Strategists assumed the Panama Canal would be Japan’s primary target

San Diego's tuna fleet in WWII

Sign at Tuna Harbor showing WWII tuna fleet.
  • Sign at Tuna Harbor showing WWII tuna fleet.
  • Cool San Diego




In the early 1930s, the Navy studied the possibility of a “two-ocean war,” to use historian Samuel Elliot Morrison’s phrase. The military didn’t have enough ships for war in the Atlantic and the Pacific, so the Navy considered converting the 11th Naval District’s tuna fleets for war-related activities.

San Diego was 11th District headquarters. R.R. Smith, port director, felt that San Diego’s tuna clippers would “make excellent minesweepers for war service.” The deep-sea fishing boats, constructed with double-planked wooden hulls two and a quarter inches thick, had diesel engines placed as far forward as possible, to allow the maximum amount of storage in huge refrigeration systems. “A clipper’s total fuel capacity ranged between 3500 gallons and 4000 gallons. Their cruising range varied between 3000 and 4000 miles.... Sailing on smooth waters, the clipper could cover nearly 1000 miles of ocean in four days.”

Most strategists assumed the Panama Canal would be Japan’s primary target. In the 1930s, fleets of Japanese boats fished in the area. W. Baggaley, Commandant of the 15th Naval District, stated, “...even in their normal fishing operations around the Cocos and Galapagos Islands in furnishing information of the presence of probable enemy, [the tuna boats] would be of inestimable assistance.”

Passed in 1936, the Maritime Commission Act cut through the legalities of using civilian personnel in wartime. It also condoned seizure of ships in a “national emergency.” Around this time, the potential duties for tuna boats expanded: the large stowage space was ideal for transportation. The Navy designated 27 ships from San Diego — 110 or more feet in length — for seizure during a war.

“Two weeks into World War II, the United States Navy activated its war plan for conversion of San Diego’s tuna fleet of 45 clippers. In a few cases, the Navy had already commissioned tuna boats to patrol the harbor.” These “yard patrol” boats—or YPs—became known as the “Yippies,” On February 16,1942, San Diego port director Commander W.J. Morcott, U.S.N., addressed the American Fishermen’s Tunaboat Association. “The Navy needs the service of your tuna clippers. The government will either buy or lease your ships for the duration.... The Navy needs men to man the ships.... Needless to say, duty in the war zones will be hazardous. Who will volunteer?”

Three hundred men raised their hands. “The majority came from the Portuguese community along with members of San Diego’s Italian fishing community.”

Ed Madruga, who owned the Paramount, recalled, “Two weeks afterwards, the government [took] all the tuna boats. Didn’t ask, just took ’em.” The government painted the whitehulled ships military gray and leased them “until victory.”

Madruga joined up. “It looked like good duty, you know — we were experienced.” He became a Second Class Petty Officer and earned $80 a month during the war.

Skipper Vincent Battaglia: “They couldn’t teach us anything about seamanship—there wasn’t any military training they were going to give us. They knew we could handle the boats, so they didn’t fool with us.”

Madruga agrees: “Most of these guys just volunteered.. .that was kind of a nice thing to happen. The urgency to have these ships in action forced the Navy to skip basic training for the Yippie crews.”

The Navy feared Japanese submarines would destroy the Panama Canal, so the first group of Yippies headed south, on February 25,1942, to act as lookouts. Their departure “brought the $14,000,000-a-year tuna industry to a near standstill.”

Soon the clippers became transporters and suppliers for the entire Pacific Theater. In peacetime, each boat could hold 280 tons of fish in its 14 ammonia-refrigerated vaults. These became ideal for hauling “foods, meats, anything that had to be frozen,” plus high-test gas for aircraft, engine parts, clothing, even the sick and wounded (30 or 40 at a time). Ed Madruga: deliveries consisted of “beans, bacon, and mail to tiny rocks.”


  1. The close-knit nature of the Italian family...was a cause for concern. The committee of [military] experts believed that information divulged to one family member would be known to all of the family or the entire community. The Navy concluded that loyalties to the family came first.
  2. On board the Prospect, Vincent Battaglia recalled that testing the machine gun provided a bit of black humor for the crew. "The first time we fired it for target practice, it fell over. No support!"
  3. Ed Madruga: "Two different times, we pulled pilots out of the ocean. Thank God because we saved their lives. We knew they were down, but nobody ever would have found them, I don't think. We got the word to go out and we did find them. One thing — our boys were good at seeing — we'd look for fish, and you'd have to have good eyes."
  4. Three clippers [loaded with aviation gas were] headed for Midway Island, 1300 miles away, under the protection of 13 PT boats. Helmsman Manuel Freitas: "They thought we were escorting them. We thought they were protecting us!"
  5. Vincent Battaglia: "We didn't wear dog tags because in the engine room it was hot, and these things used to burn you. And then we had the rocker arms, and you were always afraid that this thing would get caught in a rocker arm. But that night I put this [bracelet] on because I knew I wanted something on me when I got killed."

The clippers carried two 50-caliber machine guns (“of World War I vintage"), Hash-can depth charges, and a 20-millimeter canon. Clarence Gonzalvez, captain of the Victoria: “We were so slow that almost anything could have sunk us from long range. Our 50-caliber machine guns would have been pea shooters in a fight.” And the ammonia in the refrigerators, if struck by a five-inch enemy shell, would suffocate the crew.

“With a top speed of 10 knots, the clippers traveled in convoys to avoid attacks. Occasionally, however, they traveled alone to avoid Japanese submarines.”

The press called them “the Errand Boys of the Pacific,” a label Yippies loathed. They preferred two others. One, Clarence Gonzalvez says with pride, was the “Pork Chop Express”: “We carried meat and vegetables from Pearl Harbor all over the central Pacific. We ran to Midway, French Frigate Shoals, and to Johnston, Fanning, Christmas, Palmyra, and Canton Island, just like an express. Sometimes we’d come back from an 1800-mile jaunt, load up with ‘pork chops,’ and go right out again.” The most popular nickname came from the crews. They didn’t know how to wear their uniforms, “didn’t know how to salute.. .didn’t know how to do anything.” They’d sail into port grime-caked creatures with only vague memories of a shave or a shower. Vincent Battaglia: “Nine months without any mail, seven months without any pay, no clothes, we looked like hooligans.” They became “the Hooligan Navy.”

The “hooligans” hauled cargo throughout the war. “After four years at sea, 50 clippers saw action, and 19 were lost.”

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader