The Most Active Ship You've Never Heard Of: USS Vireo

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The Most Active Ship You've Never Heard Of: USS Vireo

Post by ThomasB » Sun Sep 15, 2013 2:48 am

I found this on another forum and I thought it might be of interest here.

The Most Active Ship You've Never Heard Of: USS Vireo

Most Pacific Fleet ships in commission at the start of the Second World War and that lasted through it got 11 or 13 battle stars to their various campaign decorations. USS Enterprise, the all-time record holder, got 20. USS Iowa only got nine.

USS Vireo got seven, despite not being a combatant ship. There were cruisers that didn't make it that far. (I'm looking at you, Savannah!)

USS Vireo was a Lapwing-class minesweeper, often referred to as the "Bird-class" because the forty-eight ships of the class were named after birds. They displaced 840 tons, and were 187 feet and 10 inches in length; miniscule in most terms. The Lapwings were ordered before the end of World War I. With the US engaged in such projects as the North Sea Mine Barrage and other large-scale madness, a need was foreseen to be able to clean it all up later. Vireo was laid down in November of 1918, launched after the war ended in May 1919, and commissioned as AM-52 in October. Most of the Lapwings eventually go into reserve or are otherwise not used. Vireo isn't one of them.

Various duties were served by Vireo; in 1921 Billy Mitchell wanted to grandstand so Vireo had to help out, towing German warships out to be sunk by level bombers. In 1930 and 1931, Vireo served as a plane guard vessel for aircraft surveying Nicaragua and Puerto Rico. In between these duties and interspersed with them Vireo did odd jobs; moving sailors about the Atlantic, transporting Navy mail, towing targets for gunfire practice. After a refit in Norfolk, in December of 1932 Vireo was ordered to Pacific Fleet. Once a part of Pacific Fleet Vireo resumed her odd-jobs work, doing basically anything an auxiliary might be required to do in peacetime. When Pacific Fleet moved its major combatants to San Diego from San Francisco, Vireo stayed behind, but when Pacific Fleet went to Pearl Harbor, Vireo went with the major combatants.

It was there on December 7th that Vireo earned her first battle star. The ship was in dock with engines partially dismantled, next to sisterships USS Bobolink, USS Rail, and USS Turkey (I swear I'm not making the last one up; AM-13, it's got a wikipedia page and everything). While the engineering crew got the engines put back together, Vireo's gun crews manned their weapons and shot down a plane of the second attack wave.

(Vireo, right, and Bobolink, left, trying to assist USS California after Pearl Harbor.)

Shortly after the attack Vireo and her sisterships were ordered to assist USS California, slowly flooding and sinking at berth F-3 on Battleship Row. Despite the best efforts of the "Birds" over the next three days, California can't be saved. Vireo briefly also serves as a tender to USS Enterprise, carrying ammunition out to the ship from the rather clogged docks of Pearl. Following that, just in case, Vireo and her sisterships sweep the channel out of Pearl for possible Japanese mines. She patrolled around the Hawaiian Islands, usually operating out of Hilo on the Big Island, until being ordered to escort tanker USS Kaloli to Midway Island on May 28 1942.

You can probably guess where this is going. Vireo is redesignated a tug (AT-144) during the voyage and arrives at Midway on 3 June, the day before the Battle of Midway. When USS Yorktown is damaged by Japanese aircraft, Vireo is ordered to go to her assistance. Arriving at 1135 on June 5, the brave little 840-ton auxiliary is confronted with a 25,500 ton aircraft carrier that needs a tow. Vireo passes lines and by 1310 has Yorktown underway, though at the painfully slow speed of just under three knots. The feel-good story is tragically short-lived. At 1400 hours on June 6th, I-158 sinks Yorktown (and destroyer USS Hammann, which is alongside to prove electrical power to the salvage crew) with a salvo of torpedoes. Still, that's another battle star.

Following various travails around around Midway that end in Vireo herself needing a tow back to Pearl, and a proper upgrade so she can actually tow things well, Vireo heads south to report to South Pacific Command. The Guadalcanal crisis is at its height in October when Vireo reports for duty in SoPac, Henderson Field is running out of gas, and you have a new tug. What to do with a tug? Give it a barge full of gasoline and send it to Lunga Point, Guadalcanal. So Vireo sets out as part of a convoy, but they're quickly spotted by Japanese aircraft and most of the ships turn back, except for USS Meredith, a destroyer, and Vireo. Meredith beats off a two-plane attack, but there are reports of enemy surface ships, so Meredith's commander decides to sink Vireo and scamper, since Vireo doesn't scamper very well. Vireo's crew hits the rafts, Meredith readies torpedo tubes...and along comes a 35-plane strike from the Japanese Zuikaku which sinks Meredith. Vireo's crew scrambles back aboard, but they can't get the boilers to relight. A PBY from Espiritu Santo spots the ship and the survivors and passes the word, so destroyer USS Grayson comes to help. Vireo has to be towed back to Espiritu Santo. Three battle stars.

So, with the last effort having been a tremendous disaster...Vireo is ordered to tow another gasoline barge to Guadalcanal. Then another barge, this one with bombs for the aircraft. Vireo makes several such trips uneventfully. Vireo assisted the damaged cruisers after the Battle of Tassafaronga as well, and when the campaign ended, moved up to Tulagi.

Which is where she happened to be on April 7 1943 when Fleet Admiral Yamamoto decided to launch Operation I. Over a hundred Japanese aircraft swept down on shipping around Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Vireo, engaged in the usual harbor work, is near to USS Ortolan (a fellow Lapwing), USS Pathfinder (a hydrographic survey ship), USS SC-521 (a subchaser), and destroyer USS Aaron Ward. Many small landing craft (and one big one, USS LST-49) are about as well and huddle under the protection of the destroyer's guns. It's all for naught; three divebombers come out of the sun and smash the Aaron Ward. Ortolan and Vireo render what assistance they can to the crippled destroyer and Vireo tries to beach Aaron Ward but the destroyer sinks before it's possible. Still, that's battle star number four. Vireo serves tug and harbor duties throughout the campaign up the slot.

(This picture claims to be of USS Honolulu after Kolombangara, but that ship there, nosing her in to safety? Yeah, that's Vireo. You cruiser boys better stand up a little straighter; your ship only got one more battle star than the tug.)

In May of 1944 Vireo is redesignated ATO-144. The new letter standing for "Old", which Vireo, having been old enough to vote under the current laws for four years, certainly is. In July, Vireo was an active participate in the landings at Sansapor in New Guinea, for which she is awarded a fifth battle star despite the relative lack of opposition. Vireo is also active part of the landings at Leyte Gulf, where Vireo's guns are once again in action against marauding Japanese aircraft, earning her a sixth battle star.

And then of course, there's the kamikaze campaign off Okinawa, which kept Vireo pretty busy as the war wound down and earned her a seventh battle star as she was called on to defend herself or her charges several times.

Then, because Vireo was A: approaching her 25th birthday and B: made a lot of the combatant ships in the Navy look like slackers when she flew her ship's flag with decorations, in April of 1946 she is decommissioned, and sent for disposal in February of 1947. What happened to Vireo afterwards is not recorded.

Thus ended the career of one of the USN's most decorated auxiliaries. Ironically in all this, Vireo never actually managed to get around to sweeping a single mine like she was designed to. Instead, she did everything else an auxiliary ship might be called upon to do, up to and including serving as a floating drydock (for small landing craft at Sansapoor, by hauling them onto her deck with her towing gear).

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