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Pathfinder: Recollections of Those Who Served 1942 - 1971

Compiled by the Office of NOAA Corps Operations

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NOAA CORPS History of the
Wartime Experiences of the USS PATHFINDER


The following account of the wartime experiences of the USS PATHFINDER has been compiled by the Office of NOAA Corps Operations of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This account has been excerpted from a larger effort directed towards chronicling the history of the NOAA Corps and its predecessor organizations which include the Commissioned Corps of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the Coast Survey, and the Survey of the Coast dating back to 1807.



No half-breeds the hydrographers and chartmakers of the Southwest and West Pacific. Because the war in the Pacific occurred in such poorly charted waters, it readily became apparent to the Navy that it would require the services of a cadre of hydrographers to rapidly survey areas of tactical and strategic interest. Officers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey provided the nucleus of that cadre and compiled an enviable record of accomplishments from the Solomons to the Aleutians. The ships they served on included the venerable HYDROGRAPHER and OCEANOGRAPHER, the brand new PATHFINDER, the BOWDITCH, and even the ROCKY MOUNT, Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner's amphibious command ship. Of the survey ships, the most illustrious of all was the PATHFINDER of which it was said, "The road to Tokyo was paved with PATHFINDER charts."

chart showing voyages of pathfinder during ww2
Souvenir chart of the PATHFINDER service in World War II. Includes
history of 1st and 2nd voyages.

The men who served on these ships literally fought the war with sextants, shooting millions of horizontal angles for three-point fixes while operating fathometers or heaving the lead. Anchorages were wire-dragged, invasion beaches surveyed before the U. S. Marines or Army landed, tide information determined and provided to amphibious planners, tactical operating areas delineated, passages blasted through coral reefs, and charts printed and distributed to fleet units either in anticipation of amphibious operations or to expedite the establishment of supply and refitting bases. This work was not without its hazards as the PATHFINDER alone was subjected to over 50 enemy bombing raids, shot down 2 Japanese torpedo bombers, and was crashed by a kamikaze at Okinawa. Numerous clandestine operations were carried out from these vessels as well as from smaller craft attached to the hydrographic units.


The PATHFINDER was in a Lake Washington, Seattle shipyard under construction as the sister ship to the USC&GSS EXPLORER at the outbreak of WWII. She was launched in 1942 with a champagne bottle broken across the bow by Eleanor Roosevelt Boettiger, the 14-year-old granddaughter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Navy immediately took her over, designated her AGS1, fit her out with anti-aircraft guns, depth charges, and a Navy crew and sent her out to Funafuti, Ellice Islands, to survey the harbor and help clear obstructions as this base was used as a staging area during the Guadalcanal-Solomon Islands campaign. When the PATHFINDER first sailed, the captain was Captain B. H. Thomas, USNR, while many of the other officers were on loan to the Navy from the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Bill Gibson was Navigator/Operations Office; Junius "Jerry" Jarman was data processing and chart production officer; and numerous junior officers acquired survey data and were boat OIC's. These included Ernie Stohsner, C. "Lon" Schoene, Walter Chovan, and Edgar Hicks among others.

Following the Funafuti survey, the ship moved down to Noumea, New Caledonia. While there Ernie Stohsner was strolling through Noumea and ran into his friend Lorin Woodcock directing a group of SeaBees constructing a brig. This wasn't a very productive way for a C&GS hydrographer to be spending his time so, as Schoene was being transferred to the OCEANOGRAPHER, permission was asked for Woodcock to join the PATHFINDER. Permission was granted and Woodcock joined the ship for the next 2 years. On February 2 the PATHFINDER sailed as an escort vessel for a group of transports bound for Guadalcanal to resupply Marine and Army units engaged there. After delivering the convoy, the ship proceeded to Tulagi Harbor and commenced surveying operations. According to Woodcock, the survey "was accomplished very expeditiously under the most trying conditions. The field parties spent as much as 11 hours a day in the field, and spent the nights alternating between working on boat sheets and survey records, and manning battle stations while from one to a half dozen Jap bombers droned about overhead, spattering bombs here and there, sometimes uncomfortably close."

Having finished Tulagi, the next job entailed inshore hydrography off the coast of Guadalcanal from Point Cruz to Berande Point. At this time all supplies were landed on Guadalcanal by lighter, and the purpose of the survey was to determine anchorage areas as close inshore as possible to expedite unloading operations. While conducting this survey, the PATHFINDER had perhaps her finest hour. On April 7, 1943, no fewer than 187 Japanese planes attacked Tulagi Harbor. During this action, the PATHFINDER shot down two enemy dive bombers, assisted with two others, and sustained two near misses which necessitated minor repairs to the ship's rudder. Bill Gibson "was at the bridge conn during the action keeping the ship on figure eight courses at flank speed, and specifying targets to the bridge gun crews as the rapidly swinging ship brought them into the various gun sectors." On one occasion the ship was in a hard right turn and a bomb fell close aboard to port right where the ship would have been had it remained on a straight course.

During this action, much of the ship's complement was out in survey launches either wire dragging or conducting sounding lines. Ernie Stohsner described his experience:
"The ship was out doing hydrography between Florida and Guadalcanal Islands at the time. I had the wire drag out and was on the 30-foot guide launch about two miles east of the ship. Our first knowledge of the actual attack was a geyser of water next to the PATHFINDER caused by the near-miss of a dive bomber. A number of planes pealed out of the sun at the same time attacking aircraft in the vicinity of the PATHFINDER. One of these escaped fire from the ships and came directly towards us and commenced strafing. All personnel topside dove over the side. The recorder, dragmaster, and myself were at the plotting table below and did not have time to get out. Six machine gun slugs hit the launch up forward within a few feet of us...."

The PATHFINDER and its crew were not done for the day. Following the attack, the PATHFINDER maneuvered to assist the stricken destroyer AARON WARD which was doomed to soon sink. In describing the role of the PATHFINDER, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, stated as follows:

"The performance of PATHFINDER on 7 April is noteworthy. Preceding the attack this vessel was conducting survey operations off Berande Point, Guadalcanal. Despite warning of approaching planes and the departure of most of our large ships from the area, her personnel continued hydrography until enemy planes were near. Leaving her ship boats with one quarter of the crew at their assigned survey duties, the commanding officer then went to maximum speed and maneuvered close aboard AARON WARD. Two planes dived on her and were shot down. Her boats brought off wounded from AARON WARD who were cared for on board during the night. Early next morning these men were disembarked for hospitalization and at 0700, 8 April local time 'the ship resumed its survey operations.' It is a pleasure to report on the efficient and business like conduct of duty under fire of this USC&GS ship operating under my command."
During this attack, Lorin Woodcock was out on a survey launch and observed two planes collide overhead. Two parachutes wafted down and Woodcock directed his launch to the closest chute. Fortunately for him, LST 449 beat him to the downed pilot who was Japanese and commenced shooting at his would be captors. As Woodcock and his crew had neglected to carry their standard issue weapons with them, they would have been in quite a pickle if they had pulled that pilot out of the water. As Captain Woodcock said during an interview, "I fought the war with a sextant. I sure was lucky that time." As a footnote to history, President-to-be John F. Kennedy was a junior officer on LST 449. Jerry Jarman was in charge of the forward anti-aircraft guns on the PATHFINDER as it pulled up to the AARON WARD and recalled "looking back at Kennedy's ship while four dive bombers were attacking it. There were so many exploding bombs along with the resulting water spouts that I could not see the LST."

The PATHFINDER, as well as being a combat survey ship, made many innovations and markedly increased the efficiency of chart production and chart distribution in the forward areas. Prior to sailing from the U.S., the Navy outfitted the PATHFINDER with printing press, photographic equipment, and all equipment necessary for printing charts in the field. The compilation and publishing of charts aboard ship was never done prior to WWII. A major obstacle to accomplishing this was that no one on board had ever worked in a printing plant. Through the efforts of Jerry Jarman, who read every available textbook on cartography and printing, the PATHFINDER became the first vessel to ever publish Hydrographic Office charts for distribution to fleet units. This bypassed the time-consuming step of sending the data back to the United States for verification, compilation, and final printing.

Jarman, as well as devising the system that ended up producing charts, was also a field hydrographer and went on numerous clandestine operations in enemy-held waters including Manning Straits, Blanche Harbor in the Treasury Islands, and Green Islands. He provided insight into the requirements for combat tactical hydrographic surveys in a discussion of the Manning Straits survey. This survey was conducted as a direct result of the United States' naval defeat at the Battle of Savo Island. According to Jarman, "Prior to that battle, a U.S. reconnaissance plane had spotted an enemy Naval Task Force and noted its position. From the data available, Intelligence estimated it would take this force, travelling at flank speed, until at least 8 AM the following morning to reach Guadalcanal." The Japanese arrived instead at 2 AM and decimated a sleepy American Task Force behind Savo Island and then withdrew. "Because the arrival of the enemy fleet was about six hours earlier than expected, Intelligence figured the Japanese must know of an uncharted shortcut. An inspection of area charts revealed Manning Strait, although unsurveyed, might possibly be the shortcut from Truk to Guadalcanal." This thinking caused Admiral "Bull" Halsey to request the survey which resulted in finding an unknown (to the Americans) passage through Manning Strait which was used successfully by American vessels.

In the Green Islands operation, Junius Jarman was attached to Naval Advance Base Unit 11, a unit trained and organized to land with combat troops and immediately begin functioning as a naval base. Jarman's job was to lead an Advance Survey Party of four officers and seventeen men. A reconnaissance force of approximately 400 men including two officers and five men from Jarman's survey party landed on Nissan Atoll on January 31, 1944, (D-15) at midnight and "departed twenty-four hours later.... The entire force lost only five men killed and about ten wounded during the twenty-four hour stay.... My group investigated Middle and South Channels into the lagoon for least depth, ran a few exploratory lines in an east-west direction across the lagoon, and ran several sounding lines , north-south direction, along the shoreline to assist in locating LST landing sites. We also obtained 24 hours of tidal data to assist in estimating the tidal stage on D day.

"D day for assaulting Nissan Atoll was February 15, 1944. Our forces met with very little resistance on D day and the atoll was secure within a week.... we found between 400 and 500 Japanese on the Atoll. They were true Japanese in that not one of them surrendered, and all were killed.... My small group remained at Green Islands from D day to near the middle of March, 1944. During this period, a complete hydrographic survey was made of Nissan Atoll, all shoals and channels were buoyed, two permanent tide stations were established, and party members acted as Pilots in getting supply vessels through South Channel.... The base demolition squad was turned over to me and I was told to use it as I saw fit. I had this squad reduce all dangerous coral heads, and pointed out high spots in the entrance channels that needed reducing."

The PATHFINDER continued on its illustrious career. Its largest single job was of Seeadler Harbor in the Admiralty Islands. The ship accomplished this work in the spring and summer of 1944. This particular survey was for a very large base which became the staging area for the invasion of the Philippines. In October 1944 the PATHFINDER returned to the United States for repairs. On its first wartime cruise, this ship developed the methodology for forward area chart production for immediate distribution to fleet operating units, completed 20 major survey projects, compiled 41 H.O. Field Charts, and published 62,077 copies for distribution. The ship completed another 10 miscellaneous projects and published approximately 20,000 copies of the resulting charts. The hydrographers of the PATHFINDER had expanded tactical fleet operating areas, developed port areas for major staging bases, and established safe channels through the myriad islands of the southwest Pacific, The value of this work to United States naval operations during the PATHFINDER's first cruise was recognized by Admiral Chester Nimitz as follows:

"The officers and men of the PATHFINDER are commended for their excellent performance of survey duty in forward areas. It is especially noted that PATHFINDER charts indicate accuracy of information and excellent workmanship."

Admiral William F."Bull" Halsey also commended the ship as follows:

"The charts produced on board the PATHFINDER indicate excellent workmanship. The men and officers are to be commended on their precision work carried on in a forward area over a considerable length of time. Their efforts have been most helpful to ships required to operate in waters previously so inadequately charted."

Perhaps the most fitting tribute for this cruise was stated by the ship's commanding officer, Captain Bascom H. Thomas, who upon concluding his report of activities of the ship from first arriving in the South Pacific to September 22, 1944, wrote : "U.S.S. PATHFINDER arrived in the South Pacific a new ship with an untrained crew. No one aboard except the six U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Officers had ever had any experience in hydrographic surveying and they had none in planning and laying out of surveys, chart compilation and publication, or the establishing of aids to navigation such as beacons and buoys. The Commanding Officer was the only officer who had any experience in Navy organization, operations and procedure other than short training courses. A majority of the crew had never been to sea. There have been few breaches of discipline and none of a serious nature. All hands have worked diligently and faithfully to establish the PATHFINDER's unequalled record. They merit the utmost credit for the results."

The PATHFINDER left shipyard in San Francisco and returned to the western Pacific on December 18, 1944, under the command of Commander Francis L. Dubois, USNR. Jerry Jarman was now executive officer and the only C&GS officer on board although he was detached upon arrival at Guam. The Coast and Geodetic Survey connection continued though, as Ensign Henry V. Oheim, USNR, of the Baltimore Field Office and Lieutenant Commander Samuel N. Davis, USNR, the chief engineer and engineer on C&GS ships since 1919 remained with the ship for the duration of the war.

The ship arrived at Guam in late January 1945 and then proceeded to an area reported as discolored water about 350 miles north of Guam. Here, in the course of surveying what even to this day is named Pathfinder Reef, the PATHFINDER gained the distinction of being the American vessel that anchored the closest to Japan since the beginning of hostilities. In late March, the PATHFINDER was sent to the east coast of Luzon, Philippine Islands, and helped liberate the village of Casiguran. On March 13, 1945, a landing party was put ashore from the PATHFINDER which surprised the Japanese who deserted their machine gun emplacements and fled into the surrounding hills. On March 28th the ship was bombed by two Japanese dive bombers; but, once again, its luck held out. The first plane dropped two bombs about 30 yards off the port bow. By this time the ship was at general quarters and the starboard 3-inch gun hit the second plane causing it to pull out of its dive smoking. The plane was last seen proceeding over the mountains to the west.

Finishing the Luzon job, the ship sailed to Ulithi anchorage where it stayed for 3 weeks prior to departing for Okinawa. On May 1 she sailed into Hagushi Anchorage, Okinawa. May 6 the PATHFINDER's luck was sorely tested at Suicide Slot, Sesoko; the ship was attacked by two kamikaze planes. The first managed to crash the after port 40-mm gun platform, killing one crewman. Fortunately, the 500-pound bomb the plane was carrying did not detonate or,in all probability, the ship would have been sunk with much greater loss of life. The ship fought off the second kamikaze which veered off and crashed into an LST at Ie Shima. From her arrival at Okinawa until cessation of hostilities, the PATHFINDER went to general quarters 170 times; those sent ashore for work at Nago Wan endured foxhole watches, sniper fire, and mortar bombardment. As Henry Oheim wrote of this period, "... the gunnery activity of the PATHFINDER at night far exceeded the survey activity during the day...." But not one more PATHFINDER crewman was scratched. On August 10, with hints of peace coming to the great fleet at Hagushi Anchorage, a great barrage of firepower was unleashed in celebration which the PATHFINDER was there to witness. The end had come at last. In spite of surviving over 50 bombing attacks, being declared sunk at least six times by Tokyo Rose, and having surveyed many western Pacific islands, anchorages, passages, and operating areas in advance of the fleet, the PATHFINDER was there for the victory.

October 13, 1945, found the PATHFINDER at Yokosuka Naval Base in Tokyo Bay. The ship wound up its Navy career conducting a series of surveys in the Tokyo Bay area. She left Japan on December 5, 1945, and arrived in Seattle, Washington, on December 24. On January 31, 1946, she was decommissioned and thence returned to commission as the Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship PATHFINDER on August 22, 1946. She served as a survey ship in Alaskan, Hawaiian, and Pacific Coast waters for the next 25 years, and was deactivated in December 1971.

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Last Updated: June 8, 2006 9:24 AM

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