10th Emergency Rescue Boat Squadron

11th Army Air Force
Alaska - WWII
by Ralph M. Bartholomew

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Crash Boats refueling at Dutch Harbor, around 1943.The wartime official history of our squadron was written by First Sergeant Wilson G. Crompton, later Warrant Officer, and is found in microfilmed documents at the Air Force Document Center, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. The history began in the period prior to WWII when in December 1940 Major Everett S. Davis, Commanding Officer, Elmendorf Air Base, saw the success the Royal Air Force was having in the English Channel with fast heavy duty small boats recovering downed air crews and returning them to fly again.

Lt. Gordon R. Donley, later Captain then Major, was dispatched to Ketchikan, Alaska in December 1941 where the Coast Guard had agreed to assist in training small boat crews. Lt. Donley brought with him a few non-commissioned officers on detached service from various Elmendorf squadrons and immediately began recruiting young men in Ketchikan who had been raised in the local fishing fleet and had their basic small boat training already.

The official name of our organization became the "Air Corps Marine Rescue Service," later changed to the "924th Quartermaster Boat Squadron (Avn)" then finally to the "10th AAF Emergency Rescue Boat Squadron." Our CO was extremely distressed, to say the least, when Army officials insisted that only the Quartermaster Corps operated boats, however, he was successful in changing it back later to Army Air Force.

As stated in the history, Lt. Donley was able to rent the wintertime vacant Filipino Bunkhouse from the New England Fish Co. salmon cannery for a barracks. Many of his first recruits came from the local CCC organization that had been disbanded when the war started. I was number six to enlist as I too had spent considerable time in the fishing industry and before that in the Sea Scouts where we had served on a number of cruises on Coast Guard vessels for our early training.

New England Fish Co. wanted their bunkhouse back as the new salmon season was approaching, and Lt. Donley had been successful in recruiting enough young men so that the bunkhouse had become too crowded.

We had by then received two new 42' Owens twin screw cabin cruisers, the P-30 and P-31, that became our training vessels and later were assigned to air stations as rescue boats.

We then moved to the abandoned CCC Camp at Ward Lake, some eight miles out the north highway from Ketchikan, where with just a little clean-up, was both usable and somewhat isolated from the community. That became the "boot camp" for our Army training as well as our classroom for the navigation, signaling and small boat handling classes.

Not too long after our transfer to the Ward Lake CCC Camp, the military decided to move the Aleut natives out of their communities in the Aleutians and move them further away from the war to Southeastern Alaska points. As our CCC Camp looked like a good place to deposit some of those families, we again had to move, this time to the new Annette Island Army Air Field.

I was temporarily assigned to the crash and refueling ready tent on the runway, then to the "Nan B.," an old wooden cannery tender taken over by the Army. We spent our nights patrolling offshore on the lookout for Jap submarines, and the days hauling passengers and mail between Annette and Ketchikan, and supplies to outlying overseas communication cable guard posts on Prince of Whales Island.

Lt. Donley finally received word that the first two of our 104' rescue boats were under construction at the Stephens Brothers shipyard in Stockton, California, so he shipped 20 of us to San Francisco for further training in gunnery and celestial navigation with the Navy on Treasure Island, engine training at the Hall Scott factory in Berkeley and weather training at the Stockton Air Base.

As we had received Yellow Fever shots (what did we need those for in the Aleutians?) before leaving Annette, several of our group were hospitalized as the vaccine was found to be unstable. As late as 1988, the government was still checking back on those who had become ill from the vaccine. One of our members spent several months in the Presidio Hospital and nearly died.

When departing for California, we came over to Ketchikan on our own boats, then boarded a USCG 38' picket Boat to go alongside a Standard Oil Co. tanker that had slowed down in the channel for us. We had to climb up a rope netting with our barracks bags, helmets, rifles, gas masks, and sleeping bags, then sleep on the steel deck in the midship house for the trip to the States.

Prior to going back to Stockton, the Squadron obtained two "T" boats, the 33 and 34 for training in Seattle operations and I served on the T-33.

After adding water tanks in Seattle at the BarBee Shipyard, the 141 to 146 traveling together went on to their Aleutian base duty stations. I was then aboard the P-142 and assigned to the new air base at Amchitka along with the P-143.

We had been delayed for some hull repair at the Kodiak Seabee ship repair yard after the P-146 had damaged our guards when their engine failed to respond in a landing at Anchorage.

While at the BarBee yard in Seattle, an 85' wood herring seiner type vessel had been acquired and a new wheelhouse was constructed along with a medical dispensary installed in the hold capable of handling 12 patients. The vessel was designated the TP-92 and was stationed in Chernofski Harbor to serve the Umnak area. It was felt that with the fishing vessel lines that it might be able to outperform the higher speed crash boats.

Following the war, this same vessel operated out of Ketchikan as a fish and freight packer renamed the "Sidney." The Sidney burned and sunk in about 1973 while returning south across the Gulf of Alaska. Jim Petine, one of the WWII crew, has contacted me with a history of this vessel during its service life.

In 1943 we also took delivery at San Francisco of the 158' steel vessel named "Col. Joseph C. Morrow" designated "HA-2" for hauling auxiliary. The HA-2 was carried on the roster as an aircraft retriever as it was equipped with a 30 ton jumbo lift boom along with regular cargo booms.

The cargo capacity of 500 measurement tons enabled us to haul priority Air Force cargos and crash boat parts and supplies to and between all the Aleutian bases from the Tacoma Air Force terminal. I was transferred from Amchitka to the HA-2 at Adak just after Christmas of 1943 and spent the next two years aboard variously as the Chief Radio Operator up through Mate and Executive Officer before discharge in November 1945.

The squadron next added six 104' cash boats with P-214 through P-217 built by Sagstad Shipyards, Seattle and P-219 and P-220 constructed in North Bend, Oregon and powered by three Kermath gas engines.

We went back down the netting to a pilot boat at Port Angeles, WA. then via bus and ferry to Ft. Lawton in Seattle where we moved into tents. After a few days we departed via Northern Pacific RR chair cars for San Francisco.

We first moved into the old Ghirardelli candy factory being used as a temporary barracks, then to tents in Funston Park, out in the Marina District, with an MP detachment.

The boat construction schedule had been delayed so it was the fall of 1942 when we finally moved into a barracks in Stockton, CA to help prepare the P-114 and P-115. We assisted in mounting the three 50 caliber machine guns and the two 20mm cannons and made such other changes or additions we felt were needed for Alaska service. The P-115 was ready first and I was assigned as Chief Radio Operator.

We departed several weeks ahead of the P-114 down river for San Francisco where we moored at the foot of Market Street. A young lady friend of our skipper, "Sgt. Don DeSomery," brought Thanksgiving dinner aboard for the crew. The were later married and returned to Elmendorf AFB together for our 1986 reunion, the first time I had seen them since early in the war.

An elderly ship pilot, brought out of retirement for the war effort, was assigned to pilot our boat up the Pacific Coast to Seattle. He wanted to travel way offshore to get away from land, and we didn't want to lose sight of land.

We stayed within sight of land and took a pretty good beating off the Northern California coast, then going into Coos Bay, Oregon for refueling. The pilot had us call for a bar pilot from the Coast Guard to enter Coos Bay and they sent out a self-bailing pilot boat that moved at about six knots.

We couldn't control our square stern boat at that speed so finally poured on the power and went in over the bar after passing up the pilot boat. As a result of these problems, we ceased using pilots and moved the boats with our own crews from then on.

After arriving in Seattle, additional water tanks were installed and they proceeded north for assignment, the P-114 to Adak and the P-115 to Cold Bay in the Aleutians. Additional personnel had been shipped to Seattle from Annette Island in the meantime, so a number of re-assignments were made, and I was sent back with others to Stockton for the P-141 through P-146.

These vessels proved to be under-powered and not as satisfactory as the Stephens Brothers boats with their three Hall Scotts.

The 104' design was able to operate in extremely tough weather and sea conditions, but were slow when time was of the essence in rescue, so Major Donley obtained five 85' PT-style crash boats equipped with 1350 HP Packard engines.

Their principle problems were that they sweat very badly and had a lousy heating system for the Aleutians. The 85's were all stationed originally at the Casco Cove PT base in Attu formerly used by the Navy but abandoned after they found the PT's unsuitable for Aleutian use.

The squadron next received eight 104' crash boats, P-749 through P-756, modified a great deal from the original design and actually appearing top-heavy. These new vessels allowed some of the older boats to be moved back to the mainland stations away from the continued battering of the Aleutian weather conditions. Of these, the P-750 had been had been built in New York State while the other seven were built somewhere in Mississippi and Louisiana.

They were powered by the same 1350 HP Packards that had been used in the 85' design. Crews reported the workmanship was so bad that they were in the Olson & Winge shipyard in Lake Union, Seattle for nearly two months repairing, re-caulking, and finishing the vessels.

The total number of vessels operated by the 10th Emergency Rescue Boat Squadron now totaled 41 over the period of WWII. A review of the available manpower records that I could locate indicated that over 520 men were in the organization over that same period.

Very late in 1945 we began returning the vessels from the Alaska and Aleutian bases to Seattle where most of them were declared surplus and sold to the highest bidders. Some of the 85's became high speed charter boats and the only other two crash boats that became civilian vessels I am aware of were the P-115 and the TP-92.

In 1972 the P-115 showed up in Ketchikan as a salmon troller named the "Shauna" and was identified from records by the Stephens Bros. Shipyard. It had been purchased locally from an owner in California who had been using it as a tuna fishing vessel for many years.

The squadron participated in many rescues and life saving responses from climbing mountains, hiking across the tundra, transporting seriously ill tugboat crew members to shore hospitals, emergency calls to outlying weather and radar stations as well as the aircraft emergency ditching calls. In some cases aircraft had just run out of fuel and needed a tow for a Kingfisher and others had to belly land on the tundra or beach. Some of the boats had to go out to sea just to provide a radio signal to be used as an approach beacon so aircraft could get down to sea level to find their way into a field.

When a call was received there wasn't such a thing as checking the weather and planning a trip, we just went out in whatever weather there was. It was amazing that, in the worst weather in the world, and the number of boats and personnel that we had, not one person was lost. There were some that asked for a transfer ashore as they just could not avoid being seasick every time out, but they were usually replaced immediately by another who wanted to get out of the mud.

We know we were a successful operation even though it was sometimes a long period between calls, but those things are hard to quantify. When the P-38's were called on for experimental fighter cover for the B-24's bombing Paramushiru, they were pushed to the very maximum of endurance.

One of their pilots mad a comment that put our squadron into perspective, he said; "We knew the chances of being rescued by you guys were slim or none. But one thing we knew for certain was that you would always be out there looking, and that made the difference."


Presented at "Alaska at War" conference, Anchorage, AK, November 11, 1993.
Ralph M. Bartholomew, President.
10th Emergency Rescue Boat Association
313 Madison Street
Ketchikan, AK. 99901
(907) 225-3001

 

Last Updated: 23 January 2014 09:29

Originally published 18 June 2001