In the crosshairs of history, part three
YP-289 goes to war
Hurry up and wait. San Diego’s tuna clippers conscripted for World War II saw far more downtime than action. Like the much larger Liberty ships designed for the purpose, the clippers made supply runs to backwater islands and obscure atolls. When they reached a destination, boats were so backed up they had to anchor outside before unloading cargo — sometimes for days, even a week. Often when they finally did, un-canned A-rations had rotted.
In Thomas Heggens’s novel Mister Roberts, the USS Reluctant, a Liberty ship, had a “regular run from Tedium to Apathy and back, about five days each way. It made an occasional trip to Monotony.”
The Paramount (YP-289) became an exception. Although the 110-foot clipper from San Diego delivered “beans, bacon, and mail to tiny rocks,” the Navy brass gave it special duty. Captain Ed Madruga and younger brother Joe, first mate, found themselves “exploring the end of things” behind enemy lines.
On one of their first trips to Espiritu Santo Island, in the New Hebrides, as YP-289 entered Bruat Channel, the radio blurted frantic dots and dashes: Morse Code for “Stop at once! You’re in a minefield!”
As a defensive barrier, the Navy had stretched two rows of Mark VI mines across the channel. A large rock, painted white, pointed the way through the lethal maze. But no one had informed YP-289.
Joe Madruga shut the boat down. As they waited, they prayed they wouldn’t drift into a “roundball” mine and the 1600 tons of TNT inside. What seemed like hours later, a Liberty ship sailed in. “We took a chance,” Joe told his son, Joe Jr., “and moved right behind it. We followed it in, and matched all its turns.”
In May 1942, YP-289 shipped two colonels to Wallis Island to survey a potential air base. There wasn’t a soul on the donut-shaped coral lagoon. Within ten days, SeaBees had leveled an airstrip, and planes were making sorties. “There’s where we came in,” Ed Madruga recalled. “We were actually the pioneers going to Wallis Island.”
When not sailing reconnaissance missions, YP-289 went “island-hopping” or “jumping.” These are misnomers, because a “jump” could range from 500 to 1000 miles — on a tight schedule, with a top speed of ten knots. “They didn’t care what the weather was,” said Vincent Battaglia, machinist mate on YP-346. “Go. Come back. We used to tear the hell out of those boats. That was spooky.”
YP-289 delivered everything from 55-gallon drums of aviation gas to Thanksgiving turkeys. One of their most valued cargoes, under the circumstances, was cases of liquor. “These had a habit of not reaching the officers’ clubs,” said Ed, thanks to pilfering SeaBees.
Ed had to discipline his crew only once. At Pago Pago, they loaded 12 cases of bonded whiskey into the bait box astern. They were headed for British Samoa, a mere 60-mile “milk run.” “Make sure it gets there,” the Navy’s top commander ordered Madruga. But one didn’t.
“So, I’m the head man,” Ed recalled, “and back at American Samoa, the commander asks, ‘What happened to the extra case?’ I said, ‘God help me, I don’t know.’ And to this day I don’t.”
The commander ordered Madruga to put his men on 30-day report for stealing. “My crew [was] a good batch of guys.” So Madruga signed a statement that he’d followed orders, “but never did place them on report.”
Yard Patrol boats had strict orders never to fraternize with the natives. Returning from a long “hop,” YP-289 developed rudder trouble. Ed decided to make repairs at Aitutaki, the remote atoll in the southern Cook Islands. Its discoverer said it “had a most fruitful appearance…innumerable cocoanuts and other trees, the higher grounds beautifully interspersed with lawns.” The year was 1789, the writer, Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty, whose crew mutinied 18 days later.
No ship had anchored at Aitutaki in over a year. They “were just so happy to see somebody,” Ed recalled. “This wasn’t supposed to be done, but I said, ‘Let’s take a side of beef and have a luau on the beach.’ And these people were the most grateful I’d seen.”
The barbecue evolved into a rollicking dance, accompanied by the thump of large drums. The chief was so appreciative, he went to his hut and returned with a heavy woven-grass bowl. He tipped it forward, and bonfire-light flickered on large pearls. The chief offered them to Ed.
“That bowl was full,” recalls Ed’s wife Lucile today. “Ed said he couldn’t take them. And he didn’t, even though the chief insisted several times.”
The next day, natives showed Ed where to dive for pearls in Aitutaki’s pristine, turquoise lagoon. “My wife even has some of those pearls today,” he said in 1993.
“I still do,” says Lucile. “Ed would only take the ones he dove for. When he came home and told me about the others,” she laughs, “I said, ‘Oh, Ed!’ how could you?’”
Along with pearls, Lucile has a hand-sized piece of twisted black shrapnel from Nukufetau.
In August 1943, the marines established an air base defense unit at the rectangular atoll in the Tuvalu chain. The base, with crisscrossing runways, stood on Motololo, a swampy island dense with palm trees and salt brush. Ships could only enter the lagoon through a slit between thick coral ridges. But the water was so shallow, only the smallest could go inside.
In September, after discharging 100 Marines at the base, YP-289 began offloading cargo. From the east came a low metallic humming, like far-off bees. Sunlit flashes of “bogeys” — unidentified aircraft — emerged from a cloudbank in two long rows. Fighters from the Marine 2nd Airdrome Battalion, the Madrugas assumed, back from a mission.
But the planes held a high altitude. Then strings of black beads tumbled from between their silver wings: bombs.
Pillars of water burst in giant rows. Sirens screaked. Marines scrambled for foxholes. Plane after plane popped from the pure white clouds — 40 in all. The frantic ack-ack of small-arm antiaircraft fire began, followed by the deep voom-voom of the big guns, peppering the sky with black splotches.
Amid the steady drone of bombers overhead ,and bone-shivering jolts on all sides, YP-289 was trapped at the dock.
“Cut the ropes,” Ed Magruga yelled. He gunned the diesel engine and steered directly toward the oncoming squadron. The ship’s machine gunners fired so many rounds, the barrels overheated. Bullets dribbled onto the deck and bounced like marbles.
Bombs began falling “so close,” says Ed, “it was unbelievable. Joe could see them coming down at us.”
Which may have saved their lives — that and YP-289’s sharp turning radius, and Joe Madruga’s “fisherman’s eyes.”
Joe had a legendary ability to spot tuna. When bombs began to fall, he stood just outside the pilot house. He followed their paths. When he saw where they’d hit, he shouted to Ed at the wheel: “To port!” or “Hard starboard! Harder!”
Steering sudden zig-zags, Ed “crabbed” YP-289 through the lagoon, literally side-stepping 200-foot, blue-and-black geysers and the shards of death they spewed.
Bombs exploding under water belch gigantic circles. One hit so close, it made just a half-circle and almost lifted YP-289 out of the water. Hissing spume drenched the deck.
“Bombs came close,” says Ed, “but they never did hit us. That’s why I’m here.”
After the last fell, the churned-up lagoon looked like a sewer, the base a chaos of craters and debris. As they squared away YP-289, the crew filled a bucket with shrapnel.
That night, Tokyo Rose declared the bombing a success — and a ship had sunk, number 289.
The crew had made friends with pilots stationed at their home base. When airmen heard the news, Joe told wife Adeline, they took it hard. And when YP-289 returned to port, a surprised pilot shouted from the dock, “Two-eighty-nine? Tokyo Rose said you sunk!” He ran off. Minutes later, he returned with dozens of pilots who saluted the crew with whoops of jubilation.
In 1944, after giving them commendations, the Navy reassigned the Madrugas to officer’s training school in Miami for four months. Because he spoke fluent Portuguese, Joe became a liaison for shipments to Brazil. He returned to the Pacific in 1945, and was towing a ship to Pearl when the war ended.
Ed became captain of a large Navy tugboat. A typical day? “Get up every morning for the 4:00 watch and take my stars [navigation check], make sure the vessel is clean and everything’s according to Hoyle, and that’s about it.” In between, “I did a lot of reading.”
YP-289 survived the war, but not the Pacific. Under a different captain, it continued running supplies. When peace was declared on September 2, 1945, along with about 300 other vessels, the Paramount sailed to Okinawa for post-war reassignment. Ships were jammed hull to hull at Buckner Bay, making movement near impossible.
On October 4, a tropical depression 500 of miles south grew into a typhoon. By the time it neared Okinawa, it had a name, “Louise,” but the track was far to the west. On October 8, the storm slowed. Then, as if finding what it wanted, the typhoon tripled in intensity and made a determined veer east toward Okinawa.
The war in the Pacific began with the assault on Pearl Harbor. After it ended, Louise ravaged Buckner Bay with one of the worst storms on record.
Ninety-mile-an-hour winds and 30- to 35-foot waves dragged ships’ anchors: small craft first, then larger ones. As hundreds of engines turned over, horizontal rains thick with salt spray cut visibility from 800 yards to total darkness — at noon.
Most ships were anchored in a smaller bay at the north end of Buckner. Those trying to flee through the narrow entrance rammed each other. A wall of twisted wreckage blocked the only exit.
By 2:00 p.m., winds blew over 100 ships ashore. Those still afloat tried to evade others, randomly emerging from the dark. Many employed the “crabbing” maneuver Ed Madruga had used at Nukufetau. But more often than not, to evade one boat running blind, they smashed into another.
At 4:00 p.m., the barometer dropped to 968.5, as low as barometers go. The bay became, wrote an observer, “a nightmare series of collisions and near escapes.”
After four ships pummeled the Southern Seas, a 228-foot patrol yacht, a fifth speared it from behind. It went down and 13 crewmen died.
As enormous waves crashed over pilot houses and conns, and as horns blared, engines roared, and metal warped in high-pitched, twisted shrieks, YP-289 lost its mooring and drifted into the din. The Nestor (ARB-6), a 228-foot battle-damage repair ship, had to slip its anchor chain to avoid an oncoming craft. Both captains steered away, the Nestor dead into the path of YP-289. To avoid a collision, the captain threw Nestor into reverse, too close to shore. Nestor grounded. YF-1079 pounded it from behind.
Not ten minutes later, the typhoon shifted. Eighty-mile-an-hour winds, now to the north and northwest, blew beached craft back into the water. Wreckage half floated or sank, clogging the mud-brown waters where intact boats desperately fought to steer free.
For unknown reasons, YP-289 still carried 12 depth charges astern on racks. USS LSM-15, a landing ship, powered into YP-289 from behind. The explosion blasted the LSM to the bottom of Buckner Bay.
Typhoon Louise “has seldom been paralleled in fury and violence,” wrote a meteorologist. It raged for 20 hours, sank 12 ships, grounded 222, and damaged 32 severely. The numbers don’t include YPs. Along with the Paramount, the Counte Grande (YP-520) and Challenger (YP-239) also went down.
Since the winds wiped out all the Quonset huts and tents, people had to hide in caves or trenches. Thirty-two died, 47 were missing, and over 100 injured seriously. The devastation did not match but neared the totals for Pearl Harbor.
As part of a massive salvage effort, Ed Madruga sailed his tug to Buckner Bay. His final view of World War II recalled his first. “This was a massive destruction you couldn’t believe unless you saw it with your own eyes,” he told Daniel Shapiro. “It was almost like Pearl Harbor, except it didn’t have the oil on the bay.”
As he tried to fathom the devastation, Madruga spotted a hull, smaller than the others, bent and blasted and caked with grime. “It was lying on its side, but I would have known it anywhere. It was the old Paramount.”
Madruga got permission, and waded through the muddy burial ground of rusting oblivion. When he reached his former tuna clipper, which he had guided through the Pacific war for two years, he climbed up to the pilot house. The brass nameplate — Paramount — was still there. Madruga took it down and kept it as a souvenir. ■
— Jeff Smith
- Ed Madruga: “You had to know navigation or else you would never find some of these islands. They were just little spots in the ocean.”
- Ed Madruga: “Why didn’t the Navy just take one big jump, or two or three…that would have ended the war a lot sooner.”
- Ed Madruga: “I wrote to my Congressman. They really socked us for [our] boats after we got them back, and they were a pile of junk.”
Felando, August J., “Tuna Clippers & World War II,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, volume 44: 1 & 2.
Gailey, Harry A., War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay, Novato, 1995.
Madruga, Adeline (wife of Joe); interview.
Madruga, Joe Jr.; interview.
Madruga, Lucile (wife of Ed); interview.
Rottman, Gordon L., World War II Pacific Island Guide: A Geo-Military Study, Westport, 2002.
Shapiro, Daniel M., “The ‘Pork Chop Express’ San Diego’s Tuna Fleet, 1942–1945,” MA thesis, University of San Diego, 1993.
Toll, Ian W. Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942, New York, 2012.
More in this series: Part 1: Tuna boats go to war | Part 2: The Pork Chop Express was no pleasure cruise