Tribute has been paid to the heroic salvage personnel whose hard-earned success at Pearl Harbor was so conducive to our later avenging that fateful Sunday morning of December 7, 1941. Great credit was reflected on the men who surmounted incredible obstacles in clearing strategic Mediterranean ports without the restoration of which Allied victories in Italy and Africa would have been virtually impossible. Cited, too, were those who transformed wreck- strewn Manila Bay into a valuable stepping stone for final thrusts against Japan. Perhaps on a lesser scale, but of vital importance to the success of each operation it supported, was the role of the Salvage and Rescue Units which were a part of every amphibious invasion force. A brief survey of the composition of and services rendered by these units should not be without interest to Naval personnel, so many of whom witnessed salvage and rescue proceedings from 1942 to 1945.
The Salvage and Rescue Unit was usually commanded by the senior skipper of the tugs assigned to the unit, though on occasion a senior salvage officer of wide experience was ordered to command. The units were composed mainly of ships assigned from Fleet Service Forces: Auxiliary Tugs (ATA); Old Fleet Tugs (ATO—converted World War I Bird-Class Minesweepers and oceangoing tugs built prior to 1920); Rescue Tugs (ATR); Fleet Tugs (ATF—commissioned since 1941); and Salvage Ships (ARS). The number and types of ships in these units depended, of course, on the size and composition of the attacking force, the scope of the operation, the beaching and landing conditions, and the kind and power of enemy resistance expected.
The ATO’s and ATA’s were essentially sea-going towing vessels with limited facilities for salvage work. The ATR’s and ATF’s, while towing power was of prime concern in their building, were better fitted through design, outfitting, and personnel allowance for the salvage and rescue work in support of amphibious invasions. The efficiency of each tug was increased by the temporary addition of special gear and the transferring aboard of salvage and fire-fighting experts as each large scale operation required. The ARS was designed with all phases of marine salvage in mind and was without equal in this field; she carried a crew of carefully chosen ratings specially trained for salvage work. The services of the ARS, however, were always in demand on pressing salvage jobs with the result that only on the largest scale operations were they part of the Salvage and Rescue Unit.
The versatility of the unit was often augmented by inclusion of a division of those great little “spitkits,” the LCI’s, whose many conversions answered so well the varying demands of amphibious warfare. They were extremely useful in fighting fire and undertaking minor salvage jobs in water too shallow for the deeper draft tugs to enter. On occasion they acted as the link between a beached landing ship and the assisting tug when wire cable had to be run in a considerable distance over gradually shoaling water. They carried teams of demolition experts who, prior to the day of invasion, removed underwater obstacles and shallow depth mines in the wake of proposed approaches to landing beaches. Following the assault, these demolition teams often assisted the Salvage and Rescue Unit ships in clearing assigned anchorage areas of wrecks and debris.
The work of the Salvage and Rescue Units in support of amphibious operations may be classed as follows:
- Routine Assistance and Towing.
- Assisting in Retraction of Beached Landing Craft.
- Damage Control.
- Emergency Repairs and De-watering.
Assistance to combatant ships and to one another was second nature to Service Force vessels, the Salvage and Rescue Units keeping this in mind to such a degree that much of their success was brought about by it. The presence of salvage and rescue ships ready to avert disaster or to counteract and repair damage when it occurred gave a feeling of security to amphibious force personnel. Routine assistance, then, comprised not only being on the scene capable of doing a job, but also an obvious desire to help the other vessel. Hundreds of small but greatly appreciated services were rendered without benefit of formal orders; when summed up, these “little” jobs did much toward furthering the successful outcome of the main operation.
Moreover, when a salvage and rescue ship was temporarily unemployed, her skipper was under orders to use his own initiative in giving help to vessels requiring it without delaying for definite instructions. This procedure saved much time and confusion, especially in the first few days following an assault when communication priority was at a premium. For illustration, a merchantman clearing a jury-rigged unloading pier lost control temporarily and was set rapidly, beam on, towards a group of beached landing ships. Seeing this, a tug was underway and closing the merchantman even as she started blinking; it ran wire cable to her, towed her clear, and held her until she was able to maneuver under her own power. The tug then recovered its cable and was back at anchor in less time than it would have taken to relay the merchantman’s request for assistance and receive orders to help her.
The many phases and associated problems of marine towing—whether it be ocean, coastwise, harbor, or inland—make it a vast field not lending itself to complete discussion here. On the other hand, towing is closely akin to salvage and rescue work, and mention of it could not be omitted properly. By the very nature of the ships composing the Salvage and Rescue Units, it is apparent that towing power and endurance were requisite. Hence towing is in the same division of salvage and rescue work as routine assistance, for it was actually a service which the Unit was always ready to render.
Enroute to a landing, the day of the attack, and later on as the invasion progressed, the tugs were called many times to take in tow temporarily disabled vessels. They fell heir to most of the necessary towing resulting from breakdown or enemy action while an attack force steamed to an objective, though all ships in the force were at all times rigged for towing or being towed. In many instances a jury-repaired ship had to be towed to the relative safety of shallow water, placed alongside an invasion repair ship, or even towed to a rear base for more thorough overhaul and repair. When possible the Unit was always large enough to allow some of the tugs to depart from the area, still leaving a sufficient number of salvage and rescue vessels on hand. Short towing assignments in the assault area were, of course, not infrequent.
Rendering assistance in the retraction of beached landing craft was indeed an assignment stripped of any semblance of romance. The reluctance of some landing ships to budge from the beach, no matter what the assisting tug did, could make a salvage and rescue man swear (believe me, I know!). Despite the cantankerousness of the craft and high water’s always seeming to arrive between 0400 and 0600, the benefits to the progress of an invasion from refloating the landing ships were obvious.
Normally a landing ship needed no help in retracting if her engines were operative and her stern anchor was let go at the proper distance from the beach. At times, however, they beached harder than usual due to insufficient or incorrect information on the slope and structure of the beach. In other cases they did not know when beaching that they were to be reloaded before retracting. In a large scale amphibious assault, the landing ships were often required to beach close together so that they did not let go their stern hooks lest they foul one another’s anchors and cables in beaching or retracting. Occasionally landing beaches bordering large bays or gulfs could not be found free of heavy swells or surf; if a landing craft broached under such conditions, she most certainly needed help in retracting. This assistance presented a problem familiar to salvage and rescue ships.
The two most common methods of running wire in from the tug made use of small boats. In one, 5-inch or 6-inch manila line was run to the beach where a bulldozer heaved in the wire cable by hauling in successive bights of the line. This method was suitable where reasonably moderate surf or swells hindered a boat’s running the heavy wire. The other method, usually the more practical of the two, had the boat crew secure the cable in a pelican hook on the after decking of an LCVP or LCM. Sealed empty oil drums were makeshift floats, and though often submerged, kept the wire off the bottom. The boat crew passed to the beached ship a pendant which was shackled to the main cable held in the pelican hook. When the pendant was secured aboard the ship, the boat crew tripped the pelican hook, the tug took in slack and was then ready to refloat the beached craft. If the distance from tug to landing ship was much over 150 yards, the power of two boats was often necessary to control the heavy wire cable.
When ready to retract, the landing ships usually took a strain on their stern anchor cables with engines ahead slow, making use of their screws to scour away sand and mud as they warmed up their engines. Then came a few moments of backing on the engines which, if unsuccessful, was invariably followed by the frenzied blinker for assistance. The assisting tug always directed the landing craft to try twisting ship while she got in position to run her wire. Going ahead on one screw while backing the other, changing direction of rotation of the screws at the end of the ship’s arc of swing, and alternately taking a strain and slacking the stern anchor cable was a simple and obvious maneuver which usually broke the suction of the bottom and allowed the ship to back clear under her own power. It was surprising to see how few landing ship skippers thought of it. Many a craft came off the beach by this method even while the tug was preparing to assist. If the ship could not free herself, the tug ran her wire and, being mindful of current and changing her heading to keep in line with the twisting ship, took a gradually increasing strain until the ship was refloated.
If a landing ship was broached, however, and in such a case one or both engines were temporarily out of use, the problem of retraction was a bit more complex. Surf often piled sand up heavily on the seaward bow or quarter, and retraction of a ship required the help of a beach party using bulldozers to clear the sand away prior to a tug’s pulling her off. The bulldozer was also of inestimable help in refloating pontoon barges and causeways, the broad flat bottoms of which were held securely in mud and sand alike. The beach crew kept a manila line on the tug’s cable during retraction, hauling in the cable after each refloating and securing it to the next craft. Thus running of the wire for each retraction was obviated. When one tug using all the “tricks of the trade” was unable to refloat a broached ship or pontoon assembly, the power of two tugs in line brought success.
There were instances, of course, where ballasting had to be carried to the extreme degree of removing most of a ship’s heavy gear and cargo before retraction was possible. In one invasion the beached landing ships were held in a powerful suction of the mud, silt, and oil that composed the only available landing beach. Even extreme ballasting did not help two tugs to retract the craft, and the bottom had to be dynamited around the ships before they were refloated. This, however, was an exceptional case.
Underlying the Salvage and Rescue Unit’s problems and methods of fire-fighting, diving operations, and emergency repairs are the two main purposes of damage control—first, maintaining a vessel’s maximum offensive power in action, and secondly, assuring the ship’s safe return to a base for repair if necessary. The modern naval officer has a good working knowledge of the functions and means of shipboard damage control organization, and any discussion of it here would be superfluous. It should be realized, however, that only capital ships have a large enough complement to spare sufficient trained personnel to these damage control parties; and again, only capital ships carry enough equipment for any other than repairs to minor damage. The majority of vessels in an amphibious invasion force were not capital ships; therefore, they required help in the repair of damage to any appreciable extent.
The crews of the Salvage and Rescue Unit ships were expert damage control parties in themselves, capable of quick and intelligent repair of damage on any type naval vessel. They were aided by standardization in the labelling and classifying of damage control fittings and in material specifications laid down for wartime cruising. Skill gained from experience and standardization alone were not enough, however. Most jobs completed by salvage and rescue ships were “All hands” evolutions, and it was not uncommon to see yeomen, pharmacist’s mates, or radiomen turn to with a will helping with heavy lines or a problem of rigging salvage gear. It was this great cooperative spirit together with skill and daring that brought many a stubborn job to a successful conclusion.
Fire-fighting to the salvage and rescue man almost always meant fire aboard a ship other than his own. His techniques and methods were about the same as any naval fire-fighter would use; but they were carried out to a further degree, as shipboard fires requiring outside assistance presented an extensive problem. Preparations were made en route, gear was broken out and made readily accessible, and stations were manned as the fire-fighting tug closed the stricken ship. Upon boarding the vessel a quick survey was made to determine what was burning, the extent of the fire, the possibilities of its spreading, and the best method of extinguishing it. The salvage crew then proceeded to put out the fire.
The first step, and always the first step to salvage and rescue men, in fighting shipboard fire of any appreciable proportion was the establishing of a fire boundary to keep the fire from spreading. Indeed, this was as important as the actual arresting of the flames. Establishing this boundary and thus bringing the fire under control was not always an easy job. All decks and bulkheads around the fire had to be kept cooled; damaged areas were kept under constant watch; and all openings of a size large enough to permit the fire’s spreading had to be closed. In some cases the side of a ship had to be cooled and kept cool to act as one side of a fire boundary before a salvage crew could board a vessel. Once the boundary had been established, however, the battle was more than half won; for the actual extinguishment, difficult though it might be, was then only a matter of time with proper equipment and experienced men.
While fighting shipboard fires, the salvage and rescue man always had to keep in mind the effect on stability curves of a large amount of water put aboard a vessel. Some of the salvage ships could deliver as much as four thousand gallons a minute at one hundred pounds nozzle pressure through their combined monitors and hose manifolds. Remember the S.S. Normandie? The additional weight of so much free surface water high above the vessel’s center of gravity reduced her metacentric height and her righting arm to the point where her hull could resist no longer.
On a European invasion there was a similar occurrence. A fire of severe proportions was raging in a vessel. A fire-fighting tug pumped countless tons of the sea into the ship and succeeded in extinguishing the fire. Apparently the tug’s personnel did not supervise the drainage of all that water. About thirty minutes after the stricken ship had reported the fire out and had praised the tug’s heroic work, that borrowed sea water returned to the briny deep. Yes, it did, ship and all! What a sorry sight to see triumph snatched away so quickly.
As over-flooding was an important consideration in fire-fighting, so quick and sound evaluation of a situation was another. On one occasion, while en route to an assignment at an invasion beach, a salvage and rescue tug passed close by a small craft clearing the side of a gasoline tanker. About three hull lengths away from the tanker, the small craft suddenly spewed flames from her engineroom ports. The tug immediately came alongside, extinguished the fire, and towed the crippled craft to a safe anchorage before proceeding on her original mission. During a later investigation the tug skipper was lauded for his initiative and prompt action which removed such a hazard from the vicinity of the tanker.
The role of the salvage diver assumed an adventurous and romantic cast in the minds of the uninitiated, but this tinge gave way quickly before the grueling work of underwater repair and salvage. In the front areas even a routine dive was often a tough assignment requiring the utmost in physical stamina and endurance tempered with a good serving of patience and mechanical aptitude. Most of the diving accomplished by Salvage and Rescue Units was necessarily limited to temporary repair or inspection, and was classed as shallow water diving—up to sixty feet in depth. The diver generally wore a mask or loose fitting helmet or a newly devised lightweight outfit, his air supply was either manually or mechanically compressed, and he needed little or no decompression during ascent.
The depth of water was not the sole consideration in determining the diver’s equipment. The primary factors in this determination were the amount of desired protection to the diver, the type and latitude of the work to be done, and the experience necessary to complete this work. The complete deep sea diving dress was used for extensive battle damage repair, any work that took the diver inside a ship’s hull, and wherever the visibility was poor and there might have been sharp projections to harm an otherwise unprotected diver. The heavy suit was also required when the length of the dive required proper decompression during ascent, when diving in very cold water, and whenever a diver might have met with poisonous chemicals or irritants.
By and large, however, dives during amphibious invasion were made where conditions were not unduly severe, with access to work and the diver’s freedom of motion relatively unrestricted. Such operations included inspection and searching dives, clearing propellers of line or wire cable, changing screws, and making various minor external repairs to a vessel’s hull or underwater fittings. Many a dive was made purely for inspection purposes, the information gained often being of great value to a vessel’s commanding officer. Searching dives were also frequent: gear important to a ship’s efficient operation had to be located and recovered- how it got the deep six in the first place the diver could not question—his was the job of recovery alone. Minor underwater cutting and welding jobs, inspection and cleaning of sea suctions, temporary repairs to stern tubes and strut bearings were a few of the many small jobs accomplished.
The clearing of a ship’s screws of line and/or wire cable came to be a routine job for the Salvage and Rescue Units. Whether through hull design or inexperience of the crews, the landing ships, large and small, had the unhappy faculty of fouling lines in their screws. The clearing of a 5-inch or 6-inch manila line or a wire rope fouled around a screw and wrapped under a strain between the propeller hub and the after face of the strut bearing was not an easy assignment, especially in the swells of the open anchorages used prior to clearing the more protected areas. The smaller craft sometimes wrapped their stern anchor cables around their propellers, and on several invasions divers had to clear minesweepers’ screws of their own sweep cable.
Changing a landing ship’s screws underwater was another job for the salvage divers. This was as valuable a job as it was interesting, for it saved a vessel’s steaming at greatly reduced speed or being towed to an already over-burdened floating drydock at some rear base. The divers readied the screw for removal and rigged slings and chain falls to hold it. When they were safely aboard the tug, the screw was blasted lose on the shaft with a turn or two of dynamite cord. The tug’s boom and tackle hauled up the damaged screw and sent down the new one, which the divers sweated up and secured. Many a landing ship benefitted by this service.
To prove that salvage is not without its lighter side, there is the story of the inexperienced salvage crew that was assigned to change a screw on a landing ship. All went well until they came to wrap the dynamite cord, and then they found to their chagrin that none of them had ever used it before. They went ahead anyway and used a great deal more than required. When the hearts of bewildered men started beating once again after detonation of the charge, the stern of the landing ship was found to be nearly blown off! What price glory!
Emergency repair to battle damage is beset with a multitude of problems. Topside or underwater damage may be slight, and quick repairs may be easily effected. Again, damage to a fuel line, a fire main, or a power line may require only the rigging of a jumper line to by-pass the ruptured section until it can be repaired permanently. On the other hand, repair of structural hull damage can and usually does make for anything but an easy task. Perhaps a brief outline of such an assignment would be more descriptive than a mere listing of the trials and tribulations often met in salvaging a ship.
A destroyer struck a mine on the first day of an assault landing. The force of the explosion was centered just below the turn of the bilge on her port side and in way of the forward bulkhead of her number one fire- room. The misfortune fell when one third of her crew was at evening chow—their first hot meal in three days—and consequently the vessel’s watertight integrity was partially broken as vigilance was relaxed. Immediately a tug was sent to the destroyer’s aid, took her alongside starboard side to, towed her to shallow and protected water, anchored, and commenced salvage operations without delay. The ship was down by the head, but flooding was brought under control, and the first night’s work was spent in securing patches over the holed shell plating. While the divers were thus engaged, salvage pumps were keeping the ship afloat.
After the hull was reasonably tight, divers had to descend into each of four flooded compartments from the main deck, and in the oily and watery blackness they had to locate and dog down all watertight doors and check all fittings and closures against leakage. The big pumps then went to work in earnest, and the oily water was removed from the destroyer in accordance with a predetermined plan. A cofferdam was constructed and set in place over a manhole in one compartment so that a leak in an oil tank below could be stopped by a diver and the tank pumped dry.
While de-watering was in process, all weakened and strained bulkheads, doors, and fittings were shored for extra strength, all patches were reinforced inboard and outboard, and strongbacks were pulled home snugly and secured. By rigging emergency power lines to operate jury-rigged fuel pumps, the fuel aft was shifted as necessary to control list and trim as the de-watering was being completed. During the salvage operation the destroyer was raised three feet, ten inches forward and two feet, four inches aft, thereby increasing her stability and seaworthiness.
This particular job meant little or no respite from their labors for the crews of both the destroyer and the salvage tug for the better part of two days and nights. During that time enemy planes were overhead on several occasions, but not one battle station was manned on either ship; theirs was a battle to save a wounded ship that she might steam and fight again. This very destroyer, when emergency repairs were completed, made an ocean voyage of a little over one thousand miles under her own power, steaming in company with a sister ship to a rear base. The saving of that ship reflected credit on the personnel of both salvage tug and destroyer, and the above account does not begin to tell of the difficulties met and overcome by two gallant crews.
So ends the tale of another struggle to keep a proud ship afloat. Not all such accounts end on so happy a note. Despite the almost superhuman salvage efforts of brave men, many a torn and twisted hull sank to a watery grave. Salvage and Rescue Units were officially cited for many an heroic role in support of amphibious assault landings, however, and rightfully received the Navy’s terse but coveted acclaim, “Well Done!” To those who love the sea and ships, salvage and rescue offers much. The great pride a true seaman takes in his ship is as nothing compared to the reward that is his when his seamanship and daring snatch her from destruction. The world has turned to rebuilding from the chaos of war, but it is still an unsettled sphere. When the next clambake starts, the Salvage and Rescue Units will be right back again saving ships.
A graduate of Harvard University, Lieutenant Commander Heywood received his ensign’s commission in February, 1941, via the Navy’s V-7 Program. His wartime service included duty aboard destroyers, YP’s, PC’s, and Fleet tugs, culminated by command of the ATR-61 from May, 1944, to December, 1945. He participated in five major Philippine landings and three major Borneo landings, and commanded Salvage and Rescue Units in five of these eight landings.