The Cythera did not look like a warship that cold day in January 1942, but one could see signs of her service. Lying pier-side at Philadelphia Navy Yard, decked out in white paint and ornate gilt scrollwork, she looked every bit the steam yacht that had, as a correspondent for Yachting once wrote, "poked her bow into ports the world over." On closer inspection, however, one could see the alphanumeric designation on her hull, SP-575, with an arrow running fore and aft through the letters and numbers—markings similar to those of gigs assigned individual commanding officers, or chiefs of staff without flag rank. Her tall, raked stack carried two inverted chevrons, a badge of honor reflecting arduous convoy-escort service for the U.S. Navy in World War I.
Launched in 1906 at Leith, Scotland, she originally had been the Agawa—designed by Cox and King and constructed by shipbuilders Ramage and Ferguson Ltd., for American financier Charles W. Harkness. The steel-hulled, single-screw, schooner-rigged steam yacht had been renamed the Cythera after Harkness's death in 1916, when the vessel passed to his half-brother, William L. Harkness. William was a keen yachtsman and a member of the prestigious New York Yacht Club.
Wartime history repeated itself, and the Navy reacquired the Cythera on 31 December 1941. Three days into 1942, Lieutenant Commander Thomas W. Rudderow, USNR (Retired), received orders recalling him to active duty "in connection with fitting out of the U.S.S. Cythera, and on board as commanding officer when commissioned." Rudderow, 56, had been superintendent and commanding officer of the Pennsylvania Nautical School's ship Seneca since June 1941.
Representatives of the Cythera's owner, Edith Hale Harkness (William's only daughter), delivered the yacht on 12 January 1942. A little more than a fortnight later, acting Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal approved the retention of the name Cythera for what had become patrol vessel PY-26—a notable honor and an exception to the practice of naming converted yachts for gems and minerals.
On 29 January, the office of the Chief of Naval Operations directed the Bureau of Ships and the Bureau of Ordnance to assign "the highest practicable priority" to the Cythera's conversion, approving the following:
- An armament of two 3-inch antiaircraft guns, four .50-caliber machine guns (she had mounted three 3-inch guns and two machine guns during her previous service)
- Two depth-charge tracks
- Permanent degaussing
- The provision of "berthing, messing, and sanitary facilities" for approximately seven officers, six chief petty officers, and 50 lower ratings (she had accommodated 113 men earlier)
- Echo-ranging and listening gear, echo sounding equipment, and standard radio
- That provision be made for darkening ship.
The commandant of the Fourth Naval District accordingly was directed to carry out the work and complete it "at the earliest possible date."
Work proceeded apace. On 9 February one model TCE-1 radio transmitter, one Model RAS-2 receiver, and two Type CA18-F Janette converters—all being held for installation on board the net tender Pepperwood (YN-31)—were diverted to the Cythera. In addition, on 1 March diversion of QC sonar equipment earmarked for installation in the Tourmaline (PY-20) to the Cythera was authorized "in view of the urgent need for suitable sound equipment" for the latter. The gear arrived two days later but lacked a generator. Ultimately the Cythera received a QCN-2 slated for installation in the submarine chaser PC-554, powered by a generator slated for the Vixen (PG-53).
The Cythera was commissioned on 3 March, shy an executive officer and two watch officers—not to mention radiomen, quartermasters, and signalmen. No one on board possessed training in underwater sound gear. The Fourth Naval District had no men to spare to fill the vacancies.
Six days before the Cythera went into commission, an inspection board noted several areas that needed to be addressed. Those specifically of concern to her bluejackets included the need for a "scuttlebutt" in their quarters, and the provision and installation of a steam coffee urn. In addition, engineer officer Ensign William L. Bunker, USNR, and his men noted that temperatures in their work space exceeded 110 degrees when the new darkening-ship hood was installed over the engine room hatch—even though outdoor temperatures were hovering near freezing. In a masterpiece of understatement, the board concluded: "It is believed that on tropical duty, the temperatures in the engine room will be excessive."
A structural firing test was conducted on 20 April, with Mount One firing six rounds and Mount Two firing ten. A careful examination of "ship's structure, foundations and holding down bolts in [the] vicinity of [the] guns" afterward revealed no defects or weaknesses. No protective armor had been placed around the Cythera's guns or control positions: "Due to the great amount of material already placed on this vessel, it is not deemed advisable to add to her weight."
Following a brief shakedown in Chesapeake Bay and a yard period at Norfolk, Virginia, the Cythera sailed for Cristobal, Canal Zone, on 1 May 1942—destination: Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii. Her crew of 70 comprised five officers (the last to join being Lieutenant Casper Zacharias, USNR, the executive officer, who had reported on 29 April) and 65 enlisted men.
At 0425 the next morning, 100 miles east of Cape Fear, North Carolina, the Cythera's zigzag southern course crossed that of U-402, commanded by 31-year-old Kapitänleutnant Siegfried von Forstner. On the final day of her third war patrol, and 37 days out of St. Nazaire, France, the German submarine attained an ideal broadside attack position. At 0641, von Forstner fired three torpedoes at a range of 1,900 yards, two of which hit the Cythera. The blasts tore the ship in two; her preset 300-pound Mk. 6 depth charges detonated, adding to the carnage.
As U-402 surfaced and closed, Pharmacist's Mate First Class Charles H. Carter and Seaman Second Class James H. Brown III, the only survivors, expressed a desire to stay put. "No, boys," von Forstner replied, "your war is over."
"We really should have locked them up and all that," von Forstner later wrote to his wife, Annamaria, "but a U-boat is not spacious . . . and they were nice chaps and friendly—they joined us at our meals, and we brought them home in our own way, and nobody the worse for it." When U-402 reached St. Nazaire, however, Carter and Brown received treatment their new captors "thought fit for prisoners of war . . . much to the consternation" of U-402's crew.
In October 1943, a homing torpedo ended U-402's career; all on board were lost. Allied forces liberated Carter and Brown at the end of the war in Europe. Earlier, the Navy had honored Rudderow and one of his officers, Ensign Robert E. Brister, USNR, in the naming of two destroyer escorts launched in 1943: the USS Rudderow (DE-224) and Brister (DE-327). A second Cythera (PY-31) had been commissioned in October 1942.
In the early weeks of 1942, when the first Cythera had been undergoing conversion, Rudderow and his wife often hosted the officers at their Bryn Mawr home. "They were a gallant little band, the U.S.S. 'Cythera,'" Katherine McIlvaine Rudderow later wrote. "I had learned to know them all quite well, the officers, and they had been repeatedly here at our house. An exceptionally splendid set of men, the whole crew—How proud of them Mr. Rudderow was!" Although the Cythera's service in World War II was brief, the urgency of the effort to outfit her attested to her potential value. Likewise, her commander's pride in his crew no doubt was a testament to his faith in the way they would have carried out their duties.