YP-346 Goes to War
Vincent Battaglia, machinist mate of Yard Patrol boat 346, never wore dog-tags in the engine room. No one did. Tropical heat made them so white hot they’d brand you. But on the night of September 8, 1942, he clipped a metallic name bracelet to his wrist. “I wanted an ID on me when I got killed.”
YP-346 was a San Diego tuna clipper, the Prospect, converted to a supply ship for World War II. From August 10 to September 6 it transported cargo from Tulagi, an island in the Solomon chain, to Guadalcanal. After the war, the channel became known as “Iron Bottom Sound,” for the 21 American and 18 Japanese vessels sunk in battle.
“Ships used to come down all shot up,” recalled the soft-spoken Battaglia, “holes on the outside and the inside.…We were running back and forth like we owned that place. We knew we were going to get it.”
The Solomons run in parallel rows from Bouganville, to the north, down to San Cristobal. The channel in between became known as “the Slot.” When the Japanese began building an airstrip on Guadalcanal, “it meant Australia was on the Japanese hit list,” writes William Manchester. From Guadalcanal, bombers could cut vital supply lines and attack the only surviving major power in the South Pacific.
No one had heard of Guadalcanal. (“What’s it like?” Marines asked on their way to the rugged mass of thick jungles and the possibility of jungle diseases. “Any bars?”) And no one could find a reliable map.
On August 7, 1942, 10,900 Marines captured the airstrip and established a beachhead. They named the crushed-coral runway Henderson Field, after a pilot shot down at Midway. By August 11, after heavy combat, 6025 Marines captured Tulagi, across the channel.
News that the allies had a foothold on Guadalcanal alerted the Japanese high command, and taking it back became the focus of their strategy to control the South Pacific. They shuttled thousands and thousands of troops to the cloud-shrouded island, which also became a magnet for warships, subs, and bombers from their base at Rabaul.
The Marines had landed. Equipment and supplies had not. The rainy season began August 1, dockworkers went on strike (refusing to unload in bad weather), and the overall planning had been done in haste. The Leathernecks on Red Beach had only basic staples and ten days’ worth of ammo. As a result, though assured they would ship cargo far from the front, Yard Patrol boats ferried supplies and Marines from Tulagi to Guadalcanal and back. Joaquin Theodore, captain of YP-346, called the two-hour crossing a “milk run.” He was joking. Those 20 miles were the definition of hazardous duty.
On August 28, YP-346 brought a shipment of gasoline to Red Beach, where shelling, begun two weeks earlier, turned palm trees into stumps. As often happened, supply boats were too backed up, and the boat couldn’t unload until dawn. Since attacks usually came at night, dozens of 55-gallon drums strapped to each other on deck became a super-bomb.
In the morning the crew relaxed — a bit, anyway, since they’d escaped the night unscathed. Around noon, the radio blurted: “Twenty-four bombers headed yours.”
A day raid was new. Sliver aircraft swept in from the north and dropped a series of swishing sounds, followed by rapid explosions. The beach earthquaked with concussive force. Marines dove for foxholes. The crew of YP-346 had no choice. “We pulled up anchor,” Battaglia recalled, “and beat it out to sea as fast as we could.”
“The worst time,” writes Richard Tregaskis, who was at Red Beach that day, “is the moment you can hear the bombs coming…you feel it is purely a matter of chance whether or not you will be hit. If you are caught on the airport, you can figure your chances for escaping injury are much fewer than elsewhere. But even in other parts of the island, where the odds may be, say, nine out of ten you won’t be hit, you wonder if you will be the unlucky tenth case.”
As hell hailed down, and YP-346 made a plodding retreat with a dozen drums of gasoline still onboard, Battaglia realized it was “just a question of time” before one of the bombs did its duty.
Marines on Guadalcanal held only a 7-mile strip of the 90-mile-long island. Japanese reinforcements arrived every night at Tasimboko, a native village at Taivu Point, 20 miles east of the airstrip. Scouts estimated the village already had 1000–3000 soldiers and was fast becoming a large base.
On September 7, Captain Theodore received orders to make another run from Tulagi to Guadalcanal, only this time the cargo was human. Colonel Merritt “Red Mike” Edson would assault Tasimboko with lead his 1st Marine Raider Battalion. Three destroyers and three YPs would transport 600 Marines.
Tregaskis, a journalist and author of Guadalcanal Diary, arranged a ride with Captain Theodore. On the evening of September 7, he boarded YP-346 at Tulagi with 100 Marines. One of them, after noting the size of the “tub” and a sagging clothesline strung across the deck, asked Theodore, “This is the battleship Oregon, I presume?”
“The captain of the little craft,” Tregaskis writes, “was a jovial Portuguese who had formerly been a tuna captain” in San Diego. “He still spoke in interesting Portuguese constructions, despite his rank in the Navy.”
Captain Theodore gave each Marine a hearty handshake, as if welcoming them for a balmy cruise. And he assured them, says Tregaskis, “We’ll have coffee for everybody in the morning.” Then in a kindly uttered warning, he told Tregaskis, “[Tell] your men I don’t like to smoke on deck.”
From the start, YP-346 refused to follow regulations. But the Marines were packed almost shoulder to shoulder, and would be all night, many having to sleep in the steaming hold. To make them more comfortable, Theodore ordered his first officer to remove the clothesline. “Whoever this clothes belongs to, I want it out of the lines.”
Floating Target, part 1