Unforgettable: Floating Target, part 2

Tuna clipper becomes troop transporter

Captain Joaquin Theodore received a Purple Heart for heroism.
  • Captain Joaquin Theodore received a Purple Heart for heroism.

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.”

YP-346 was 120 feet long, a goodly size for a tuna clipper in 1942. But compared to the smallest warship, Tregaskis said, it was “a tiny thing, with only limited supplies of stores.”

What Theodore did next astonished him. The captain gave the Marines all the grub onboard, and all the cigarettes, a rare commodity in those parts. Tregaskis developed an instant admiration for the “pink-cheeked, hearty Portuguese” man, “who told me proudly about his two li’l kids back home and the exploits of his ship.”

Theodore also impressed Tregaskis with his seamanship. The next morning, three destroyers and three YP boats headed southeast into tall, cusping whitecaps. Theodore bowed through the chop as if YP-346 were an ocean liner after all.

They could tell their target from afar. A low fog shrouded the beach — smoke from allied artillery. Sudden orange explosions belched inside now-black, now-gray clouds. Tregaskis watched “red pencil lines of shells arching through the sky.” They seemed to fall so slowly: “Distance, of course, caused the apparent slowness.”

Around noon, the task force unloaded the Marines several miles from Tasimboko. The raiders returned around sunset. They “are not the same joking men who had come aboard earlier that morning,” Battaglia wrote. They “sat around cleaning their weapons, as if they just [came] home from work. You don’t feel like you should question these men.”

But he did. “What was it like?” he asked a Marine. “His short answer was, ‘My buddy got hit, looked at me with a surprised look and said, “Burbank, they got me,”’ and fell dead. In four hours these were different men…. Twelve hours later I became one of these men.”

After discharging the Marines at a staging area near Red Beach, YP-346 received orders to return to Tulagi with a warning: A Japanese cruiser and two destroyers had been spotted. “This was our first race against enemy ships in the channel,” said Battaglia, and the “the first race we lost.”

The convoy left Guadalcanal after sundown. As they churned toward Tulagi, a tropical downpour slowed the YPs so much that the destroyers pulled far ahead and were soon out of sight. YP-346 was last in a line of three unprotected tuna clippers. Around midnight, they entered the well-defended Tulagi Harbor. The Challenger (YP-239), 300 yards in front of them, reached port safely. In another ten minutes, YP-346 would be home-free.

Then the sky flashed bright: flares and star shells popped instant illumination. A Japanese cruiser, HIJMS Sendai, followed by three destroyers, spot-lit YP-346 and began firing salvos of five-inch shells through the pouring rain.

Battaglia: “Maybe ten or 15 minutes, we had been inside the bay — no way they could have gotten us unless they had come inside the bay.”

The Sendai was too close. It couldn’t lower its large batteries enough to shoot them. So it fired anti-aircraft guns. The relentless ack-ack, said Theodore, belched “hell in all directions.”

A salvo from a destroyer rocked the magazine in the stern, where ammunition was stacked in the bait box. A mortal shiver rolled through the hull. The deck caught fire. “I think every time they shot us, they hit us,” said Theodore. Seconds later, the top of the pilothouse blew skyward.

Theodore was on the bridge. Something hit him in the back “like a ton of bricks. It knocked me flat on the deck. There was blood all over me.”

In shock, he watched the wheel shatter and his helmsman, Roy C. Parnell, fall back, dumbfounded by a bloody stump where his left arm had been.

“Abandon ship!” Theodore shouted, barely able to breathe.

Battaglia was in the engine room. A shell punched holes in the ammonia pipes, which spit out lethal gas. “It eats up all of the oxygen. It burns your eyes. You can’t see.” Had he remained below, “it would have killed me.”

As the crew dove overboard in life jackets, Theodore shouted, “Beach the ship!”

“What are you going to do?” Theodore recalled. “You have a little ship there, you can’t defend yourself. The first thing I thought of, [get] the ship away from the line of fire. I think it saved a lot of the guys.”

Ernie Lopez, boatswain’s mate first class, grabbed the wheel’s two remaining spokes. They “cut his hands to ribbons,” Theodore recalled, but Lopez shoved the throttle to full power and swung the ship toward shore.

“We lost one guy there,” said Theodore. “My electrician [Lehman], hit with a piece of shrapnel, I guess.” Theodore heard later that the man had been blown overboard and was bleeding when he hit the water. “The blood, there were a lot of sharks there…the next day we found his life jacket but never found him…so the sharks got him.”

PFC John J. Murphy, Jr., remained onboard. He went down to the engine-room-turned-powder-keg. The hissing gas now roared. When he realized the damage was permanent, Murphy climbed back up on deck.

Something spun him to the ground: shrapnel. “Although wounded,” his citation for the Navy Cross reads, Murphy “gallantly disregarded his own condition to help evacuate other injured shipmates to a dressing station ashore, following the beaching of the vessel. His conspicuous courage in a situation of grave peril was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

In pouring rain, Marines in small boats rescued survivors unable to wade ashore. They carried Gonzales to a small cave-turned-hospital. “There were some Marines that were hurt, but they figured I was hurt more…so they put them out in the rain and put me in there.”

The next night, unable to walk because the shrapnel had paralyzed him temporarily, Theodore watched along with Battaglia as a Japanese cruiser sailed into the bay.

“The guy comes along the beach,” Battaglia recalled, “and sees the Prospect, but doesn’t know it’s the ship he shot at the night before, and then he really gave it to that ship — blew it out of the water.”

The next day Theodore sailed to Pearl Harbor on a hospital craft. When a doctor “fluoroscoped” Theodore, he saw a jagged, inch-long spot close to the spine. The piece of steel was so embedded, a surgeon had to cut out Theodore’s right lung. “I’ve been living with one lung since 1942,” he told an interviewer in 1993.

Joaquin Theodore received a Purple Heart for heroism.

Vincent Battaglia returned to San Diego and worked many years as a navigator on the boat of his older brother, “Trapper Dan” Battaglia. In an interview years later, Vince said he had the greatest respect for Joaquin. “Even today, I still call him Mr. Theodore.” ■
— Jeff Smith

QUOTATIONS:

  • 1. Gordon L. Rottman: “After Guadalcanal was secured, American ships entering the Slot executed a zigzag turn over Iron Bottom Sound as a show of respect for the ships and crews resting on the bottom.”
  • 2. Daniel Shapiro: “As a unit, the YPs had the highest loss of ships of any Navy unit during the war: 40 percent never came home.”
  • 3. San Diego Union, August 8, 1963: “A not inconsiderable number of the fishermen in Navy blue died in action.”

SOURCES:

  • Felando, August J., “The Errand Boys of the Pacific: Tuna Clippers & World War II,” Mains’l Haul, Winter/Spring 2008, vol. 44: numbers 1 and 2.
  • Manchester, William, Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War, Boston, 2002.
  • Rottman, Gordon L., World War II Pacific Island Guide: A Geomilitary Study, Westport, 2002.
  • Shapiro, Daniel M., “The Pork Chop Express: San Diego’s Tuna Fleet, 1942–1945,” M.A. thesis, University of San Diego, 1993.
  • Theodore, Joaquin S., “An Interview with Joaquin (Jack) Theodore,” San Diego Historical Society, Oral History Program, February 29, 1992.
  • Zolezzi, Julius, interview.
  • Articles in various newspapers.

Floating Target, part 1

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