During the second week of January 1942, Commander William N. Thornton, captain of the USS Patoka (AO-9), received a confidential dispatch: Ships bearing rubber and other vital military supplies had left French Indochina bound for German-occupied European ports. Earlier in his naval career, Thornton had served in three battleships and two destroyers, but the Patoka , anchored at Bahai, Brazil, was an oiler, not a warship. That fact, however, didn’t prevent the commander from making a bold request.
With two centerline-mounted 5-inch/51-caliber guns, one forward and one aft; four 3-inch/50 antiaircraft guns; and four 50-caliber machine guns, the Patoka could fend for herself if need be, Thornton apparently reasoned. Consequently, he sought permission to patrol off the coast of Bahia. His request evidently impressed Rear Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, commander of the Atlantic Fleet’s widely dispersed Task Force 3, who had informed Admiral Ernest J. King, the fleet’s commander, on 1 November 1941 that “the spirit of the Force is the Old Spirit of ’76—ready for any call at any time.” Ingram granted Thornton’s appeal on the afternoon of 9 January 1942. At 0708 the next day the Patoka stood out, ready to steam in harm’s way.