ports in eight Central and South American countries from April 27 through July 21 and a special mission to the Galapagos Islands in December, to explore their suitability for enhancing the defense of the Panama Canal.
(For reasons unknown to the author, the general public would first be advised of this tour via front-page stories in newspapers across the U.S. from mid to late May; some spoke of a cruise that had yet to get underway and nearly all incorrectly reported that the ERIE was or would be captained during the cruise by Commander Edward W. Hanson.)
On April 27, 1938, with A. W. Ashbrook commanding and Rear Admiral Yancey Williams and his flagstaff aboard, the ERIE unmoored at Balboa and got underway for Guayaquil, Ecuador. At sea on the 29th, the ERIE’s first “Crossing the Line” ceremony was held, initiating all her Navy and Marine “Pollywogs” into the “Ancient Order of the Deep.” The ERIE arrived at Guayaquil on April 30 for an 8-day stay, during which she hosted Ecuadorian officials and made shore visits that apparently were political and social in nature. The SPERON rifle team (from ERIE: Sgt. William C. Kepple, Cpl. Israel Friedman, Privates First Class James S. McCracken, Frank T. Larrabee, Charles W. Weatherford and Joseph Daigle; temporarily assigned from the TAYLOR: Sgt. Harold W. Jones and Cpl. John C. Dowies) bested a crack rifle team from Guayaquil by the score of 458 to 393.
On May 9, the Erie departed Guayaquil for Peru, arriving at the port of Callao on May 12 for a 5-day visit. During her stay, her command staff and the Admiral made official calls on Peruvian officials in Callao and traveled to Lima, where they visited the American Embassy and the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and held talks with military officials. Additionally, the ship's officers and enlisted men crew were hosted at special affairs arranged by American citizens living in Lima. The American Ambassador, Norman Armour, also hosted a state dinner aboard the ERIE. Once again, the SPERON rifle team outshot their local opposition, the rifle team from the Catholic University of Lima, by a score of 562 to 435.
On May 17 the ERIE got underway for a lengthy visit to two Chilean ports. On May 23, she docked at Valparaiso. Numerous courtesy calls were made there and inland at the capital, Santiago, and the ERIE's command staff were honored guests at numerous social functions. The 10-day visit of the ERIE's staff was hailed in the Chilean press as a “reflection of the cordial spirit now linking Chile with the United States” (as was reported in the New York Times on May 28, 1938). On May 27, the ERIE headed north to the port city of Arica, about 10 miles from the Chile-Peruvian border. After more courtesy calls and festivities, the ERIE departed on June 4 for her homeport at Balboa, Canal Zone. Enroute, she stopped at Callao Peru, to take aboard the U.S. Ambassador Norman Armour for transport to Panama.
On June 11, the ERIE arrived at Balboa, for re-provisioning and re-fueling. She departed Balboa on the second leg of her goodwill cruise on June 17, headed for San Jose, Guatemala. In addition to Rear Admiral Yancey Williams and his flagstaff, U.S. consul, Dudley G. Dwyre was aboard ship. While visiting Guatemala City, the SPERON rifle team won another silver trophy by defeating the City’s “10th of November Club” by a score of 799 to 662. The visit to Guatemala ended on June 24 when the ERIE got underway for a courtesy call at La Libertad, El Salvador from June 25 to June 30. There the SPERON rifle team continued its winning ways by defeating El Salvador’s Olympic rifle team by a 4-point margin, 642 to 638. This was followed by good-will visits at Amapala, Honduras (July 1 to 5), at Corinto, Nicaragua (July 6 to 11) and at Punta Arenas, Costa Rica (July 12 to 18). The ERIE’s stay in Costa Rica was fairly typical of all the good-will visits, with courtesy calls on military and government officials and participation in a variety of social functions, which included a luncheon aboard the ERIE on July 16 for members of the Costa Rican Cabinet and military officers.
The goodwill tour concluded when the ERIE tied up again at Balboa, Canal Zone on July 21.
On August 30, 1938, Rear Admiral Yancey Williams was detached from command of the SPERON and replaced by Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox.
During the months of September through November, the ERIE was either berthed at Balboa or was patrolling the waters off of Panama.
Throughout 1938, American military officials became increasingly concerned about the defense of the Panama Canal. In the fall of 1938, rumors began to circulate that the government of Ecuador was considering selling the Galapagos Islands, which, because their location some 1,000 miles distant to the southwest of Balboa, made them an ideal site for radar installations to provide advance warning of impending air attacks (by Japan). Having obtained permission from the War Department and the Ecuadorian government to survey the islands, Major General David L. Stone, Commander of the Panama Canal Department, and staff (Lt. Colonels Austin M. Prentiss, William H. Hobson and Sam F. Parker) boarded the ERIE and departed on December 9 for the Galapagos Islands. While at sea on the 10th and 11th, the ERIE’s Navy and Marine “Pollywogs” were called to answer charges and suffer due punishment as orchestrated by King Neptune (Chief Gunners Mate Oscar Treadwell), during the ERIE’s second “Crossing the Line” ceremony.
On December 12, the ERIE anchored at Wreck Bay, where her Marine Detachment turned out a full guard in honor of the Governor of the Galapagos Islands, Carlos Puente. The survey party made additional stops at Academy Bay, Post Office Bay and Port Villamil, Tagus Cove, James Bay and Sullivan Bay. While anchored in Sullivan Bay, the fishing off the side of the ship was so good that within a short time the ERIE’s freezers were fully loaded with fish steaks.
Over a seven-day period, the survey party found what they thought would be ideal sites for radar stations, seaplane bases and an airfield. Because it was suitably located for the similar military uses, the ERIE also transported the survey party to Cocos Island (an island some 400 miles to the west of Balboa, owned by Costa Rica) on December 18. After a brief visit, the ERIE arrived back at Balboa on December 21, 1938. (General Stone's recommendations that the U.S. make arrangements for the utilization of the these two sites would only be acted upon after the threat of war became much more apparent, in 1941.)
CHAPTER 8: 1939
On January 14, 1939, Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox shifted his flag and staff to the U.S.S. CHARLESTON, as the ERIE took on fuel and provisions for her return to the U.S. mainland, where she was scheduled to undergo a major overhaul. Two days later, she got underway and transited the Panama Canal bound for Guantanamo Bay for a re-fueling layover, before heading for the New York Navy Yard.
After departing Guantanamo Bay and reaching a point ENE and well out at sea from Norfolk, Virginia, the ERIE participated in the dramatic sea rescue of survivors of the downed Pan American Airways flying boat, the CAVALIER, on the 21st of January.
This luxury passenger plane was bound from New York to Bermuda, when icing on its carburetors forced the captain to set the plane down in the choppy icy waters of the Atlantic at 1317. About 20 minutes earlier, he had sent out an SOS transmission, which was fortunate, since, moments after landing, her radio flashed out “Sinking” as her last transmission. Four merchant vessels, the Coast Guard cutter CHAMPLAIN, Coast Guard and Army planes and the ERIE all rushed to the crash site at 37°07'N and 69°37'W.
The first vessel on the scene, the ESSO BAYTOWN, rescued 6 passengers and 4 crew members in a lifeboat at 2325. The 10 survivors were found clinging to a raft of sorts, made by strapping together seat cushions and individual life jackets. (The plane's steward and two passengers, weakened by exposure to the elements, had sunk from sight while awaiting rescue.) A Lieutenant and a Pharmacist Mate from the CHAMPLAIN had been able to board the BAYTOWN and provided much needed first aid to the survivors.
The ERIE had been about 200 miles southwest of the CAVALIER when her radioman picked up the last message from the downed airliner. She immediately changed course, increased her speed to 18 knots and arrived just before the CHAMPLAIN reached the crash site. Both vessels directed their searchlights across the 10-foot seas, looking for survivors and aiding the BAYTOWN's lifeboat in the rescue of the 10 survivors.
The ERIE first suggested that the survivors be transferred to her, since she had a doctor on board and expected to arrive in New York late in the afternoon on the 22nd. The BAYTOWN responded that it was best that they not seek to transfer the survivors and requested instead the ERIE's doctor be put aboard the BAYTOWN. A follow-up transmission from the BAYTOWN reversed the earlier request and announced that the tanker would instead make for Norfolk, where she would land the survivors, before heading to her destination, the ESSO Baytown Refinery in Texas. (It was later made known that the personnel from the CHAMPLAIN had adequately provided for the immediate medical needs of the survivors, and thus the transfer of the ERIE's medical officer was not needed.)
After receiving a message from the BAYTOWN that the 10 survivors were certain that their 3 fellow travelers had drowned, all further searching for survivors ceased at 0030, and the ERIE immediately set course for the New York Navy Yard, arriving late in the afternoon on the 22nd. (The BAYTOWN was redirected back to New York, docking there at about 6 PM on January 23rd, to a tumultuous reception.)
A few days after tying up in the Yard, the ERIE's officers and enlisted men began a series of rotating, extended shore leaves, since the crew had been serving in Panama and Central American waters for almost one year. An extensive overhaul and refitting of the vessel also began, one that would last until mid-April 1939.
The ERIE, along with nearly one hundred other U.S. Navy vessels (many of them from the Pacific fleet) had been scheduled to participate in part of the 1939-40 World's Fair that would open in New York on April 30, 1939. However, New York City officials and the organizers of the World's Fair were dismayed, when, on April 15th, the Navy Department issued orders for the immediate departure of most of the Pacific Fleet ships to their Pacific stations. At the same time, the ERIE received orders to take on fuel and provisions and depart three days later for her duty station at Balboa, Canal Zone.
Thus, on April 18, 1939, the ERIE left her berth at the New York Navy Yard and got underway for her first stop, the Norfolk Navy Yard. There she tied up on April 19 and began taking on munitions and topped off her fuel tanks. Ten days later she left Norfolk for a two-week layover at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On May 16, she departed from the Naval Base at Guantanamo and headed for Panama, arriving on the 18th at Cristobal (on the Atlantic side of the Canal). She quickly transited the Canal and tied up at her homeport, Balboa on May 19. Three days later the vessel was out on maneuvers in the Panama Bay area, operations that lasted from May 22 to May 27, when the ERIE berthed once more at Balboa.
On June 24, 1939, the ERIE and the CHARLESTON with the Commander of the Special Service Squadron (SPERON), Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, and his flag staff aboard set sail from Balboa on yet another goodwill tour to a number of central American ports. This trip would last some five weeks and entail meetings (and meals) with military officials and leading government officials, concerts by the SPERON band and shooting exhibitions by the SPERON Marine rifle team.
The gunboats' first port of call was San Jose, Guatemala, on June 27. After docking there, the Admiral and Brig. General Herbert Dargue (who had flown in with a squadron of bombers from Albrook Field, Canal Zone) were guests of the President of Guatemala in Guatemala City, on June 28-30. While there, they participated in ceremonies commemorating the liberal revolution in 1871 (“Army Day”), a Guatemalan national holiday held on June 30. They ships remained at San Jose until July 2, when they weighed anchors and headed to Puerto Armuelles, Panama. After a three-day stay, the vessels headed eastward and anchored at Bahia Honda, Panama.
On July 9, the gunboats set sail for Puntarenas, Cost Rica, where they docked for a seven-day official visit. They next called at Ampala, Honduras for another weeklong visit. From this port they proceeded to Port La Libertad, El Salvador on July 25, where they were welcomed by a number of government officials. On July 31st, U.S. Minister to El Salvador, Robert Frazer, gave a special luncheon for Admiral Wilcox, the President of El Salvador, Maximilliano Martinez, and the U.S. Minister to Guatemala, Allen Des Portes. After the week-long visit, the sister ships left their moorings on August 1 and slowly made their way back to Panamanian waters, berthing at Balboa on August 5, 1939.
Less than a month later, events in Europe would begin to impact on SPERON and the ERIE's operations. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, an offensive action that resulted in Great Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declaring war on Germany, two days later.
President Roosevelt moved quickly to assert American neutrality and to deny the use of American territorial waters by the belligerents on September 5, 1939. To put some “teeth” in his proclamations, the President simultaneously directed the U.S. Navy to institute a Neutrality Patrol to track belligerents' ships off the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies. In response, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Stark, immediately ordered Navy surface vessels and aircraft to begin patrolling all waters for a distance of 200 miles from the coastline of North and South America. A month later, per the Panama Act issued by the U.S. and its Latin American neighbors, a neutrality zone was established 300 miles from the shores of all Western Hemisphere countries and both sides of the Panama Canal Zone.
During the month of September the ERIE was on a heightened state of alert. On September 1 and 2 she was on Gatun Lake (closer to the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal), and proceeded from there to Balboa and the Pacific terminus of the Canal, where she remained until the 17th. This was followed by three days of operations in the Panama Bay area. Then, after having docked at Balboa for a week, the ERIE transited the Canal and was operating during the period of September 27-30 off the Atlantic entrance of the Canal (Cristobal/Colon).
Amid growing concern that merchant vessels might be converted to raiders or be used for other warlike purposes, Op-Order 24-39 was issued by the Navy Department on October 6, 1939. This order mandated not only the tracking of men-of-war belonging to belligerent countries, but also all other vessels behaving suspiciously. Neutrality Patrol vessels and planes were required to track and report on such vessels, until such time as it was clear that they had no hostile intentions or could not be utilized for war-like purposes.
Concurrent with issuance of Op-Order 24-39, a large number of German merchant vessels were tied up in Central and South American ports, where they had sought refuge after the outbreak of war. Among these was the S.S. HAVELLAND, a 6,334-ton freighter that had anchored in the port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica.
On October 6, 1939, Costa Rican government officials granted clearance papers to the HAVELLAND, with the understanding that the vessel would be headed for Balboa, Canal Zone, a two-day, 500-mile voyage. When she failed to appear in Panamanian waters, patrol planes and the ERIE were dispatched to locate the freighter that had now been deemed to be acting suspiciously.
Suffering from engine problems that would only allow the HAVELLAND to make 4-6 knots (instead of her normal 8 knots), a U.S. Navy patrol plane was easily able to locate the vessel heading northwest toward Mexico. Its position was radioed to the ERIE, which caught up with the HAVELLAND off the coast of Mexico, near Oaxaca. Coming alongside the vessel and observing that she was flying no national flag, the ERIE's commander exchanged a salute, after which a Netherlands flag was hoisted aloft the HAVELLAND. Knowing that this was not her nationality, Commander Ashbrook demanded that the captain run up her true ensign. The HAVELLAND hoisted the Nazi flag and announced that she was making for Manzanillo, Mexico. The ERIE then proceeded to track the slow-moving freighter as she again proceeded to the northwest.
On October 24, both ships entered Manzanillo harbor, where the ERIE anchored several hundred yards from the HAVELLAND. The perceived pursuit of the German freighter by a U.S. Navy vessel raised howls of protest, by the Mexican War Department, by some members of the Mexican Senate and by the publishers of a number of Mexican newspapers. They contended that the ERIE had not obtained approval for a port visit and that Mexico was well aware of the movements of the HAVELLAND and was fully capable of ensuring neutrality within her territorial waters.
In fact, the ERIE had prior Mexican government approval for “courtesy calls” at Manzanillo, but it was also performing neutrality patrol responsibilities called for by the Act of Panama (and U.S. Navy Department orders). A minor diplomatic crisis was avoided, however, when, on October 28, the Mexican gunboat POTOSI and two Mexican Coast Guard vessels entered the harbor, berthed near the HAVELLAND and proceeded to search the vessel. Having discovered nothing suspicious, the Mexican War Department issued formal permission for the freighter to remain in port indefinitely. And, the Mexican government thus “saved face” by exercising her sovereign right to independently police and protect her own waters.
While anchored in the harbor, the HAVELLAND gave the ERIE's command staff cause to further suspect the ship's future intended use. Several days after its arrival, the HAVELLAND took on additional fuel oil and other supplies. Also, no attempts were made to offload her cargo of sugar, copra oil and virgin coconut oil, which the HAVELLAND had picked up in the Philippines for transport to U.S. ports in the Gulf of Mexico.
For this reason, the ERIE remained on station for another three weeks, even after the HAVELLAND began off-loading her cargo for trans-shipment in mid-November. (This act raised questions as to whether her emptied tanks might be filled with fuel oil allowing the freighter to serve as a supply boat for German U-boats or commercial raiders.) The ERIE was finally ordered to weigh anchor and depart for her homeport, Balboa, Canal Zone, on December 11. A number of U.S. newspapers reported that the “affair” had thus ended; however, the ERIE returned to Manzanillo on December 23 and remained there until December 31, 1939. After this second observation period, U.S. government officials apparently concluded that the HAVELLAND probably contained no contraband and would not be leaving her port of refuge for the foreseeable future. (The HAVELLAND remained at Manzanillo until June 28, 1940, when the freighter set sail for Vladivostok.)
The ERIE's surveillance of the HAVELLAND was formally commended by SPERON Commander, Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox as “the outstanding event of offshore patrol work conducted by the Special Service Squadron.”
It also notable that, just prior to the ERIE's departure from Manzanillo on December 11, the Navy Department publicly announced that scout planes and aviation units would again be placed aboard the ERIE and the CHARLESTON. Apparently, handling difficulties that had precipitated their removal from both ships (early in 1938) had been resolved. Additionally, recent neutrality patrol work by the ERIE without the services of a scout plane had convinced U.S. Navy officials of the value of having aviation units aboard the two gunboats that often patrolled Central American waters independently.
CHAPTER 9: 1940
In January 1940, the ERIE resumed neutrality patrol duties as part of SPERON. In late January, she was dispatched by SPERON Commander Wilcox to Wreck Bay, Galapagos Islands, along with the destroyer J. FRED TALBOTT. They were ordered there after a large tuna clipper, the CITY OF SAN DIEGO, had radioed an appeal for medical assistance on January 22nd, when her chief engineer, Carl Handen, developed a severe case of pneumonia. The TALBOTT was first on the scene on the 24th. Her commanding officer concluded that the engineer should not be immediately removed from the clipper. When the ERIE arrived on scene, her medical officer went aboard the CITY OF SAN DIEGO and immediately began treatment. The next day the engineer was brought aboard the ERIE, which set sail for Balboa, where Handen was taken ashore for additional medical treatment.
ERIE's duties with SPERON in the first half of 1940 were fairly routine; however, two events in late March are notable.
In response to growing concerns about the defense of the Panama Canal, a special subcommittee of the House Naval Affairs Committee departed Washington, D.C. by plane on March 15, to make an inspection tour of the Panama Canal and environs. Taking a rather circuitous route, the seven-member subcommittee arrived at Coco Solo, Canal Zone (Atlantic side of the Canal) from Managua, Nicaragua on March 19. Before touching down at France Field, an extensive aerial survey of military facilities in the Canal Zone was made.
Rear Admiral Frank H. Sadler (Commandant of 15th Naval District) and Rear Admiral John H. Wilcox, SPERON Commander (transported to Coco Solo by the ERIE) met the subcommittee. After lunch with enlisted personnel at the Coco Solo sub base, a conference was held to discuss needs of the 15th Naval District, with particular focus on improvements to installations at the Atlantic entrance to the Canal.
At 0730 on the morning of the 20th, four members of subcommittee boarded the ERIE, where they were welcomed by Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox and his flag staff. (The three other subcommittee members went by plane to the Pacific side of the Canal and performed another aerial inspection of naval facilities around Balboa.) The ERIE immediately unmoored and transited the Canal to the Pedro Miguel Locks. There, the subcommittee disembarked for a brief meeting with General Sanderford Jarman, Commanding General of the Panama Coast Artillery Brigade. They then re-boarded the ERIE and proceeded to Balboa for discussions with Navy command staff. This was followed by inspections of U.S. Army defenses at Forts Amador and Grant and on some of the fortified islands in Panama Bay. On March 21, five members of the subcommittee were luncheon guests of the ERIE’s Marine Detachment at the naval ammunition depot (two members had already departed for Pensacola, Florida), after which they heard a presentation on Navy needs in the Balboa area and inspected existing facilities. The subcommittee departed the 22nd and, after again following a circuitous route, arrived back in Washington on March 28.
Their discussions and observations in Panama led the subcommittee to conclude that an attack by enemy naval vessels was unlikely and that the more critical need was to provide for a defense against carrier-launched airplanes from well out to sea, on the Pacific side of the Canal. Thus, upon their return to the U.S. mainland, subcommittee members, particularly Rep. Warren Magnusson (representing the state of Washington), began to urge Congress and the Administration to seek approval to utilize the Galapagos and Coco Islands (possessions of Ecuador and Costa Rica, respectively) for air bases to defend the Pacific approaches to the Canal. The subcommittee also strongly recommended that funds be appropriated for construction of the Margarita breakwater in Colon Harbor (at the Atlantic entrance of the Canal) and the construction of operating base facilities at Balboa.
About a week later, SPERON honored the acting President of Panama, Augusto Samuel Boyd, with a re-creation of the Battle of the River Platt (during which the British cruisers EXETER, AJAX and ACHILLES attacked the German battleship GRAF SPREE, which would later be scuttled off Montevideo). The re-enactment took place in the afternoon of March 27th, with the ERIE and two SPERON destroyers playing the parts of the EXETER, AJAX and ACHILLES, while the flagship CHARLESTON, with Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox and Panamanian President Boyd aboard, served as the GRAF SPREE. The “attackers” laid down smoke screens and simulated gunfire, while feigning high-speed attacks on the flagship. A naval review concluded the re-enactment. This consisted of the ERIE, three destroyers, and three submarines, slowly sailing by the CHARLESTON with crews manning the rails, saluting gunfire and a fly-over by twelve U.S. Navy patrol planes.
May 1 found the ERIE patrolling in the Panama Bay area on the Pacific side of the Canal. After docking at Balboa for two days, she transited the Canal on May 4, making for Coco Solo (the U.S. Navy submarine base on the Atlantic side). There she was stationed and involved in patrol activities until the 23rd of May. She then departed for her home port, Balboa, where she docked on May 24 (and remained docked until the 27th of June).
On June 28, the ERIE departed Balboa for Guayaquil, Ecuador, a trip that was widely trumpeted in U.S. newspapers as just the latest in a series of “goodwill” visits to foreign ports. Aboard the ERIE were her new captain, Commander Andrew R. Mack (who assumed command on June 12), Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox and his flag staff, and Major Samuel S. Ballentine, the Squadron Marine Officer. While the details are still a bit sketchy, the visit appeared to be part of the U.S. government's reaction to rumors of “fifth column” clandestine activities by Germans in Ecuador. (The German airline SEDTA was still operating in Quito, and at least two German naval officers were reported to be in Guayaquil.) It was probably not mere coincidence that, simultaneously, six U.S. Navy bombers were dispatched to Quito from Panama and the U.S. Navy survey vessel, the BUSHNELL, was ordered to perform a hydrographic survey of Ecuador’s coastline (where a number of German radio stations were rumored to be operating). While at sea on June 30, “Crossing the Line” initiation rites were again held aboard the ERIE.
On July 1, 1940, the ERIE arrived at the port of Guayaquil. After visits with local officials, the Admiral, his flag staff, the ERIE's command staff and Major Ballentine left Guayaquil for a three-day stay in Quito where they conferred with high-ranking government and military officials and attended formal receptions. On July 9, the ERIE got underway for her homeport at Balboa, Canal Zone, where she docked again on July 11 (and would be berthed throughout the remainder of the month and until early August).
In July, Captain H. Kent Hewitt (then serving as Inspector of Ordnance, Puget Sound) was ordered to report to the Canal Zone by August 1, as relief for Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, Commander of SPERON. Awaiting promotion to Rear Admiral as soon as vacancy occurred on the Navy List, Hewitt was directed to take over command of SPERON and to hoist his flag as a temporary Rear Admiral. The command shift occurred on August 3 aboard the ERIE moored at Balboa, with the obligatory thirteen-gun salute.
Hewitt spent the next week making official calls on the 15th Naval District command staff, Canal officials, U.S. Army commanders, the Panamanian President and a number of consulates. Because of increasing U.S. concerns about tensions in the Pacific region and the defense of the Panama Canal against air attacks launched from the Pacific side of the Canal, Hewitt's first order was a visit to Ecuador and the strategically positioned Galapagos Islands. At issue was securing permission to use the Ecuadorian possessions as forward bases for air and surface patrol operations.
So, on August 9, the ERIE set sail for Guayaquil, Ecuador, accompanied by the destroyer TATTNALL. The three-day voyage included “Crossing the Line” ceremonies aboard both vessels. Upon arriving at Guayaquil on the 12th, the ERIE anchored just off the city, and Admiral Hewitt and the flag staff went ashore for a tour of the city and preliminary discussions with Ecuadorian military officials who would be making the reconnaissance trip aboard the ERIE and the TATTNALL.
The two vessels weighed anchors and set out for the Galapagos Islands on August 15. Traveling aboard the ERIE with Rear Admiral Hewitt were the following U.S consular officials: Harry C. Reed, Vice Consul, Lt. Commander Alvord J. Greenacre, Naval Attache and Lieutenant E.K. Thompson. Joining them were: from the Ecuadorian Army, Colonel Francisco Urrutia, Chief of Staff, Lt. Colonel Abelardo B. Aguirre and Lt. Colonel Adolfo E. Paez; from the Ecuadorian Navy, Lt. Commander Cesar A. Mogollon and Lt. Commander Cesar Puente Godoy; and, from the Ecuadorian Air Corps, Major Jorge Paez Mena and Staff Sergeant Jose M. Delgado, Pilot. Billeted aboard the TATTNALL were Ecuadorian Army Lt. Colonels Alfonso Pazmino Mera and Francisco Martinez Febres, Ecuadorian Navy Lt. Commander Francisco Fernandez Madrid and Ecuadorian Air Corps Major Leonidas E. Hildago. The ships arrived at San Cristobal on August 18, and the next five days were spent exploring the various islands in the Galapagos chain and adjacent waters. During their visit to Post Office Bay (Floreana Island), officers and enlisted men from the ERIE and TATNALL stuffed the mail barrel with so many envelopes that, when the yacht IDLER stopped by two days later, no additional mail could be added to the container. The ships departed for Guayaquil on August 23.
On the return trip, the ships swung by the northern port of Esmeraldas (near Punta Galera), where the BUSHNELL had been re-doing some of its hydrographic survey work, after a number of naval markers it had placed in the port waterways in July had been moved or stolen. The BUSHNELL joined the ERIE and the TATTNALL on the trip south to Guayaquil. At Punta Point, just off the Gulf of Guayaquil, the Ecuadorian military officials aboard the TATTNALL transferred to the ERIE. Then she and the other two vessels traveled up the Guayas River and anchored off Guayaquil, as night fell on August 25. In the interim, the ships' officers were ordered to participate in the September 1 inauguration of Ecuador's new President, Carlos Arroyo del Rio, so the ERIE, TATTNALL, and BUSHNELL would remain there for more than a week.
During that time, enlisted men from the ERIE accepted Ecuadorian challenges to a number of informal athletic games, and the Marine Detachment’s rifle team took on the “Club Mariscal Sucre” team. (The ERIE’s Marines won by a score of 825 to 676.) Three days prior to the inauguration, officers from the three U.S. vessels, Rear Admiral Hewitt, the flag staff and ERIE’s band made the all-day trip from Guayaquil to the capital city, Quito. Joining them there was U.S. Ambassador to Panama, William Dawson, who had been named special ambassador for discussions pertaining to the U.S. use of the Galapagos Islands and who was to serve as President Roosevelt's special representative at the inauguration of the new Ecuadorian President. Members of the U.S. delegation participated in a number of balls, receptions and parades, and, on September 1, the formal installation of President Arroyo del Rio. During the festivities, Ecuador’s Minister of Defense, Galo Plaza, awarded Admiral Hewitt a special medal, the Order of Abdon Calderon. (Commander Mack and the commanders of the TATTNALL and the BUSHNELL also received the same medal, which is awarded in three different degrees for outstanding military service.) Two days later, the ERIE and the TATTNALL weighed anchor and set sail for Balboa.
The lengthy visit by the delegation apparently began to pave the way for America’s use of the Galapagos Islands in defense of the Panama Canal. Following their visit, numerous reports in American newspapers reported on discussions that had been occurring regarding the placement of air defenses on the Galapagos Islands and Cocos Island. On September 5, 1940, the press announced that Costa Rica had formally offered the U.S. a long-term lease of Cocos Island for use as a naval air base. However, formal Ecuadorian approval of the establishment of defense installations in the Galapagos Islands would only become a reality after the U.S. formally entered WW II. (See Chapter 11 of this history.)
September also brought changes regarding the future use of the gunboats ERIE and CHARLESTON. On September 17, the U.S. Navy officially disbanded SPERON. Four days later, Rear Admiral Hewitt's flag was hauled down from the ERIE. The ERIE was assigned to the 15th Naval District (commanded by Admiral Frank Sadler), along with the destroyers J. FRED TALBOT and the TATTNALL. The ERIE’s sister ship, the CHARLESTON, was assigned to duties at the 13th Naval District (Seattle).
On October 1, 1940, with her duties as a SPERON flag vessel completed, the ERIE was ordered to prepare for her return to the States, where the vessel would undergo a major overhaul and her officers and enlisted men would be granted well-deserved shore leaves. After departing from Balboa and transiting the Canal on October 2 (followed by a brief layover at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station), the ERIE headed north. Entering New York harbor, she tied up in the New York Navy Yard on October 9, 1940. A rather extensive overhaul began immediately.
The crew enjoyed long-awaited liberty while the ERIE was overhauled. The Marine Detachment bid farewell to fifteen members and welcomed an equal number of replacements. Before furloughs for Thanksgiving, Detachment members were ordered to Quantico to participate in range details (to re-qualify with their service weapons). Sailors and Marines that didn’t have leave or furloughs enjoyed a Christmas dinner and celebration aboard the ERIE. After the Christmas holiday, the ERIE left the New York Navy Yard to take up duties with the 15th Naval District in the Canal Zone. On the way, she stopped briefly at the Norfolk Navy Yard and then set sail on December 30 for Guantanamo Bay (and a brief refueling layover).
CHAPTER 10: 1941
January 1 and 2 found the ERIE making her way to Guantanamo Bay. After refueling there on January 2, she got underway for Cristobal. Arriving on January 4, she remained in port until the 13th when she shifted her position to the submarine base at Coco Solo. She then spent a week at Cristobal before transiting the Canal for her home port, Balboa on January 20.
In light of growing concerns about the defense of Panama and the Panama Canal, the ERIE was utilized early in 1941 to investigate the coastal waters off Panama regarding the need for additional gun emplacements and the mining of these waters.
On January 27, 1941, the ERIE, with two undersecretaries of the republic of Panama, one U.S. Army Colonel and two Captains aboard, set sail on a multi-day exploration of the Panamanian coastline from Balboa to Panama's farthest western port (on the Pacific side), Puerto Armuelles. On January 31, the ERIE was docked again at Balboa. Two weeks later, on February 14, she set sail to make an exploratory tour of Panama's Caribbean coastline from Almirante (on the western border) to Puerto Obaldia (on Panama's eastern edge). She transited the Canal to Cristobal where she took on board the assessment team. Making the assessment were an undersecretary from the Republic of Panama, two U.S. Army Colonels and a Master Mine Planter, Irving S. Hansen, who captained the Army's Mine Planter WILLIAM M. GRAHAM. Hansen was taken aloft in the ERIE's scout plane during the survey of the Atlantic approaches to the Canal. He then oversaw the mining of the approaches to both sides of the Canal by the GRAHAM, a task that began in late February.
In the first six months of 1941, Venezuela (as well as a number of other South American countries) sought to strengthen itself militarily via closer ties with various branches of the U.S. military. In addition to inviting the U.S. to escort its tankers, to establish bases and an aviation mission, Venezuela signed (in late March) an agreement to allow a U.S. Navy mission to be established in that country. The purpose of the mission was to enhance Venezuela's naval training and to assist with dockyard construction and the equipping of naval vessels.
The U.S. Navy team (Lt. Commander William S. Campbell, mission head, Lt. Commander Irving B. McDaniel and Lieutenants Herbert F. Eckberg and Herbert S. Fulmer) arrived in Caracas on April 25, 1941. The previous day, the U.S.S. SUMNER, the U.S.S. EMPIRE STATE and the ERIE had entered La Guaira harbor (the outlet for Caracas). Aboard the ERIE was Rear Admiral Frank H. Sadler, Commandant of the 15th Naval District. Over the next three days, the Admiral and the ERIE’s officers were hosted at a variety of social functions (at the American embassy and the home of Florencio Robles) and they sought to enhance relations between the U.S. and Venezuela. (The ERIE would return to La Guaira on a similar three-day mission on August 28 1941.)
After its initial review of Venezuelan naval affairs, the U.S. Naval Mission recommended that Venezuelan officers be placed on U.S. Naval vessels, to enhance whatever formal training they had received. The ERIE took aboard two Venezuelan officers on June 23, 1941, Lieutenant Ricardo Sosa Rios, the brother-in-law of Florencio Robles (mentioned above) and Ensign Alberto Cudemus Leon. Over the next year (until July 22, 1942), four other Venezuelan ensigns served six-month-long tours of duty aboard the ERIE.
Much of the ERIE's activity in the months of May through November 1941 involved patrolling the waters off Panama (Perlas Islands area and in Panama Bay), patrols that were without any notable incidents.
This changed dramatically on Sunday, December 7, 1941.
On that day, the ERIE was berthed along with the light cruiser TRENTON, the destroyers GOFF, J. FRED TALBOTT and BARRY (and smaller District craft) at Pier 18-G at Balboa. Most of her crew was ashore on leave, enjoying a sunny day or visiting a movie theater. Word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached President Roosevelt at 1350 (Eastern Standard Time - also the same time at Balboa, CZ) and was transmitted to all U.S. naval stations an hour or so later. Commander Mack received word of the attack around 1500 and immediately issued orders canceling all leaves, recalled all hands and then put his ship on a two-hour sailing notice. As the crew returned, preparations were made for the ERIE's first extended war patrol, which included removal of canvas shade covers, re-fueling and re-provisioning and taking on additional ammunition. At 2153, Mack, acting temporarily as the commander of the Offshore Patrol Force-Pacific (consisting of the ERIE and eight destroyers), ordered all vessels placed on a one-hour sailing notice.
Army and Navy commanders in charge of the defense of the Panama Canal were advised (during the afternoon and evening hours) that a Japanese attack on the Canal was probable and thus the Navy needed to establish absolute domain over the western approaches to the Canal. On December 8, the jurisdiction of the 15th Naval District was extended 1,000 miles out in all directions from the Canal, and named the Panama Sea Frontier (PSF). (See Note 4.)
In an attempt to establish domain over the PSF in the Pacific approaches, a scouting force consisting of the ERIE and the destroyers BARRY, BORIE and GOFF was ordered out to sea to locate and engage combatant ships or any vessels acting suspiciously or capable of aiding Japanese forces. This included numerous tuna clippers that were known to employ Japanese nationals in their crews. While their initial orders did not speak to the boarding or commandeering of vessels, the scouting force commander (temporarily, the ERIE’s Captain, Commander A.R. Mack) and the destroyer commanders apparently assumed this as a war-time right and responsibility.
Preparations for the war patrol actually took about six hours to complete. So, at 2348 on the 7th, the ERIE and the destroyers got underway and cleared Balboa Harbor, aiming to secure the waters off Panama, with stops planned at Puntarenas, Costa Rica, Corinto, Nicaragua and La Libertad, El Salvador.
Hardly out of the harbor, the ERIE began to intercept coded radio messages, coming from an area known to be a prime tuna fishing ground. Although it was standard practice for tuna boats working in concert to send coded messages to one another regarding the location of schools of tuna, etc., Commander Mack could not be certain whether the secret messages were innocuous conversations or communications that represented a military threat. Thus, he concluded that all vessels should be hailed, and if warranted, stopped, boarded and checked for the presence of Japanese nationals or unusual cargo.
As soon as the scouting force checked the waters in the Bay of Panama, the ERIE and then the three destroyers began to steer individually, on patrol, in an ever-widening arc to the west. On the morning of the 8th, the ERIE made contact with the first of numerous fishing vessels, the PATRIA, which was halted and boarded at 1052. Four hours later, the ERIE halted the tuna clipper NAVIGATOR, which was boarded, searched and then allowed to proceed. (About a week later, the ERIE would again encounter this vessel and order her to accompany the ERIE into Balboa harbor.)
Over the next two days, the ERIE would continue her searching over various courses and at various speeds, in the waters west of Panama and primarily off the coast of Costa Rica.
Before first light on the morning of December 10, the ERIE made contact with the tuna clipper SANTA MARGARITA. Ignoring an order to halt, the fishing vessel proceeded to leave the fishing ground at full speed. The ERIE dispatched her scout plane which gave the usual signal to “turn back” and then started out in the direction in which the fleeing ship was to steer. When the SANTA MARGARITA failed to follow this well-known naval instruction, the pilot of the airplane burst several shots across her bow and stopped her flight.
On orders of Commander Mack, Lt. Commander Daniel J. Sweeney at 0515 boarded the tuna clipper with a detachment of marines and examined the vessel, its papers and the crew. The captain of the SANTA MARGARITA was directed to cease fishing operations and proceed immediately to the port of Puntarenas, Costa Rica, where it should await further orders. Lt. Commander Sweeney wrote the following entry in the log of the SANTA MARGARITA:
“The O. S. Santa Margarita has this day been visited by me at 5:15 a.m. December 10 by direction of Commander A. R. Mack, U. S. Navy. I have examined the ship's papers concerning the vessel and her cargo, produced by the Master which was found by me to be regular and to show that the voyage of the vessel is lawful. The circumstances have been reported to the said Comdr. A. R. Mack, U. S. N., who has directed that the vessel be directed to proceed to Puntarenas, Costa Rica at best speed. The vessel is accordingly directed to proceed to Puntarenas by direction of the said Comdr. A. R. Mack.”
Through rough seas and drenching rains, the ERIE continued her search pattern in the fishing grounds off of Costa Rica on the 11th and the 12th. Very few ships were encountered. Just after midnight on the 12th, she set a course for the Costa Rican port of Puntarenas, some 200 nautical miles distant. (This was pursuant to an order received at 1635 on the 12th from the new Commander of the Offshore Patrol Force-Pacific, Admiral Bidwell, to seize the fishing vessel ALERT and her Japanese crew members at Caldera, near Puntarenas.)
Before the ERIE arrived at Puntarenas on the 13th, the fishing vessel ALERT attempted to abruptly leave the harbor for an unknown destination. Three U.S. Navy bombers were dispatched to the area. They gave chase and, after dropping several bombs, succeeded in driving the vessel back into Puntarenas. There, three Costa Rican military officials boarded and searched the ship, and discovered that she contained some 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel and that her crew consisted of three U.S. citizens and seven Japanese nationals. The latter were arrested and declared prisoners of war by the Costa Rican government.
After the ERIE had anchored in the harbor and dispatched an armed boat patrol, Captain Mack was visited by the secretary to the Port Captain and requested to go ashore. There he met with the Port Captain, the Provincial Governor and the Commandant of Police and learned about the suspicious action of the ALERT earlier that morning. Mack indicated that he would be taking control of the ALERT and the POWs that had been removed from the vessel, as well as twenty-eight other Japanese nationals that the Costa Rican government had jailed since December 8.
The entire crew of the ALERT was brought aboard the ERIE at 1223. About four hours later, the captain of the ALERT and the two other American crew members, accompanied by a prize crew of 14 sailors and Marines led by Ensign V.V. Utgoff, left the ERIE, in order to prepare the ALERT for convoying to Balboa. The ERIE's armed patrol boat returned at 1635, following which twenty-eight Japanese POWs were received on board from Costa Rican military officials.
Late in the night on December 13, the ERIE sailed from Puntarenas escorting the ALERT and again on war patrol investigating reports of additional vessels off the coast of Costa Rica.
At 0803 on December 14, the ERIE halted the fishing vessel STAR OF THE SEA and sent a boarding party of Marines led by Lt. Commander Sweeney to search the vessel. Finding nothing of any concern, the vessel was directed to head into Puntarenas harbor. At 0945, these same actions were repeated after halting the 518-ton fishing vessel, the NORMANDIE.
At about this time on the 14th, Commander Mack received orders from the Commander of the Panama Sea Frontier and the 15th Naval District to regard all fishing vessels and similar craft in offshore waters with suspicion, and to search, seize or sink them, as might be warranted.
Thus, when the ERIE sighted the 293-ton fishing vessel the SEA BOY and she hove to at the ERIE's port quarter at 1023, Mack knew that he should no longer confine his actions to boarding and searching the vessel. At 1024 a party of Marines led by Lt. Commander Daniel Sweeney boarded the SEA BOY. They proceeded to investigate the ship’s papers, the vessel, her cargo and her crew. One member of the crew was found to be Japanese national, seaman Kinichiro Matsunki; he was declared to be a prisoner of war. After radioing his report to Commander Mack, Sweeney was directed to inform the captain that the SEA BOY was to be seized and sent to a port (Balboa) for further adjudication.
The eight Marines from the ERIE stayed aboard the SEA BOY, while Lt. Commander Sweeney returned to the ERIE with POW Matsunki. Marine Captain J.T. Wilbur was transferred to the SEA BOY at 1152, in order to take charge as prize master of the tuna boat during her voyage to Balboa (although her initial course was in the direction of Puntarenas).
The ERIE continued searching for fishing vessels, aided in her search by her patrol plane (which when it was hauled back aboard later that day in very rough seas, was partially damaged, suffering a broken wing rib and a bent tail). At 1217 she halted and boarded the WHITE STAR, and although the search revealed nothing suspicious, she was order to proceed to Puntarenas. At 1330, the ERIE encountered the SEA BOY, and that vessel and the ALERT were convoyed by the ERIE in the direction of Puntarenas.
On the 15th, in the midst of a tropical storm, the ERIE re-fueled the SEA BOY and ordered Captain Wilbur to have the tuna boat re-set her course for Balboa. The SEA BOY arrived at Balboa on December 16 for further adjudication by officials of the 15th Naval District.
Having picked up radio transmissions from the NAVIGATOR (broadcasting the ERIE's position to other vessels in the area), the ERIE's scout plane was offloaded and it took off at 1145 to locate that vessel. The plane failed to locate the NAVIGATOR, but at 1500 the ERIE again spotted the SEA BOY and the NORMANDIE, boarded both vessels and ordered them to proceed immediately to Puntarenas. Despite the stormy weather, the scout plane was hauled aboard and the ERIE commenced searching for other vessels in the waters off Costa Rica.
In the early morning hours of December 16, the ERIE was steaming back toward Puntarenas, having been ordered to pick up additional vessels and to convoy them to Balboa. At 0300 she encountered the 391-ton vessel SANTA ELENA and several smaller craft. These were boarded, the ships' radios sealed and their captains were ordered to proceed to Balboa, Canal Zone.
That morning the ERIE again encountered the SANTA MARGARITA. Lt. Commander Sweeney boarded the vessel and ordered her captain to steam directly to Puntarenas. This time, the captain did as ordered, and on December 26 a U.S. destroyer convoyed the SANTA MARGARITA and eight other fishing vessels from Puntarenas to Balboa.
In the waters just off Puntarenas, the ERIE picked up a distress call from the Costa Rican vessel ORION at 0748. The ERIE maneuvered toward the signal and at 0800 sent out a fire and rescue party. After putting out a small fire and securing the vessel, the ERIE took the ORION in tow and released her after anchoring in Puntarenas harbor at 1057.
At 1636 that day, the ERIE weighed anchor and got underway for Balboa, followed by the ALERT. At 0800 on the 17th, the ERIE's scout plane was again launched to search for fishing vessels. By 1200, four additional vessels had been located, boarded and had armed Marine guards placed aboard them. These included the NAVIGATOR, the CONTE BIANCO, the INVADER and the SHASTA. They were ordered to form up in the ERIE's convoy that arrived the next day in Balboa harbor. The vessels were placed in the custody of the Port Director, who was already in custody of over 20 other vessels that had been seized by other Navy ships or had voluntarily entered that port.
Upon arriving at Balboa, Commander Mack reported the following to the Commander of the Panama Naval Coastal Frontier:
“While at Puntarenas on December 13, an agreement had been negotiated that the Costa Rican government, through its local authorities at Puntarenas, would deny clearance to all fishing vessels then at port and any which might enter in the future. Vessels at Puntarenas on the 16th or arriving by the 18th were the FELICE, the WHITE STAR, the SANTA MARGARITA, NORMANDIE, FOSS, the DAIHO II, the CHICKEN OF THE SEA, SAN SALVADOR, and the CITY OF SAN PEDRO.”
Several days after turning over the 32 Japanese POWs to the 15th Naval District Commander, Commander Mack and his staff would learn that the among the Japanese POWs were a Commander and two Lieutenant Commanders of the Japanese Imperial Navy.
Within several hours of her return on December 18, a large supply of stores were brought aboard the ERIE and the vessel was shifted to the Balboa refueling pier, as the ERIE had been ordered to prepare for a second war patrol, with her departure set for December 20.
Since preparations for the second war patrol were completed on the morning of the 19th, the crew was treated to an early lunch and a band concert, after which all were granted shore leave at 1300.
At 0935 on the 20th, the ERIE set sail on her second war patrol to a destination unknown to most of the enlisted men. Once out of the harbor, THE ERIE quickly got her steam up and began cruising on various courses generally making for a destination to the south-southwest. On the 21st it became obvious to all that their destination was the Galapagos Islands. And, even though on war patrol, Commander Mack consented to a request that abbreviated “Crossing the Line” ceremonies be conducted after the ERIE crossed the Equator, at about 0700 on the 22nd of December. The ceremonies were delayed until the ERIE was safely anchored at Wreck Bay, just off San Cristobal Island. (According to Pollywog, Gene Leek, his breakfast that morning consisted of potatoes heavily laced with pepper and raw meat, dipped in milk and covered with flour.)
The ERIE remained anchored there for several days. On Christmas Eve, most of the crew spent the day ashore, swimming or lying on the beach, after which they were treated to a special dinner. Christmas Day proved special, only because the crew was allowed to sleep in.
As the crew soon learned, the ERIE had not been ordered to the Galapagos Islands merely to ensure that enemy ships (or ships that might lend aid to U.S. enemies) were not within the 1000-mile wide Panama Sea Frontier. Unknown to them and most of the world, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ecuadorian government officials had informally approved the establishment of limited military bases on both the Galapagos Islands and on the coast of Ecuador. In response, the U.S. Navy had immediately dispatched a thirty-six-man task force (via a tramp steamer) to the Galapagos Islands, to establish a re-fueling depot for its seaplanes. And on December 12, 1941, the Commander of the 15th Naval District directed that a temporary advanced air base should be established on Baltra Island (also referred to as South Seymour Island.)
To that end, the ERIE dispatched an additional 15 Marines and sailors on South Seymour Island on December 26. As well, teams were sent ashore to look for sources of fresh water, but none were located. During the evening hours of December 28, the ERIE was back at Wreck Bay.
In response to a request from the Commander of Patrol Wing 3 (Coco Solo, CZ), the ERIE was directed to proceed to Santa Elena Bay, Ecuador, in order to lay six seaplane moorings. Several hours later she weighed anchor, making for Salinas/La Libertad, on the coast of Ecuador. (This harbor would be the future site of a U.S. Navy seaplane re-fueling station and a U.S. Army air base, which the Ecuadorian government formally approved in late January 1942.) The ERIE arrived at Santa Elena Bay at 1300 on December 29. The crew was granted several hours of shore leave, while six buoy anchors were laid for future use by U.S. Navy seaplanes. The ERIE's brief visit concluded at 1900, when she weighed anchor and set sail for her homeport, arriving in Balboa harbor on January 1.
Note 4: Under the U.S. war plan put into effect on December 7, 1941 (as it pertained to the District of Panama), Patrol Order No. 24-41 specified that five U.S. Navy Task Forces were to operate within the Panama Naval Coastal Frontier: the South East Pacific Force (the cruisers CONCORD and RICHMOND); the Offshore Patrol Force-Pacific (the ERIE, Destroyer Division 67 and two destroyers from the Panama Patrol Force); the Offshore Patrol Force-Atlantic (a number of submarine squadrons); Patrol Wing 3 (PBY Catalinas stationed at Coco Solo, CZ); and, the Inland Patrol Force (five PCs and a number of auxiliary vessels). These Forces were tasked with patrolling trade routes and otherwise defending coastal areas within the Panama Sea Frontier.
CHAPTER 11: JANUARY 1 THROUGH SEPTEMBER 23, 1942 (AFTER COMPLETION OF MAJOR OVERHAUL)
In early January 1942, The ERIE underwent a minor overhaul at Balboa, to prepare the vessel for ongoing patrol duties as part of the Offshore Patrol Force Pacific, which consisted of the ERIE and seven destroyers. (Her next major overhaul was scheduled for July 1942.) The work included paint removal, hull repainting, other cleaning and removal of unneeded gear; new life rafts were also stowed aboard.
On January 13, the ERIE was re-fueled and re-provisioned and at 1500 she made her way slowly out of the inner harbor at Balboa. By 1630, she was steaming at 15 knots on war patrol in the waters off western Panama, before setting course for the Galapagos Islands. Upon arriving there, she dropped off a replacement contingent of sailors and Marines and took on board 10 enlisted men re-assigned to duty at Balboa. Men stationed on South Seymour Island were allowed to come aboard the ERIE to purchase small stores, personal hygiene items, etc.
The ERIE spent the next five days on an exploration cruise around the various Galapagos Islands, with stops at Wreck Bay, Academy Bay, Post Office Bay and Port Villamil. On January 20, she, the destroyer BORIE and the cruiser RICHMOND were bunkered (refueled) by the U.S. tanker BARSTOW. Panoramic photographs were taken, residents were interviewed and sources of fresh water were sought. No viable sources were discovered, and upon reporting back, the ERIE's Commander recommended that saltwater distillation units be shipped to the primary base on South Seymour Island. The cruise resulted in the production of an Office of Naval Intelligence report entitled “Field Monograph of Galapagos Islands” (issued in early 1942). The ERIE’s three-day return voyage was uneventful, other than the recovery of a large barrage balloon (See Note 5.) that had broken its mooring lines and fallen into the waters near the entrance to Balboa Harbor, on January 23.
Five days later, the ERIE's crew experienced their first convoy duty.
On February 1, she departed from Balboa, assigned to protect 7 ships carrying 20,000 U.S. Army troops (officially designated as Convoy BT-200, which originated in New York City and was bound for Melbourne, Australia), along with the destroyers MOFFETT and SAMPSON, the light cruisers TRENTON and MILWAUKEE, and two submarines. The ships convoyed were the ARGENTINA, CRISTOBAL, J.W. MCANDREW, JOHN ERICSSON, SANTA ELENA, SANTA ROSA, THOMAS H. BARRY, as well as one cargo vessel, the ISLAND MAIL.
The course of the convoy was set so that it would pass just to the northwest of the Galapagos Islands, and upon arriving at a point north of the islands, both the ERIE and the MOFFETT were ordered to break off from the convoy on February 3. Arriving at South Seymour Island, the ERIE refueled the MOFFETT, delivered 10 Marines for duty and took aboard 9 others that were to be returned for duty at the Canal Zone.
On the return trip, the ERIE made her first contact with an enemy submarine and engaged in her first depth charge attack. Unofficial reports (remarks in the diary of ERIE Bandsman Gene Leek and comments made by Yeoman Julius Nissen in an official Navy interview) differ from the official report on this incident.
Leek's diary records the following:
“... had an attack on our ship by an enemy submarine – the thing's “tin fish” missed us, crossing our bow by 36 feet; 27 seconds later we dropped our first “ash can” (depth charge); not hitting with the first, we dropped [set to explode] at 200 feet 6 more – we made hit, radioed for sea planes to assist us in finding floating particles of hit sub – took half hour for 2 PBY air (sea) planes to show up – particles were seen from planes which means sure hit. Hooray – sounding device says there were two subs about – so we have a tough nite for us – we pray for safety through the long nite.”
In an interview about his experiences aboard the ERIE (recorded on July 7, 1943, more than a year after the incident occurred), Nissen related the following about the ERIE's actions that day:
“During one of our trips back in [from the Galapagos Islands], we picked up a good contact on our sound gear and the Captain went to the spot of contact and we dropped a pattern of fourteen charges. We didn't stick around to find out whether or not we got the sub because we didn't have the fuel. We were signaled by a PBY –-- a little later while we were out on patrol duty --- that they saw a lot of debris floating around and he said he couldn't tell definitely but it looked pretty good. It was a possibility anyway.”
The ERIE's Deck Log for February 8 contains the following remarks:
“0845 Sighted periscope. Commenced maneuvering at various course and various speeds to drop depth charges. Went to General Quarters. Made three attacks.”
In a radio message to the Commander of the Panama Sea Frontier at 1725 that day, Commander Mack reported:
“Periscope sighted by several persons 1,000 yards toward the sun. Sound contacts plus propeller beat indicated enemy sub highly probable. Three depth charge attacks made. No indication of success.”
On February 9, the ERIE berthed at Balboa. While the ship was re-fueled, re-provisioned and 60 depth charges hauled aboard, the crew enjoyed shore leave and movies on the ERIE's fantail in the evenings.
On February 10, the ERIE was officially assigned to the Panama Sea Frontier, with her primary mission the protection of shipping within the confines of the Panama Sea Frontier's sea-lanes on the Pacific side.
Five days later, just prior to heading out of Balboa “to a secret location” (as per the ERIE's Muster Log dated 15 February 1942), the ERIE took on board a large number of passengers, including 15 Navy personnel and 90 Marines (none of whom were attached to the ERIE), 3 Panama District Engineers and 22 construction workers employed by the Tucker McClure Construction Company. Thus, the ERIE's crew could easily guess that their destination would again be the Galapagos Islands, where the construction of a sea plane facility and an army air base was ongoing.
The ERIE's first port of call was Guayaquil, Ecuador, where on the 17th a District Engineer (headed for work on a new U.S. base at Salinas, Ecuador) was sent ashore. Convoying a Dutch freighter the FLEVO, she then made for Seymour Bay at Baltra Island (more commonly known as South Seymour Island). There, on the 19th, civilian and military Pollywogs were subject to “Crossing the Line” initiation rites before going ashore. Numerous stores were offloaded on the 20th and 21st. The ERIE then moved to Wreck Bay, where her crew was granted a field day ashore, with most using the time for swimming, sun-bathing or fishing. On the 24th, the ERIE set sail for Balboa.
On March 11, the ERIE, the cruiser RICHMOND, the destroyers TATTNALL and the WARRINGTON were given orders to escort Convoy BT-201 departing Balboa on March 12 for Brisbane, Australia. The Panama-based ships were to escort the troop ships SANTA CLARA, SANTA PAULA, SANTA LUCIA, GENERAL JAMES PARKER and the URUGUAY to “Bobcat” (code name for the Bora Bora Island), at which point the U.S. Navy's Pacific Task Force would take on the defense of the troop ships. At 1430 on the 12th, the escorts and the transports departed Balboa harbor at 30-minute intervals, and at 1845 the convoy was formed up, headed on a course to the west-southwest at a speed of 13 knots.
Nothing eventful occurred over the next three days other than false submarine contacts (on debris or large schools of fish) made by the WARRINGTON on the 13th and the ERIE on the 14th. When the convoy was just to the north of the Galapagos Islands at 0800 on the 15th, the ERIE and the TATTNALL were released from their convoy duty. The ERIE again headed for South Seymour Island where she anchored. After performing patrol duties in the waters around the Galapagos Islands, she set sail for Balboa on March 24.
During the first two weeks of April 1942, the ERIE was usually either moored pier-side or to buoys at Balboa, except for occasional patrols within Panama Bay. On April 18, a heavily defended 18-ship convoy (BT-202) arrived at Cristobal, CZ. Her Atlantic-side escorts immediately headed out to various East Coast ports, while the troop transports and cargo ships transited the Panama Canal to Balboa.
As this was happening, the Panama-based ERIE, the destroyers BORIE, TATTNALL and GOFF and Torpedo Boat Squadron 2 were ordered to report to the Commander, Southeast Pacific Force, for temporary escort duty with this convoy, along with her main escorts, the CONCORD, TRENTON and the SAMPSON.
Late in the morning of April 19, most of the vessels being escorted began to individually depart Balboa Harbor and were formed up in Panama Bay by 1500. When the escorts were in place and the PT boats had departed, the convoy set a course to the South, zigzagging at a speed of 12 knots. On the 20th, the remaining troops ships joined the convoy, escorted by the destroyer GOFF.
At 1420 on the 20th, the ERIE and the SAMPSON were ordered to break away from the convoy and to proceed to James Bay (Galapagos Islands), where the ERIE was to re-fuel the SAMPSON. The SAMPSON immediately took up a position astern of the ERIE, and the vessels steamed off at a speed of 17.2 knots, making for James Bay. En route, the SAMPSON broke off her station to investigate a merchant ship. After returning and cruising again astern of the ERIE at a speed of 17.2 knots, the SAMPSON used the ERIE for training purposes (radio calibration; main gun and anti-aircraft gun pointer settings; sight-setting; and sound operation).
At 0400 on April 22nd, the two ships anchored in James Bay. At 0423, the SAMPSON began taking on fuel from the ERIE and by 1355 the operation concluded, after the transfer of 37,877 gallons of fuel oil. While re-fueling, a fishing party caught about 600 pounds of fish for use in the SAMPSON's wardroom and general mess --- all duly inspected by the ERIE's Medical Officer, Lt. Commander Ralph M. McComas. At 1408, the SAMPSON got underway from alongside the ERIE, speeding to the Northwest to resume escort duty with Convoy BT-202 (which she rejoined at 2037 on the 22nd).
Meanwhile the ERIE spent the afternoon of the 22nd on patrol in the waters around the Galapagos Islands and then stood in and anchored at Aeolian Cove (on the west side of South Seymour Island) at 1745. Over the next three days, the vessel set out each morning, patrolled the neighboring islands and then stood in again in the early evening hours.
While patrolling the waters, the ERIE’s SOC-3 scout plane was regularly launched. After it had been hauled aboard ship on April 23, the boom handler accidentally fell onto the center section of the plane, crushing the struts and the top wing and springing the lower wing. (Upon returning to Balboa on May 6, the damaged plane was off-loaded and eventually transported to the Coco Solo Naval Air Station Assembly and Repair Department for overhaul and repair.)
On the 26th the ERIE stood out from Aeolian Cove at 0853 for patrol duties, but on this occasion she didn't return until 1355 on the 27th. After performing similar patrol duties on April 28 and 29, she stood out of Aeolian Cove for additional patrol duties around the island chain and eventually made her way back to Balboa where she berthed on May 6.
May 7th found the ERIE departing Balboa again, this time headed for Nicaraguan waters with a party of U.S. Navy officers charged with surveying sites for a PBY and motor torpedo boat base. After brief layovers in Corinto and at different spots within the Gulf of Fonseca, the ERIE set sail for Balboa on the May 14, docking there two days later. (Corinto was recommended as the most suitable location and, later that year, construction began for a base that became fully operational in January 1943.)
After a six-day layover at Balboa, the ERIE set out on her last patrol in waters on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. After steaming about Panama Bay, she then set sail for patrol duties in waters around the Galapagos Islands. May 26 found the ERIE anchored in Seymour Bay, along with the CLEMSON, the MATAGORDA, and the U.S. Army transport the HENRY GIBBONS. The next day she stood out for Balboa.
On June 1, 1942, the U.S. Navy established a new patrol unit in response to growing German U-boat attacks in the waters off the Panama Canal and in the western Caribbean Sea, the Offshore Patrol-Atlantic of the Panama Sea Frontier (OFFSHPATLANT-PSF). The patrol force consisted of the gunboat ERIE, four destroyers (the GOFF, TATTNALL, BARRY, and BORIE), the PC-460, three PYs (the MOONSTONE, JADE and NIAGARA), one AT (WOODCOCK) and three YPs (280, 281 and 291). Captain T.J. Doyle, Commander of Submarine Squadron Three, was placed in command of the patrol force. For the most part, the ships in the unit acted independently, patrolling, convoying individual ships and investigating suspicious activities. (The force was disbanded on June 23, 1942, as part of a broader re-organization of U.S. and allied naval vessels to deal with the U-boat menace in the Caribbean area.)
During the first week of June, the ERIE was berthed at Balboa, making ready for her new duties with OFFSHPATLANT-PSF. Transiting the Canal on June 9, she reported for duty at Cristobal. Her first assignment was to serve as local escort for two freighters, the OCEAN VETERAN and the FORT GOOD HOPE (both departing for Key West and then to points to the North and East) on the 10th of June. (When the ERIE stood out at 1525, it was also accompanying a third vessel, the merchant ship CHITRE.)
The records of what transpired on June 10 and 11 are not entirely clear. Apparently, after accompanying the three vessels for about four hours, the ERIE slowly broke off from her escort duty and headed off to the Northwest at 1939 (local time) on war patrol. A short while later, at 2145 (at 0445 on June 11 on the U-boat's chronometer, since it was set to German local time which equated to GMT + 2 hours, seven hours difference), the OCEAN VETERAN and the FORT GOOD HOPE were attacked by the U-159. The U-boat Commander (Helmut Witte) reported hits on both ships, but only the FORT GOOD HOPE was struck, resulting in the immediate loss of one of her crew of 46 men (4 of which were gunners).
According to Yeoman Julius Nissen who was on watch duty at the time, the ERIE first became aware of some difficulty when her watchers observed flares that had that been fired from the torpedoed vessel. Responding to a distress call, the ERIE changed course to the south-southeast. At 2244, the ERIE sighted three lifeboats in the vicinity of the FORT GOOD HOPE, which by then was down by the stern and sinking slowly.
Her first course of action was to sound search the area for the U-159, but no contacts were obtained. The ERIE then stopped all engines and at 0050 on the 11th took on board the ship's Master, Horatio Gentiles, and 45 other survivors. One of these had been seriously injured and was immediately treated by the ERIE's medical officer, Lt. Commander Ralph M. McComas. (This crew member later died from injuries sustained at the time of the torpedo hit.)
Ten minutes later, the ERIE resumed her sound searching in the general area of the sinking ship. About four hours later, she reported that the torpedoed ship had sunk at 10°12'N and 80°14'W. Over the next three hours, she steamed around on various courses and at various speeds, continuing her search for the German sub. At 0917 she lowered one of her whaleboats to salvage the freighter's drifting lifeboats, and a U.S. Navy patrol plane (32-P-9) dropped two depth bombs in the area, on what reportedly was a periscope. Having obtained what appeared to be a good sound contact at 0942, the ERIE dropped six depth charges at 150 and 200 feet, with no visible results.
Although sound searching by the ERIE and the patrol plane continued, no further contacts were made, and the effort has halted at 1152. Shortly thereafter, the salvaged lifeboats were taken in tow and the ERIE proceeded southward to a rendezvous point with the YP-209 (the ERIE's Deck Log lists the vessel as the PC-209, however, no patrol craft with this hull number existed at the time). At 1321 on the 11th the FORT GOOD HOPE's Master and crew were transferred to this district patrol vessel which conveyed them and the lifeboats to Cristobal, arriving at 1900.
Because of this and other sinkings (on June 10 and 11, the SURREY, the PORT MONTREAL and the CRIJNSSEN were also sunk in the waters north of Panama), the ERIE remained on war patrol in the waters north of Cristobal. After being relieved of the crew of the ill-fated FORT GOOD HOPE, the ERIE was ordered to 18°17'N and 84°16'W, to locate and destroy a submarine first attacked by a PBY. However, on reaching the location, no sound contacts were made. Close to midnight on June 12, the SS SIXOLA was torpedoed by the U-159 at 9°48'N and 81°10'W. The ERIE was directed to search for her attacker, but once again no contacts were made.
Meanwhile, other OFFSHPATLANT-PSF vessels (the TATTNALL, the BARRY, and the MOONSTONE), operating independently, were searching for survivors of the CRIJNSSEN and other torpedoed ships.
En route from Newport News to Cristobal CZ (and then to Cruz Grande, Chile) was the heavily laden coal-carrier SS LEBORE (which, on the June 11, had picked up survivors of the sunken vessel CRIJNSSEN and proceeded unescorted toward Cristobal). During the early morning hours (at 0403 and again at 0743) of June 14, the LEBORE was the object of torpedo attacks launched by the U-172.
Hit by a torpedo and later raked by shells from the U-boat's deck gun, the freighter sank at 1235 that day. One of the LEBORE's crew of 45 drowned aboard the ship, but the other 44 crew members took to lifeboats and rafts, along with 49 persons that had been rescued from the CRIJNSSEN (among these were survivors from two other ships that had been sunk by U-boats in May 1942, the LISE and the SYLVAN ARROW).
On 15 June, the TATTNALL was ordered to search for LEBORE survivors in the vicinity of Old Providence Island (north of St. Andrews Island), and the ERIE was steaming on war patrol, on a heightened state of alert.
At 1100 hours (local time) the ERIE was about 26 miles from St. Andrews Island. About 25 minutes later, she sighted a U.S. patrol plane which radioed the location of a lifeboat. At 1354 the lifeboat was sighted and at 1435 the Master of the SS LEBORE, J.W. Jimmyer, and 22 other survivors were brought aboard. The ERIE's captain ordered that the lifeboat be destroyed (apparently deeming it a navigational hazard) and then began a search for other lifeboats that were reported to be north of the ERIE’s position.
After hours of searching, the ERIE came upon a local fishing vessel towing a lifeboat, just south of St. Andrews Island, at about 1100 on 16 June. Twenty minutes later, she exchanged signals with the U.S.S. TATTNALL, which informed the ERIE that additional LEBORE survivors were on the island. At 1159, the ERIE took on board 25 men, all survivors from the SS LEBORE and took the lifeboat in tow. 18 survivors remained aboard the TATTNALL, which then set off for Cristobal. At 2300 on the 16th, the destroyer landed her survivors at Cristobal.
After dropping the lifeboat at St. Andrews Island, the ERIE continued to maneuver offshore, before sending out her motor launch to look for additional survivors. At 1352 the launch returned with 28 additional survivors of the SS LEBORE. The ERIE's captain, satisfied that all survivors were safely aboard either his vessel or the TATTNALL, set course for Cristobal. At 0830 the following day, the ERIE arrived at Cristobal and landed the remaining LEBORE survivors.
After quickly refueling, the ERIE stood out at 1712 on June 17, to take up convoy duties with the destroyers PLUNKETT, MADISON and LANSDALE, escorting nine merchant ships (the BRITISH ENDURANCE, OCEAN VOYAGER, CITY OF ATHENS, HORACE LUCKENBACH, LORIGA, MATTHEW LUCKENBACH, CADMUS, REST and the PLAVNIK) to Key West, Florida. (No particular convoy designation appears to have been given to this convoy.)
At 1830 the convoy was formed up and 30 minutes later was trekking northward at 9 knots. About two hours later (2106), the PLUNKETT had a sound contact and proceeded to attack, dropping five depth charges, with no evidence of a hit.
Very early on June 19, the CADMUS left the convoy. At 0730, the MADISON was detached, in order to proceed to Galveston Texas, where she would serve as an escort for another convoy. Shortly after the MADISON departed, the PLUNKETT had another good sound contact, dropped a number of depth charges, but with no visible results. In the evening, as the convoy lumbered northward, the ERIE also made a sound contact and dropped several depth charges, with no apparent success.
Over the next four days, sound searching revealed nothing suspicious, which was fortunate, since the convoy was slowed to 7 knots or less, because of boiler problems on the PLAVNIK. On June 24, the ERIE received orders to return to Cristobal, so at 0650 she broke off from the convoy, which proceeded safely to Key West under the protective screen of just the destroyers PLUNKETT and LANSDALE.
On the 25th of June, as she was returning to Cristobal, the ERIE was ordered (with the destroyer BARRY which was nearby at the time), to investigate the scene of a PBY attack on a submarine at 12°50'N, 80°W. An oil slick had been reported by the PBY, but neither vessel was able to make any sound contacts after an extensive search of the area.
In early July, the Commander of the Panama Sea Frontier, Rear Admiral Clifford Van Hook, visited Washington, to confer with the Admiral Ernest King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Navy to propose a new convoy system between Cristobal and Guantanamo Bay. Hook proposed that convoys be dispatched every six days, with each consisting of up to 16 merchant vessels (if that many were at the port of origin at the time) under the operational control of the Panama Sea Frontier. The commanders of the other two bordering Sea Frontiers (Gulf and Caribbean) endorsed the proposal and immediately thereafter the three commanders took all steps necessary to implement the new routing system.
On July 11, the first convoy of 12 merchant ships, PG-1, departed Cristobal, with the ERIE as escort commander, aided in screening the vessels by the TATTNALL, the WOODCOCK, YMS-39 and YMS-291. The ships convoyed were the BETHORE, BLENHEIM, FERNCLIFF, FORT MCLOUGHLIN, HENRY D. WHITON, LEWIS MORRIS, OCEAN VAGRANT, PENMAR, ROBERT FULTON, VARDEFJELL, WEST POINT and the WILLIAM CULLEN BRYANT. Four days later, the convoy arrived at Guantanamo Bay without incident. On the 17th, as a combined convoy of TAW-4 and TAW-4G (totaling 28 merchantmen) stood out for Key West, the ERIE, the TATTNALL, the WOODCOCK and the two minesweepers took up positions to temporarily screen the departing convoy. Late in the evening of the 17th, these vessels stood in again at Guantanamo Bay.
After re-fueling and a one-night layover, the ERIE, TATTNALL, WOODCOCK and the YMS-39 departed on July 18 for Cristobal, escorting a small convoy. They arrived without incident late on July 20. The ERIE immediately transited the Panama Canal for Balboa, where she was scheduled for a much-needed major overhaul by the Repair Division at the Naval Operating Base.
During the overhaul, officers and enlisted men were able to take their first extended shore leaves, many received promotions and those members of the crew that held Musician ratings were transferred for duty elsewhere.
On August 16, 1942, the ERIE received orders that detached her from the Panama Sea Frontier and directed her to report for duty, upon completion of her overhaul, to the Commander of the Caribbean Sea Frontier at Guantanamo Bay.
With her overhaul nearly completed, the ERIE's new scout plane, a VOUGHT OS2N “Kingfisher” was hoisted aboard on or about September 14. Three days later, the ERIE stood out from her moorings, steaming out into Pacific waters, in order to test her engines and newly installed equipment (primarily her Mark 3 radar system). On September 19 she departed from Balboa again, this time accompanied by the TATTNALL, for sound searching exercises with the U.S. Navy subs S-11, S-12 and S-15. The two vessels returned from these exercises at 1300 on the September 23.
Note 5: A “barrage balloon” is a large balloon tethered with metal cables, used to defend against low-level aircraft attacks. It could damage/destroy any low-flying aircraft that collided with the balloon or its cables. A number of these were installed in the Gulf of Panama to protect the Pacific Ocean terminus of the Panama Canal.
CHAPTER 12: SEPTEMBER 24 THROUGH NOVEMBER 12, 1942 (WHEN TORPEDOED BY U-163)
At 1110 on September 24, the ERIE stood out from her moorings at Balboa and transited the Panama Canal. She then berthed at Cristobal, where she made ready for her first assignment with the Caribbean Sea Frontier, escort duty with the Guantanamo Bay-bound convoy, ZG-5. Before departing, her new scout plane, an OS2U-3 “Kingfisher,” was lowered into the harbor at Balboa for a flight to the Naval Air Station at Cristobal, where, on the following day, the plane was again hoisted aboard the ERIE. At 0830 on September 26, she stood out of Cristobal for additional drills and testing of newly installed equipment, and returned late in the afternoon to re-fuel and re-provision before taking on her new escort duties.
On September 28, at 0600, the flag of the Commander of the Panama Sea Frontier was hauled down from the ERIE's mast, and later that morning the 9 merchant vessels constituting convoy ZG-5 departed Cristobal, screened by the ERIE, the J. FRED TALBOTT, the TATTNALL, the JADE and the PCs 461 and 464. Convoyed were the ABIEL FOSTER, CITY OF LILLE, GEISHA, JAMES W. NESMITH, LAUTARO, MAGICIAN, MAHIA, MATIJA PETRINOVIC, and the NICHOLAS GILMAN. The next day, both the ERIE and the TATTNALL developed good sound contacts near 10°N and 77°50'W at 1618. The ERIE dropped three depth charges, searched further, but found nothing. She stopped her sound searching and rejoined the convoy at 1746. No further incidents occurred, and the slow convoy arrived at Guantanamo Bay on October 2. Shortly after arriving, Commander Mack reported for duty with the Commander of the Caribbean Sea Frontier.
At 1800 on October 4, the ERIE departed Guantanamo Bay with the 29 merchant vessels of the Cristobal-bound convoy, GZ-6, temporarily protecting the convoy with the J. FRED TALBOTT, the TATTNALL and nine other U.S. Navy escorts. At noon on October 6, the ERIE and the SAUCY (PG-66) were ordered detached from this convoy at 13°N and 77°46'W, in order to join convoy GAT-11. The 23 freighters in this convoy made their way safely to Aruba/Curacao and then on to Trinidad, where they arrived on October 9.
After a one-week layover in Trinidad, the ERIE and six other U.S. Navy escorts stood out of Port-au-Spain, on October 17, to escort the 19-ship convoy, TAG-14, to Guantanamo Bay. Initially, the screened merchant vessels included the AVILA, CAPE CLEAR, CAPELLA, CARTIERDOC, CASTOR, COLABEE, COLISTER, DAYLIGHT, EVEAGORAS, GENERTON, GYPSUM KING, IVERBANK, KING JAMES, OLAMBALA, PHOTINIA, TJISALAK, TORFINN JARL, TROPIC STAR, and the UNACO. Off the island of Curacao, the ATLANTIC, JAMES HAWSON, MELINE, AND VERMONT II joined the convoy. Off the coast of Aruba, the AVILA and the CARTIERDOC were dropped from the convoy. The convoy now numbering 21 merchant vessels arrived at Guantanamo without incident on October 22.
During her brief layover at Guantanamo Bay, the ERIE was in the waters off the Naval Operating Base, maneuvering at various speeds and on various courses, practicing anti-submarine drills with the destroyers BRECKENRIDGE and TAYLOR, from 0950 to 1900 on the 25th.
October 26 found the ERIE standing out of Guantanamo Bay, as she made ready, along with the BRECKENRIDGE and the PCs 495, 566 and 609, to escort the 14-ship convoy, GAT-17, to Trinidad. One vessel soon dropped off to head to Puerto Rico independently, two vessels were dropped at Aruba and one at Willemstad, Curacao, before the convoy arrived at Port-au-Spain, Trinidad at 1100 on November 1.
As the ERIE awaited her next convoy assignment, reports from convoys outbound for Guantanamo Bay brought bad news. On November 3, four merchant vessels in convoy TAG-18 were sunk, and 2 additional ships in the convoy were sunk on November 5. On November 7, hardly one day out from Port-au-Spain, two merchantmen from convoy TAG-19 were sunk and two badly damaged. Then, shortly before the ERIE headed out to sea to serve as escort commander for the next convoy to Guantanamo Bay, TAG-20, intelligence reports indicated that at least two U-boats were operating in areas where they might attack this slow-moving convoy.
One of the subs (the U-129) was known to be operating in the waters between Aruba and Curacao and at 0830 (local time) was positioned just to the northwest of Curacao, right astride the normal GAT route as it approached Aruba. The other sub (the U-508), after successfully attacking convoy TAG-19, was making her way eastward toward Trinidad on November 8. If the U-508 had had not left locations she had occupied on November 9, would have been perfectly positioned to attack TAG-20 on November 10. Instead, she maneuvered across the path that TAG-20 would take out of the Gulf of Paria and then headed to a position that was just to the north of Galera Point, the most eastern edge of Trinidad. However, unknown to the ERIE's Commander, the 10th Naval District convoy routing office and U.S. Navy officials in Trinidad, was the fact that a third U-boat, the U-163 was maneuvering in the waters off Curacao, looking for targets of opportunity. (See below.)
At 0502 on November 10, 1942, the ERIE weighed her anchors, cleared the Five-Mile Anchorage and slowly made her way out of the Gulf of Paria via the Third Boca (or “channel”), the Boca de Navios. At 0910, just to the northwest of Trinidad, she was joined by the 13 merchant vessels and the other TAG-20 escorts, the destroyer BIDDLE, the gunboat SPRY and three Patrol Craft, the PCs 545,573 and 624. In the convoy were the CITY OF FLINT, EXMOUTH, THOMAS P. BEAL, DUNBOYNE, TEMPLE YARD, CUSTODIAN, HOLMBURY, RIBERA, FERNBANK, LUNA, STAD VLAARDINGEN, MATURINES and the BIG HORN (AO-45, formerly called the GULF DAWN), an armed vessel disguised as a tanker (called a “Q ship”) meant to attract the attention of unsuspecting U-boats.
Because of U-boats threats in the waters off the Netherlands Antilles and then northward toward Guantanamo Bay, TAG-20 had day and night coverage by radar-equipped Catalinas of Squadron VP-53. The ERIE, the BIDDLE and the SPRY were also radar-equipped. Additionally, they and the three PCs had ASDIC (SONAR) detection systems installed.
Based on intelligence that at least one U-boat was prowling in the waters just off the normal GAT convoy route near Aruba, Commander Mack radioed the 10th Naval District Convoy Routing Office of two diversions that he would be making to avoid U-Boat threats.
At 1032 on the second day out of Port-au-Spain, the ERIE changed the convoy's heading to a southwesterly course that would take the vessels off the normal route and instead pass between Los Roques Islands and Orchila Island. Having steamed to the south of Los Roques Islands, the convoy then proceeded westward and then northwestward, in order to join up with two subsidiary convoys from Aruba and Curacao, just off of Willemstad (the capital and main port of Curacao). From there, Mack proposed taking the convoy through a channel to the west of Aruba (the second leg of the re-routing) and, once past Aruba, to steer it northward and back on to the normal GAT route to Cuba.
While this re-routing would avoid the U-129 (awaiting the convoy on the eastern side of Aruba), the plan did not account for (nor could it) the U-163 whose Commander (Kurt E. Engelmann) on November 6 had radioed the German U-boat Command that he proposed to head westward, in order to seek out merchant targets in the waters around the island of Curacao. This would place her close to the re-routed TAG-20, as the subsidiary convoys joined it on the afternoon and early evening of November 12.
On November 11, the U-163 arrived on the northern side of the island at 1200 local time (local times will be listed hereafter in this section), intending to maneuver around the island, checking its various harbors, etc.
Just before midnight that same evening, Commander Engelmann made a most fateful decision, as far as the U.S.S. ERIE was concerned. He had been directed to move away from the Curacao area in order to hand over the U-163’s doctor to Zschech (the commander of the U-505, who had a badly injured crewman aboard his boat). However, Engelmann signaled the U-boat Command that he was not in a sea sector close to the U-505 (as the U-Boat Command had surmised) and that any attempt to deliver the physician to Zschech would waste too much time. No order was received countermanding his signal, and so the U-163 proceeded submerged to the west of Willemstad harbor, at 0800 on the morning of 12 November.
At 1130, just a half hour before she moved into a position closer to the mouth of Willemstad harbor, the escort vessels for a five-tanker subsidiary convoy due to rendezvous with TAG-20, moved out on patrol duties. These included HNMS VAN KINSBERGEN, the PC-583, the PC-589, and the SC-533. One of these patrol vessels was later picked up by the U-163’s sound detection equipment, which caused the U-163 to move even closer to the harbor entrance at 1415.
In her new position, the U-163 found herself positioned directly under the five tankers which were now coming out of Willemstad harbor to join up with TAG-20 on the journey to Guantanamo Bay, accompanied by the HNMS QUEEN WILHELMINA (the former PC-468) and a Dutch motor torpedo boat. Despite some maneuvering difficulties, the U-163 fired a spread shot at two of the tankers from her stern tubes at 1440 hours. Both were misses, although the U-boat crew reported hearing the sound of two explosions and breaking bulkheads. (No visual confirmation was possible within the sub, because the U-163 was nearly rammed, when she “lost her bubble” and was forced to submerge to 150 meters.)
The U-163 then awaited a depth charge attack that never occurred. When nothing further was heard or seen in the direction of Willemstad harbor, the sub slowly moved away from the coast, submerged, at 1625. This brought her right under TAG-20 arriving from Trinidad, with the five tankers from Curacao now also within her formation (they had joined the convoy 15 minutes earlier).
In addition to the 5 escort vessels mentioned above, TAG-20 now included its 6 original convoy escorts and the following merchant vessels:
BETA (U.S. cargo ship bound for New York)
CITY OF FLINT (U.S. cargo ship bound for New York)
CUSTODIAN (British cargo ship bound for New York, then U.K.)
DAGEID (Norwegian tanker bound for New York, then U.K.)
DUNBOYNE (U.S. cargo ship bound for Mobile)
EXMOUTH (U.S. cargo ship, Commodore ship of convoy, bound for New York)
FERNBANK (Norwegian cargo ship bound for New York, then U.K.)
HOLMBURY (British cargo ship bound for Sydney, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia)
LITIOPA (Norwegian tanker bound for New York, then U.K.)
LUNA (Dutch cargo vessel bound for Mobile)
NORHOLM (Norwegian tanker bound for New York, then U.K.)
POLARSOL (Norwegian tanker bound for New York, then U.K.)
RIBERA (British cargo ship bound for New York, then U.K.)
STAD VLAARDINGEN (Dutch cargo ship bound for New York)
TEMPLE YARD (British cargo ship bound for New York)
THOMAS P. BEAL (U.S. cargo ship bound for New York)
Two other vessels that had left Trinidad with TAG-20 had already moved out of the convoy formation as it approached Curacao. Escorted by a Dutch patrol torpedo boat to Willemstad were the BIG HORN (the “Q ship,” which had engine problems) and the Venezuelan tanker MATURINES (bound for Aruba). These ships were about a mile off the mouth of Willemstad harbor when the ERIE was torpedoed.
In the midst of the 16 merchant vessels plus the 11 patrol vessels, the U-163 began her hunt for a suitable target, which turned out to be the U.S.S. ERIE, identified by Commander Engelmann as a “destroyer.”
Here is the report on the torpedoing of the ERIE as recorded in the war diary of the U-163 (translated by webmaster; times converted to local time):
1710: Destroyer noises are coming nearer again. In a little while, first two, then a third destroyer are recognizable. They are moving at full speed on zigzag courses, and there is lively Morse Code traffic between them. No doubt now that they are bound to hunt us. I am attempting to attack one destroyer, but I can’t come along side of it. There comes one from aft and to my starboard side, and it is now running at half speed. Great!
1730: [Firing] a fan-shot of three [torpedoes] with tubes I, II, and IV at the destroyer. [It is a] Somers [should read “Sumner”] class. Enemy traveling at 16 knots, course 40 degrees, distance 800 meters, bearing right 95 degrees. After 109 seconds, there is a medium strength torpedo detonation, followed shortly by a second one. Observed at the target a cloud from the explosion high over the bridge of the destroyer; it is a dark, wide cloud. [There is a] fire. Then there is also fire amidships. Towering flames.
1737: [Firing] a single torpedo at the burning destroyer. [It is] a miss. The destroyer had turned when hit and I overestimated the momentum of the ship after it was hit. (Traveling 8 knots, distance 800 [meters], bearing right 73 degrees.) I fired this torpedo, even though the destroyer was slowly sinking astern, because, with the harbor being so near, I wanted to make rescue actions impossible.
Closing quickly to A + 70 meters [=150 meters] because other destroyers are approaching.
Just before the U-163 loosed the “fan-shot” (at 1730 local time), the ERIE was proceeding diagonally across the path of the convoy, about 3,000 yards dead ahead of its right-of-center columns. Her enlisted men not on duty had been piped down to the mess. Officers not on duty were in their wardroom country (the area where the officers’ mess and staterooms were located), finishing afternoon exercises, reading, or preparing for their evening meal.
On the signal bridge, Captain Mack and the ship’s navigator, Lt. Commander David L. Roscoe were conversing, when the navigator and several lookouts observed a torpedo just breaking the surface headed in the direction of the ERIE’s starboard quarter. This caused Mack to go to the bridge where he observed something else to starboard and immediately ordered the helmsman to come to the right. The ERIE had hardly begun to swing in that direction when Lt. Commander Roscoe and a lookout saw another torpedo headed directly amidships, causing Roscoe to shout out “Hard left.” Captain Mack barked out the same order, while a third torpedo from the “fan-shot” was also reported to be headed for the ERIE’s starboard bow. At 1733, as the ERIE now began to swing to port, the first observed torpedo struck the ERIE’s starboard quarter abreast of her #4 six-inch gun.
The initial explosion ruptured the ERIE’s hull just below the waterline a horizontal distance of about 45 feet forward from the #4 gun and almost across the span of the main deck, and heeled the ship over 15 degrees to port. Because of the list and the inaccessibility of the plane boom, the ERIE’s “Kingfisher” scout plane could not be jettisoned. Electric power and steering control were briefly lost, until the auxiliary power system cut in. Although the starboard propeller shaft was broken by the hit (leaving the starboard engine inoperative), the port engine was undamaged, and the engineering division bravely remained below, ensuring that the ERIE had the propulsion needed to move out of harm’s way.
Seconds after the initial explosion, vapor from two ruptured aviation gasoline tanks was ignited and caused a second major explosion. Fires fed by gasoline and oil spillage spread throughout the second deck and up through the after superstructure. Within twelve minutes of the initial explosion, these fires reached the #4 gun ready ammunition room and the Admiral’s Stateroom. This caused the cooking-off of the six-inch powder charges and projectiles. Fire extinguishers and two fire hoses (operating with only 30 pounds pressure) made little impact on the raging fires.
Danger abounded on the afterdeck.
Twenty-nine depth charges were in the racks prior to the torpedo attack. The implosion knocked four of these overboard, one was on ready charge and the other three were on safety settings. On the plane deck, two aircraft bombs and two aircraft depth charges were in ready storage (and later cooked off).
Because Captain Mack feared further cooking off of ready service charges, the ERIE’s Gunnery Officer, Lt. Karl E. Johansson, was dispatched to the #3 six-inch gun ready service room with enlisted men from various divisions. They were able to remove most of the ready powder charges and projectiles from the room and drop them overboard.
The Executive Officer, Lt. Commander Daniel J. Sweeney, who was taking a shower at the time of the torpedo hit, was able to somehow able to crawl out of his wardroom and reach the afterdeck. There he found USMC Captain Alan W. Levi (with metal slivers in his back) and Lt. John B. Elliott, whose right leg had been nearly severed (probably occurred when he was thrown into the depth charge rack and his leg was pinned between two depth charges) and two enlisted men, both suffering from burns. Sweeney and the two enlisted men made sure that all the depth charges remaining in the racks were on safety settings, and then these five men jumped overboard with life rings. (The depth charge watchers had been knocked overboard by the impact of the torpedo hit and were afloat in the water nearby.) When the ERIE pulled away, these seven men were rather quickly picked up and taken ashore by a Dutch motor torpedo boat.
The Captain brought the ERIE to a halt and ordered three whaleboats lowered with casualties (and to search for crew that had been forced to jump off the fantail). At 1800, Captain Mack ordered the ship ahead at 8 knots, on a heading northwest of Willemstad. As the ERIE moved out, a small local vessel approached and her master advised the ERIE that just off the shore of Piscadera Bay there was a shelf where the vessel could be safely beached.
As this was occurring, both the SPRY and the GULF DAWN attempted to come alongside, in order to direct their fire hoses on the fires aft. Their streams fell short and, with the continued cooking off of ammunition aft, Captain Mack directed the two ships to stand off. Many of the ERIE’s crew continued to struggle to put out the fires. At one point, a garden hose hooked up to a spigot in a galley was directed at the fire on the afterdeck. It (and a bucket brigade) had little to no impact on the raging flames.
As the ERIE approached the shelf, Captain Mack ordered the port engine stopped and the ERIE gently beached itself there, an action that also corrected the ship’s list and trim. With the flames aboard raging out of control and the streams of burning fuel running out and encircling the ship, Captain Mack gave the order to abandon the ship at 1826.
Removing their shoes, the crew and (lastly) Captain Mack jumped over the port bow. (The Captain was floated ashore in a raft propelled by sailors Joseph J. Osenkowski and Stanley J. Bokalosky.) The rest of the men floated or swam ashore. Many paid for the removal of their shoes, when their bare feet touched the sea floor only to discover that it was densely populated by sea urchins (whose spines inflicted painful wounds).
Once ashore, the officers and crew mustered by divisions. At this point, it was discovered that six officers (Lieutenant (jg) Frank Greenwood; Lieutenant Gilbert F. Gorsuch; Lieutenant George O. Kunkle; Lieutenant Commander Albert L. Lloyd; Lieutenant Ernest C. Peterson; and, Lieutenant Ned J. Wentz) were missing and presumed dead. Rescue personnel on the beach took three officers (Lieutenant Elliott, Captain Levi and Lieutenant Commander Sweeney) and 14 enlisted sailors and Marines to the U.S. Army Station Hospital where they were admitted for treatment. (Mess Attendant Cavino Enriquez died the next day from severe burns.) An additional 35 enlisted men were later treated at the hospital for minor injuries (most of these were foot wounds caused by the sea urchin spines).
As the muster was held, the crew watched two aircraft bombs explode, knocking over the ERIE’s smokestack and blowing her “Kingfisher” scout plane overboard on the port side. Loaded onto Army trucks, survivors were transported to the U.S. Army base, Camp Suffisant. There, Red Cross volunteers gave the men cigarettes, clothing and toiletries, and they were fed and given temporary sleeping quarters.
With the ERIE ablaze and initially heading into a wind from the east (to keep the flames from spreading forward from the stern), the other TAG-20 escorts moved into position to either aid the ERIE, guard the convoy, or deal with the U-163.
The U.S.S. BIDDLE moved into position as the new convoy commander. An eight-depth-charge pattern was dropped by the U.S.S. SPRY off the starboard bow of the convoy. As the BIDDLE, SPRY, VAN KINSBERGEN, and SC-533 searched the area around the ERIE, false sound contacts apparently caused the SC-533 and a Dutch motor torpedo boat to drop additional charges. This incited merchant vessels in the starboard convoy columns to shell the area where these escorts were, which also endangered ERIE survivors who were in the water. As a result, the commander of the VAN KINSBERGEN positioned his ship between the firing vessels and the helpless survivors, and offered other assistance by lowering two life rafts and a motorboat that rescued a number of endangered crew members.
As best as can be determined, the depth charges dropped initially (to the starboard of the convoy) were of no avail, because the U-163 was already moving to the south-southwest, under the convoy and at a depth well below that set for the explosion of these depth charges.
About a half hour later, the PC-545 reported seeing “the periscope and about four feet of the conning tower” of the U-163, about one mile distant off the port quarter of the convoy. Several merchant vessels also sighted what they thought was the ERIE’s attacker, and they responded by opening fire, first with machine guns and then with their stern guns, in the direction of the PC-545 and the QUEEN WILHELMINA. Minutes later, the PC-545 obtained a weak sound contact and dropped a 5-charge pattern and then, 500 yards off the PC’s starboard bow, the QUEEN WILHELMINA laid down another depth charge barrage. None of these charges impacted the U-163.
With the convoy lumbering away, the VAN KINSBERGEN, QUEEN WILHELMINA and the PC-624 swept the area six miles astern of the convoy with no success. At 1927 they were ordered to rejoin the convoy, which they did shortly after midnight.
By that time the U-163 had begun moving to a point just north of Aruba, apparently hoping to meet up with TAG-20 along the normal convoy route. No contact was made, because the convoy made its second major course change (which had been proposed by the ERIE's Commander A.R. Mack), to a route passing through a channel south and west of Aruba.
CHAPTER 13: ATTEMPT TO SALVAGE AND REPAIR THE ERIE (NOVEMBER 13 THROUGH DECEMBER 5, 1942)
As was mentioned in the previous section, the ERIE was beached close to shore, two miles north of Willemstad, Curacao, about an hour after it was torpedoed. Fires continued to burn above and below the main deck. Shortly after beaching and again in the early morning hours of November 13, the ERIE was further damaged topside by the explosion of aircraft bombs (two 325 lb. depth bombs and two 100 lb. general purpose bombs) that were in ready stowage on the airplane deck. One of the explosions ripped open a 20’ hole in the airplane deck.
The fires above the second deck either burned out or were entirely extinguished by a fire fighting party and a local tug on 14 November. On that day, the Commander of All Forces Aruba-Curacao reported the following:
“ERIE boarded today. Remaining fires extinguished. Superficial examination shows extensive damage above protective deck. Forward guns, radar, antenna, main director considered salvageable. The Commanding Officer considers ship probably not damaged below protective deck except in vicinity of hit.”
This resulted in a decision to retain a small force of ERIE survivors (37 Navy and 15 Marine enlisted men) at Willemstad, to assist with salvage efforts that would be made over the next 20 days. (Click here to access the names of the sailors and Marines who assisted with the salvage efforts.) U.S. Navy enlisted men who were uninjured or had been hospitalized but quickly released (Conrad; Leagan; Parker) were transported by air to the Naval Operating Base at Guantanamo Bay. The first flight with 18 survivors arrived at Guantanamo Bay on Sunday, November 15; 84 survivors arrived the next day, and 32 additional enlisted men arrived on the 17th. These 134 men boarded the hospital ship U.S.S. ANTAEUS on December 1 enroute to the New York Navy Yard. Arriving on December 8, they reported to the Receiving Ship and then headed home for a month of “survivor leave.”
Since only 15 Marines were deemed necessary for salvage operations, the remainder of the Marine enlisted men who had been aboard the ERIE when she was torpedoed (27 in number, including Pfc. Stephen Pate, who had been injured and temporarily hospitalized) were flown to the USMC Marine Barracks at Guantanamo Bay on November 15. These Marines were assigned duties and remained in Cuba until January 1943. On January 1, 1943, Pfc. Billy D. Hunley was flown from Guantanamo Bay to the Norfolk Navy Air Station; on January 14, 1943 the other 26 Marines departed Guantanamo aboard the U.S.S. ALBEMARLE, bound for the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia (and from there to Quantico, before taking survivor leave).
On November 15, a Bureau of Ships fire-fighting team (and specialized equipment), newly arrived from the Norfolk Navy Yard, entered the ship. Their efforts over the next two days extinguished all remaining fires on the second deck and below. These fires were so intense and dangerous that two members of the team, Chief Petty Officer Mathew R. Brown and Seaman 1st Class Francis P. Burke, were awarded Navy and Marine Corps Medals for their heroic service. At the same time, the S.S. KILLERIG, a salvage vessel owned by Merritt, Chapman, Scott and working under contract with the U.S. Navy, was making her way from Panama to Curacao.
Divers inspected the hull, and U.S. Navy officials (including the Commander of the Caribbean Sea Frontier and the 10th District Naval Constructor) were then able to examine the entire ship and concluded that the vessel would be salvaged and moved to the inner harbor at Willemstad for further inspection, in order to determine whether the ERIE would be rebuilt.
Salvage operations began on 19 November under the direction of Captain Hughes (employee of the firm of Merritt, Chapman, Scott) of the tug KILLERIG, with the assistance of ERIE crew members who were quartered within Willemstad’s inner harbor. Some 375 tons of debris and liquids were removed over the next week and a half. While this was occurring, the U.S.S. YMS-59 patrolled the waters offshore the ERIE, presumably to ward off further attacks on the vessel. On November 28, the KILLERIG and two local tugs eased the vessel off the sandbar, and she was then towed into the inner harbor at Willemstad. There the ERIE was moored to special buoys in the Schottegat, just offshore of the Naval Section Base “Parera.”
On December 1, a special inspection party (headed by Captain M.S. Jeans of the 15th Naval District and accompanied by the Superintendent of the Canal Zone’s Mechanical Division, Captain Joseph Kiernan) flew to Willemstad, to determine whether the ERIE was indeed salvageable and could be rebuilt at the Panama Canal shops.
After inspecting the vessel on December 3-4, these officials concluded that the reconditioning of the ERIE was feasible, if the following undocumented plan could be implemented. First, the ship’s list and trim would be improved by removing additional scrap and pumping out two port fuel tanks. Then, the Curacao Petroleum Industries Company would move the ERIE into a local dry dock and make repairs that would enable safe towing to the Canal Zone for further repairs and reconstruction by the Mechanical Division.
The emptying of the port fuel tanks (A-418-F and A-4-F) was completed during the evening of December the 4th. Anchors and chain had also been replaced on the forecastle. This decreased the vessel’s list from 8½ degrees to port to about 5 degrees to port. Overnight and in the early morning hours of December 5, ERIE's starboard reserve fresh water tank (D-1-W) flooded, probably due to the failure of a watertight door. The result of the gradual addition of 43 tons of weight was the slow movement of the ship to an upright position and then to a 10-degree list to starboard, resting against the fuel oil barge that was used for lightering the ERIE. As the vessel heeled to starboard, additional flooding occurred in the engineers' washroom and from there into the engine room.
When Marine guards aboard ship reported this, orders were given to counter-flood the two port tanks, which had been emptied the previous day. The impact of this action was fairly immediate and disastrous.
Twelve minutes after the counter-flooding of tank A-4-F, the ERIE moved slowly upright and then quickly heeled to port. As one eyewitness reported, the ERIE "eased into the water with air whistling through her ports, hatches and open spaces, debris floating around her." She came to rest with only small sections of her forward keel and starboard shell visible above the water.
The 15 Marines who had assisted with salvage operations were flown to the 10th Naval District, San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the sinking of the ERIE. They were received aboard the U.S.S. MERAK on 12/16/42, and the ship departed for Baltimore on 12/17/42. The MERAK arrived in Baltimore just before Christmas and set sail again a day later, headed for the Norfolk Navy Yard at Portsmouth, where she arrived on 12/27/42. The 15 ERIE Marines disembarked there and were transferred to Quantico, before taking survivor leaves.
Thirty–one of the U.S. Navy enlisted men who assisted with the salvage operations and six men who had been injured during the torpedo attack (Ash, Bradshaw, Davis, Day, Halsey and Shema) were flown to the 10th Naval District, San Juan, Puerto Rico after the sinking of the ERIE. These Navy enlisted men also boarded the U.S.S. MERAK on 12/16/42 and were transported to the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, arriving on 12/27/42. These Navy personnel were then released on 30-day survivor leaves. (Note: nine other U.S. Navy enlisted men who had also been involved with salvage operations or had been injured when the ERIE was torpedoed were transported separately to the United States or to their home countries: Aliponga; Amato; Carino; Del Rosario; Labrador; Piani; Rebato; Vallejera; and, Villacorte.)
On December 6, the Commander of the 15th Naval District recommended to the Vice Chief of Naval Operations that further attempts to salvage and recondition the vessel were impractical and that the hulk should be left in Willemstad harbor.
On December 17, 1942, Captain Andrew R. Mack was officially detached from command of the ERIE and ordered to the 3rd Naval District for temporary duty. Seven months later, on July 28, 1943, the U.S.S. ERIE (PG-50) was officially stricken from the U.S. Navy’s official ship inventory, the Vessel Register (later re-titled the Naval Vessel Register).
Webmaster’s notes regarding sources of information utilized in formulating this history of the U.S.S. ERIE:
Much of the ERIE’s pre-World War II history is based on articles in the Leatherneck magazine, the New York Times, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other U.S. newspapers. In addition to articles pertaining specifically to the ERIE, the Times (until the U.S. Navy, in the Fall of 1941, began to limit the release of information that might aid belligerents) reported daily on U.S. Navy matters under its “Movements of Naval Vessels” and “Naval Orders” columns. These columns were extremely helpful in following the ERIE’s movements and changes in personnel serving aboard this vessel.
Additionally, I have utilized a number of official U.S. Navy documents held at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland and New York City and at the Naval History and Heritage Command (at the Washington Navy Yard), including the ERIE’s Deck and Muster Logs, memoranda issuing orders and reporting on the ship’s formal sea trials, the ship’s record cards, the TAG-20 Convoy Messages, official reports on her torpedoing and loss, material related to the raising of the hulk of the ERIE, etc.
Other primary sources consulted were the War Diaries of other U.S. Navy ships that were involved in operations with the ERIE and the War Diaries for the 15th Naval District, Panama Sea Frontier, Caribbean Sea Frontier, the Guantanamo Naval Operating Base, and the Trinidad Naval Operating Base.
In the course of my research, I was also fortunate to be able to access a copy of the diary of ERIE bandsman Gene B. Leek (copy graciously provided by Prof. Peter O’Connor, Musashino University, Tokyo, who purchased Mr. Leek’s diary on eBay) and a copy of the formal U.S. Navy interview of ERIE Yeoman Julius H. Nissen (about 7 months after the ERIE was torpedoed). I have also benefitted greatly from communications with Donald V. Leetch, who served aboard the ERIE, first as a Musician and then as a Radioman. He provided a number of photographs and documents pertaining to life aboard the ERIE and shared innumerable bits of information with me, particularly about the torpedoing and loss of the ship.
Finally, I was able to access a number of pages from the “Kriegstagebücher” (War Diaries) of multiple German U-boats that figured into the history of the ERIE through the generosity of Captain Jerry Mason (U.S. Navy, ret.). He not only provided copies of these documents, but he also aided me by converting a number of WW II German Naval grid system locations to latitude and longitude and by answering a number of my technical questions pertaining to U-boats. His U-Boat Archive website provides a wealth of documents and photos pertaining to the German U-boat command and U-boat operations in World War II. (See Links page.)
The seminal, secondary source of information on German U-boat activity in the Caribbean Sea is Gaylord T. M. Kelshall’s The U-boat War in the Caribbean (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994). Kelshall devotes almost all of chapter 11 (“Death of An Escort”) to the loss of the ERIE. I found this of considerable help in writing about convoy TAG-20 and the torpedoing of the ERIE.