U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Buoy Tender Duty In
The South Pacific, 1943-1946
C. William Bailey
Extracted from Chapter Three of Captain Bailey's Autobiography, "You Can So, Eat Your Cake And Have It Too" ©2002 - All Rights Reserved
Synopsis: I was a Merchant Officer prior to WWII. I entered the Coast Guard as a Reserve Ensign and after a brief indoctrination school I was assigned to the CGC Ilex out of Portland, Maine. After a brief career I was ordered to the CGC Tupelo which was just being delivered from the builders yard. After an adventurous ride from Duluth to Norfolk, stopping on the way to do necessary work, we arrived in Norfolk where we remained until 1943. Tupelo was ordered to the South Pacific and after encountering further adventures we arrived and began our new duties. We'll pick up our story at this point.
Soon we were on our way to the far Pacific, our destination Guam, which was still in Japanese hands. We were traveling alone except for a group of landing craft called LCIs. Being senior in rank to the skippers of the LCls, we were in charge, and thus responsible for the safety of our little convoy. We were too slow to join a regular Navy group.
We reached Kwajalein Atoll without event except for exchanging movies among the ships. Kwajalein was a staging area for the next invasion: Tinian, Saipan, and Guam. The atoll was filled with ships of all sizes and types. After a week here, we joined a slow Navy convoy and headed for Guam, arriving just as the cruisers and destroyers were shelling the harbor. Although the harbor had not yet been secured; we were ordered to go in, launch a ship's motorboat and send a sounding party in to find, and mark with small buoys, a channel leading to the beach for the first contingent of Marines to go ashore to fight. This was our baptism under fire.
As Exec, I was in charge. We had one seaman in the bow armed with a rifle with orders to look for isolated [Japanese]. The rest of us were heaving lead lines and using sounding poles as we steered here and there to find water deep enough for the landing craft. Meanwhile the off-shore ships were firing over our heads to soften up the shore. We were quite happy and relieved to see the landing boats filled with Marines come speeding past us, heading for the beach and battle. Our job was finished so we "got the hell out of there quick."
The next day the [Japanese] had been driven back enough to make the harbor secure and we brought the ship in to anchor. Little did we know that this was to be our home base for the next year or more. It was very hot and the crew had been sleeping out on deck. I slung my hammock in between the depth charge racks on the stem, hanging my pistol on one side and my knife on the other. I was tired and slept soundly, not knowing that the ship had received a message earlier, warning about the possibility of [Japanese] swimmers coming out to plant limpet mines on our hull. Imagine how I felt when I awoke and found that a seaman had carelessly left a Jacob's ladder hanging right over the stem where I had slept!
Our next job was to report to Navy Service Squadron Four for duty. They were known as "Harbor Stretchers". Their job was to go into an unimproved area and create a harbor that could be used by large combat and supply ships. The Squadron consisted of auxiliary ships and a battalion of Seabees. Our task with them was to plant buoys to mark channels for safe navigation, and a much bigger job, to locate and plant the large heavy mooring buoys needed for the major ships. We used what were called "Battleship Moorings" which consisted of a cylindrical buoy 10 feet in diameter, weighing five tons, connected to a 10-ton clump of concrete as a central anchor by a straight down massive riser chain, cut to the exact depth of water. Each link of this 2-1/2" diameter chain weighed 20 lbs. On the top of the buoy there was a large link for the ship's mooring wire. Down at the bottom where the chain attached to the cement clump was a massive iron ring to which are attached three leg chains that lead out flat along the sea bottom several hundred feet to a massive battleship anchor weighing 15 tons.
All of the above describes only one mooring buoy capable of holding the largest ship. Over the next year we set many of these. Each buoy was a five day job in itself to assemble and plant. The material had been sent out from the states in a cargo ship dedicated to this purpose, filled with buoys, chain and anchors. The ship would come into the harbor and tugs would put it alongside a shallow reef on which the equipment could be dumped by the ship's cargo booms.
We had a flat barge made up of a few sections of temporary floating docks that the big LSTs brought out, slung alongside these 350' vessels and cut loose when required. We built an A-frame hoist on one end of the barge, and mounted a gasoline engine winch to haul the material aboard from the shallow waters. We had two extra-large outboard propelling engines affixed to the stem of the barge, and now we had a self-propelled barge with hoist and hauling capability. Assigned one officer and an eight man crew, the barge made trips all day long to bring the massive material out to our ship for assembly.
Our Coast Guard Buoy Tender, Tupelo, was 180 feet long, and had a large open deck from the focs'le back almost to amidships, with open ports in the bulwarks on each side. It had a massive 30-ton boom (derrick) with three separate hoisting tackles.
Here is how we prepared a mooring: The barge was brought alongside, the boom was swung out and a hook was lowered with chain or wire slings to lift the material aboard from the barge. The mooring buoy was then set off to one side, and the three anchors were also brought aboard and set aside. Then the chain was hauled aboard in sections and stretched out on deck. Each length of chain was 90 feet (15 fathoms). Since we had to use three sections of chain for each of the three legs, they had to be connected with heavy links, put together with rivets. So we had to have a forge going somewhere on deck to heat the rivets. Now it was impossible to have all this chain on deck at one time, so we assembled just one leg at a time, and then draped the chain over the side in the open buoy port, secured by rope lashings to a smaller chain stretched fore and aft between pad eyes on deck.
The buoy ports could only accommodate one chain leg at a time, so we had to have another ship, a Navy Net Tender, laying alongside. These ships were 150 feet long and had two massive horns stretching forward on their bow. On deck they had two large winches with wire cables leading forward over the horns. We stopped off bights of the third mooring leg chain between the horns so their winches could lower the rig to the sea bottom. With heavy material such as this, everything had to be slowly lowered. Nothing could be permitted to run free. Then we would make up the riser chain connecting the ring and the ends of the three legs and bend all of it on to the big cement clump. At that point we were ready to set the mooring.
These moorings had to be set in exact positions so on the big day the two ships, tied together, got underway and went to the approximate position. Maneuvering the ships in accordance with pre-determined sextant angles of distant objects ashore, we would hoist out the central clump on the riser chain using two of our boom hoisting tackles, and gently lower it down hand-over-hand to the bottom. As it was lowered each lashed section of leg chain had to be cut loose so that the leg chains would go down together with the riser chain. This required closely supervised coordination in order to do it safely.
When the central clump was on the bottom the Navy ship backed away in the prescribed direction slowly stretching out the first leg of chain. She then lowered the anchor tripping it clear by using a special remote release link. Next, she came in perpendicular to our buoy deck at a new 120 degree angle, and we hung the second anchor on her horns. As she backed away, we cut the successive lashings on the sections of leg chain. Once again she lowered and stretched out the leg and anchor.
Now the same procedure was done once more on the other side of our ship, and the job was complete. It took an entire day to set the buoy after all the assembling had been accomplished. Meanwhile, our barge had been busy loading up with the next mooring. No rest for the weary. You can see why we needed a hundred men in our crew.
When we first got our orders for this job there was no one around to tell us how to do it. The Navy gave me a set of blueprints and said "Here, study these. Go get your stuff over on the reef and figure it out for yourselves." Thank goodness I had a good Chief Bos'ns Mate and other petty officers with prior buoy tender experience who were able to execute my ideas. I kept a workbook of all this and when I left the ship they were working on Buoy No. 33. Of course there were periods when we did a lot of other things as well.
There was the time that the Navy sent out a stripped-down Spanish-American War battleship, the Oregon, loaded with 1,500 tons of dynamite. The ship had been gutted out and was only just a barge now. She was eventually intended to be sunk to help make the new breakwater that was to enclose Apra Harbor at Guam.
We were ordered to intercept a Navy tug a hundred miles at sea and take over her tow, and bring it to a special mooring near a native village at the south end of Guam. We had already planted a mooring buoy and were also going to use Oregon's anchor, which once dropped, could not be raised again since there was no anchor windlass.
A Navy Admiral decided that he wanted to watch the operation so he came out and rode on TUPELO. As we approached the channel that the Seabees had blown up in the reef so we could get the OREGON in, I went aboard her to supervise the securing to the mooring buoy and the stretching out to where the anchor had to be dropped. The anchor chain was secured by a pelican hook to a ring on deck and was dropped by striking the tongue of the pelican hook with a sledge hammer. Everything had to be precise; so I felt that I was best qualified to decide when to drop the anchor. Came the time, I swung and missed! I tried a second time with a mighty swing and missed again! Just then, the voice of the Admiral boomed out over the speakers "Tell that officer to let a Bo's'n's mate do it." Rest assured that when the Admiral sat down for lunch in the wardroom, I was conspicuously absent. I grabbed my sandwich in the pantry and disappeared.
There was another time when the Navy was getting ready to invade the Philippines and needed a supply of dynamite for the Seabees to blow up beach obstructions at Palau Island. We took 250 tons of the 40% gelatin boxes aboard completely filling the main hold and the entire buoy deck stacked to the height of the bulwarks. Joining a slow convoy we headed West. This was one time in a convoy that we did not have to worry about collision with other ships since no one would come near us. It was on this trip that I drew my pistol and for the first time pointed it at another human being.
We had arrived in the atoll late in the afternoon. The water was too deep to anchor and a merchant ship was tied up to the only mooring buoy. I brought Tupelo alongside the ship and asked the Mate on deck for permission to tie up alongside. He said we could not. It was after working hours and the union seamen would not take our lines. I told the Mate to get the union representative. A swarthy, mean-looking individual swaggered out and said, "This is a hungry ship and they won't pay any overtime." I explained how the Navy needed our cargo to save the lives of the Marines when they invaded the beach. This did not impress the man, who incidentally was being paid 150% wages for being in a war zone, in the least. Our bridge wing was just at the level of the ship's main deck so we were talking face to face. I drew my pistol, pointed it at him and told him I considered him a worse enemy than the nearest [Japanese], and that he had exactly 30 seconds to call his men out. He saw me pull the hammer back, cocking the gun. Of course he didn't know the gun was empty. There was instant cooperation and we got our cargo unloaded and left to go back to Guam.
By now I had been in the Pacific for what seemed a very long time. I had been promoted to Full Lieutenant and felt that I had served as XO here long enough. Our Captain, whom at first I loved like a father, was also feeling the strain, and was getting unreasonable with the crew. I felt that the morale of the crew was important to our job, and as a result I came into conflict with the Captain on occasion.
Fortunately, a message came in ordering me to return to Honolulu to take command of the Buoy Tender Walnut. About this time I started having problems with hemorrhoids, so I spent most of the nine-day trip on the transport sitting in hot baths. Arriving in Hawaii, I quickly relieved the departing skipper of Walnut, and then logged in at the Naval Hospital for surgery. The ship was in a repair status so the Exec held things together until I got back a week later.
Walnut was a former Department of Commerce Lighthouse Service vessel, built in the early thirties, was steam powered and had twin screws. A dream of a boat to handle. We worked entirely in the Hawaiian Islands except for an occasional supply trip to French Frigate Shoals.
We would often tie up at an out-island wharf where the fruit to be shipped was piled up awaiting transport. They piled the boxes high so one could not get at the fruit, but they did not realize that we could hoist a man up in a Bos'n's chair with our boom. All hands enjoyed a feast.
Life was rather routine (especially after Guam.) I learned how to carve monkeypod wood candy dishes. Earlier in the war, the Coast Guard, which had taken over the Steamboat Inspection Service (which examined Merchant Marine seamen for licenses) had, because of news reports of favoritism in examinations (whether true or not), declared a moratorium on letting Coast Guard personnel raise licenses for the duration. Now they had just opened it up.
I appeared at the door of the examiner's office the very next day to apply to raise my Second Mate's Ocean license. The chief yeoman tipped me off on how to keep on the good side of the crusty old captain who examined the deck people: Be there every morning before he gets there, and talk about his hobby of wood carving.
I followed that advice, and seven days of examination later, I had in my hand a License for Chief Mate, Unlimited Tonnage, Oceans AND Master, Oceans of 1500 Gross Tons, plus all the Pilotage that I had accumulated in prior years. It wasn't until I got back after the war that I was able to remove the tonnage limitation on Master.
When the war ended there was a scramble of Reserves checking their points to see if they could yet go home. I had an episode of a seaman threatening me. We had a third class Bos'ns mate who was always losing his Bos'ns pipe. He was about to leave for home when we inspected his sea bag, and there was the Bos'ns pipe. He got bent all out of shape and later (after we all got home) wrote me a "hate" letter in which he said, "You are hiding behind your two silver bars (rank insignia), and more than one man has your address." -- (ad infinitum, ad nauseam). I was not happy to read this tirade, but I considered the source and promptly forgot about it. Never again in my thirty year Coast Guard career did I ever experience another such episode.
In the spring of 1946, when I was out at French Frigate Shoals, I received a message ordering us back to Honolulu. I was to take command of one of the newer buoy tenders, the Redbud, and take her to the South Pacific Islands to re-supply the CG Loran Stations scattered about.
We towed an LCM (a landing craft capable of hauling a truck), so we could land supplies on open beaches where there were no docks. This worked fine for a number of landings. Most of the islands were populated with natives including bare-breasted maidens. We had a British Consular Official with us since some of these islands were British. One island had a radio operator with whom I corresponded after the war and sent him "Care" packages. He would send me carved objects d'art, some of which had inserts made from a downed [Japanese] aircraft.
All went well until we arrived at Johnson Island, a former Pan American seaplane base before the war, and the island that Amelia Earhart was trying to find when she was lost in her plane. In order to make a landing with the LCM, they had to have two vehicles down on the beach with winches, to run wires to each side of the bow of the landing craft. The boat would run for the beach at full speed, men would quickly hook the tow wires and the vehicles would haul the LCM firmly up on the beach out of the reach of the surf. Well, this time some person failed to properly secure the wire rope clamps on one side, and when they hauled away, one wire parted and the other pulled the LCM broadside in the surf.
They got the supplies out but now we had the problem of how to get the boat back off the beach. Normally a bulldozer would push on the boat's bow and work it back down into the water until the engines could be started to back the boat off. But now the engine room was flooded out from the surf and the boat was filling with sand. There was nothing that the bulldozer could do. These are the days that a captain dreads. He just has to come up with an answer. Redbud, a single screw electric drive ship, had been having main generator problems and one main engine was down. This left the ship with only half maneuvering power.
This was no time for a ship to go fooling around close to shore with only half power. We had to get the LCM off and launched our small motorboat to run a towing hawser ashore while I brought the ship in just as close as I dared. We finally got the hawser made fast. The people ashore had shoveled out most of the sand, so we pulled the LCM off. I had my most experienced officer on the small boat and had told him very positively NOT to allow anyone to jump aboard, but only to just stick the suction hose from his portable pump down into the engine room.
As could be expected, an eager beaver jumped aboard and immediately the stem sank. Now we had a wet eager beaver and a wreck halfway out to the ship, floating vertically in the water supported by the side tanks on the bow. Pulling it alongside we tried to raise the boat with the boom but it was impossible. We ended up sinking this menace to navigation with rifles.
Fortunately, this was our last scheduled stop, so we headed for home. When I went in to report to the District Commander, I was surprised to see that he was the officer I had failed to salute on my first day of duty in the Coast Guard. All he said was, "Guess you had a rough time, Son!" Shortly after that Redbud was assigned to the Navy for duty at The Atomic Test at Bikini. I was called up to the District Office to see a bunch of Navy Officers waiting to discuss the problems of establishing navigational aids at Bikini. They put a complete Navy cargo ship at my disposal to carry all the materials needed for marking the channels leading into Bikini Lagoon, and for positioning the target ships. We also sneaked in a cargo of beer.
Arriving at Bikini, we went to work for the Navy Hydrographic ship Sumner. It was fun working for the Navy since they knew absolutely nothing about buoy work. They wanted a buoy to be put in an exact position (within 15 geographic feet) for the purpose of orienting the elaborate shore instrumentation. It was to be in 180 feet of water and they wanted to use a spar buoy (which looks like a telegraph pole). They couldn't see that such a buoy could not watch within the tolerance desired.
So once again as usual, the Captain was expected to come up with a solution. We had a fat can buoy under which we hung a large cargo ship-size snatch block which we bummed from our personal cargo ship. Then we took a cement sinker with 200 feet of wire rope instead of chain, rove it through the block, and attached an iron ball normally used to ballast this type of buoy to keep it upright so that it hung freely as a pendulum. Then with theodolite stations set up at two locations ashore, we were guided by radio into maneuvering the ship with the buoy hanging alongside for a couple of hours until we were exactly on their desired station. Gently setting the sinker down we now had a buoy watching straight up and down without regard to current or wind drift. The Navy was happy.
On Easter Sunday I organized a brass quartet, and we played two services, morning and afternoon, since only half of the many ships' crews could be granted liberty at a time. By now the Navy had ships all over the place at Bikini, including the test target vessels.
We wrapped up our work at Bikini by towing a fresh water barge to Kwajalien and back, and then were ordered home about two weeks before the actual test. We did not get to see the results of our Bikini duty.
Upon returning to Honolulu, I was relieved and ordered back to the States for discharge, having accumulated well over the number of points eligible for return to civilian life.
Before leaving, a friendly yeoman at the District Office surreptitiously told me that the Navy had sent in a good report on me and that the Admiral had recommended me for a permanent commission in the regular Coast Guard.
There was no State-side transport available on ships, so I bummed a ride on a Navy former tuna boat going to San Diego. Having to stand a watch under the command of an "Ensign captain" was galling, but after four years of war, it was worth it in order to be heading home.