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return of the ship explorer following the attack on Pearl Harbor

NOAA History turns up many unexpected twists and turns. The following account by an officer in the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS), a forerunner of NOAA, details the actions taken and observations made by an unarmed C&GS ship in returning from operations in the central Pacific Ocean to the relative safety of Seattle, Washington, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The original copy of this report resides in the NOAA Central Library.

Picture of the Explorer
Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship EXPLORER underway. The new EXPLORER.
In service 1940-1968.


On December 3, 1941, the USC&GS Ship EXPLORER was conducting operations northeast of Midway Island in the central Pacific Ocean. Approximately 800 miles to the north a great fleet of Japanese warships was steaming to the east making preparations for "a day that would live in infamy." That morning, the EXPLORER was the closest United States ship to that fleet. By a quirk of fate, the EXPLORER finished its operations in the vicinity of Midway and set sail for Johnston Atoll, a small island approximately 500 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii. In doing so, it placed itself unwittingly in a relatively safe zone between Pearl Harbor and an attack on Wake Island that began December 11. During the next four days the small survey ship remained at the same relative distance from the Japanese battle fleet until reaching a point approximately 120 nautical miles northwest of Johnston Atoll. That morning at 0630 180th Meridian time (0830 Honolulu time) the ship's radio operator began hearing reports of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The following report by Ensign Fair J. Bryant, United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, describes the odyssey of the EXPLORER in returning to its home base of Seattle, Washington, in the early weeks of the Pacific War. His report to the Director of the Coast and Geodetic Survey captures the uncertainties, the fear, and sometimes near hysteria of these early days of United States participation in World War II.

Picture of Fair J. Bryant in military uniform.
Fair J. Bryant (center) - circa 1950

The Report -- A Survey Ship's Odyssey February 10, 1942.


From: Ensign Fair J. Bryant

Subject: Return Voyage of Ship EXPLORER from Midway Islands.

At about 1800 on December 3 the EXPLORER discontinued sounding operations in the vicinity of the reported shoal east of Midway Islands and sailed for Johnston Island. The voyage was uneventful until the morning of December 7. Shortly after 0630 (180th Meridian Time) on the 7th the radio operator on duty reported receipt of a radio broadcast from Honolulu to the effect that "Hawaii is under attack." At this time the ship was approximately 120 NW [probably meant 120 nautical miles NW] of Johnston Island, on course 157 True, speed 11.8 knots. The report was received with reserve, however, a message was immediately despatched to the Captain informing him of the report. Subsequent broadcasts soon confirmed the validity of the first report and at about 1000 a general broadcast by the Navy to all shipping, reporting the attack and advising all ships at sea to put into the nearest American or friendly ports, was received. The Honolulu radio continued on the air, directing relief measures by volunteer groups and advising the civilian population.

During the remainder of the day the ship continued on course for Johnston Island. During the afternoon measures were taken to increase the safety of the ship and complement were undertaken. All ports and windows above deck were painted over while those below deck were covered with the storm shutters. Lookouts were posted astern and on the compass platform and the Watch Officers and Quartermaster took posts on the wings of the bridges where lookout could be maintained to best advantage. The boats were fully provisioned, their emergency equipment checked and navigating gear placed at hand. Two small depth charges were improvised, using the TNT carried aboard and the ship's arms, consisting of two .45 cal. automatic pistols and six .30 cal. rifles, were broken out, cleaned and loaded and placed to hand. Flashlights intended to be above deck were dimmed by painting over the lenses.

The effect of these preparations was to attain a complete blackout of the ship, to insure the detection of a hostile submarine at the earliest possible moment and to have everything in readiness for rapid abandonment if necessary. The means available for defense were not hopefully regarded.

Shortly after noon speed was reduced to about six knots, the ship continuing on course for Johnston Island. Since the naval radio there remained silent and radio broadcasts from various stations reporting widespread Japanese activity and success, much of it later proven false, continued to be received, doubt began to develop as to the safety of the exposed base at Johnston Island. At about 1930 speed speed was increased to 90 RPM ( approximately 101/2 knots) and the ship placed on course for Honolulu, T. H. At this time the wind was from the northeast, force 6 to 7, the sea moderately rough and about point on the port bow. The sky was clear save for passing clouds and the moon, nearly at the full, rose shortly before 9 o'clock. No running lights were exhibited and the ship remained completely blacked out for the rest of the voyage. The night passed without event, the ship riding easily in the short seas though some spray was taken aboard.

On the morning of the 8th between 0730 and 0800, 3 planes, apparently of the medium bomber land-based type, flying low and in formation were sighted some distance off to starboard. They passed about 2 miles off on a course which indicated that they might be en route from Johnston Island to Oahu and did not inspect the ship. At about 1400 two seaplanes of the cruiser-based type approached out of the sun and flew low over the ship, signalling by blinker. It was found impossible to reply by means of the fixed blinkers on the wings of the bridges so International Code flags to indicate the ships call letters were hoisted. Having satisfied themselves as to the identity of the vessel the planes made off to the southwest.

A submarine alarm, to consist of three rings on the General Alarm, having previously been published, an aircraft warning system was instituted this day. Approach of an unidentified aircraft was announced over the loud speaker system and all hands cautioned to take cover. It was believed that the probable method of attack by hostile aircraft would be with fragmentation bombs and strafing with machine guns or light cannon. The procedure followed on the bridge was for the Junior Officer of the Watch to give the warning over the loudspeaker while the Senior Officer of the Watch observed the approach of the aircraft to learn their intentions and warned the helmsman to shift to hand steering preparatory to turning across the wind should they prove hostile. Code flags indicating the ship's call letters were kept at hand and hoisted on the approach of aircraft.

The procedure established for the submarine alarm was for all hands not engaged in the operation of the ship to make their way to the superstructure deck with their life jackets prepared to abandon ship, while the helmsman was warned to shift to hand steering for an attempt to dodge and escape by zig-zagging.

The remainder of the day and night passed without event, the weather remaining as before, the sea slightly rougher.

On the morning of the 9th, during the forenoon watch two scouting planes of the carrier-based type approached, inspected the ship and departed to the northwest. At about 1400 two seaplanes of the carrier-based type were seen approaching the ship from directly in the sun. They circled the ship and continued on to the northeast.

Planes approaching the ship invariably did so from the direction of the sun. With an alert lookout this is not an effective concealment but perhaps renders accurate anti-aircraft fire more difficult.

During the afternoon numerous floating boxes and empty crates were passed. A search from the yardarm of the foremast revealed no indication of a ship ahead and it was concluded that the drift was from the Islands. After nightfall on this day gasoline carried in drums on the quarterdeck was jettisoned.

As the ship now entered the danger zone around the Hawaiian Islands, instructions were issued by the Captain to increase speed gradually during the night so as to reach full speed by daybreak. By 0400 of December 10 speed had been increased to 115 RPM. As it was now beginning to be light speed was increased by small increment to avoid smoking until the maximum of 128 RPM (14.8 knots) was reached about 0530. The wind and sea continued from ahead, the seas slightly rougher. The ship rode easily though the heavy spray was carried over the bridge. At 0530 two seaplanes of the PBY type passed some distance off headed southwest.

At about 0600, the ship being about 60 miles southwest of Oahu, T. H., an object was sighted on the water, bearing about 3 points on the starboard bow, about 2 miles distant. It was called to the attention of the Captain who was on the bridge and was identified as a seaplane. As the ship approached bursts of machine gun fire, to attract attention, were heard. Course and speed were maintained until the markings of the plane were identified as those of the U. S. Navy. As the plane came abeam course was changed to approach from windward. As the ship was turning the lookout on the compass deck reported an object on the port beam believed to be a submarine. The submarine alarm was sounded and the ship continued to turn away. The object sighted was soon identified as a floating ammunition box but as it was necessary to heave to in dangerous waters the crew were kept at abandon quarters for the time being. The ship hove to about 400 meters to windward and the starboard whaleboat was lowered and pulled for the plane. Riding to a sea anchor the seaplane drifted to leeward so rapidly that only with considerable exertion could the whaleboat, under oars, be brought alongside. The aviator and his radio operator were taken from the plane and brought aboard.

Picture of plane and people in whaleboat.
Picking up pilot and radio operator from recon airplane off Oahu Plane
ran out of fuel and landed on water searching for Japanese fleet. Picked up by EXPLORER 3 days after Pearl Harbor.
Photo by Fair J. Bryant.

The aviator, Lt. Thornton, advised that he thought it feasible to attempt taking the plane aboard and himself returned to make the lines fast. A line was passed to him and made fast but came adrift. A second line was made fast and held but while maneuvering the ship the line came taut and the plane capsized. Lt. Thornton managed to scramble to the bottom of the main ponton and was picked up by the whaleboat and returned to the ship. The plane drifted aft carrying the line under the stern. At this time a single seaplane of the cruiser based type approached the ship and seeing that the rescue had been effected returned towards Oahu.

At about 0830 the attempt to salvage the plane was abandoned and the ship proceeded towards Honolulu. Lt. Thornton related that he had been forced down at about 1300 December 9, having run out of gas, and had lost hope of rescue when the EXPLORER was seen.

As the ship approached Honolulu Harbor many warships were seen, a total of 14 being visible at one time. These were mostly destroyers but at least two were cruisers and one, seen at a considerable distance, is believed to have been an aircraft carrier. The EXPLORER lay off the buoyed channel while the anti-submarine net across the harbor entrance was being opened, then entered the harbor and, on instructions from the Coast Guard, berthed at Pier 12 at about 1700.

The city and environs were completely blacked out after nightfall and throughout the night rifle fire, single shots and volleys sounded almost continuously. At about 2200 the glow of a large fire, apparently a canefield burning, was seen on the outskirts of town. Until about December 13 a scattering of rifle fire was heard throughout each night, apparently from nervous sentries. No evidence of any attempted uprising by Japanese elements of the population was seen though there were many rumors of overt acts having been attempted.

While at Honolulu an armed guard was maintained on the ship at all times. During the night two officers, both armed, remained on watch above deck. In addition, lookouts were posted at bow and stern and the quartermaster stood by the gangway. The entire ship was painted dark gray and a crows nest, improvised from a launch sounding chair, was secured to the foremast below the yardarm. The pilot house windows were covered with steel plates with steel plate and arrangements for blacking out the ship improved.

Work of repair and reconstruction was underway before the EXPLORER reached Honolulu. Little evidence of damage to military installations was visible to casual inspection. Damage was negligible in residential sections adjacent to military objectives and entirely absent in the business section. Considerable damage was seen at Hickam Field -- the barracks gutted by fire, severe bomb damage to several hangars and wreckage of planes on the flying field. The adjoining Fort Kamehameha was undamaged. In passing by Pearl Harbor wreckage of several small craft, apparently fleet auxiliaries was seen in the upper part of the harbor. The major damage reported could not be verified from that distance.

While the EXPLORER continued at Honolulu the Liner President Coolidge with refugees from the Far East arrived and departed. Several convoys with troops and supplies arrived.

On January 3 at 1530 the EXPLORER sailed in convoy from Honolulu for San Francisco. The other vessels in the convoy were the Naval Transport REGULUS, two Navy tankers, and two small freighters, the DIAMOND HEAD and MAKUANA. The convoy was escorted by a light cruiser and four destroyers, three of which turned back on the morning of January 4. The three Naval auxiliaries were armed.

The convoy was formed in three columns of two ships each, the two freighters forming the center column. The Commanding Officer of the REGULUS was the convoy commander and the REGULUS as formation guide headed the right hand column. The EXPLORER followed astern of the REGULUS at a distance of 700 yards. The interval between adjacent columns was 1,000 yards.

During the day the destroyer scouted ahead of the convoy while the cruiser brought up the rear. At sunset the cruiser moved up ahead with the destroyer and the EXPLORER fell back to zig-zag astern of the convoy. While zig-zagging a speed of 12 knots (104 RPM) was maintained.

On moonless nights with the sky partially covered by clouds little difficulty was experienced in picking up the ships at distances of 3,000 yards and more once the eyes were accustomed to darkness. On a dark night this required about hour.

For most of the voyage the wind was light and variable, the sea smooth, a waning moon, rising late. During daylight, weather permitting, two of the cruisers four planes were almost continually in the air scouting the area around the convoy. On January 9, 10, and 11, a long heavy swell from the northwest made landing the planes impossible and they were not launched.

The voyage to the coast passed without event. On instructions from the Navy no information as to course, speed, disposition of the convoy, or position were entered in the log. Lookouts were increased in number and relieved every hour and three officers were assigned to each watch. All changes of course were signalled in advance by the convoy commander and were made by means of the "wheeling movement" in which each ship swings around keeping constant distance and relative bearing from the guide.

The convoy as a whole did not zig-zag until the afternoon of January 12. Zig-zagging was continued until sunset. During the day the visibility became steadily worse and by nightfall ships were barely visible at 800 yards. In attempting to zig-zag astern as usual the EXPLORER lost the convoy entirely and was able to rejoin only after some searching. The usual day time postion was then resumed.

Zig-zagging was resumed at daybreak and, in conjunction with wheeling movements, continued until noon, apparently in order to kill time. Course for San Francisco Harbor was resumed about 1300 and the convoy passed into San Francisco Bay and dispersed, the EXPLORER anchoring off Treasure Island about 1600.

The EXPLORER remained at San Francisco until January 17. On that date, Captain Siems, having been designated convoy commander of a convoy for Portland and Seattle, the EXPLORER led the ships out of San Francisco Bay and the convoy formed up outside in five columns of three ships each, the EXPLORER, as formation guide, leading the center column.

On this voyage difficulty was had in keeping the convoy in formation as the commanders of the merchant vessels showed considerable reluctance to close up to the designated distance and interval. The escort consisted of one destroyer which maintained position ahead of the inshore flank of the convoy.

The voyage passed without major events. Several vessels traveling singly were seen and during the early morning of January 20 a southbound steamer passed through the convoy, guided by the escort. Running lights were briefly exhibited on meeting this vessel.

Eight vessels bound for Portland, parted company off Columbia River entrance and the remaining seven continued for Puget Sound. On the afternoon of January 20 the remaining vessels of the convoy were formed in double column, the EXPLORER heading the left hand column the escorting destroyer heading the right. The Straits of Juan de Fuca were entered about 0200 January 21 and the convoy passed off Port Townsend at 0900 and broke up in some disorder, a dispersal point apparently not having been agreed on before hand. The EXPLORER continued into Puget Sound and Lake Union, berthing at Ables Dock at about 1630 January 21.

Respectfully submitted:
Fair J. Bryant Aid, U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey


The USC&GS Ship EXPLORER survived the war and spent much of its operational time engaged in surveys in the Aleutian Islands. This was not without its dangers as the Japanese had captured the island of Attu and Kiska in the western Aleutians. The EXPLORER came under fire once with no casualties from a Japanese war plane. Following the war, the ship continued operating in Alaskan waters until 1960 when it was transferred to the Atlantic Coast and converted to an oceanographic vessel conducting studies throughout the North and Tropical Atlantic Ocean. The ship was decommissioned in 1967.

Upon return to the United States, Ensign Fair J. Bryant was transferred to the United States Army as were many of his fellow C&GS officers. It was the intent of the law forming the commissioned service of the C&GS in 1917 that officers could be transferred to the other services requiring their technical expertise in the event of a national emergency. This law is still in effect for today's NOAA Corps, descendant organization of the commissioned service of the C&GS. During the First World War approximately of C&GS officers were transferred into the Army, Navy, and Marines. This same ratio held true during the Second World War and C&GS officers served as Army and Marine artillery surveyors, regimental navigators and hydrographers for the Army amphibious engineers, Navy hydrographers conducting surveys in support of tactical ship operations and amphibious operations, cartographers and surveyors for the Army Air Forces, and geophysicists and scientists for Army and Navy scientific studies and developments. Their fellow officers who stayed on the home front, made tens of millions of charts for the Allied Forces, conducted surveys for military operations from Maine to Attu, and provided technical expertise in many realms for the defense effort.

In December of 1944, then Major Fair J. Bryant was the survey officer of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalion. The observation battalions were lightly armed units that provided survey support for all heavy artillery and counter-battery target acquisition by sound and flash-ranging methods for a specific Army corps. On the morning of December 17, Battery B of the 285th FAOB was traveling to St. Vith to take up new positions. It encountered the lead element of a German heavy armored division that was the spearhead for the German attempt to split the Allied forces and capture a seaport at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge. 83 defenseless men of Battery B were executed by machine gun fire at what came to be known as the Malmedy Massacre. Fortunately for Bryant, he was with Battery A of the 285th FAOB on that particular day. Battery A moved down into Luxembourg and fought through the Battle of the Bulge. It is probable that Fair J. Bryant was one of the few individuals in the service of the United States that was in close proximity to Pearl Harbor and then ended up in the Battle of the Bulge. In particular, it is ironic that he was so close in time and space both to the attack " that shall live in infamy" and the Malmedy Massacre, the worst atrocity committed against American troops in Europe during the Second World War.

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