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Q-ships during World War II

Adapted from: "Eastern Sea Frontier War Diary," October 1943, ch.2, "Queen Ships." pp.9-34. Modern Military Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740.

Prologue: End of the Q-Ship Program

In the early morning hours of October 4, 1943, a dispatch from the three-masted schooner Irene Forsyte [IX-93] reported that she was hove to in approximately 38-00 N, 66-00 W; that many leaks had developed during the course of a heavy storms that her pumps were just able to keep ahead of water. The message further stated that the condition might become serious if the heavy weather continued; for that reason, permission was requested to proceed to Bermuda for repairs. First action was taken by Cinclant [Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Fleet], who immediately ordered two tugs to proceed to the scene and render assistance. Later in the day, however, the Irene Forsyte reported that no assistance was needed, that she was proceeding to Bermuda, The tugs were recalled.

On October 14, 1943; Cominch [Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet] directed the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier to decommission the Irene Forsyte upon her return from Bermuda; to take other steps which would lead to the conclusion of all antisubmarine patrols by Eastern Sea Frontier vessels disguised as merchant vessels. This decision had been brought to a head by the failure of Eastern Sea Frontier "Queen ships" to accomplish their intended missions. The conclusion of "Queen ship" missions in the waters of the Eastern Sea Frontier offers an appropriate occasion for reviewing the essential details as to their various developments and operations from the beginning of the war to the decommissioning of Irene Forsyte (IX-93).

Origins of Q-Ships in World War I

There is nothing new or secret about the general principle of Q-ship operations. When the U-boats [German submarines] were at their worst in World War I, the British Admiralty approved and authorized the conversion of merchant vessels to heavily armed raiders which would have her guns disguised or concealed in such a way that the merchant vessels might serve as decoys which would encourage U-boats to attack them. Then, provided the disguised merchant vessel had been given sufficient buoyancy, so that one or two torpedoes would be unable to sink her, the disguise was to be thrown off, the guns brought to bear, the U-boat sunk. The entire effectiveness of the enterprise depended on the successful use of surprise, and once the U-boats were aware of the ruse, the chances of success were so greatly reduced that only a few ingenious Commanding Officers were able to conduct Q-ship campaigns throughout the remainder of World War I with any distinction.

Q-Ships in World War II

In World War II, the sudden appearance of U-boats in Atlantic coastal waters led to considerations of all possible means for meeting the emergency. Sinkings began on January 14th, and shipping losses mounted rapidly. On January 20, 1942, Cominch sent for information to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier a coded dispatch which was paraphrased as follows:

"Immediate consideration is requested as to the manning and fitting-out of Queen repeat Queen ships to be operated as an antisubmarine measure. This has been passed by hand to OpNav [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations] for action."

In answer, Commander Eastern Sea Frontier wrote a lengthy letter under the date of January 29th, pointing out that the most prevalent method of U-boat attack had been night attacks on the surface from close range; that U-boats were concentrating on tankers. For this reason it was pointed out that a tanker would best answer the purpose of inviting attack after having been fitted out as a Q-ship. It was further suggested that another type of Q-ship might be a vessel "of such a relatively insignificant appearance that upon sighting it a submarine would not submerge." This implied that a small schooner might serve the purpose.

This letter containing details as to procedure, was forwarded by Cominch to the Chief of Naval Operations on February 15, 1942, and CESF [Commander Easter Sea Frontier] was informed that the proposals had been "noted with interest" and were "under consideration." Five days later, on February 20, 1942, the Chief of Naval Operations informed Commander Eastern Sea Frontier that his proposals had been approved, that hereafter the matter would be known as "Project LQ"; that all communications on the matter would be made by word of mouth, insofar as practicable; that a responsible officer would be placed in charge of the work; that on completion, "Project LQ" would be assigned to the force of the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier.

Prior to the inception of "Project LQ," Cominch had arranged for the selection of three other vessels considered suitable for the intended purpose: a Boston trawler and two small cargo vessels of the three-island type. The beam trawler, diesel powered, had formerly operated with the fishing fleet out of Boston under the name, MS Wave. She was originally acquired. for conversion to an auxiliary minesweeper by the Commandant First Naval District. In fact, she was commissioned at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on March 5, 1942, as USS Eagle (AM-132). Her length was 133 feet, beam 26 feet, maximum speed, 10 knots. Her armament included one four-inch-fifty gun, two .50 calibre machine guns, 4 depth charge throwers, 2 Lewis .30 caliber machine guns, 5 sawed-off shotguns, 5 Colt .45 automatics and 25 hand grenades. She was also equipped with WEA echo ranging and listening equipment. Her complement was 5 officers and 42 enlisted men.

The two cargo vessels had been built at Newport News, Virginia, in 1912 and were of standard type: 3,209 gross tons, 318 feet in length, 46 foot beam. In commercial circles they were known as SS Carolyn and SS Evelyn; were owned and operated by the A. H. Bull Steamship Company in New York City. For their new assignment, they were taken over for naval use by Mr. Huntington Morse and Mr. S. H. Heimbold of the U. S. Maritime Commission. During their conversion in the Navy Yard at Portsmouth, N. H., each vessel was armed with four 4-inch-fifty caliber guns, four .50 caliber machine guns, six single depth charge throwers and a miscellaneous collection of small arms similar to those aboard USS Eagle.

The complement of each ship was six officers and 135 enlisted men. Although these three vessels were regularly commissioned by the Commandant Navy Yard, Portsmouth, N. H., by direction of the Chief of Naval Operations – SS Carolyn as USS Atik (AP-100) and SS Evelyn as USS Asterion (AP-101) – and so recorded in the Log of that Yard, the commissionings were not made a matter of record in the Navy Department. The status of USS Eagle (AM-132) remained unchanged in the department's records, since she had originally been acquired for conversion to AM and had been so designated in the records of the Department. Thereafter, all pertinent information containing these vessels was kept in a secret file in the custody of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.

Some complicated problems of protocol were solved while the ships were still being converted. In order to preserve the highest possible degree of secrecy in operating the merchantmen and the beam trawler, $500,000 was allotted from an Emergency Fund so that expenditures would not be directly accountable through the General Accounting Office and the Treasury. On February 19, 1942, the Chief of Naval Operations (Admiral H. S. Stark, USN) opened a joint account in the Riggs National Bank, Washington, D. C. in the name of F. J. Horne and/or W. S. Farber, and deposited the sun of $500,000, with the understanding that the Chief of Naval Operations might at times request transfer of funds from this account to other names. He then requested immediate transfer of the following sums to the following accounts:

Eagle Fishing Company, L. F. Rogers, Master $50,000
Asterion Shipping Company, K. M. Beyer, Treasurer $100,000
Atik Shipping Company, E. T. Joyce, Treasurer $100,000

Such an arrangement permitted the purchase of supplies for the individual ships involved without the customary naval requisition procedure.

After many other minor details had been ironed out, the next step was the arrangement for operational directives which might be foolproof. On March 11th, the Commanding Officers of USS Eagle, USS Asterion and USS Atik (Lieut. Comdr. L. F. Rogers, USNR, Lieut. Comdr. G. W. Legwen, USN, and Lieut. Comdr. Harry L. Hicks, USN, respectively) were given personal and written instructions at Headquarters, Commander Eastern Sea Frontier. They received a preliminary Operation Order to cover a brief period of shakedown, which would start about Match 24, 1942. Since they would be departing from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, they were to report to Commander Submarine Division 101 when ready for sea; then proceed independently on widely separated courses for shakedown in areas where enemy activity had not been reported. USS Atik and USS Asterion were to navigate so that one should be approximately 480 miles to the southward of the other after five days at sea. These ships were to leave the Navy Yard, Portsmouth, in such manner that they would appear to all observers as armed vessels regularly commissioned in the Navy; then at the first opportunity, guns and depth charge throwers were to be concealed, identifying numbers removed from the bows, commission pennants hauled down, and other steps taken to have USS Atik and USS Asterion present the appearance of merchantmen; USS Eagle the appearance of a beam trawler fishing out of Boston. From the viewpoint of security, the most serious difficulty in carrying out this plan was that there had been scores of civilian workers in the Portsmouth shipyard which had known about the conversion peculiarities of structure on these vessels, and the subject of these "Q-ships" was subsequently reported (by one wife of an officer aboard USS Atik) to have been common knowledge in several Portsmouth boarding houses.

On completing shakedown, these ships were to report to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier by dispatch, and at that time the second Operation Plan would be made effective by dispatch from Commander Eastern Sea Frontier. This second Operation Plan, also issued under date of March 11, 1942, applied only to the Atik and the Asterion. Therein they were directed to operate independently in the waters off the United States Atlantic Coast, roughly 200 miles off the coast. Special instructions pointed out that the identity of these vessels must remain secret until action was joined; that action should be joined only when en enemy submarine was at sufficiently close quarters to insure its destruction by superior gunfire, followed by depth charge attacks if it succeeded in submerging before destruction. It was further pointed out that enemy submarines had been attacking during darkness; that they were rarely seen until after the vessel was struck by a torpedo. As for possible circumstances under which friendly ships or aircraft might challenge the Atik and the Asterion, they were instructed to use as identification their former names and calls, which would indicate that they were SS Carolyn and SS Evelyn, owned by the A. H. Bull Steamship Company; that if enemy ships should challenge, reply should be made in accordance with International Procedure, using the calls and identifications as follows:

Atik:   SS Vill Franca, Portuguese Registry, Call CSBT
Asterion:   SS Generalife, Spanish Registry, Call EAOQ

As for eventual return to port, instructions were given that notice should be sent to Commander Eastern Sea Frontier, who would inform Mr. Huntington Morse or Mr. S. F. Helmbold of the Maritime Commission at Washington, that one of these men should inform the senior Maritime Commission representative at the port of entry; that a Maritime Commission representative at the port would receive lists of requirements from the Commanding Officer after arrival and would designate an agent to furnish them; that the Commanding Officer should ascertain the total cost and should deliver a check for the amount...for the U. S. Maritime Commission.

From March 11th to March 23, 1942, final arrangements were made for the first sailing of these vessels on shakedown, They sailed at 1300 on March 23rd, and the next day one of the officers in the Navy Department wrote, "It's gone with the wind now and hoping for a windfall."

Sinking of USS Atik (AK-101) by German submarine U-123

Unfortunately, the windfall cane all too soon. Before the shakedown cruise was tour days old, USS Atik (SS Carolyn) was attacked and sunk by a U-boat. All bands were listed as "missing." The details of the battle are so sparse as to make any satisfactory reconstruction impossible. It is known that the Atik had been cruising in the general area about 300 miles east of Norfolk; that the Asterion had been cruising some 240 miles to the south of this area. At 1945 on the night of March 26th, the Duty Officer in the Joint Operations Control Room, ESF [Eastern Sea Frontier], was informed that an SOS [radio distress call] had been picked up from an unidentified ship which had been torpedoed. Nothing further.

At 2053, radio stations at Manasquan, New Jersey, and at Fire Island, New York, intercepted the following distress message from SS Carolyn: "SSS SOS Lat. 36-00 N, Long. 70-00 W, Carolyn burning forward, not bad." Two minutes later, a second distress message from SS Carolyn further amplified: "Torpedo attack, burning forward; require assistance." The position indicated that the attack was taking place some 300 miles east by south from Norfolk, and because such distress messages were regular occurrences at this time – and because all available surface craft were on patrol – the dispatch from SSCarolyn resulted in no immediate action. The Duty Officer in the Control Room had not been informed as to the secret nature of the SS Carolyn, and consequently his only action was to forward the dispatch to Cominch. Several hours later, an officer in the Cominch Operations room phoned the Duty Officer, Eastern Sea Frontier, and asked if the Commander Eastern Sea Frontier or the Chief of Staff had been notified. The answer was that they had not been notified. The Duty Officer was informed that they should be, immediately. Because CESF and his Chief of Staff were both in Norfolk on that particular night, the Duty Officer notified the Operations Officer at his home. Early the next morning, an Army bomber was sent to search the area from which the Carolyn had sent her distress message; the destroyer USS Noa [DD-343] and the tug USS Sagamore [AT-20] were sent to the assistance of the Carolyn. The Army bomber returned without having sighted anything, The tug and the destroyer encountered such heavy weather that the tug was recalled on March 25th; the Noa searched the area until fuel shortage compelled her to return to New York on March 30th. Other flights by Army and Navy planes were unsuccessful until March 30th, when two Army planes and one PBY-5A [four-engine Navy patrol bomber] out of Norfolk reported that they had sighted wreckage roughly ten miles south of the original reported position. The Asterion, which had intercepted the distress messages from the Atik, proceeded directly to the area but was unable to find any trace of her sister vessel. The Norwegian freighter SS Minerva was sighted in the vicinity, southbound for St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. On her arrival there, she was boarded and interrogation revealed that her crew had sighted no wreckage and had picked up no survivors. Twelve days later, Commander Eastern Sea Frontier reported all known details to Cominch on the "suspected sinking of the SS Carolyn," and concluded: ". . . it is believed that there is very little chance that any of her officers and crew will be recovered. It is therefore recommended that it no further information is received by April 27, they be considered lost and that next of kin be notified."

The next piece of information came from Berlin on April 9, 1942, in the form of a broadcast recorded by the Associated Press in New York. It was printed in the New York Times on the following day, April 10, 1942:

"The High Command said today that a Q-boat--a heavily armed ship disguised as an unarmed vessel--was among 13 vessels sunk off the American Atlantic coast and that it was sent to the bottom by a submarine only after a `bitter battle.' (In the last war, Q-boats accounted for many submarines which slipped up on them thinking they were easy prey. When the submarines came into range, false structures on the Q-boats were collapsed, revealing an array of guns.)"

"The Q-boat, the communiqué said, was of 3,000 tons and was sunk by a torpedo after a battle 'fought partly on the surface with artillery and partly beneath the water with bombs and torpedoes.'"

So far as United States Q-ships were concerned in World War II, this was the first and the last action with U-boats which produced any positive results. It appears from this unfortunate beginning that the Germans were well aware of Q-ship possibilities; that the element of surprise which had made this type of vessel effective against submarines in World War I had been so completely lost that the Q-ship had become something of an anachronism. Nevertheless, the plan was continued, and the general details of those later developments deserve a place in the history of the Eastern Sea Frontier.

Cruises of USS Asterion (AK-100)

The first cruise of USS Asterion (alias SS Evelyn) began with the shakedown, and continued until April 18, 1942. The incidents of importance in that cruise were many, and they included several sound contacts with U-boats, the sighting of torpedoed merchant vessels and life boats, the rescue of survivors. Furthermore, several contacts with friendly surface craft and aircraft led to awkward situations which required tact and ingenuity on the part of the Commanding Officer. Nevertheless, the first cruise was concluded without any action against enemy submarines. A copy of the formal report of this first cruise, together with "Recommendations for reduction in merchant ship losses and operation of Q-ships" is included in the Appendix to this month's war diary. It is of interest to note that officers in Headquarters, ESF, were so completely unaware of the nature of this ship's mission that they recorded her various dispatches in the Enemy Action Diary for April 4th, April 10th and April 14th, under her commercial name, SS Evelyn.

The second cruise of USS Asterion began on May 4, 1942, in Accordance with CESF'S Operation Plan 5-42, wherein it was stated that the convoy system would be inaugurated between Key West and Norfolk on May 14-15; that USS Asterion had full discretion as to movements in waters off the Atlantic Coast. It was thus indicated that the best possibilities of success would be for the vessel to proceed as an independently routed merchant ship or as a straggler from a convoy. The cruise was uneventful.

The third cruise of USS Asterion began on June 7, 1942, and because of increased submarine activities in the Gulf of Mexico, the vessel proceeded from New York down the coast, passing through the Straits of Florida on June 11th and past Dry Tortugas on June 14th; thence through Yucatan Channel; then after reversing course proceeded to the Mississippi River Delta, thence on a westerly course toward Galveston. The cruise back over a slightly different course was uneventful, and USS Asterion arrived in New York on July 6, 1942.

The fourth cruise of USS Asterion began on July 20, 1942, en route from New York to Key West, were the vessel anchored on July 27th. On the return leg of the voyage, the vessel cruised northward of the Bahamas and then proceeded to the Windward Passage area; thence to New York, arriving August 18, 1942. The only incident of importance during this cruise was that a sick man was removed from the ship by a tug off Chesapeake Light Buoy vessel on August 15th,

The fifth cruise of USS Asterion began late in August and was similar in plan to that of the fourth cruise. The vessel sailed to Key West, refueled and sailed from there on September 12, 1942, returning to New York, The sixth cruise, equally uneventful, began on November 18, 1942 and again the run was made to Key West in accordance with orders from CESF. While in Key West, on November 30th, arrangements were made and carried out for exercises and operations with a "tame" submarine. On December 2, 1942, USS Asterion got underway for Trinidad, BWI, via Old Bahama Channel, following Trinidad convoy routes, including patrols westward of Aruba, The ship was fueled at NOB Trinidad. Bearing repairs, of serious nature, resulted in the delay of sailing from Trinidad from December 12th until December 26th, when USS Asterion departed Trinidad en route for New York, arriving January 10, 1943.

For the next few months, USS Asterion was given an elaborate overhaul. Inspection after her sixth cruise raised considerable doubt as to her ability to remain afloat if hit by a single torpedo because she had three large holds. A representative of the Navy Yard, New York, conferred with the bureau of Ships, Damage Section, who confirmed the opinion that she could not successfully withstand one torpedo hit, and that such a hit would result not only in her eventual sinking but also in such a quick list that her battery would be ineffective. (Undoubtedly this weakness had been demonstrated several months earlier and was responsible for the rapid sinking of the sister vessel, USS Atik.) A conference was held in the office of the Vice Chief of Naval Operations and it was decided to increase flotation by building five transverse bulkheads. It was estimated that this would take three months and that it would cost about $200,000. The work took much longer and cost much more than had been estimated. Not until September 27th was the overhaul completed--more than eight months after the end of the Asterion's latest cruise. The overhaul had included re-subdivision by longitudinal and athwart ship bulkheads, the filling of her holds with 16,772 empty steel flotation drums. The Supervising Constructor estimated that the vessel could be completely flooded and 25% of the barrels completely crushed before her well decks would be awash. Thus it seemed probable that she had an excellent chance of remaining afloat after a U-boat had made a successful attack on her, As for equipment, she had been strengthened until she carried six K-guns, 48 hedgehog barrels arranged in pairs (24 on each side) to fire a pattern 220 feet in length and 274 feet in width, four 50-caliber machine guns, two 40-millimeter machine guns, and three four-inch guns. Her detection equipment included SMSD [Submarine Detector Ship's Magnet] , SF [Surface Search] radar, Fathometer, Listening Gear of Mark 29, and Low Frequency Direction Finder.

On October 14, 1943, Cominch informed Commander Eastern Sea Frontier that USS Asterion would discontinue her previous duties; that she would be inspected by a Board of Inspection and Survey to determine "suitability for useful service" in some other capacity. USS Asterion was subsequently converted for use as a weather-vessel in the North Atlantic.

Cruises of USS Eagle (AM-132)/USS Captor (PYC-40)

The various cruises of the beam trawler, MS Wave, commissioned USS Eagle (AM-132) were as unproductive in results as were those of USS Asterion. Her first cruise, carried out in accordance with CESF Operation Order 3-42 of March 11, 1942, was intended to permit her to operate independently as a Q-ship in the general vicinity of the beam trawler fishing fleet out of Boston, Massachusetts. It was assumed that the true identity and mission of the vessel would become known to the fishing fleet, but it was intended that this knowledge should not be further disseminated. For this reason, prompt reports were to be made to the Commandant First Naval District for appropriate action of any evidence of disloyalty or "loose talk" in the fishing fleet. But it was found that the original equipment of USS Eagle and her weak armament were unsatisfactory for her purpose. As a result, arrangements were made for a three-week overhaul and conversion before she began her first cruise. From April 24th until May 19, 1942, the vessel underwent this overhaul, and because of the new purpose of the ship, her classification and name were changed at that time from USS Eagle (AM-132) to USS Captor (PYC-40).

A new operation plan, dated May 20, 1942, was drawn up for USS Captor by CESE, with the stipulation that the mission of patrol in the area of Georges Bank would be carried out as originally planned. This first cruise began May 26, 1942, and although no events of importance occurred, USS Captorcontinued to operate in this area during the next twelve months. when U-boat activities in Frontier waters decreased, the vessel was removed from her secret status and was assigned to the First Naval District as a regular armed patrol craft.

Cruises of USS Big Horn (AO-45)

The most formidable of the Q-ships was the tanker SS Gulf Dawn, selected by Commander Eastern Sea Frontier after Cominch had approved his proposal for using a disguised tanker. Conversion was begun in March 1942 at the Bethlehem 56th Street Brooklyn Yard and was continued at the Navy Yard Boston, where the work was finally completed on July 22, 1942. Equipment included five 4-inch .50 caliber single purpose guns, two .50 caliber machine guns, five "Tommy" guns, five sawed-off shotguns, one Model JK-9 listening equipment. She was commissioned USS Big Horn (AO-45) and the Commanding Officer assigned was Commander J. A. Gainard, formerly master of the SS City of Flint, which became the center of an international incident at the beginning of the war, and was later sunk by a U-boat. USS Big Horn cleared the Boston Navy Yard on July 22, 1942 and after two days spent on the degaussing range and in calibrating compasses and radio direction finders, proceeded to Casco Bay for training under Commander Destroyers, Atlantic Fleet. This training period was followed by a shakedown cruise which was completed on August 26, 1942, at which date USS Big Horn put in again at the Navy Yard, Boston, for further alterations and repairs, At that time, the total complement of the vessel was 13 officers and 157 enlisted men.

The first cruise of USS Big Horn began on September 27, 1942, when the ship proceeded from New York with a New York-Guantanamo Convoy, taking a position which permitted the vessel to act as a straggler. The trip was made to Guantanamo without incident, and thereafter the Big Horn was semi-attached to NOB [Naval Operating Base] Trinidad, with orders to operate from that base over the Bauxite route to and from ports where that commodity was loaded. Many ships in this area had been sunk in recent weeks. Ships proceeding from Trinidad were convoyed to a designated point from which they fanned out to take various routes to their ultimate destination. It was directed that the Big Horn should proceed to that point and drop down on independent routes to and from a Bauxite port.

On October 16, 1942, the Big Horn sailed in convoy "T-19" from Trinidad to the point of separation. That same afternoon, three U-boats attacked the convoy, and at 1520 Queen in 11-00 N, 61-10 W, the British steamer SS Castle Harbor was hit on the starboard side by a torpedo and sank in less than two minutes. At almost the same time the United States steamer Winona, coal laden, was struck forward on the starboard side. Later she limped into Trinidad. Soon afterwards, lookouts on the Big Horn sighted a U-boat moving at periscope depth on the port beam, but in such a position that no action could be taken without damaging the United States troopship Mexico or the Egyptian ship Raz El Farog. At 1627, lookouts on the Big Horn again sighted a periscope and conning tower, on the port side, and her four-inch gun was trained in that direction just as a sub chaser crossed through the line of fire and dropped five depth charges. Thereafter, the cruise in these waters was continued without incident for several days and the Big Horn returned to NOB Trinidad about October 29th.

A second cruise in company with a convoy from Trinidad was begun by USS Big Horn on November 1, 1942, to a point nearly due north of Paramaribo, where the vessel left the convoy and proceeded on varying courses without incident until return to Trinidad on November 8, 1942.

On November 10, 1942, USS Big Horn sailed in convoy TAG-20, with the gunboat USS Erie [PG-50], two PC [submarine chaser] boats and a PG [patrol gunboat] acting as escorts. As a result of submarine warnings the convoy course was changed so that the approach to Curacao was made from the south and west. Because of engine difficulties, USS Big Horn dropped out of the convoy at 1530 on November 12, 1942, in company with a Venezuelan tanker, and arrived at a point about one and one-half miles off Wilhemstad harbor, where the Curacao-Aruba subsidiary convoys were joining the main convoy. At 1702, a great volume of smoke was sighted as it rose from the stern of USS Erie, about 1,000 yards on the starboard bow of the Big Horn, in 12-07 N, 68-58 W.

It developed that the Erie had been torpedoed on the starboard side aft. The crew of the Big Horn was called to General Quarters, increased speed to 11 knots and proceeded for the scene of action, but repeated orders from Wilhemstad forced the Big Horn to alter course at 1725 and proceed to Wilhemstad. It was noted that the Erie swung into the wind; that efforts were made without avail to subdue the fire. The gunboat was finally beached, officers and crew abandoning ship.

On November 21, 1942, USS Big Horn proceeded from mooring in Curacao and joined a convoy bound for New York, The convoy proceeded on a course for Guantanamo with a Dutch gunboat and four SC boats as escorts. Other vessels joined convoy at Guantanamo until on leaving that meeting point there were 45 ships and 5 escorts in company. The remainder of the cruise to New York via Caicos Passage was uneventful, and the Big Horn anchored at the Narrows, New York at 2040 on December 1, 1942. During the next few weeks, the Big Horn entered the Todd Shipyard at Hoboken, where mousetrap and hedgehog equipment were installed.

On January 27, 1943, new proposals for antisubmarine operations by the Big Horn were submitted to the Chief of Staff , ESF, by three officers: Lieutenant Commander Farley, USN, (officer in charge of the ESF Q-ship project), Lieutenant Commander R. Parmenter (ASW officer) and Lieutenant Hess (Submarine Tracking Officer). Their proposal began by reviewing the fact that antisubmarine measures within ESF had been so successful that no vessels had been sunk in Frontier waters since July 1942; but that more and more enemy submarines were operating in different areas of the Atlantic. It was therefore proposed that a task unit be formed for hunting U-boats in the central Atlantic; that three PC's [submarine chasers] proceed as escort for USS Big Horn, which would thus act as "bait," as fuel and supply ship, and as support in antisubmarine combat. The proposals were approved by Cominch and by Commander Eastern Sea Frontier. On February 19, 1942, Commander Farley was detached from duty as assistant to the Operations officer, ESF, and was directed to assume command of the newly organized Task Group consisting of the Big Horn and three 173-foot PC vessels: PC-560PC-617 and PC-618. During the period from March 2nd to March 14th, this Task Group conducted training exercises in the New London area with the U. S. submarine Mingo [SS-261] supplied for the purpose by ComsubLant [Commander, Submarine Force, Atlantic Fleet], During the next two weeks the Task Group made a shakedown cruise.

On April 3, 1943, CESF informed Cinclant that the Big Horn and the three PC's would proceed to sea with convoy UGS-7A on April 13th, and that prior to arrival in the vicinity of the Azores the group would drop astern of the convoy and proceed as straggler-with-escorts, although the escorts would remain far enough astern so that they would not be visible to an enemy submarine sighting the Big Horn. Corroboration of this plan was made by Cominch in a letter to Cinclant dated April 7, 1943. Information as to the plan was then communicated by Cinclant to Commander Task Force 64, who was to act as Escort Commander for Convoy UGS-7A. The Task Group was designated 02.10, although it was understood that routine reports would be made via Cinclant during the time in which the Task Group was operating in Atlantic waters outside the waters of the Eastern Sea Frontier. In the organization of the Atlantic Fleet, this Task Group was designated TG 21.8, operating under ComDesDiv 21 [Commander, Destroyer Division Twenty One], riding the destroyer Livermore [DD-429].

Convoy UGS-7A sailed on the morning of April 14, 1943, and the special Task Group joined up off New York and continued in company until 0800 on April 21, when the Group left the convoy and dropped astern twenty-five miles. The cruise was uneventful during the next two weeks. After several changes of course, USS Big Horn was in 29--00 N, 28--10 W at noon of May 3, 1943. Early that morning, a surfaced vessel had been sighted on the horizon, and PC-618 sent in pursuit. At 1104, PC-618 reported a submarine on the surface, distant about 6 miles. At 1235, the Big Horn got a sound contact and delivered a hedgehog attack just after sighting a periscope on the starboard bow at 1242, followed by a heavy swirl as the U-boat dove. At 1333 a second attack was delivered and the contact was lost. At 1540 the contact was regained at 3700 yards and at 1554, speed 5 knots, the Big Horn delivered a third attack. About five of the hedgehog projectiles exploded after they struck the water, and the Big Horn continued in to drop depth charges. Considerable light oil came to the surface and continued to spread for two hours. At 0103 on May 4th an oil patch was visible over an area of 200 to 300 yards. By daylight that morning, all traces of the oil slick were gone. As none of the vessels in the Group were able to establish contact during the next 44 hours, it was presumed that one submarine had been destroyed; that the other U-boat which had been sighted by the PC-618 had moved cut of the area.

Continuing on a homeward course, the Commanding Officer of the Big Horn attempted to use the Cominch daily submarine estimates as guides for fruitful changes of course, but after several attempts had failed to produce results, the Task Group Commander recorded in his log, on May 13, 1943, "This makes three submarines we have attempted to intercept on our return trip, all of which we theoretically should have met. This experience again accents the hopelessness of trying to find submarines. The proper procedure, as originally planned, is to remain in the vicinity of convoys, to which the submarines will come. On the next trip, it is planned to stay within about 15 miles, or less, of the convoy." The Task Group arrived at Ambrose on May 17, 1943.

The next period in the life of the Big Horn was spent in the Atlantic Basin Iron Works, Brooklyn, New York, where extensive repairs and alterations were made. This overhaul was completed in July 1943.

The final cruise of the Big Horn in the capacity of a Q-ship was also her longest, Again she served as the flagship of a small Task Group which included only two other vessels: PC-618 and PC-617. In the organization of the Atlantic Fleet, this unit was designated Task Group 21.8, scheduled to sail in convoy UGS-13 from Norfolk about July 27th, 1943. Commander L. C. Farley had relieved Captain Gairiard as Commanding Officer of the Big Horn on June 24th because of the illness of the latter, The Task Group departed New York on July 20, 1943 and proceeded to Norfolk, where convoy UGS-13 made up and sailed on the morning of July 27th. On July 29th, the Big Horn straggled from the convoy and streamed her Mark 29 gear. For the next few days she trailed the convoy, distant about fifty miles. On August 4th, course was changed to enable the Task Group to intercept enemy submarines reported by Cominch to be operating in the vicinity of 38-00 N, 38-00 W. On August 6th, a submarine was sighted in 41-31 N, 36-11 W and attacked by PC-618 with mousetraps which failed to explode. Thereafter the contact was not regained. An expanding box search was carried out during the next few days without results then the group moved northward of the Azores. Planes from the "baby flat-top" [escort aircraft carrier] USS Card [CVE-11] were sighted several times during this period and it was subsequently learned that some of these planes had made definite kills of enemy U-boats during that period. The Big Horn was not so fortunate, in spite of frequent changes of course to intercept submarines reported by Cominch. The cruise continued in the general area and as far south as the latitude of Dakar, during the last weeks of August and throughout September. During the last week of September, a new search area was tried far to the north of the Azores, but again without success; then the homeward leg of the cruise was executed without event. USS Big Horn and her escorts stood up Ambrose channel on October 7, 1943.

On October 14th, Cominch directed that USS Big Horn should be retained in active service but that no alterations or extensive repairs should be made without specific authorization of Cominch.

One more uneventful cruise was made by the Big Horn in company with PC-617 and PC-618, following training exercises in the New London area with a tame sub from October 29th through November 10th. On November 11th, the Task Group returned to New York to refuel and provision; on November 15th, the Task Group departed in company and proceeded on an eastward course until they had reached the hunting ground north of the Azores by November 27th. The search tactics were carried out for the next three weeks without success, and then the Task Group set course for the United States, arriving in Cape Cod Bay on December 31, 1943.

In summarizing this cruise, the Commanding. Officer of the Big Horn wrote, "It may be noted that during the period from 27 November to 1 December, this Task Group was in the midst of a group of from 10 to 15 U-boats. Nine contacts, sightings or attacks on U-boats took place in our immediate vicinity, so that it is most unlikely that we were not seen by some U-boats. Evidently the U-boats are wary of attacking an independent tanker. If the Q-ship program has contributed to this wariness, as is suggested in several prisoner-of-war statements, many independent merchant ships may thereby have escaped attack, and the Q-ship program has thus been of value."

Apparently Cominch did not agree with such a conclusion, for subsequent orders were that the Big Horn should join the Asterion in the new assignment to North Atlantic Weather Patrol Duty in the North Atlantic, under the supervision at the Coast Guard and manned by Coast Guard officers and crew. Because her antisubmarine equipment still remained intact, this permitted her to take offensive action whenever such opportunities presented themselves.

USS Irene Forsyte (IX-93)

The fifth vessel to be converted as a Q-ship was the three-masted schooner USS Irene Forsyte mentioned at the beginning of this chapter. The original proposal for using such a vessel as a Q-ship was made by Lieutenant Commander R. Parmenter, the ASW [Anti Submarine Warfare] Officer previously mentioned. On September 30, 1942, his suggestions were submitted to CESF by the officer in charge of ESF Q-ships, Commander L. C. Farley, who suggested that a three-masted schooner could be picked up for about $12,000; that if such a plan were approved it was recommended that the Commanding Officer of the vessel should be Lieut. Comdr. Parmenter. The plan was submitted to Cominch by Commander Eastern Sea Frontier in a letter dated October 9, 1942, and was approved. Within two weeks, CESF recommended the purchase of a Canadian schooner named Irene Myrtle, which was owned by T. Antle in Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. On October 31, 1942, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations directed the Chief of Bureau of Ships to arrange for purchasing the vessel and for delivering it to the Port Director, Boston. He further directed that it should be turned over to the Commanding Officer, Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut. These orders were carried out, and on December 17, 1942, the Chief of Naval Operations directed the Commandant Third Naval District to place the Irene Myrtle in full commission as USS Irene Forsyte (IX-93) upon receipt of sufficient personnel and as soon as the vessel was habitable. Conversion was made at the Thames Shipyard at New London, and as soon as the hull had been overhauled and repaired the vessel was lavishly equipped with a considerable variety of antisubmarine gear.

The original plan was for using the vessel off the "Trinidad corner" where U-boats had congregated and where several schooners had been attacked. On March 16th, however, CESF proposed to Cominch that the vessel might be of more value if she were assigned patrol areas in waters adjacent to the Azores. On April 5, 1943, Cominch replied that "in view of the considerable length of time before the subject vessel will be completed it is not possible to state definitely where she will be employed when ready. It is the present plan, however, that she will operate in the South Atlantic." The reference to the "length of time" was quite pertinent. On August 11th, Commander Eastern Sea Frontier informed Cinclant that the Irene Forsyte would be completed some time between August 15-20, 1943; that she would require about two weeks for shakedown; that at the end of that time CESF would order her to report to Cinclant for assignment. On August 13, 1943, Cinclant replied that when the Irene Forsyte reported to him she would be sailed for the South Atlantic, and that operational control of the vessel would pass to Commander Fourth Fleet, with Headquarters at Recife, as soon as she crossed 10° North latitude. The Commanding Officer of the Irene Forsyte did report to Cinclant for duty on September 24, 1943, and was then instructed to sail on or about September 26th for Recife along the Maury Track.

On the first leg of this cruise, the Irene Forsyte ran into heavy weather which opened up her seams and caused such serious leakage that there was temporary fear that the vessel would founder before she could put in at Bermuda. Immediately questions were raised as to why the vessel had been permitted to go to sea in such obviously unseaworthy condition. The upshot of the matter was the appointment of a Board of Investigation to ascertain responsibility for materiel failure of the vessel. In commenting on the report of the Naval Inspector General, Cominch wrote as follows:

"The conversion of USS Irene Forsyte is an instance of misguided conception and misdirected zeal, which, coupled with inefficiency resulting from lack of supervision by competent authority; has cost the government nearly half a million dollars in money and a serious waste of effort. In addition, much valuable material that can ultimately be used has been frozen for the better part of one year. The facts and circumstances responsible therefor are set forth in detail in the enclosures.

"I recognize that the actions of the officers were, in general, motivated by a desire to assist in the war effort. However, it appears to be a fact that some of the officers concerned took advantage of the broad authority that was granted in the interests of secrecy to obtain equipment that did not contribute to the military value of the vessel. Furthermore, the failure to ascertain, prior to or during conversion, that the vessel was unseaworthy is an indication of professional incompetence on the part of the officers concerned. The Commander, Eastern Sea Frontiers and the Commandant, Third Naval District after such further investigation as they may deem necessary, will take appropriate corrective and disciplinary action. Disposal of the vessel has been provided for in other correspondence.

"The practice of granting to Frontier Commanders and District Commandants uncontrolled authority to implement projects of this nature has been discontinued."

Thus ended the use of Q-ships in the Eastern Sea Frontier during World War II.

Selected Bibliography For further information:

Beyer, Kenneth M. Q Ships Versus U-Boats: America's Secret Project. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999. [appendices contain crew lists for USS Atik and USS Asterion. Captain Beyer, USN (Ret.) served as an officer on USS Asterion.]

Blair, Clay. Hitler's U-Boat War: The Hunters, 1939-1942. New York: Random House, 1996. [see index for individual ship names.].

Chatterton, E. Keble. Q Ships and Their Story. Annapolis MD: Naval institute Press, 1972.

Farago, Ladislas. The Tenth Fleet. New York: I. Obolensky, 1962. [see ch.7, pp.85-89].

Gannon, Michael. Operation Drumbeat: The Dramatic True Story of Germany's First U-Boat Attacks Along the American Coast in World War II. New York: Harper and Row, 1990. [see index for "Q-ships"]

Grenfell, E.W. "Discussions, Comments, Notes: A Japanese Q-Ship." US Naval Institute Proceedings 79, no.8 (Aug. 1953): 899-900. [1942 incident involving USS Gudgeon (SS-211) and an armed Japanese steamer].

McElroy, John W. "Discussions, Comments, Notes: The Loss of an American Q-Ship in World War II." US Naval Institute Proceedings 81, no.2 (Feb. 1953): 215. [loss of USS Atik].

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943. vol.1 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Boston MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1947. [see ch.11, "Amateurs and Auxiliaries: Mystery Ships," pp.281-286. Morison observes that 148 personnel, 1/4 of all personnel involved in the program, died, making it the most hazardous branch of the Navy.].

Sanderson, James Dean. Giants in War. New York: D.Van Nostrand Co., 1962. [See ch.7 "The Q-Ship Killers," pp.141-174.].

Smith, Richard W. The Q-Ship - Cause and Effect. US Naval Institute Proceedings 79, no.5 (May 1953): 532-541. [Q-Ships in World War I].


Published: Mon Nov 13 15:18:07 EST 2017