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Pensacola & Company

January 27 2012 at 12:24 PM
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Nelson  (no login)
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From the standpoint alone of its original destination, original routing, final routing, and final destination, the Pensacola convoy, purely by circumstance the first American wartime movement of men and materiel in the Pacific Theater, makes for a fascinating study. Questions that have been asked, within the forum and without, include:

1. Was the routing of this convoy changed before departure?
2. Was the routing of this convoy changed during its passage?
3. Did the "run-in" by the previous Boise convoy with one or two Katori class CLs impact in any way on the following Pensacola convoy, including a departure delay of at least a day?
4. Did the news of the Pearl Harbor attack impact on the route of the latter convoy?

The answers are (1) yes; (2) yes; (3) I'm not sure, although there was no delay; (4) yes.

I have alluded to emails from friends, associates, and sometimes strangers off-forum, and such allusion does not make me entirely comfortable. When I write "off-forum" I often feel that such is like reporting from a distant nebula in outer space. I can sympathize with Dick (John Lithgow) in TV's "Third Rock from the Sun", especially my favorite episode when Dick, feeling guilty that he cannot reveal to Mary (Jane Curtin) that he is, well, an alien (not only illegal but extraterrestrial to boot) and responding to Mary's query of what's wrong in his usual state of angst, blurts out, "I'm not of this world!" To which Mary replies, "This is news?" Anyway....

To set the stage, prewar the U.S. Navy had transports crossing back and forth across the Pacific, performing peddler service--carrying men and materiel, including ordnance--from San Francisco to Pearl Harbor or Honolulu, to one or more oceanic islands, to Manila, and often on to China--and back. Most commonly as the years moved into the early 1940s, the vessels were Henderson (AP 1) and Chaumont (AP 5), though they were by no means the only ones used in such service. These two ships were not dissimilar in age, length, displacement, and speed: Henderson, launched in 1916, was 484 feet long and displaced about 7700 tons, but she was far more graceful than Chaumont, one of the ugly Hog Islanders, at 448 feet and 8300 tons, launched four years later. Although having entirely different propulsion systems--reciprocating steam engine versus geared steam turbine--each had a top speed of about 14 knots. It was common practice for such vessels to stop at Wake and Guam in their transpacific runs, although on a given trip one or perhaps both islands might be skipped. Less frequently there was a stop at Midway, but the usual practice was to send a vessel from Oahu to such a relatively nearby island and back, as was done as well for Johnston, Palmyra, Baker, and Canton islands, where new construction was proceeding and garrisons were being established. Some of these islands had no harbor, and the surrounding reef was an obstacle to quick and easy access.

In early November 1941, the notion of a small convoy, No. 4002, was in the works. At that point it would consist of three navy and army transports--USS Chaumont (AP 5), USAT Republic, and USAT Willard A. Holbrook--with no escort yet assigned, if any. Routing instructions dated November 12, 1941, clearly state the intention for Chaumont to depart first, on November 26, and steam independently to Wake Island, and for the two USATs to leave Honolulu two days later and rendezvous with Chaumont off Wake on December 4th. Significantly, although commissioned and with a legit navy hull number, AP 33, Republic is indicated thereon as a U.S. Army Transport manned by U.S. naval personnel, and one can readily understand the confusion suffered by men who rode her to war on this early transpacific trip, even decades later in writing about that experience. It is mentioned that USAT Holbrook would have aboard one each naval signalman and radioman for communications purposes. The latitudes and longitudes specified for the convoy to pass through clearly indicate that the convoy would thereafter sail well north of the Equator and through the Mandated islands. Although it is not specified in these instructions, it was probably intended for these ships to stop at Guam so that Chaumont could perform its typical peddler duties (offloading supplies and gear, exchanging personnel, etc.). Contract vessels SS Coast Farmer and SS Admiral Halstead, both added later to the convoy after their permission to sail independently had been rescinded, also had cargo intended for Guam, as well as Manila. Whatever, it's clear that this small convoy as originally conceived was to pass through the Mandates.

Where I am now, I have only a partial collection of documents, with the next set of instructions not dated until November 27, 1941, and what a difference 15 days make: NOW the convoy consists of the three aforementioned vessels, ex-yacht/gunboat USS Niagara (a tender intended to support MTB Squadron 3--actually a half-squadron of six PT boats--based on Manila Bay), USAT Meigs, and three chartered merchantmen, SS Coast Farmer, SS Admiral Halstead, and MS Bloemfontein of Dutch registry. Last but hardly least, heavy cruiser USS Pensacola (CA 24), with its ten 8-inch guns, would be along for the ride. The ships were scheduled to depart "on or about" November 28, 1941, and to sail the southern route, to Suva, Fiji, and take on water and fuel as necessary. From there, they were instructed to sail west between the Loyalty and New Hebrides island groups, north of New Caledonia, through the Coral Sea and Torres Strait, and then NW and north through Molukka Passage, across the Celebes Sea, through Sibutu Passage into the Sulu Sea, and on to Manila Bay.

So, the answer to the first question is yes, the convoy route was radically changed before departure. The answer to the third question, whether the "run-in" by the previous Boise convoy with one or more IJN fleet units was the primary cause of this change is much more difficult to say, but given the date of the first run-in near Guam, November 27th, and the change in route probably made before the 27th, likely not. The run-in, when it became known, however, almost certainly strengthened the belief in the rightness of the decision to change to the southern, more roundabout route. More on the when in a bit.

As has been well known for a long time, once war had erupted, the decision on the route thereafter of the Pensacola convoy, including possible--even definitive--recall, remained uncertain for a lengthy period. Eventually the convoy was permitted to continue on its course as revised. These is a belief, supported by some commo evidence, that faint hearts at last prevailed and ordered the convoy to return after all, but either that order was not received or stouter hearts, fed up with backing and filling, determined to proceed on to Australia. After departing Suva, as had been planned, the convoy now passed south of New Caledonia, and meeting its ANZAC escort force, steamed to Brisbane.

Questions 2 and 4 are for all purposes the same, and their answer is yes, the course of the convoy was changed--again--by the news of war. It is essential to keep in mind, however, that the Pensacola convoy's shift to the southern route was NOT the result of the eruption of war, because that decision had already been made before any of the ships left Oahu. Rather, the convoy was shifted to the south of New Caledonia, and went to Brisbane, not through the Coral Sea and Torres least not most of the convoy, and not at this juncture.

The only real question outstanding is to what degree the Boise convoy's run-in affected the course of the following Pensacola convoy. One correspondent whose information is almost always reliable insists that Boise's commanding officer--I assume with the concurrence of the convoy commander--decided to wait until the convoy ships were safely ensconced in Manila Bay before notifying Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor of the incident east of Guam, which these officers very likely did not deem all that serious (no guns were fired, no demands were made to heave to and be searched). While I am yet wary of accepting that information without solid confirmation, it is however possible that the Boise convoy run-in had NO effect whatsoever on the course of the Pensacola convoy, despite testimony otherwise a few years later during the Pearl Harbor investigation and hearing. Such testimony, as we know, was too often convenient recall intended for either self-interest or to help a friend. And there is certainly NO evidence that the convoy's sailing was delayed for even a day, except USAT Holbrook, which was still loading equipment and ordnance at Pearl Harbor and Honolulu, but did catch up with the convoy at sea on December 1, 1941.


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