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Re: PLUM Convoy Route

October 27 2011 at 8:29 PM
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Nelson  (no login)
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Response to Plum Convoy Route

Hi Mitch,

I'm responding to solidify or correct some of the thoughts in your posting yesterday. As you rightly point out, the fear in fall 1941 was of German raiders, NOT of Japanese raiders, as little was known about the latter (SS Malama and SS Vincent were the only American commercial vessels I can remember ever falling victim to IJN armed merchant raiders, those of 24 Sentai not long after the Pearl Harbor attack). As apparently there still lurks some doubt about this matter, permit me to quote the first paragraph of Operation Order No. 11-41, dated October 28, 1941, which originated from--or more likely was repeated by--USS Houston (CA 30), flagship, United States Asiatic Fleet, to the captain of USS Chester (CA 27) and the masters of USAT Tasker H. Bliss and USAT Willard A. Holbrook. It is a typical boiler-plate first paragraph appearing on many such just-prewar operations orders for both the U.S. Navy's Pacific and Asiatic Fleets, explaining the need for transpacific convoying, and chosen only because it occupied the top of the stack of such orders.

"The Chief of Naval Operations has directed that certain ships be escorted between the Hawaiian Area and Manila. Information of German Raiders in the Pacific is contained in Comander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, serial zero one four six six of sixteen September nineteen forty-one."

Because the U.S. and Germany were then engaged in an undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic, the fear that Germany would retaliate elsewhere was not an unnatural one. Read the testimony of Admiral James O. Richardson, predecessor to Admiral Husband Kimmel as CINC, U.S. Pacific Fleet, about the reason for such prewar transpacific convoying, during the proceedings of the Joint Committee, Congressional Investigation into the Pearl Harbor Attack (I don't know the volume number, but it's page 321):

"Senator Ferguson: 'That is the only knowledge you have about that convoy that you have given us, that you recall?'
Admiral Richardson: 'I have an impression....purely as a matter of curiosity I asked the then Assistant Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ingersoll, as to why I was ordered to escort this vessel, and he stated that it was rumored that there were German raiders operating in the mid-Pacific area within the Marshall Islands or north thereof and that I was directed to escort this vessel to protect her against possible attack by German raiders.'" Richardson repeats this testimony virtually word-for-word in his memoir, On the Treadmill to Pearl Harbor, page 406.

Four additional comments or corrections to thoughts appearing in yours:

> As pointed out, while a single cruiser was a fine escort against a German surface raider, it was not a defense against aircraft or submarines... >

1. Certainly not against submarines, but hang on with the air attacks. We cannot assume that Pensacola (CA 24) had on board the same old and lousy 5-inch AA ammuntion with which Houston was initially burdened. Pensacola could well have put up the same spirited AA defense that Houston did of the Timor convoy after she had been supplied with reliable ammunition in sufficient quantity that worked as designed.

> The first day's air attacks in the Philippines left doubts as to the effectiveness of any air umbrella provided by the US Army Air Force in the Far East (USAAFFE). >

2. Just to point out that General MacArthur's command was USAFFE, or United States Army Forces in the Far East, whereas General Bremerton's subordinate echelon was FEAF, the Far East Air Force. There was no USAAFFE. One essential reason was that the two nearly identical abbreviations would all but certainly have led to enormous and potentially destructive confusion.

> Allowing the convoy to continue would seem foolish. >

3. But that is what nearly happened in order to reinforce PLUM. At Brisbane, the four field artillery battalions were reloaded aboard USAT Willard A. Holbrook and MS Bloemfontein, with the intention of sending them north to Manila Bay, or at least somewhere close by. Of course there was the well known difficulty with Bloemfontein, and her shortly steaming on to Soerabaja with two American field artillery echelons still aboard, but Holbrook and USS Chaumont (AP 5) were heading north toward the Philippines when the newly arrived commander of the U.S. Army Forces in Australia (USAFIA), General George Brett, cut the reduced-size convoy off at the pass and diverted its ships to Darwin.

One of the puzzling responses to your posting is

> And I do not recall that PENSACOLA was the lone escort at any time during this journey, was she? >

4. Pensacola was in fact the ONLY escort for the convoy subsequently named after her, from November 19, 1941, when the convoy formed up in Hawaiian waters, to December 29, 1941, upon the arrival of HMNZS Achilles. The remaining vessels were considered to be part of the convoy per se, NOT of the escort, despite the naval vessels having armament of some size. In some accounts, USS Niagara (PG 52) is included in the escort, but she had no ammunition for her pair of 3-inch deck guns (why I'm not sure, although I suspect she was packed with gear and spare parts, and could take on ammo once she reached Cavite). She was no longer a subchaser or patrol gunboat, but a small tender on the way to Manila Bay to serve Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3. With no ammunition to defend herself and no chicks to mother anywhere else but in the Philippines, she was sent back from Suva, Fiji Islands, to Pearl Harbor, where she arrived safely 16 days later on the last day of the year. One report claims she was slow, but DANFS declares she was capable of 16 knots. Anyway, Niagara was never an escort for the Pensacola convoy, let the record show.


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