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Onondaga

 

A lake and county in New York.

 

III

 

(WPG–79: dp. 1,005; l. 165’; b. 36’; dr. 12’; s. 13 k.; cpl. 105; a. 2 3”, 3 20mm.)

 

The cruising cutter Onondaga, built for the Coast Guard by Defoe Boat Works, Bay City, Mich., commissioned 11 September 1934. From her commissioning until 1941 Onondaga was stationed at Astoria, Oreg., where she performed important law enforcement duties and rendered much assistance to ships in distress. Each year she patrolled the annual pelagic seal migration to the Pribilof Islands, and she attempted to prevent out of season halibut fishing.

 

Executive Order 8929 of 1 November 1941 transferred the Coast Guard to the Navy. Onondaga continued on general patrol duty, with her base of operations alternating between Seattle, Wash. and Ketchikan, Alaska. When the American merchantman Mauna Ala went aground 10 December 1941 on Clatsop Beach, Oregon during a blackout test, cutter Onondaga rushed to the scene and rescued thirty-six crewmen.

 

Then assigned escort duty in the area of Women’s Bay and Kodiak, she was later ordered to escort duty between Cape Spencer and Dutch Harbor as well as anti-aircraft and escort patrol off Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

 

When the Navy learned that the Japanese planned a thrust into Alaskan waters as part of their Midway operation, Admiral Nimitz allocated five cruisers, fourteen destroyers, six submarines, and suitable auxiliaries to deal with this menace in the North. Five years before the outbreak of war the area had been virtually undefended. But by September 1941 Sitka, Kodiak, and Dutch Harbor had been commissioned as naval air stations, and both Kodiak and Sitka were able to service submarines. In mid-1940 the Army had established the Alaskan Defense Command, Brig. Gen. S. B. Buckner in command. The Navy created an Alaskan Sector under the 13th Naval District and appointed Captain R. C. Parker to the command.

 

As headquarters and flagship Captain Parker had gunboat Charleston. Additionally, three small fishing boats, converted to patrol craft, formed the nucleus of the “Alaskan Navy.” Comdr. Charles E. (“Squeaky”) Anderson, USNR, a “local character of infinite resource, energy, and cunning,” controlled the craft.

 

By May 1942 Captain Parker commanded two old destroyers, two Coast Guard cutters, one of which was Onondaga, a few more converted fishing boats, and ten PBY’s. Charleston alone possessed sonar, or guns larger than three inch. She, together with the destroyers and cutters saw constant use as escorts for the freighters that brought workers and material to the new bases and airfields, none of which were complete at this time.

 

Toward the end of May, when the Japanese sent one task force towards Midway and another towards the Aleutians, tension quickened everywhere. Rear Admiral R. A. Theobald, USN, Commander North Pacific Force, who had been headquartered at Kodiak through the early part of May, put to sea 1 June in Nashville and rendezvoused with his augmented cruiser task force to thwart the Japanese Alaska venture. However, “Efforts to meet the enemy,” writes Willoughby “were unavailing, and there was no fleet action in Alaskan waters.”

 

Cutter Onondaga, Lt. Comdr. S. P. Mehlman, USCG, in command, and the other patrol craft formed the Surface Search Group of this Northern Pacific Force. They were to be assisted by the Air Search Group, composed of twenty PBYs and one B–17. Together these forces were to act as pickets to signal any Japanese approach.

 

In fact, the Japanese sought to capture nothing east of Adak, which is nearly five hundred miles from Dutch Harbor. No Japanese plan for invading the Alaskan mainland, Canada, or the United States existed. The Aleutian section of the Midway operation was essentially defensive, although also diversionary. Its object was to prevent a U. S. invasion of Japan.

 

American search flights commenced about 28 May, and twenty cutters and converted fishing craft deployed as pickets on both the Pacific and Bering Sea approaches to Dutch Harbor. In view of his expectation of an attack on Dutch Harbor, Admiral Theobald’s operating area south of Kodiak was well chosen. But because he guessed incorrectly, the main body of his cruiser task force was removed from the scene of action.

 

Japanese carrier planes launched two attacks against Dutch Harbor 3 June, inflicting considerable damage and killing about twenty-five American soldiers and sailors. Cutter Onondaga and destroyers King and Talbot, seaplane tender Gillis, army transports President Fillmore and Morlen, and submarine S–27 went to general quarters and made haste to get underway and stand out to sea, but none cleared the harbor until the attack was over. One Japanese plane was shot down.

 

The next day another Japanese carrier-based attack was launched against Dutch Harbor. About eighteen more Americans died in this attack, but at least five Japanese aircraft were shot down. The Aleutian part of the Midway operation ended in mid-June. The Japanese occupied Attu and Kiska, two islands of little except nuisance value. A phase began 11 June which witnessed Japanese attempts to hold what they had, while the American forces prepared to blast them out.

 

Essentially, the Aleutian battle was a contest of air power, as was Midway. Weather consistently aided the offensive by shrouding ships in protective mist, while sweeping land targets clear. In May 1943 Attu was in American hands, and 15 August U. S. Forces found that the Japanese had completely abandoned Kiska.

 

Cutter Onondaga and the other ships assigned to the Northern Pacific Force remained on patrol in northern waters through the end of the war. She returned to the Treasury Department 1 January 1946 and resumed patrol duties out, of Astoria. Decommissioned 24 July 1947, she was sold 7 December 1954 to Foss Launch and Tug Co., Seattle, Wash.