- A.N. Other
- Ship histories and stories, WWII operations, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Reserve
- June 2019 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Paul Baker
On Christmas Day 1944, just as the 34 members of the crew of HMAS Reserve celebrated the occasion aboard their ship in San Pedro Bay in the Philippines, Australian mainland newspapers were preparing to report on the role they played as the only RAN ship involved in the Allied landing on Mindoro just over a week earlier by delivering a barge full of ‘power spirit’ or high octane petrol for use by PT boats to protect the landing forces. Perhaps it was the fault of the relatively new Bass Strait telephone cable that the Tasmanian newspapers, meanwhile, were preparing to proudly report that Reserve’s cargo was ‘a fuel barge laden with paratroops’.1
The Mindoro landing, however, was only the beginning of Reserve’s five month deployment to the Philippines during which she was involved in two major amphibious landings, became the only Royal Australian Navy tug that can claim an enemy aircraft downed in combat, survived a near-miss kamikaze attack, and helped to construct the largest drydock in the country.2
The Seventh Fleet Needs a Tug
Less than three years earlier, in the shadow of the fall of the British Commonwealth’s fortress of Singapore and the looming loss of the US fortress in the Philippines in 1942, MacArthur was selected to lead the combined Australian, British, Dutch and US forces of South West Pacific Area (SWPA) Command. As he and his staff set about shaping an effective fighting force to shift from defence to offence that year, the geography of the area of responsibility dictated that an amphibious landing force was going to be an essential requirement. As a result, what would eventually be named the 7th Amphibious Force was established in January 1943 as the amphibious landing task force of SWPA Command’s naval fleet, which itself was later renamed the 7th Fleet.3
The first landing ship to be made available for the 7th Amphibious Force in March 1943 was the recently refitted infantry landing ship HMAS Manoora, followed soon after by the USS Henry T. Allen. Further ships including tank landing ships were allocated to the force throughout 1943.4Prior to the Force’s first unopposed landing operations in June 1943, it was determined that an ocean-going tug was also required as part of the amphibious force, to drag ships off banks and reefs and to do general towage work.5
A solution was found in the guise of a tug operated by the Commonwealth Salvage Board. Originally named BAT 11 and constructed in Texas in 1942, she was the first of three ocean going tugs built for Australia to a British design, capable of maintaining a speed of 10 knots towing a 10,000-ton vessel in fair weather. At just over 43 metres in length and displacing 800 tons at full load, she had a crew of 34 and was armed with a 3-inch gun, two 20-mm Oerlikons and one 0.50 cal. machine gun. Despite her impressive towing capability, she was renowned among her crews for her tendency to roll excessively at sea.6
New Guinea Landings
It was not until 27 August, however, that she was taken over from the Commonwealth Salvage Board in a ‘bad state’ and commissioned into the RAN as HMAS Reserve. With 7th Amphibious Force’s first opposed assault landing planned for Lae in September, Reserve was urgently required in New Guinea but was unable to depart Brisbane until ten days later. Even then it was only with a crew which, according to the captain, were, with two exceptions, entirely inexperienced. Off Brisbane, she immediately encountered rough seas from which all hands were prostrated except two sailors, two officers and the captain. The captain reported that, at that stage, they were not in a position to repel any enemy or to salvage a peanut.7
However, an intensive training program coupled with practical recovery experience on the journey to New Guinea brought the crew up to standard. Their subsequent performance under fire at the Cape Gloucester and Saidor landings over the Christmas and New Year period, in which they recovered a number of beached tank landing ships, soon earned the ship’s company the praise of the Naval Board for their excellent work. In January 1944, after the landing at Saidor, Reserveand the much older US tug that had been drafted into the 7th Amphibious Force to participate in the Lae landing, USS Sonoma,commissioned in 1912, were placed under operational control of the Commander Service Force Seventh Fleet.8
A Warm Welcome to the Philippines
In November 1944, Reserve was tasked with towing two dry docks and two barges to Leyte via the Kossol Passage near Palau. Leaving one of the dry docks at Kossol Passage because it was sinking, Reserve eventually rendezvoused with her escort, USS Orange, some 260 km southeast of Leyte just before midnight on 5 December. With dawn came a Japanese welcoming party in the form of a torpedo bomber. Despite fire from both ships, the aircraft was able to drop a torpedo before turning away unharmed. Fortunately, the torpedo reversed its course shortly after striking the water and it was last seen moving away from the convoy. Though other ships were attacked as they continued into the Leyte Gulf, Reserveand Orangewere left unmolested and arrived in San Pedro Bay on the morning of 7 December.9
A ‘Motley Assembly’: a Slow Tow to Mindoro
While at Leyte, Reserve received orders to join a convoy of tugs supporting the landing on Mindoro on 15 December. Reserve’s tow was a large barge of high octane petrol for the immediate consumption of US PT boats operating from a base to be established there.
A second Seventh Fleet ocean going tug, the USS Whippoorwill, was also assigned to the convoy to tow a pontoon crane barge and a pontoon drydock for the new PT boat base. Escorted by five destroyers, the remainder of the convoy consisted of a US Army aviation fuel tanker, four US Army tugs and two tank landing craft in what the convoy commander described as ‘a motley assembly of 4-knot tows’. Officially referred to as the ‘Slow Tow Convoy’, its organisation appeared to be haphazard fromthestartwiththeconvoycommanderlater describing the whole voyage as a comical but serious Saga of the Sea.10
Although the convoy was due to sail early on the morning of 12 December, the convoy commander only received his orders to assemble it on the afternoon before without any information from Army Headquarters on how to establish contact with the participating US Army vessels. When the convoy was eventually assembled, the commander discovered that the Army contingent had only the vaguest sort of verbal orders in regard to delivery of their cargoes once at Mindoro and the only way control could be maintained over the convoy was by course and speed flag hoists, and plain language flashing light as some vessels did not have radios.11
Organised into three columns with Reserveleading the left and Whippoorwillthe centre columns respectively, the Slow Tow Convoy commenced its long journey to Mindoro down the Surigao Strait some three hours late. Keeping a speed of 4 to 5 knots, head winds and adverse currents at times reduced the speed being made good to about one-half knot and on at least one occasion they were actually stationary or losing a little ground. During daylight hours, the protective screen of five destroyers continually circled the convoy at a speed of 12 to 15 knots although, with the Slow Tow Convoy being the first of the landing force convoys to set out, the first day was relatively uneventful. By 0500 hours on the following morning, 13 December, they were south of Bohol when the faster convoys of landing ships and fire support vessels which had set out a few hours after the Slow Tow were forced to manoeuvre around them.12
As the day progressed, the men aboard the tugs and their escorts felt like they stood out like ‘bogey-bait’, sentiments not helped by numerous remarks and chuckles directed at them prior to their departure. By contrast, a sense of security had built up among the other convoys over the day in the absence of enemy air activity after they overtook the Slow Tow. That was shattered with a shock in the afternoon when the landing force’s flagship USS Nashvillewas hit by a kamikaze Zero carrying two bombs, resulting in a large number of deaths and serious damage to the ship. Just as further Japanese aircraft were reported in the area, enemy aircraft which had not been detected on radar were sighted overhead of the Slow Tow Convoy and, despite the presence of US fighters, two twin-engined bombers soon attacked, releasing three bombs, all of which missed. One of the bombers was hit by fire from two of the destroyers and crashed into the sea well behind the convoy and, although there were further aircraft sightings, the Slow Tow was then left unmolested for the rest of the afternoon and evening.13
The morning of 14 December saw US Navy fighters take station early over the Slow Tow, less than an hour before the convoy was attacked by three aircraft. A Zero was followed in and ‘splashed’ by one of the US Navy Hellcats in close proximity to theconvoy, despitethedanger of the Hellcat being hit by anti-aircraft fire from the ships, exemplifying the aggressiveness the pilots were later commended for. Hellcats also shot down a second aircraft as it approached the convoy, while the third was beaten off by fire from the ships. The rest of day passed quietly and it was not until just before noon on 15 December, as the landing forces were going ashore on Mindoro, that the Slow Tow Convoy was again attacked. This time a twin-engined bomber was picked up about 50 kilometres from the convoy, giving the destroyers time to get into good defensive positions. The destroyers opened fire when the aircraft got within range with one using its searchlight in an attempt to distract the pilot. The pilot then dived at the destroyer while being repeatedly hit, dropping a bomb which fell short, and crashing in flames just off the other side of the ship. There were no further attacks that day and the only other highlight was the landing ships and their escorts again passing the Slow Tow Convoy, this time in the opposite direction, having completed their part in the landing operation.14
Claiming a Kill
By the morning of 16 December, the Slow Tow Convoy was only 75 kilometres south of the landing site on Mindoro and began to attract more attention from Japanese aircraft with the combat air patrol starting their day by shooting down a twin-engined bomber. About an hour later, an aircraft passing in front of the convoy at high altitude was fired upon by the ships but it did not approach the convoy while US fighters chased off a further three aircraft. Soon after, a fast moving single-engined aircraft was picked up on radar approaching the convoy at high speed from the left and managed to pass under the US fighters manoeuvring to intercept it. All ships on the left side of the convoy opened fire, including Reserveleading the left column of tows and the nearest destroyer which was turning to cross in front of Reserveto bring more guns to bear on the aircraft. The aircraft which most witnesses described as a Zero subsequently crashed and exploded extremely close to the small US Army aviation fuel tanker YO‑14in the column behind Reserve. Not surprisingly, most ships that had engaged the aircraft claimed at least a partial kill from the downing of the aircraft, with the captain of Reserve giving credit to the port Oerlikon gunner (and former Port Adelaide footballer) DougDangerfield.15
Meanwhile, aboard the 50 metre-long YO-14, …the terrific explosion threw all hands violently to the deck amid flying glass, plane fragments and shrapnel. Fires broke out on the bridge, the awning covering the deck, in the lower passage ways and in three of the living quarters on the port side. They were extinguished before getting out of control. After a general muster, five members of the crew were missing. Despite the damage, YO-14 was able to continue with her task and three of the missing men were picked up by other ships in the convoy. The two men still missing, Erwin L. Peterson and Jack H. Hogue of the US Coast Guard, are listed on the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery.16
The day still had one more scare in store for the convoy. When they were just off Mindoro, one of the escorting destroyers picked up a good sound contact astern of the convoy which was initially believed to have been a submarine. During the destroyer’s attack run on the target, however, further evidence suggested the initial identification was doubtful. Despite this, depth charges were dropped as a precaution.17
By 1730 hours that afternoon, Reserve and Whippoorwill had detached from the convoy to proceed independently to Mangarin Bay to deliver their tows for the new PT base. They rejoined the convoy of vessels returning to Leyte just prior to its departure the next morning for a journey during which enemy aircraft were sighted daily but no attacks were made. After the convoy arrived back in San Pedro Bay on 19 December, the Commander of Amphibious Group 9 recorded that the Slow Tow had …successfully completed a hazardous and difficult mission with supplies necessary for the early establishment of motor torpedo boat and air operations at Mindoro, PI. That it was successful under adverse conditions, is a tribute to the officers and men of the task unit.18
Close Calls at Lingayen
Employed on harbour duties over the Christmas and New Year period, Reserve was again tasked with a long tow in convoy from 6 January 1945, this time in support of the Lingayen Gulf landings. Their tow this time consisted of a pontoon drydock and a fuel oil barge. Aside from Reserve, the convoy, designated the G-4 Echelon, consisted of Whippoorwill, eleven US Army tugs with tows, two small US Army tankers and two US Army tugs without tows to act as ‘trouble shooters’. In total, the convoy comprised 57 hulls in three columns stretching just over ten kilometres in length, escorted by two destroyers. Once again, the first attack on the convoy occurred when the convoy was south of Bohol early on the morning of 7 January. The aircraft, apparently not observed by most ships in the heavy haze prior to dawn, passed over the convoy before dropping two bombs which missed the escorting destroyer sailing ahead of the convoy. Although the aircraft was briefly sighted, the crew were unable to engage it.19
Contrary to the concerns of the crews, however, no further attack was launched on the convoy until early in the afternoon of 12 January when the convoy was approximately 95 kilometres west-southwest of Subic Bay. Three Japanese Vals were observed flying towards the convoy from behind it, off to the right side. One of the aircraft, flying at a low altitude, passed over the two right hand columns of the convoy before turning to fly between the centre and left hand columns. Coming out of the sun, it then attempted to dive into Reserve,missing the bridge by a metre or two and crashing into the ocean just off Reserve’s port bow. The captain recorded that …the gun’s crew on the forecastle was smothered in oil and water and hundreds of pieces of plane landed on board – eagerly caught up by all members of the ship’s company as souvenirsbut that he…was pleased to be able to report to the anxious enquiries of the escort that we had no casualties.20
The remaining two aircraft then commenced to dive on the convoy out of the sun, strafing and bombing while under fire by a number of ships in the convoy. The aircraft subsequently broke off their attack with none of the ships and apparently neither of the aircraft damaged in the incident. The convoy was again attacked on the following morning, 13 January, as it sailed north about 50 kilometres west of Agno in Zambales. A single-engined fighter approached the convoy from behind before diving under fire at an Army tanker at the rear of the centre column. Overshooting its target, the aircraft crashed into the ocean between the centre and left columns, leaving the tanker undamaged.21
After the convoy arrived at Lingayen on 14 January, the convoy commander recorded that: …the fact that all units were delivered at the objective area without damage is difficult to explain.Reservedelivered her tow, probably at Port Sual, and was then employed on various duties in the harbour. On 22 January, Reserveand Whippoorwilljoined a convoy bound for Leyte, but Reservewas soon forced to turn back with engine trouble. While repairs were being effected, Reservehad a further two close calls with a bomb landing about 45 metres in front of the ship on 27 January and two more bombs falling about 350 metres away on 29 January. Thankfully, the ship was finally able to leave the Lingayen Gulf for Leyte again in another convoy on 31 January.22
Return to general towing and harbour duties
On the morning of 5 February, the convoy from the Lingayen Gulf sailed into San Pedro Bay on what the captain described as ‘a red letter day’ in that the crew received their first mail from home in three and a half months. And with her arrival, Reserveagain returned to harbour duties. By this stage, Allied forces were moving forward at a rapid rate leaving the Seventh Fleet’s Service Force suffering from a critical shortage of tugs required to move the floating equipment and personnel forward into the newly recaptured areas and an acute shortage of floating drydocks, particularly those capable of providing for repair of vessels up to that of destroyer or submarine size, which left ships suffering from battle damage waiting over a month to be docked for repairs. The preceding months had also been a very strenuous operating period for the vessels of the Seventh Fleet during which little or no routine maintenance had been possible, and it was obvious that there were going to be increasing demands on the Service Force for both maintenance and battle damage.23
Although extensive repair facilities were being constructed on Manicani Island in Guiuan on Samar and a large floating drydock and the first three sections of an even larger one capable of accommodating battleships (ABSD-5) had arrived at Leyte, they were not expected to be operational until at least April. Subic Bay had also been liberated by this time and, despite damage to the facilities there, it was obvious that a repair unit could be more quickly brought into service there than on Manicani Island. Accordingly, when two floating drydocks capable of accommodating destroyers arrived at Leyte in mid-February, Reserve was tasked with towing one to Subic, departing San Pedro Bay under escort on 20 February.24
Arriving without mishap on 27 February,Reserve’s crew enjoyed a well-earned quiet spell at Subic before departing again for Leyte on 4 March. From her subsequent arrival back at Leyte on 7 March, the shipwas engaged ongeneral harbour towage and assisting in the assembly of the Advanced Base Sectional Dock Five (ABSD-5). Finally, on 6 May, ABSD-5 was finished, except for welding and testing, and Reserve was ordered south to resume salvage and towage operations in New Guinea waters, making her final departure from the Philippines two days later. Notably, two months after her departure, ABSD-5 accepted the first battleship to be drydocked in Philippine waters in the history of the US Navy.25
With such a varied and distinguished war record,Reserve has definitely earned the right to be among the RAN ships listed on the Australian Philippines Liberation Memorial at Palo on Leyte, ensuring that the ship and the service of her crew is not forgotten.
1 AWM78/301/1, Reports of Proceedings, HMAS Reserve: August 1943 – December 1948; Wonders Of Bass Strait Cable: Telephone, Telegraph, and Wireless, Argus, Melbourne, 11 Mar 1936, p. 8; Australian Naval Tug in Mindoro Landing: Victorians in Crew, Argus, Melbourne, 26 December 1944, p. 12; SA Naval Men At Mindoro: Tug’s Long Service in South Pacific, Advertiser, Adelaide, 26 December 1944, p. 2; RAN Tug Was at Mindoro, Newcastle Morning Heraldand Miners’ Advocate, Newcastle, 26 December 1944, p. 2; Ace Australian Tug Visits Port Adelaide, Mail, Adelaide, 11 May 1946, p. 2; Only One Ran Ship At Mindoro, Mercury, Hobart, 26 December 1944, p. 2;Aus. Tug Took Part in Mindoro Landing, Examiner, Launceston, 26 December 1944, p. 4.
2 Mail, 11 May 1946, p. 2.
3 Seventh Amphibious Force Command History: 10 January 1943 – 23 December 1945, p. I-1; Edward J. Marolda (2012), Ready Seapower: A History of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, Department of the Navy, Washington, p. 1; Maj Gen Charles A. Willoughby– Editor in Chief (1966), Reports of General MacArthur: The Campaigns of MacArthur in the Pacific Volume I, US government Printing Office, Washington, p. 105.
4 Seventh Amphibious Force Command History, pp. I-2 – I-3; Ross Gillett (1983), Australian & New Zealand Warships 1914-1945, Doubleday Australia, Sydney, pp. 148 and 171; Ship’s History of USS Henry T. Allen (APA-15).
5 A Tug’s Trials – Storm-Bound in Bight: The Reserve’s Proud Record, West Australian, Perth, 22 May 1946, p. 11; Seventh Amphibious Force Command History, p. II-64 and Annex C Sheet 1.
6 Gillett (1983), p. 227; Mail, 11 May 1946, p. 2; West Australian, 22 May 1946, p. 11; AWM78/301/1.
7 AWM78/301/1;Seventh Amphibious Force Command History, pp. I-1 and I-4.
8 AWM78/301/1;Seventh Amphibious Force Command History, pp. C-1 – C-6; Commander Seventh Amphibious Force, War Diary 1-31 January 1944; USS Sonoma, War Diary 30 August 1943; USS SONOMA War Diary 1 September 1943; Naval History Division (1976),Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships Volume VI: Historical Sketches – Letters R Through S, Department of The Navy, Washington, p. 555.
9 AWM78/301/1; Commanding Officer USS Orange(PF-43), Action – Operation Report, Leyte Gulf and Entrance, 5-7 December 1944.
10 AWM78/301/1; Commander Task Unit 78.3.12 (CDD-48), Action Report of Slow Tow Convoy, Love Three Phase of Mike One Operation; T. Garth Connelly (1994), PT Boats in Action, Squadron/Signal Publications, Carrollton, p. 40; Mail, Adelaide, 11 May 1946, p. 2; Commanding Officer USS Whippoorwill, Action Reports of the Mindoro Island, Philippine Islands Operation.
11 Commander Task Unit 78.3.12 (CDD-48).
12 Commander Task Unit 78.3.12 (CDD-48); USS Bush(DD-529),Action Report 12-19 December 1944 Escorting Slow Tow with Supplies to Mindoro, PI; Commander Task Group Seventy-eight point Three (Commander Amphibious Group Nine), Mindoro Action Report – 15 December 1944; Commander Task Group Seventy-seven point Three (Commander Cruiser Division 15),Action Report of Mindoro Operations, 12-17 December 1944.
13 USSBush(DD-529); Commander Task Group Seventy-seven point Three (Commander Cruiser Division 15); USS Nashville(CL-43), War Diary for Month of December 1944; USS Holt(DE-706), Action Report, 12 to 19 December 1944.
14 USS BUSH (DD-529); USS Holt(DE-706).
15 USS BUSH (DD-529); USS Holt(DE-706); USSHalford (DD-480), Action Report for Period 11-19 December 1944, While Escorting Slow Tow Convoy to Mindoro Island; AWM78/301/1; Mail, 11 May 1946, p. 2.
16 CDR Edgar T. Bassford USCGR (Ret), Tanker Y-14 In 230 Air Raids, published in Coast Guard Combat Veterans Association Newsletter 2-91, June 1991; USS Bush(DD-529); https://media.defense.gov/2017/Jun/25/2001768433/-1/-1/0/USCGCUTTERMEMORIALLIST.PDF accessed 30 December 2018; United States Coast Guard Enlisted Memorial Foundation, Fallen Roster, http://www.cgemf.org/fallen-rosteraccessed 30 December 2018; https://www.abmc.gov/node/514114and https://www.abmc.gov/node/514099accessed 30 December 2018.
18 USSBush(DD-529); AWM78/301/1; Commander Task Unit 78.3.12 (CDD-48).
19 AWM78/301/1; USS Whippoorwill(ATO-169), War Diary for the Month of January 1945; USS DAY (DE-225),Action Report – Luzon Operation.
20 AWM78/301/1; USS Whippoorwill (ATO-169); USS DAY (DE-225).
21 AWM78/301/1; USS Whippoorwill(ATO-169); USS DAY (DE-225).
22 AWM78/301/1; USS Whippoorwill(ATO-169); USS DAY (DE-225); Task Group 78.1, War Diary January 1945; USS Wilson(DD-408), War Diary for the Month of January, 1945.
23 AWM78/301/1; USS Wilson(DD-408); Service Force, Seventh Fleet, War Diary for February 1945.
24 AWM78/301/1; Service Force, Seventh Fleet.
25 AWM78/301/1; US Naval Operating Base Leyte Gulf and US Naval Station Guiuan, Samar, War Diary – 20 October 1944 to 31 May 1945