A small atoll in the northern Pacific, some 500 miles north-northwest of the Marshalls. Composed of three islets, Wake, Wilkes, and Peale, Wake was discovered by the British in 1796 but remained uninhabited until claimed by the United States in 1899. Pan American World Airways System developed a way-station for the transpacific "Clipper" flights there in 1935.
(PG-43: displacement 350; length 159'5"; beam 27'; draft 5'3"; speed 14.5 knots; complement 59; armament 2 3-inch, 8 .30-caliber Lewis machine guns; class Guam)
Guam (PG-43) was laid down on 17 October 1926 at Shanghai, China, by the Kiangnan Dock & Engineering Works; launched on 28 May 1927; sponsored by Miss Louise Frances Bruce; and commissioned on 28 December 1927, Lt. Cmdr. Robert K. Awtrey in command.
With Rear Adm. Yates Stirling, Jr., Commander, Yangtze Patrol (ComYangPat) embarked, Guam, departed Shanghai on 19 January 1928 for her shakedown. She arrived at Hankow on 24 January and soon commenced her passage up the middle Yangtze River, bound for Chungking. On 1 February, Guam, received her first first convoy-escort assignment, shepherding Standard Oil Co. vessels Mei Lu and Mei Foo, towing Mei Yung and Mei Hung respectively, through bandit-infested territory along the river. Mei Foo grounded in the tricky current, but Guam towed her out of danger. Within a few hours, Guam went to general quarters immediately after Mei Hung drew a few rounds of sniper fire from the riverbanks, but, before the gunboat's guns could reply, the snipers melted away into the hinterland.
The small warship completed the passage through the scenic Yangtze gorges and returned from Chungking to I'Chang by mid-July. Soon thereafter, the second gunboat of the "new six," her sister ship Tutuila (PG-44), joined Guam at I'Chang, and the two convoyed merchantmen up-river past "bandit country" to Chungking. In the interim, the gunboat's designation was changed to PR-3 on 28 June.
At this juncture, inasmuch as the South China Patrol had been forced to "make-do" for years with antiquated ships, Commander in Chief, U.S. Asiatic Fleet (CINCAF), dispatched Guam southward to join the South China Patrol, and the gunboat got underway on 5 October1928 for Hong Kong. Delayed by bad weather which forced her to turn back at Amoy, she made port at Hong Kong on 14 October.
With the arrival of the larger Mindanao (PR-8) in mid-June1929 to assume duties as flagship of the South China Patrol, Guam rejoined the Yangtze Patrol. On Independence Day 1930, Guam departed Changsha to investigate at Chenglin and Yochow, as a report had indicated that American nationals were endangered by the communists who held the cities. As she neared Yochow, shots rang out from the river bank, and Guam went to general quarters, manning her main battery of 3-inch and .30-caliber guns. The gunboat made five passes by the offending area, giving gunners on both sides of the ship a chance to fire. The 3-inch guns soon silenced the communist sniper fire, but not before one bluejacket in Guam had been killed.
The gunboat stood ready to protect American lives and property during the early 1930's, while Chiang Kai-shek sought to consolidate and centralize his power in China. Chiang also pursued a civil war against the communists. Chasing Red forces into the hills of Yenan removed them from the Yangtze, but the communists remained Chiang's "thorn in the flesh." However, his tactics of "buying time" by giving in to continued Japanese encroachment in the north earned him the enmity of many Chinese who felt that resistance to Japan was imperative.
When Chiang Kai-shek was kidnapped on 12 December 1936 and forced into an alliance with the communists, albeit into an association that proved to be temporary, the country's morale took an upswing. By the spring of 1937, it appeared to most western observers that China had found a hitherto unknown unity. At that juncture, Adm. Harry E. Yarnell, CINCAF, took passage up the Yangtze to inspect naval facilities and installations along the river. Yarnell shifted his flag from converted yacht Isabel (PY-10) to Panay (PR-5) and thence from Panay to Guam on 24 May for the return cruise downriver, shifting his flag back to Isabel on 26 May.
Adm. Yarnell's cruise in Guam turned out to be the last peacetime passage by a CINCAF on the Yangtze, for, the following summer, hostilities between Chinese and Japanese troops broke out at the Marco Polo Bridge, outside of Peking. At first, little anxiety was felt for the safety of Americans on the Yangtze. In fact, the evacuation of Japanese nationals from Yangtze ports in late July and early August actually lessened the concern.
On 13 August 1937, however, fighting broke out at Shanghai and soon spread upriver toward the Chinese national capital of Nanking. In September, upon receipt of warnings of heavy Japanese air raids on the city, Guam and Luzon (PR-7) embarked members of the U.S. Embassy staff from Nanking. From that point on, the Yangtze Patrol gunboats had grandstand seats on the Sino-Japanese "incident." Guam evacuated Americans from Nanking prior to the city's fall to Japanese forces in December. The perils of such neutral duty were amply illustrated when Panay, standing by at Nanking and evacuating the last Americans in the city, was attacked and sunk by Japanese naval bombers between Nanking and Wuhu on 12 December. The Japanese speedily settled that incident by quickly apologizing, punishing the guilty aviators, and paying indemnities to the United States government.
By 1939, the Japanese controlled the Yangtze River. Third power commerce was at a standstill, and even neutral naval forces were restricted or hampered by the Japanese, who insisted that escorts were necessary at all times and to all places. Guam's crew observed Japanese troop movements and sighted flights of Japanese bombers headed upstream to bomb the subsequent Chinese capitals at Hankow and, later, at Chungking.
On 23 January 1941, the gunboat was renamed Wake in order to clear the former name for new construction. She sailed downriver for Shanghai on 29 March and seved briefly as station ship there from 2 April to 5 May. She briefly returned upriver to Chinkiang before heading south to Shanghai, where she was inspected on 21 June by Rear Adm. William A. Glassford, ComYangPat.
From 3 to 6 July 1941, Wake headed back upriver to Nanking before mooring at her familiar berth at Hankow. Wake's crew found diversion ashore in rifle range and small bore practice, while lookouts on board the gunboat continued to log nearly round-the-clock flights of Japanese bombers northward for Chungking. Although Chungking lay beyond the reach of Japan's troops and ships, the city lay well within the reach of Japanese planes.
Wake remained at Hankow into the late fall, and frequent dreary weather did nothing to brighten her melancholy duty. On 25 November 1941, the ship closed out the Navy warehouse at Hankow, liquidating the 80 tons of stores and supplies by distributing its supplies among Americans in Hankow. That done, the gunboat sailed for Shanghai.
Arriving at that port three days later, Wake found Luzon and Oahu (PR-6), busy preparing for "deep water" operations. With the arrival of authorization from Washington to withdraw what ships he could, Adm. Thomas C. Hart, CINCAF, ordered Luzon and Oahu to Manila. Tutuila, upriver at Chungking, was trapped at the Nationalist capital, unable to run the gauntlet in time. Wake's stores and crew were divided between Luzon and Oahu, and the ship was left under the care of a skeleton crew of 14 men, mostly reservist radiomen who were to maintain the ship as a communications link with U.S. Marine elements remaining in China. Chosen to command Wake was a former Yangtze River commercial pilot, Lt. Cmdr. Columbus D. Smith, USNR.
That same day, 28 November 1941, Luzon (with Rear Adm. Glassford embarked) and Oahu departed Shanghai for the last time and sailed for the Philippines. Pending the results of the cruise of those two gunboats, which were never designed for the open sea, Mindanao remained at Hong Kong. After a typhoon-fraught passage through the Formosa Strait, the two gunboats eventually made the Philippines and safely arrived at Manila on 3 December. Two days later, Rear Adm. Glassford disestablished the Yangtze Patrol and, in the meantime, Mindanao got underway for the Philippines.
Three days later, on 8 December 1941 (7 December east of the IDL), a radioman on duty in Wake picked up news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Lt. Cmdr. Smith, alerted by a telephone call soon thereafter, sped to the waterfront. His crew, however, had no time to react to the suddenness of war. A launch, carrying a detachment of Special Naval Landing Force troops, came alongside and swarmed on board, taking the ship, the only U.S. man-of-war to be captured intact by the enemy in World War II.
Nearby, the British gunboat HMS Peterel, further out in the stream of the Whangpoo River and downriver from Wake, stubbornly refused to surrender. Then, upon a pre-arranged signal, previously emplaced field guns opened fire and swiftly shelled the virtually defenseless British gunboat . With her white ensign still flying bravely, Peterel sank soon thereafter. Of her crew of 14, only six survived.
The Japanese renamed Wake, Tatara; and the U.S. Navy struck the ship from the Navy list on 25 March 1942. The gunboat survived the war intact, was transferred to the Chinese Nationalists after the surrender of Japan, and subsequently fell to the communists in 1949. Her fate has never been precisely ascertained.
Wake received one battle star for her World War II service.
Robert J. Cressman
9 May 2016