A Dying Wish for Wachapreague

Photo# 19-N-69682 USS Wachapreague on 20 May 1944, port bow view Taken from Navy site

By Linda CicoiraIt started out as a local man’s dying wish to inform people about the USS Wachapreague so the knowledge would somehow revitalize his hometown and make it as prosperous as it was when the late Johnny Tatum was growing up there many decades ago.

Once the Eastern Shore Post learned of the quest, a reporter began a search for details about the ship, which soon led to information about other boats that also had familiar titles. Navy vessels were named USS Saxis, USS Tangier, USS Accomack, USS Oyster Bay, and USS Chincoteague. A Coast Guard boat was called USCGC Assateague.

John Harrison “Johnny” Tatum died in 2015 when he was 58 years old. He lived in Wachapreague for years in the home of his grandparents, near the firehouse. He was a Navy veteran, worked on party fishing boats in Wachapreague, and did other jobs around town. 

Johnny Tatum was a rescue swimmer in the Navy, his first cousin William Tatum, also a Navy veteran, said recently. “If people fell off or had to eject, the helicopter would hover and he (Johnny Tatum) would jump out and rescue. We learned how to swim the hard way by jumping off the pier, falling off, or swimming with the currents,” the cousin added.

Johnny Tatum was stationed on a new carrier while in the service “when a pipe burst,” William Tatum said. “It was a chemical reaction that paralyzed him” and the injuries brought him back home. “I wish he was still living to tell this.”

Navy records show the USS Wachapreague was a motor torpedo boat tender commissioned from 1944 to 1946. During World War II, the boat was assigned to the Asiatic-Pacific theater and participated in two campaigns. “It earned four battle stars for World War II service,” records state.

This type of ship was also used by the Navy in the Vietnam War. It provided fuel and other provisions for torpedo boats. It was classified as “AGP” and is sometimes called a “patrol craft tender.” 

According to another Navy site, AGPs were often named for mythological figures. Wachapreague, a Native American word, is well known locally as meaning “Little City by the Sea.” The boat was also referred to as a seaplane tender. Those vessels were often named for bays, sounds, straits, aviation pioneers, or birds.

The Wachapreague weighed 2,400 tons with a full load. It was 311 feet long, had a 41-foot beam and a 14-foot draft. It could go up to 18 knots. It had diesel engines, was built at Lake Washington Shipyards in Houghton, Wash., and was commissioned on May 17, 1944. Another Navy listing stated the Wachapreague was christened by Mrs. E. L. Barr during launching ceremonies on July 10, 1943.

The boat departed San Diego, Calif., in July 1944, following shakedown training and got underway for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, en route to the Southwest Pacific. “She stopped briefly at Espiritu Santo, New Herbeides, and Brisbane, Australia, before reaching her ultimate destination … Milne Bay, New Guinea, where she began tending a patrol torpedo (PT) boat squadron,” a Navy record stated. 

“In October, she sailed with her sisters,” USS Oyster Bay and USS Willoughby (an area near Norfolk, Va.), “all escorting a group of 45 PT boats.”

“Wachapreague slowing to nine knots periodically to fuel two torpedo boats simultaneously, one alongside to starboard and one astern, eventually replenishing the fuel supply of all 15 of her brood and successfully completed the voyage under their own power. A brief two-day respite at Kossol Roads, Palau, for repairs and a further refueling of the PT boats, preceded the final leg of the voyage.”

A few days after arriving in the Philippines, her PT boats played “a prominent role in the Battle of Surigao Strait, in which the Japanese lost two battleships, two cruisers, and several destroyers.”

“Wachapreague continued to tend PT boats in the Philippines for the next six months, coming under attack several times by kamikazes but escaping damage,” the Navy reported. “In April 1945 she accompanied her PT boats to North Borneo, where she continued her tender duties through the end of the war.” 

It wasn’t until after that the Wachapreague would actually see the Atlantic Ocean. The boat arrived at San Francisco in December 1945 and sailed for Boston in March 1946. 

On Oct. 24, 1944, “upon receipt of word that three powerful Japanese task forces were approaching from three directions, PT boats tended by Wachapreague sped to action stations,” the Navy records show. “In the van of the southern Japanese force steamed two battleships and a heavy cruiser, screened by four destroyers, 30 nautical miles behind came the second group, consisting of three cruisers and four destroyers. The American PT boats met the Japanese southern force head-on; three coordinated destroyer torpedo attacks soon followed; while American battleships and cruisers under Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf deployed across the northern end of Surigao Strait to cross the T of the Japanese ships. The devastation the American warships wreaked upon the Japanese force was nearly total. Only one Japanese ship, the destroyer Shigure, emerged from what became known as the Battle of Surigao Strait.”

“PT boats from MTBR on 12 then threw the second task group off balance at the head of the strait, slamming a torpedo into the side of the Japanese light cruiser Abukuma and forcing Abukuma out of the battle line, badly damaged. The Japanese flagship, the heavy cruiser Nachi, collided with another ship in the melee and found her own speed reduced to 18 knots. This second echelon of Japanese ships, correctly surmising that the first had fallen upon some hard times, then fled, hotly pursued by American planes which administered the coup de grace to sink the already crippled Abukuma and the destroyer Shiranuhi.”

Those actions and the battle were part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, “a decisive defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy from which it never recovered. Yet, while the Japanese capacity for seaborne operations lessened, Japanese forces nevertheless could still strike back from the skies. While the crew of Wachapreague labored to repair the badly damaged torpedo boat on Oct. 25, 1944, a Japanese plane attacked the ship, only to be driven off by a heavy anti-aircraft barrage. Later that day, Wachapreague shifted to Hinunagan Bay for refueling operations that would enable her six PT boats to return to San Pedro Bay. Japanese nuisance attacks from the air continued, however, and a dive bomber attacked Wachapreague just as she was completing the refueling … as PT-134 pulled away from Wachapreague’s side, a Japanese bomb landed some 18 feet from the PT boat’s stern, killing one man and wounding four …  Moving out under cover of a smoke screen, Wachapreague vacated her anchorage just before 14 Japanese planes struck and, while clearing the bay, fired on three twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M bombers … claiming two kills as one … crashed into the sea and a second, trailing smoke, crashed behind a nearby island.”

It was also reported Jan. 4, 1945, “a Japanese suicide aircraft dived into a merchant ship 100 yards ahead of Wachapreague … another came under fire as it plunged toward the merchant ship SS Kyle V. Johnson, and a third headed for Wachapreague, only to be knocked into the sea by a heavy anti-aircraft barrage. Later that evening, came alongside Wachapreague and transferred two men she had rescued from the water who had been blown overboard from Kyle V. Johnson during the earlier heavy air action. Wachapreague was anchored at Port Sual to tend to PT boats that gradually extended their patrols northward … and wreaking havoc on Japanese barge traffic and shipping along the northwest coast of Luzon, destroying some 20 barges. Wachapreague meanwhile continued to make all electrical and engine repairs for the squadron PT boats and handled all major communications for the motor torpedo boat squadrons until she departed Lingayen March 12, 1945, to replenish at Leyte.”

Later during the Borneo campaign, Wachapreague “took part in the invasion of Tarakan Island. While the guns still pounded the shore and the invasion itself was underway, Wachapreague entered the Tarakan Bay May 1, 1945, to establish an advance base for her PT boats. For the next four months, until the surrender of Japan on Aug. 15, 1945, that ended World War II, Wachapreague operated from this bay, tending … 36 PT boats while they in turn conducted daily offensive runs up the coast of Borneo.”

The Wachapreague was transferred to the Coast Guard May 10, 1946, and was struck from the Naval Register on June 5, 1946. Later that year, the boat was commissioned the USCGC McCulloch, a high endurance cutter.

It was decommissioned and transferred to South Vietnam in June 1972 and renamed RVNS (Republic of Vietnam Navy South) Ngô Quyền and served as a frigate or warship. In April 1975, custody of the vessel was assumed by the Republic of the Philippines and it was soon commissioned as BRP Gregorio de Pilar. In May 1985, the boat was decommissioned by the Philippine Navy. 

The final disposition was listed as “fate unknown.”

When Wachapreague was transferred to the Coast Guard, it was converted for service as a weather-reporting ship. The new name, McCulloch, honored the financier Hugh McCulloch, who served as  Secretary of the Treasury under presidents Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Chester Arthur.

McCulloch’s first homeport was Boston. The boat’s primary duty was to gather meteorological data and it was required to patrol a 210-square-mile area for three weeks at a time, “leaving only when physically relieved by another Coast Guard cutter or in the case of a dire emergency.”

“While McCulloch was patrolling Ocean Station Bravo off” Labrador, Canada, in January 1959, “raging winter seas cracked her main decks and swept one crewman overboard.” The boat managed to reach Naval Station Argentina, Newfoundland, without further mishap, the Navy reported.

In October and November 1965, McCulloch was assigned to patrol the Florida Strait and rescue Cuban refugees during the Cuban exodus, where many people “were in overcrowded and unseaworthy craft handled by totally inexperienced people … In early November 1965, McCulloch rescued 280 Cuban refugees from small craft in the Florida Strait and carried them to Key West.” The 144-member crew was cited for outstanding service and was awarded a Unit Commendation.

McCulloch was reclassified as a high endurance cutter in 1966 and was stationed in Wilmington, N.C., where the boat worked in law enforcement and search and rescue operations until 1972. In 1970, McCullough helped fight a fire aboard Tsui Yung, a merchant ship in Wilmington.

Later, as the Ngô Quyền, at the end of the Vietnam War, the boat “became a ship without a country. She fled to Subic Bay in the Philippines, packed with South Vietnamese refugees.”

The Philippine Navy took custody and cleaned and repaired the boat, renaming it Gregorio del Pilar. “The boat was discarded in July 1990 “and probably scrapped.”

Read about the other boats in next week’s edition of the Post. 

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