South from Tjilatjap

The Asheville arrived at Tjilatjap on the morning of 7 January after an uneventful trip from Surabaya, on Java's north coast. Launched in 1918, she was the first of only two vessels in her class—her sister being the USS Tulsa (PG-22)—her broad beam and spacious interior compartments afforded her crew a degree of comfort superior to that of most other ships in service. Designed as a coastal gunboat, she first saw duty in Latin American waters. Transferred to the Asiatic Fleet in 1922, she spent all but one year of her remaining service in the Far East. As part of the South China Patrol, operating in conjunction with her sister and the river gunboat Mindanao (PR-8), the gunboat had the dual mission of protecting American interests in South China and, later, gathering intelligence of the Japanese forces then controlling the coastal cities. By 1940 she and the Tulsa were plying between the ports of Hong Kong, Amoy (Xiamen), and Swatow (Shantou) on a regular patrol schedule, showing the flag and observing the movements of Japanese naval units.

First Escape

When Admiral Thomas C. Hart pulled his Asiatic Fleet back to the Philippines in 1940, the Asheville and the Tulsa moved to Manila Bay and were assigned to minefield control duties. They were there on 8 December 1941 when news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reached them, and their crews witnessed the destruction of Cavite Navy Yard by Japanese bombers two days later. Faced with overwhelming enemy strength, Admiral Hart ordered the bulk of his fleet to withdraw to the Netherlands East Indies. In the early morning hours of 11 December, the Asheville , Tulsa , and minesweeper Lark (AM-21), designated Task Force 7, rendezvoused off Corregidor and headed south, their crews wanting to stay and fight and frustrated to be pulling out. Commanded by Captain Lester J. Hudson, the tiny force proceeded through waters under constant Japanese surveillance. It had planned to avoid enemy contact by staying close to land in daylight hours and making open-water crossings at night. Fortune was with the ships, and Task Force 7 safely covered the nearly 2,000 miles in 12 days, arriving at Surabaya, Java, on 22 December. 1

The Asheville and Tulsa soon received orders to Tjilatjap and became the first ships of the Asiatic Fleet to reach that port. When they arrived, the Dutch authorities there did not know what duties to assign the two old, slow, poorly armed gunboats. At first they intended to use a portion of each crew as a landing force in defense of the local area, but the shortage of suitable ships led them to reassign the pair as convoy escorts. Fitted with depth charges, the sister ships spent the next month and a half escorting convoys, patrolling the harbor entrance, and assisting vessels in distress.

Meanwhile, the Japanese war machine moved relentlessly southward. By the end of January, Borneo and the Celebes had fallen. On 4 February, the Houston and Marblehead were bombed and badly damaged at the Battle of Makassar Strait in the Flores Sea. They put into Tjilatjap for repairs and to discharge the dead and wounded, the former to the old Dutch cemetery, the latter to the care of Commander Wassell. In quick succession Singapore fell on the 15th and Bali on the 20th, leaving Tjilatjap as the only safe Allied harbor on Java.

Mechanical Ails

On the afternoon of 27 February, Japanese aircraft operating from Bali attacked and mortally wounded the seaplane tender Langley (AV-3, ex-CV-1), en route from Australia with 32 badly needed P-40s. The Asheville , the Tulsa , and two minesweepers were ordered to assist the Langley some 85 miles south of Tjilatjap. But the former carrier's survivors had been picked up nearly five hours earlier, so the ships searched in vain, not being relieved for another five hours. They were needlessly exposed to attack, with the situation aggravated by the sudden failure of the Asheville 's main circulator, which left her wallowing helplessly until repairs could be made. 2

This was not the first mechanical problem to plague the old gunboat and would not be the last. A pre-World War I design with a meager 800-horsepower steam turbine that made her decidedly underpowered for her tonnage, the gunboat had experienced a number of failures since leaving China. Forced to run her engine at full speed much of the time to make eight knots, she burned out her Kingsbury thrust bearings en route to the Philippines in November 1940. Adrift in the South China Sea for two days, she was towed into Manila Bay by the Bittern (AK-36), or, as one officer wryly observed, "right behind the Bittern , keeping perfect formation." 3

On her last trip to China in July 1941, the gunboat became disabled once again when her single propeller shaft snapped in heavy seas during a typhoon. She drifted inside the 25-fathom curve off Swatow and anchored until the Marblehead took her in tow. In drydock at Canacao, the Philippines, she received a new prop shaft, but a leak during undocking exposed extensive corrosion in her stern tube. Then, during postrepair trials, she stripped her low-pressure turbine and had to have it rebladed at Cavite. 4 Little wonder that her crew referred to the gunboat as the "Ashcan."

The stress of wartime operations amplified the strain on the Asheville 's antiquated power plant. During the voyage from the Philippines to Java, two teeth were chipped on her reduction gear and a bearing cap split, requiring temporary repairs until she reached Surabaya. The breakdown while searching for the Langley was no doubt the inevitable consequence of two months' hard wartime service and presaged a tragic end for a tired ship.

Japanese Move on Java

Her days were numbered. Two invasion forces were bearing down on Java, and on the 27-28 February, the warships escorting one of the forces defeated ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command's fleet at the Battle of the Java Sea. Two other strong naval forces had also departed Kendari, Celebes, on the 25th, under the overall command of Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake. The larger of the forces, Kido Butai (Mobile Force), was a powerful amalgam of four carriers, two battleships, two heavy cruisers, and 12 smaller warships under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who had led the Pearl Harbor attack. They were to operate in an area roughly 150 to 600 miles south and west of Tjilatjap. The smaller force, under Kondo's personal command, was designated Nampo Butai Hontai (Southern Force, Main Body) and consisted of the heavy cruisers Atago , Takao , and Maya , with the destroyers Arashi and Nowaki . It was to operate 70 to 150 miles south of Tjilatjap and "ambush the escape of the enemy." In addition to these forces, five submarines were operating due south of Java, with one stationed off the entrance to Tjilatjap. Six others operated between Java and Australia. 5 This awesome array of naval power confronted the exhausted Asiatic Fleet.

The news was all bad when the Asheville returned to Tjilatjap. The Japanese were landing on northern Java and sighting reports were coming in on the Southern Force, now 150 miles south of the port. On 1 March, the American naval commander in Java decided it was time to pull out and sent a dispatch to Captain Hudson, the senior naval officer at Tjilatjap. 6 He was ordered to leave "at once," for the ships to scatter and rendezvous at 15 degrees South, 113 degrees East, before proceeding to Exmouth Gulf, Australia.

At the same time, the American cruisers Houston and Phoenix (CL-46) and the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth were ordered to meet the smaller ships at the designated rendezvous and escort them to Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia on 3 March. The Houston and the Perth , however, had by then already been sunk off Sunda Strait by ships covering one of the Java landings, and the Phoenix was still 900 miles to the west. The remnants of the Asiatic Fleet were on their own. Because of the reports of Japanese ships south of Tjilatjap, the captain of the Tulsa decided the safest course was to head straight for Fremantle instead of Exmouth Gulf, bypassing the assigned rendezvous point altogether.

In a hurried conversation at Tjilatjap, he explained his decision to the Asheville 's skipper, Lieutenant Commander Jacob W. Britt. Britt replied that the Asheville was still having engine trouble and "could not possibly make more than ten knots." He was not sure Fremantle was his best option but would defer making his final decision until they cleared port. 7

The Last Escape

The remainder of the Asiatic Fleet began to depart Tjilatjap at 0943 on Sunday, 1 March, when the destroyer Edsall (DD-219) stood out. She was followed by the Lark at 1430, the Asheville at 1448, the Tulsa at 1505, the Pillsbury (DD-227) at 1507, the Whippoorwill (AM-35) at 1531, the Parrott (DD-218) at 1546, and finally the converted yacht Isabel (PY-10) at 2110. 8 When clear of the minefield east of the harbor entrance, most ships proceeded independently. The Whippoorwill signaled the Tulsa that she would remain within a five-mile radius of the Asheville in case that ship needed assistance, but her own intentions were to go to Fremantle instead of Exmouth Gulf. 9 The three ships worked their way eastward until nightfall, zigzagging to avoid submarine attack. After dark, the Asheville and the Tulsa turned southeast, the Whippoorwill due south. The two gunboats maintained a base course of 134 degrees through the night and, although they encountered heavy rain squalls, were still in sight of each other at dawn the next day, 2 March.

At 0400 the Tulsa had changed her base course to 179 degrees; at 0615 she sighted the Asheville and, using light signals, transmitted her intention of continuing south. 10 The Asheville replied that she was still having trouble with her engines, could not maintain speed, and would proceed to the southeast toward the rendezvous. The Tulsa lost sight of her on the horizon at about 1000, the last any American eyes not on board ship would see of the old gunboat. 11 No one will ever know the exact nature of the Asheville 's mechanical problem. A plot of her last known position and a track projection to the site of her sinking shows an average speed of only nine knots, as compared with the Tulsa 's 11.4 knots.

The Japanese, meanwhile, were flying regular air patrols from Bali south over the Indian Ocean. Shortly after noon on the 2nd, a twin-engine Japanese bomber flew from west to east over the Isabel . Fifteen minutes later the same aircraft flew over the Tulsa and most likely saw the Asheville in the vicinity. 12 The Japanese plane radioed their positions, but misidentified the gunboats as enemy destroyers. The air base on Bali relayed the report to Admiral Kondo's Southern Force, which was approximately 170 miles southwest of the American ships. At the same time, Kondo received a report of "one enemy light cruiser" 100 miles due south of Bali. After receiving these messages, the admiral split his force. He ordered the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao to intercept the enemy "cruiser" and the heavy cruiser Maya with the destroyers Arashi and Nowaki to pursue the two "destroyers." At about 1400 they took separate intercept courses to the southeast.

The Atago and Takao found their target after dark, but the moon was full and they could discern the silhouette of the enemy ship. Seeing the outline of four stacks, the Japanese identified the target as a Marblehead -class cruiser and opened fire at 5,200 meters. Turning to escape, the trapped ship fired her aft guns but quickly succumbed to overpowering strength and sank in 32 minutes. 13 The Japanese never positively identified the ship, but the "cruiser" was certainly the old four-stack destroyer Pillsbury , engaged only a few days earlier in a valiant attack in Badung Strait and now out of torpedoes. She went down with all 150 hands, fighting to the end with what she had.

The Maya and her two destroyers found the British destroyer HMS Stronghold at dusk. While their prey twisted and turned to get away, the Japanese cruiser fired from a distance and the destroyers closed to finish her off, attacking in line and commencing fire at 10,500 meters. The action lasted for 75 minutes until the Stronghold was so badly battered that she came to a stop, blew up, and sank with all but 50 of her crew. 14

Out of Luck

That accounted for one of the "destroyers" reported earlier, but where was the other? The Japanese force was scheduled to refuel from an oiler, which had moved into position south of Bali, but the Maya and her destroyers probably remained in the vicinity of the Stronghold's sinking through the night, looking for what they believed was a second enemy destroyer. What they found the next morning was the luckless Asheville , apparently unaware of the Japanese presence and coming right toward them at an unsteady nine knots. There is no evidence that the Stronghold had been able to get off a distress signal as a warning.

The Maya spotted the Asheville first, and Captain Nabeshima Shunsaku ordered the destroyers to attack. The sky was clear and the visibility unlimited as the enemy approached, giving the Asheville time to send a message at 0903—"RRRR ASHEVILLE ATTACKED 12-33S 111-35E"—meaning she was being attacked by surface raiders rather than submarines or aircraft. 15 Both the Tulsa , 70 miles to the southwest, and the Whippoorwill , 90 miles away, copied the message but thought it prudent not to turn back and jeopardize their ships.

The Asheville 's three 4-inch guns were no match for the six 12.7-cm guns on each of the two modern Kagero -class destroyers, so she probably tried to turn and evade, a hopeless proposition with her scanty nine-knot top speed. At this early stage of the war, the Japanese Navy had not perfected its gunnery under combat conditions, a factor that created a number of problems in the Java campaign. It maintained a doctrine of opening fire at extremely long ranges, which reduced the probability of hits and gave the target time to take evasive action. The Stronghold had been able to evade for more than an hour the day before. 16 Possibly learning from their mistake, the Arashi and the Nowaki closed the range to 8,500 meters before commencing fire on the Asheville .

Japanese gunners also used armor-piercing shells aimed above the target's waterline, which tended to punch holes in the superstructure instead of sinking the ship. This may explain why it took two destroyers 32 minutes and 376 rounds to sink the relatively helpless China gunboat. 17 The Asheville had no gun-director system and, if she was able to fire her guns at all, evidently made no hits on the enemy. The Japanese action reports indicate no damage to their ships.

The Only Word

No one will ever know exactly how many men had been on board the Asheville because she undoubtedly took additional military personnel aboard in Tjilatjap, but the number was probably between 160 and 170.18 The ship's normal complement was 166, most of whose names appeared later on the list of missing. The Japanese picked only one man from the water, probably to determine the name of the vessel they had just sunk. He was 19-year-old Fireman Second Class Fred Lewis Brown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who would die in 1945 while a prisoner of war at Makassar, the Celebes. Brown left the only eyewitness account of the Asheville 's sinking, related to a fellow prisoner who reported it to the Casualty Section of the Bureau of Naval Personnel after the war. According to the former POW:

Brown was asleep in the fire room when the firing started. Prior to the firing Brown had heard no general quarters alarm given so that it would seem the battle had not been anticipated. Upon running to the deck after hearing the firing, he saw that the bridge had been hit and badly damaged and also that the forecastle had been hit. As soon as he got top side he abandoned ship as the rest of the crew were doing. Brown noticed that many of the personnel who had been on the deck during the firing had been killed. The survivors were scattered in the water.

After the Asheville had sunk, three Jap destroyers [sic] came alongside of the survivors but only one threw out a rescue line. Brown grasped a line and was hauled aboard ship. The rest of the survivors were left in the water by the Japs. Brown was transferred from the Jap destroyer to a Dutch hospital ship and taken to Makassar, where he was made a prisoner of war. Nothing was ever heard further about the remaining members of the crew. 19  

The Nowaki 's action report spelled the Asheville 's name Asonbiru, but Japanese Imperial Headquarters corrected the spelling when it released a communiqu e two days later that read:

Japanese naval forces advancing in the Indian Ocean south of Java surrounded the British destroyer Stronghold , 905 tons, off Cape Chila [Tjilatjap] on March 2 and sank her.

Other Japanese naval forces sank the United States gunboat Asheville , 1,270 tons, on March 3. There were no Japanese 1osses. 20

Kondo's forces went on to sink a number of other ships before returning to Kendari, but the Tulsa and the few remaining U.S. naval vessels made it safely to Fremantle. Only one ship arrived at the designated rendezvous point; the destroyer Parrott passed over the spot on 3 March and recorded in her log, "no ships in sight." Most of the fleeing warships had been fortunate enough to alter course and remain well to the west of the enemy. But the Asheville would probably not have escaped even if she had changed course. Her reduced speed would have placed her in Kondo's grasp, regardless of the direction she chose.

Thus ended the valiant Asiatic Fleet, attempting to hold the line against impossible odds with mostly inadequate and obsolete equipment. Help never came, and the ships were destroyed one by one. The USS Asheville was the last, succumbing on the final leg of her flight to safety south from Tjilatjap. She was stricken from the Navy Register on 8 May 1942 and a new frigate, PF-1, was launched bearing her name. Since then, an Asheville -class of patrol gunboats served in Vietnam and, most recently, in 1991 the nuclear-powered attack submarine Asheville (SSN-758) joined the Fleet to carry on the name of a proud ship.

The widow of the first Asheville 's captain expressed her sorrow and pride in 1944 when she wrote: "I've been inclined to think that the Asheville [has] been forgotten entirely. Actually, it wasn't much of a ship to remember, but the sacrifice of the men and officers aboard is not to be forgotten." 21

 



1. LCDR W. B. Porter, "Gunboat Saga," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , LXX (April 1944), pp. 421-429.

2. Entry of 8 March 1942, War Diary of USS Tulsa , 24 December 1941 - 8 March 1942, personal papers of CAPT J. B. Berkley.

3. Letter from LT L. T. Miles to LT C. T. Straub, 16 January 1941, author's collection; Log of USS Asheville , 6 - 9 July, 2 - 4 August 1941.

4. Letter from LT L. T. Miles to CDR A. H. Miles, 7 August 1941, author's collection; Log of USS Asheville , 6 - 9 July, 2 - 4 August 1941.

5. The Japanese order of battle is detailed in Boeicho [Japan Defense Agency], Boei Kenshujo, Ran'in Bengaru-wan jomen kaigun shinko sakusen [Naval Attack Operations in the Netherlands East Indies and Bengal Bay Areas], Vol. 26; Senshi sosho [War History Series] (Tokyo: Asagumo Shimbusha, 1969), pp. 492-494, 499-506. Hereafter cited as Senshi sosho, vol. 26.

6. For a discussion of the decision to withdraw, see Samuel Eliot Morrison, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931-April 1942 , vol. 3, History of the United States Naval Operations in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963), pp. 376-377.

7. "Passage of the USS Tulsa from Tjilatjap, Java, to Fremantle, Australia," memorandum from LCDR J. B. Berkley, 10 March 1942, personal papers of CAPT J. B. Berkley.

8. All times from various deck logs. The submarine Spearfish (SS-190) was the last American ship to leave, at 0200 on 2 March.

9. Berkley memorandum, 10 March 1942.

10. Log of the USS Tulsa , 2 March 1942.

11. Berkley memorandum, 10 March 1942.

12. Logs of the USS Isabel and USS Tulsa , 2 March 1942.

13. Senshi sosho, vol. 26, pp. 512-13.

14. G. Hermon Gill, Royal Australian Navy, 1939-1942 (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1957), pp. 628-29.

15. Berkley memorandum, 10 March 1942. Japanese action reports give the Asheville 's position as 12 - 50'S 111 - 20'E.

16. On 1 March, Admiral Nagumo's Kido Butai sank the Edsall and the oiler Pecos (AO-6) south of Christmas Island. In the attack on the Edsall , two fast battleships and two of the latest heavy cruisers fired on the evading destroyer from ranges up to 25,500 meters for a full hour and made only one hit, expending well over 2,000 rounds. The Edsall was not brought to a stop until bombed by carrier aircraft. Senshi sosho, vol. 26, supplemental introduction, pp. 1-2.

17. Action reports of the Arashi and Nowaki , microfilm reels JD-204 and JD-205, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C. All times are corrected to local Java time zone.

18. The Tulsa took on five passengers and had a total of 169 on board when she left Tjilatjap. Log of USS Tulsa , 1 March 1942; War Diary of USS Tulsa, 8 March 1942.

19. Statement of Seaman Second Class Joe Sam Sisk, 28 November 1945, Ships' Histories Section, Division of Naval History, Navy Department, Washington, D.C.

20. The New York Times , 6 March 1942.

21. Letter from Mrs. J. W. Britt to CAPT A. H. Miles, October 1944, author's collection.

Mr. Miles served four years as a P-2 pilot before a full career as a commercial pilot for American Airlines. He is the son of the Asheville 's executive officer, Lieutenant Lion Tyler Miles, USN.

Navy Blue Blood

There are Navy families, and then, there are Navy families.

If your birth garners a congratulatory telegram from Chester W. Nimitz, your family is probably the real McCoy.

So it was when Lion Tyler Miles, the father of "South from Tjilatjap's" author, entered the world on 4 March 1910 in the President's House at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. His father, then-Ensign Alfred Hart Miles, had taken command of the USS Plunger (Submarine #2) from then-Ensign Nimitz barely two months before. But the Miles' Navy tradition extended beyond that generation.

Charles Richard Miles, Alfred's father, was born in 1851 and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1872. After six years of sea duty, he was assigned to the Academy as an instructor of English, history, and law. For the next decade his career at Annapolis alternated with periods of sea duty. In December 1888 he was ordered to the USS Yantic , a Civil War–vintage screw gunboat assigned to rescue the steamer SS Haytian Republic , which had been captured by revolutionaries in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. During this time Lieutenant Miles contracted yellow fever. He died on board the Yantic , while quarantined in New York Harbor, on 14 January 1889.

His son, Alfred, born 2 November 1883, was only six years old when his father died and lost his mother when he was 12. He was raised by Rear Admiral Hugo Osterhaus in Norfolk, Virginia. After attending William and Mary for a year and working on the Southern Railway, he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy from President Theodore Roosevelt. His career there changed the Yard and the Navy.

It had been a tradition for the Academy's bandmaster, Lieutenant Charles A. Zimmerman, to write a march for each class during their final year. None had ever "stuck" because, according to Alfred, they lacked the proper rhythm. The first-class midshipman volunteered to write lyrics for two verses that could be used as a marching song at the upcoming Army-Navy football game. That night he jotted down the verses and presented it to the next choir practice. It immediately caught on. His lyrics to Anchors Aweigh were sung for the first time in public at the 1906 Army-Navy game before a crowd of 30,000 in Philadelphia. It didn't hurt that the Middies beat the Cadets for the first time in six years.

Alfred, after graduating in 1907, became the signal officer on the USS Connecticut (Battleship #18) for the commander-in-chief of the Great White Fleet in its around-the-world cruise. He went on to become a pioneer of the early American submarine service and, in 1942, composed a "victory verse" for what had become the Navy's song. After twice retiring from the Navy, he joined the U.S. Maritime Service where he commanded tankers and freighters from 1945-55. Captain Miles died in 1956.

His son, Lion Tyler, reported to the Naval Academy for his plebe year in 1927. After his commissioning in 1931, he served in mostly cruisers with an aborted attempt at flight training in 1933-34. As his grandfather before him, he taught English and history at the Academy from 1938-40. Then Lieutenant Miles was assigned to the Asiatic Fleet and began his service in the Asheville, first as the gunnery officer and later as her executive officer. He is presumed to have died when his ship was sunk 3 March 1942.

The author of "South from Tjilatjap," Lion G. Miles—great-grandson of Charles—served as a Navy aviator in Patrol Squadron 4 (VP-4) at Okinawa from 1957 to 1959 and flew in various reserve squadrons after that.  He was activated for the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and flew for VP-832 out of Floyd Bennett Field in New York. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Columbia University, he was from 1964 to 1987 a captain for American Airlines and is now retired.
—J. M. Caiella

 

 

 
 

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