Grandpa Gordon’s Ships

I blew it last October by forgetting to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, where Grandpa played a role. This post will have to compensate.  Grandfather Gordon Geertsen kept a journal of sorts during his service in World War II.  In it he listed all the ships he had been aboard.  I’ve wondered about how a farm boy from Union, Oregon would have experienced the technological marvels of the biggest war ever.  This post isn’t so biographical, it is more a survey of ships and their uses in war & peace.

Grandpa was aboard:

CVE USS Prince William
AV USS William B. Preston
AV USS Childs
AV USS Half Moon
AV USS San Carlos
AV USS Tangier
AV USS Wright
AV USS San Pablo
AV USS Carrituck
AV USS Heron
AV USS Berriterri
CVE HMS Tracker

Large number, small variety.  AV meant “Seaplane Tender” and CVE meant “Escort Aircraft Carrier”.  The carriers were bookends bracketing his whole service, that took him to and from the theater of operations.  There were 122 Escort Carriers in all, and they were big, either bigger or heavier than everything but the heaviest cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers.  Seems odd that an aircraft carrier would do troop transport, but they were boxy, heavy and so slow that they held whole fleets back.  They did better guarding convoys.

The Escort Aircraft Carrier shining hour of the war was during the Leyte Gulf battle, when sixteen of them were too slow to pursue what was a diversionary decoy bluff by the Japanese, and by staying behind wound up in a right-place-right-time scenario.  By that I mean several of the carriers and their planes were massacred by Japanese planes and guns, but they blunted their enemy’s advance and prevented their carrying the objective of the battle.

In between his carrier rides Grandpa Gordon lived on eleven seaplane tenders.  These tenders were meant to manage seaplane patrol and combat operations, kind of an aircraft carrier for planes that didn’t need aircraft carriers.  Most were designed as tenders, but others were repurposed – the Childs and William B. Preston were actually a World War I destroyers, the Heron was a WWI minesweeper, and the Tangier was originally built as a big ponderous cargo ship.  She was moored next to the USS Utah during the Attack at Pearl Harbor.  The Wright was, I don’t even know – it was the only one of its kind ever built.  As a group they were a real hodgepodge.  The Tangier was sixteen times heavier than the Heron.  The first built was the Preston I think, and the Orca was the longest-lived, but more on that later.

Some tenancies were forgettable and forgotten – five ships (the William B. Preston, San Pablo, Carrituck, Heron and Berriterri) were not mentioned anywhere else, and the last two were so obscure that Grandpa actually misspelled their names.  Should have been the Currituck and the Barataria, but I think I prefer “Berriterri” all things considered.

The other ships were his base of operations for patrols in PBY-5A Black Cats, and safe harbor during some dreadful battles.  None of his ships were ever sunk during the war, but the one that was closest is the USS Half Moon, his home on numerous occasions, including during the fearsome battle at Leyte Gulf.

Even with the stallions of the Third Fleet goose-chasing Japanese phantoms far from the battle, the little bitty Half Moon was not a high-value target among the remaining ships.  Nevertheless she spent her time slinking around, trying to avoid engagement – a fraught task during the largest naval battle in the history of the world.  During the Battle of Surigao Strait she hovered behind an island and then made a break north, two days later she cowered in San Pedro Bay as carriers blew each other up a few miles away off Samar.  No ships found her worthy of notice, but she came under heavy fire by Japanese planes, including at least one kamikaze attack.

Generally Grandpa didn’t have such a lively time on board ship, for that was the home base.  The last place for a seaplane tender was a big naval battle.  The USS San Carlos ran aground close to the Half Moon during the Leyte struggle, but of course Gordon wasn’t aboard.  His wing did run patrols from her in the two months after the battle, however, looking for Japanese naval activity.

From the roomy confines of the Tangier Gordon’s group ran bombing raids and support for island-hopping invasions of Wadke, Noemfoor and Biak.  Quite a contrast, sleeping peacefully in a bunk when US Marines and Japanese soldiers were tearing each other apart some miles away.

There wasn’t much for these ships to do after the war.  The Childs, William B. Preston, Heron, and Wright were scrapped soon thereafter.  But the accumulated material of the US war machine took many decades to wither away.  Some of these tenders were reimagined in a peaceful capacity, serving as a platform for ocean and marine research.

Others continued in a martial capacity.  The USS Currituck supported seaplanes twenty years later, and also achieved the distinction of being the first ship of her class to deliver shore bombardment, during operations in the Mekong Delta in 1965.  The Barataria tailed a missile-carrying Soviet freighter to Cuba during the Missile Crisis of 1962 – not a friendly thing to do.

Surely the strangest case was the Orca.  It operated as a seaplane tender off and on until 1960.  After that, it was loaned and later sold to the navy of Ethiopia, which if you’ve seen a map lately is completely landlocked.

(from the website

It wasn’t landlocked at the time.  The ship became the largest in Ethiopia’s modest fleet for 31 whole years.  After losing the territories of Eritrea in 1991, Ethiopia was landlocked and had no more naval bases.  The Orca ran for Yemen, where it rusted faithfully for two years before being sold for scrap.  Ethiopia’s dreams of maritime power died hard, and their navy was not disbanded until 1996.

When these ships were finally sold, it was usually for salvage, but not necessarily.  The details on some are not very well fleshed out.  I love that the San Pablo was sold to one “Mrs. Margo Zahardis of Vancouver, Washington”.

Wikipedia is often short on detail – one or two are not identified as specifically “scrapped”, so there’s a chance they are still out there displacing water, seventy years later.

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