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Amherst (PCER-853)

1944-1970 

Towns in Massachusetts and Ohio.

(PCE(R)-853: displacement 903; 1ength 184'6"; beam 33'1"; draft 9'5"; speed 15.7 knots; complement 99; armament 1 3-inch, 2 40 millimeter, 6 20 millimeter, 2 depth charge tracks, 2 depth charge projectors; class PCE(R)-489)

The unnamed PCE(R)-853 was laid down on 16 November 1943 at Chicago, Ill., by the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Co.; launched on 18 March 1944; placed in service on 31 May 1944 for the ferry trip down the Mississippi River; and commissioned at New Orleans, La., on 16 June 1944, Lt. William W. Boynton, USNR, in command.

Reporting for shakedown on 25 June 1944, PCE(R)-853 conducted that training off Miami and Key West, Fla., then reported to Commander, Service Force, Atlantic, for duty, and Commander, Caribbean Sea Frontier, for onward routing. With her assignment to the Atlantic Fleet cancelled on 17 August, the ship then proceeded to Mobile, Ala., where she joined the rescue tug ATR-61 and her tow, the floating dry dock YFD-27, and escorted them to the Panama Canal Zone (25 August-2 September). Then, following a two-day layover, PCE(R)-853 transited the Panama Canal on 4 September, then proceeded independently for the Hawaiian Islands, holding a “badly needed” firing practice en route that revealed that while the gunnery had improved, it was still, in the candid opinion of the ship’s war diarist, “not…up to standard.”

PCE(R)-853 reached Pearl Harbor on 19 September 1944, berthing at the destroyer escort docks. Advised that the ship needed to be ready to leave port at 1600 on the 21st, “all hands turned to with excellent spirit to obtain needed supplies and stores, to make minor repairs, and to do necessary overhaul work in the engine room.” The next day, six pharmacists’ mates and corpsmen reported on board. Proceeding thence on 21 September for the Ellice Islands in company with sister ship PCE(R)-851, PCE(R)-853 conducted another firing exercise after putting to sea that showed “considerable improvements in gunnery discipline and accuracy.” While the 3-inch gun crew “performed excellently,” the Oerlikon gunners “still need[ed] considerable training.”

Enjoying a fair weather passage that permitted ceremonies on 27 September 1944 that “introduced 77 men to the ancient order of the deep,” PCE(R)-853 reached Funafuti, where she received onward routing orders to Manus, in the Admiralties, via Finschafen, New Guinea, and PCE(R)-852 rejoined the task unit. Reaching Langemak Bay, Finschafen, on 7 October, and Seeadler Harbor, Manus, on 8 October, she sailed three days later and took her station in the outer anti-submarine screen for the Leyte invasion force, arriving in Leyte Gulf on 20 October and dropping anchor in the transport area.

PCE(R)-853 operated off Dulag and Tacloban over the ensuing days; effective smoke screens prevented her from firing at enemy aircraft for the first few days, while beachhead facilities and hospital ships easily handled the few casualties incurred during the initial landings. She embarked her first casualties (15) for treatment during the midwatch on 24 October 1944, transferring them to the tank landing ship LST-464 the next morning. That same morning, PCE(R)-853 observed the crew of the submarine chaser SC-1004 abandoning ship. Seeing no cause for the abandonment, the rescue ship got underway and lay alongside to investigate, while small craft in the vicinity rescued the crew. The commanding officer and two additional men, still on board SC-1004, reported a magazine fire, prompting PCE(R)-853 to run out hoses from her forecastle and across to the emperiled submarine chaser, whose remaining crewmen opened the access hatch to the magazine forward of her bridge structure and trained a stream of water into the magazine, extinguishing the blaze. “Members of this ship’s Damage Control party showed coolness and courage in a situation which might have been extremely hazardous,” wrote the ship’s war diarist, who also praised the men at gun number one, “who showed equal courage in remaining at their station,” shooting down a Val (Aichi D3A Type 99 carrier bomber) that was attempting a run on the nearby LST-464. The rescue ship embarked one navy casualty that night.

On 27 October 1944, PCE(R)-853 embarked 33 army wounded, hospital and ambulatory cases, and John B. Terry, a Chicago Daily News war correspondent who had been mortally wounded. That evening, antiaircraft fire from nearby ships shot down a Japanese plane that crashed above the number six hold of the freighter Benjamin Ide Wheeler, igniting the Liberty Ship’s high-octane gasoline cargo. PCE(R)-853, with only one fire flushing pump in operation that would prove unable to cope with the conflagration she faced, nevertheless came alongside and offered to take off some of her people. Benjamin Ide Wheeler’s merchant crew and armed guard detachment, however, stayed and bravely battled the fire, saving the ship with the aid of rescue tugs (ATR) that had come to her assistance as well.

Still later that day, during the night of 27-28 October 1944, the rescue ship embarked 28 men from the infantry landing craft LCI-34, survivors from the destroyer escort Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) and the escort carrier Gambier Bay (CVE-73), in the wake of the loss of those ships in the battle off Samar on 25 October. One of the men transferred, however, CRM(AA) Tullio J. Sarafini, USNR, from Samuel B. Roberts, died of his wounds on the morning of the 28th. During the 1600-2000 watch on 29 October, PCE(R )-853 transferred her wounded, 61 in all, to the hospital ship Comfort (AH-6), a providential move, in that a typhoon swept San Pedro Bay that night. Had the injured men remained on board the smaller ship, they would have had to endure more discomfort. During the night, PCE(R)-853’s 26-foot motor whaleboat, tied up astern of the ship, came adrift in the tempest. Her men attempted to recover the boat when the “eye” of the storm passed through the area, but the lull proved too brief, and concern for the safety of the ship prompted her to get underway and proceed further off shore; the whaleboat was never recovered.

She remained off Leyte through 22 November 1944, screening various ships and providing rescue and firefighting services. Throughout this time, the Allied forces, including PCE(R)-853, battled numerous Japanese air attacks. At the risk of endangering her own safety, the ship many times pulled alongside burning ships to save sailors’ lives; she also made trips to landing beaches to recover wounded for evacuation.

Following a brief replenishment trip to Seeadler Harbor, PCE(R)-853 returned to the Philippines on 18 December 1944 to support the landing on Luzon at Lingayen scheduled for early in 1945. During the fighting, besides recovering casualties, PCE(R)-853 served in Lingayen Gulf as an antisubmarine picket ship. After screening a convoy from Lingayen Gulf to Leyte Gulf, she left the Philippine theater on 6 February 1945 for Ulithi.

After receiving repairs to her generators at that atoll, PCE(R)-853 sailed on 21 March 1945 with a transport group bound for the assault on the Ryukyus. They reached the Kerama Retto area in late March, and PCE(R)-853 soon began her job of receiving, treating, and transferring wounded. Her workload greatly increased due to the intensity of the fighting ashore on Okinawa and the success of kamikaze attacks against ships in those waters. She operated from Kerama Retto through 30 June, shuttling wounded from Okinawa and its surrounding waters back to safety. On that day, the ship joined a convoy bound, via Saipan, for Hawaii and reached Oahu on 19 July. Shortly after arriving at Pearl Harbor, PCE(R)-853 entered the navy yard there and was still undergoing overhaul when Japan capitulated. In September, the vessel proceeded to the east coast of the United States, steaming via the Panama Canal, and was placed in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet at Green Cove Springs, Fla.

Her transfer to the Coast and Geodetic Survey cancelled on 7 June 1946 and placed in “deferred disposal status,” PCE(R)-853 was decommissioned at Norfolk on 26 June 1946. Although earmarked for Naval Reserve Training in the Fourth Naval District and tentatively assigned to operate from Erie, Pa., the ship was placed in service on 6 March 1947 and assigned the home port of Philadelphia.

In December 1947, PCE(R)-853 was ordered to Philadelphia to serve as a training vessel for Naval Reservists in the 4th Naval District. The ship was placed back in an active status on 28 November 1950 and carried out training duty at Philadelphia for the next 10 years, during which time, on 15 February 1956, she was named Amherst (PCER-853).

Amherst got underway on 24 April 1960, then proceeded to Detroit, Mich., where, attached to the Ninth Naval District, she continued serving as a Naval Reserve training ship. She spent the remainder of her career making training cruises throughout the Great Lakes and visiting various ports in Michigan, New York, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Canada.

On 6 February 1970, Amherst was placed in an “out of service, special” status for a pre-transfer overhaul. Her name was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 3 June 1970, and the ship was transferred to the Republic of Vietnam. She served the Vietnamese Navy as Van Kiep II (HQ-14). Ultimately, as South Vietnamese resistance crumbled, the ship escaped to the Philippines about 2 May 1975.

PCE(R)-853 received two battle stars for her World War II service: one for the Leyte landings (20 October, and 13 October-28 November 1944) and one for the Lingayen Gulf landings (9 January 1945).

Robert J. Cressman

26 May 2020

Published: Tue May 26 13:12:23 EDT 2020