"The Houston was on a heavy roll to port, and her starboard side was exposed below the waterline. The torpedo struck near her bottom, midway between the centerline keel and the starboard bilge keel. A foot or two deeper and the torpedo might have passed under the ship without detonating. The difference between best case and worst case was a matter of inches. Since the hit was so far down, the full explosive force of the torpedo’s warhead went straight into the hull and was fully absorbed by the ship." (The Battle to Save the Houston, by John Grider Miller, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland 1985, at page 40)
In early October 1944 plans were well in hand for the US invasion of Leyte and General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. Japanese land based airpower was considered one of the gravest threats to the planned invasion. So early in the month the 3rd Fleet under the command of Bull Halsey conducted an operation to eliminate this threat. The fleet would go after the Japanese land-based aircraft based in the Philippines and especially Formosa (Taiwan). By late 1944 the force of the Third Fleet was far in excess of the scratch forces thrown into battle in the desperate battles in 1942. Huge numbers of new carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers had joined the fleet. Two of these new cruisers were the USS Canberra, a new Baltimore Class heavy cruiser and the USS Houston, a new Cleveland class light cruiser. Both ships had been renamed during construction on the exact same day to commemorate war losses. The Canberra honored the County class HMAS Canberra lost in August 1942 at the Battle of Savo Island and the USS Houston, honored the Augusta class USS Houston lost at the Battle of Sunda Straight in March 1942. The events of October 13 & 14, 1944 would further tie these two cruisers together.
As anticipated Japanese aircraft swarmed off the fields on Formosa against this latest intrusion of the USN fleet into the waters of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However, the tables had changed since 1942. In early 1942 Japanese aircraft were superior in most regards from their equivalent US types and the Japanese aircrew, especially that of the IJN, were probably the best trained airmen in the world. By 1944 the Japanese aircraft types were significantly inferior to the US Hellcats, Corsairs, Avengers and Helldivers and the Japanese aircrews were green with far less training and experience over their opposite numbers in the USN. However, regardless of their lack of training, Japanese aviators would always display the highest degree of courage. It was after sunset on Friday the 13th of October when eight Japanese torpedo bombers came in under radar in the twilight of dusk against the ships of TF38.1 of Vice Admiral McCain. Six were knocked down but one aircraft managed to hit the Canberra with her torpedo. The torpedo hit under the armor belt of the heavy cruiser. The cruiser took on 4,500 tons of water but incredibly was not in danger of sinking because of excellent damage control. Canberra was dead in the water but within ten minutes the cruiser Wichita was ordered to take her in tow. Canberra had been the point ship of the northwest quadrant of TF38.1, the quadrant closest to the Japanese air bases and another ship had to be selected to take that position of extreme danger. USS Houston was selected for this dangerous task.
Because of her change in position Houston was unable to make her scheduled refueling and as a consequence was riding high on October 14. Because of the heavy damage inflicted upon them in the attacks, the Japanese were slow in going after the damaged Canberra. The second attack of the evening came in shortly after sunset. In the gathering darkness, the Houston was attacked from several directions. One Betty came in at 150 feet and hit the cruiser at her most vulnerable point. As the Houston took on over 5,000 tons of water, all power was lost and the rudder was jammed hard right. As the starboard main deck became awash, it looked like Houston was in danger of capsizing. A destroyer signaled Houston that the cruiser Boston was ready to take her in tow and Houston signaled back, "Tow not required. Ship appears to be breaking up." The captain ordered the ship abandoned. The damage control officer convinced the captain that the Houston could be saved but by the time the abandon ship order had been rescinded, two-thirds of the crew had followed the order and were off the ship. Houston notified Admiral McCain that the abandonment had ceased and requested a tow from Boston. Boston was there in twenty minutes and established a tow.
Now there were two crippled cruisers, each towed by an undamaged cruiser at four knots. Admiral Halsey realized that these cripples would exert a strong allure for further Japanese attacks and that is exactly what he wanted. He repositioned his fleet to cause the greatest destruction to the Japanese going after his cripples. One task unit, centered around two light carriers, was stationed twenty miles away for close support. A TF of big fleet carriers was stationed between the cripples and the Japanese air bases. Task Unit 30.3.1 under Rear Admiral Laurence DuBose, was already formed to escort Canberra and now the Houston-Boston combination would join what became known as the "Cripple Division" or "CripDiv 1". This name was soon changed to "Bait Div". The Japanese pilots had reported extraordinarily bloated damage claims that bore no connection with reality. Fifty-three ships were claimed to have been sunk, including 16 aircraft carriers. Radio Tokyo reported 500,000 tons of warships sunk and 26,000 USN sailors lost. Halsey’s Third Fleet was reported as operationally destroyed with the battered remnants fleeing the area. The Japanese high command bought these ridiculous claims and believed that there had been an overwhelming Japanese victory. In reality only Canberra and Houston were crippled. Two Japanese heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers sortied from the Inland Sea to mop up the crippled USN units.
By October 15, the Houston-Boston combination had joined the "BaitDiv". On October 15 three mass air attacks were launched by the Japanese to sink the crippled remnants of the Third Fleet but all either turned back or were repulsed. On that day the fleet ocean tug USS Munsee had assumed the tow of Canberra, freeing the Wichita to join the CVL force 15 to 20 miles away. As morning broke on October 16, help arrived for Houston in the form of the Fleet Ocean Tug USS Pawnee. In 1939 the USN had acquired just in the nick of time a new design for Fleet Ocean Tugs. Designed for deep ocean use, all units of this class of big fleet tugs were named after native American tribes. Cherokee, Navajo, Seminole, Apache, Catawba, Chippewa, Choctaw, Hopi, Kiowa, Menominee, Pawnee, Sioux, Ute and others would be really be needed in the great war in the Pacific. Displacing 1,450 tons, these tugs were 210 feet long (oa) 205.3 feet (wl) and were initially equipped with one 3-inch/50 AA gun. Four diesel engines provided 3,000bhp, propelling the boats at 16.5-knots. This was not the first rescue assignment for Pawnee. On June 30, 1943 the Pawnee was assigned the mission to save Admiral Turner’s flagship McCawley but this was cancelled after McCawley took another two torpedo hits.
With the existing sea state it was difficult for Pawnee to take the tow of the cruiser, as Boston happily left her sitting duck status. As the tug approached the low starboard side of Houston, she was caught in a swell, which pushed her upward into the bow of the cruiser. The Houston’s anchor acted as a hook on the port bow bulkhead of the Pawnee and as the swell fell the anchor tore loose. The cruiser anchor not only went through the tug’s bulkhead but also crashed through the forecastle deck. The compartment directly below was the CPO mess, in which two grizzled Chiefs were enjoying a coffee break. Fortunately neither Chief was injured when the Houston’s starboard anchor entered their clubhouse without invitation. They hurriedly left, undoubtedly streaming an extraordinarily rich string of profanities. As the Pawnee-Houston drew closer to the Munsee-Canberra pair a signal flashed from Canberra. Houston was somewhat puzzled when signaled a welcome to the "Streamlined Bait Group." However a look at their formation would quickly reveal the reason for this term. The two tug/cruisers combinations were in the center of the task unit chugging along at 4-knots. Surrounding them in a circle, moving clockwise at 15 knots, were all combatant escorts of the Task Unit. Pawnee took the lead of the tug cruiser column in the middle. By early afternoon a 107 plane Japanese attack formation found the BaitDiv. Most of the attackers were splashed by the CVL CAP but some made it through. "The Frances, riddled by fire from both the Houston and the Pawnee, passed within two hundred yards of the Houston’s starboard side, crossed the forecastle at masthead height, and crashed into the sea without burning, about three thousand yards dead ahead." (The Battle to Save the Houston, by John Grider Miller, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland 1985, at page 93) However, that Frances had launched a torpedo, which slammed into the stern of Houston.
The torpedo hit of the 14th was a worst case scenario with all of the explosive force directly absorbed by the cruiser. Houston was lucky with this second hit. Lucky that it was not in the already weakened amidships area and lucky that the explosive blast was dissipated in large measure. It hit underneath the empty aircraft hangar and most of the blast was diffused and vented upwards, blowing off the light sliding hangar cover. Even so, the blast ruptured the aviation gas fuel tanks and a mixture of gas and rags was thrown in the air, which ignited into a huge fireball. With the stern of the already stricken Houston burning furiously, the commander of the Pawnee faced decisions. Throughout this air attack the Pawnee had steadily maintained her tow of the cruiser. This helped the Houston but made the Pawnee more vulnerable. However, with the second torpedo hit on Houston, Pawnee had a different situation. If the Houston foundered the small tug would be linked by cable to the huge weight of the sinking cruiser. Not only could towing gear be torn away but also an even worse threat was the sinking of Houston could "trip the ship" basically capsizing the tug and pulling her down with the cruiser. Lieutenant James Lee of the Pawnee didn’t blink an eye, he was determined to stick with the Houston. "We’ll stand by you." was flashed from Pawnee to Houston. Even so, Lee stationed a man with an acetylene torch at the stern of the Pawnee with orders to burn through the cable if the Houston sank.
"That brief message was more than agreeable. It gave the strongest assurance that any man in combat can give another – that he will risk death rather than abandon his brother-in-arms. For the crew of the Houston, the message from the Pawnee could not have come at a better time." (The Battle to Save the Houston, by John Grider Miller, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis Maryland 1985, at page 96-97) Twenty minutes after this second torpedo hit, the order to abandon ship again rang out over Houston. As with the first time, the head of damage control persuaded the captain that Houston could be saved and the order to abandon Houston was again rescinded. Admiral DuBose on the Santa Fe hailed Houston and asked if the situation was hopeless. The answer was "Not hopeless, grave." After the second hit the displacement of the light cruiser with her flooded compartments was an astounding 20,300 tons. Santa Fe had already issued orders to prepare to sink the Houston but these were then rescinded.
On the 16th of October as the Houston was trying to survive her second hit, the Japanese in Command in the Philippines was celebrating "The Glorious Victory of Taiwan", which ended the threat to invasion of the Philippines. By the 17th the situation had changed for the Houston as well as the Japanese high command. A boat from Pawnee brought the Houston much-needed gifts in the form of four gasoline powered pumps along with uncontaminated gasoline. As compartments were pumped dry and bulkheads shored the cloud of pessimism of the remaining crew of Houston began to lift. Moral went in the other direction with the Japanese. The advance elements of the approaching 7th Fleet with the Leyte invasion forces were detected and the Japanese commands in Manila, Taiwan and Tokyo realized that instead of an overwhelming victory, the "Glorious Victory of Taiwan" was a disastrous failure. The 807 aircraft lost in damaging and then attracted to the Streamlined Bait Group of Canberra and Houston would no longer be available to attack troop transports. Tankers arrived in the afternoon to refuel Pawnee, Munsee and the escorting warships and by late afternoon the Streamlined Bait Group was basically out of danger of further air attack. On the 20th the anti-air escorts were recalled to Third Fleet and ASW group centered around a CVE assigned to protect the damaged cruisers. Also, two more tugs, the Zuni and Watch Hill joined the BaitDiv. Zuni joined Pawnee in tandem pulling Houston and Watch Hill did the same with Munsee on Canberra. Speed rose to six knots but after ten hours the cable between Pawnee and Zuni parted, leaving Pawnee pulling Houston. Finally at 16:00 on October 21, 1944 both Pawnee and Munsee left the BaitDiv to return to support the invasion of Leyte. Although threatened a third time at Ulithi, this time by a Typhoon, the USS Houston survived, having suffered more hull damage than any other surviving USN warship.
A Tale of Two Cities
In airline parlance, JAX-DEN is a city pair, indicating points of origin and arrival for a flight. It is also the city pair, which indicates the Bi-Polar nature of Loose Cannon Models. Hugh Letterly, in the mountains next to Denver, Colorado and Dave Angelo on the Atlantic beach of Jacksonville, Florida, are one of the hobbies authentic "Odd Couples" as Loose Cannon. I met them at the 2005 IPMS National Convention in Atlanta, at which time Hugh was enraptured with the wonders of British tramp steamers, while Dave was building a display copy of his latest creation, the USS Midway. Hugh always seemed to gravitate to the odd-ball auxiliary, while Dave was more main line with major combatants. Perhaps Hugh is on a permanent Rocky Mountain High, while Dave is mixed up from dodging hurricanes, but recent Loose Cannon creations have temporary reversed roles. Hugh designed a battleship model and Dave a tug boat. What you say? Dave Angelo designer of the Loose Cannon HMS Furious kit, designer of the Loose Cannon USS Midway kit, left the big boys for a fleet tug? Yes it is true. Perhaps it is to balance Hugh’s HMT Stormking, RN fleet tug, that Dave designed a key USN fleet tug, but more probably it was because he has always been interested in Pawnee’s role in saving the Houston.
The Loose Cannon Pawnee is no fire and forget resin only kit. It is no craftsman’s kit. It is a full court press multi-media presentation in spite of its small size. You get resin hull and smaller parts, full brass fret, brass rod for mast and instructions. The hull is cast on a sheet and there is a moderate amount of sanding needed to remove the vestiges of the casting sheet from the waterline of the hull. With the open face style of casting used by Loose Cannon, there normally will be clean-up needed on most parts but this is not excessive. The photographs of the parts show them before any clean-up. The hull side detail reflect the heavy horizontal strengthening strakes and anchor hawse fittings of the tug. Deck detail is very nice, although there was a small amount of clean-up for the decks. As you can see, the entire main deck is surrounded by a solid bulkhead with prominent inboard support ribs. On the forecastle is a free standing windlass for the tugs anchors, which also probably served as an auxiliary towing engine, as well as an access hatch. However, the rubber meets the road at the stern where the main towing gear is located. On the quarterdeck is the main towing windlass, which is the largest on the boat. On the 01 deck at the stern is another fitting, which appears to be either/or a stowage reel for towing cable or and auxiliary windlass. One twin bollard fitting is centerline aft of the quarterdeck windlass, with four more such fittings along each side of the tug. In addition to the reel aft, the 01 deck has wood planking, 3-inch ready ammunition lockers, a solid spray bulkhead forward, a pilot house base, and deckhouse and lockers to the aft end.
The largest of the smaller parts is the pilothouse with 20mm Oerlikon wing positions to the rear. These positions have solid splinter shields typical of such mountings. Of course the pilothouse also has access door and porthole details. Other smaller resin parts are the stack; square & oval carley rafts; wood planked Bofor platforms; three-inch gun; signal lamps; mainmast tripod legs; ship’s boats; single 40mm Bofor mounts and guns. The pole foremast and slanted centerline leg of the mainmast are made from the included brass rod.
The brass photo-etched fret includes full railing for the 0 deck, although it is somewhat on the heavy side, as well as the specialized custom parts. The largest of these parts is a centerline 20mm platform with folding railing. Other parts include four 20mm Oerlikon mounts with separate barrels; numerous mast platforms; davits; pulleys and rigging; yards; anchors; grid deck-tread; radar; platform bracing; as well as generic vertical ladder. Basically there are a lot of parts for such a small model. However, the starboard anchor for USS Houston is not included in either resin or brass, but this wouldn’t be seen since it would be in the CPO mess below the forecastle. Of course you would have to open a hole in the quarterdeck to portray this incident. Still that would provide an interesting diorama with a Cleveland class cruiser kit for USS Houston. Instructions are adequate but nothing fancy. Line drawings show major assembly stages with additional drawings reflecting assembly of major component assemblies such as the masts.
Dave Angelo might be roasting on the beach at Jacksonville, Florida, but his 1:700 scale model of the USN fleet tug USS Pawnee is cool! Although small, the Loose Cannon Pawnee provides a wealth of resin and brass detail. Although the model will build into a beautiful stand alone miniature, with its late war fit, it shouts to be part of a diorama along with a model of USS Houston.