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Pathfinder: Recollections of Those Who Served 1942 - 1971

Compiled by the Office of NOAA Corps Operations

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Recollections of Rear Admiral William M. Gibson (continued)

"The U.S.S. PATHFINDER zig zagged all the way to Pearl Harbor. Everyone was wearing full regalia for war. When the Navigator was taking star sights he found the regalia cumbersome to say the least. A rendezvous was arranged for a PCS to meet us about 19 miles east of Pearl Harbor. We never saw her and the captain wondered about the navigation. We simply steamed on into Pearl Harbor without our guide. Admiral Nimitz allowed one of the officers to telephone San Francisco to check on the success of the operation on his son.

"The Staff wanted a reliable chart of Funafuti, Ellice Island. The Fleet Transport that carried a regiment of Marines into the atoll avoided many coral heads. Her draft was twenty feet and many coral heads were reported. The Fleet Transport let the men off but left hurriedly with only a part of the cargo unloaded.

"The PATHFINDER stopped for fuel at Christmas Island. A channel had been dredged and we were the first ship to enter the harbor. The Pilot assigned to the PATHFINDER got confused and was heading for the beach when the Navigator spotted the real entrance in a different position in time to save the ship.

"The cruise of the PATHFINDER to Funafuti crossing the Equator was the occasion for celebrating. Neptune Rex came aboard. All hands off duty joined in welcoming him aboard.

"A taste of the future was suddenly received about half way to Funafuti. An unidentified hulk appeared. Later it was identified as a cruiser. The cruiser had entombed in it 19 men. It had been torpedoed but was going on her own steam.

"The last 5 days of the cruise were overcast and there was speculation that the ship would miss the island. The Navy Pilot charts showed a current of 2 knots flowing at a right angle to the course; that was a possible set of 48 miles to the northwest. The speculation increased as the time for arrival got near. The Navigator, to cover his own apprehension, said to the Captain, "You come up to the bridge at 1500 this afternoon and I will show you the 'conspicuous' tree charted on the island." True to the words, the Captain arrived on the bridge at 1500 in time to hear the lookout shout 'Land, Ho. The Port Bow!'

"The entrance was at Le Buabua and the ship proceeded very gingerly to anchorage about one half the distance to the main part of the island. About 3 days later the sun was right to show the bottom off the starboard quarter. Soundings showed the depth of 11 feet and the PATHFINDER's draft was 14 feet.

"Captain Rickenbacker had been brought to Funafuti when he had been rescued. Someone had immediately sent a case of Scotch whiskey to him at Funafuti but Rickenbacker had left before the Scotch arrived. Captain Good, Commandant of the Marine Corps, had sent his aide out to the ship with one bottle to be used for medicinal purposes on Christmas Eve, our first Christmas away from home.

"The PATHFINDER had been ordered to Funafuti in the Ellice Islands to make charts, place beacons and buoys, lay out anchorages and seaplane runways and find a deep water entrance to enable damaged carriers or battleships and naval auxiliaries to enter. The time limit was 3 weeks. It was the first or 'breaking in' job assigned by Cincpac enroute to our south Pacific Area to report to ComSoPac.

"Because it was the first job there were certain apprehensions. Funafuti had been charted about 1850 by a British vessel and later used by whalers from New England. When looking for the Observation Point used in the original survey, a native with bright red hair stepped aside and saluted, saying 'me Forbes.' There had been a deserter by the name of Forbes. This was his descendant.

"The ship's force welded superstructures on thoroughly drained gasoline drums for channel and obstruction buoys for marking significant coral heads. They also constructed a tall beacon of angle iron to mount at a turning point of the channel. The beacon was placed on two boats, catamaran fashion, and taken to the site.

"The deepest water in the entrances was found to lie in Te Ave Fugea, a tortuous entrance at the southwest side. The channel was blocked by a huge coral head with deep water on all sides. This was a problem for the dynamite gang composed of 2 pharmacists, 2 seamen, and 2 officers. There was a great explosion that should have notified the enemy 35 miles away of PATHFINDER activities. The coral head went down to 30 feet and the spot was marked by white water; a perfect landmark! The other entrance where the Troop Transport crossed was recommended for dredging after the wire dragging showed clearance of 19 feet.

"The location of the conspicuous tree, the beacon at the channel turning point and a third PATHFINDER beacon in the vicinity of Te Ave Fugea gave a plottable 3-point fix, but bearings on the same points would not intersect in a point. There was something wrong! After checking the field triangulation and finding nothing, the culprit was finally run down. The British had constructed a perfect projection and inadvertently turned it upside down for plotting. In other words, the meridians inadvertently converged to the north instead of to the south. This was in South Latitude. The position of ships entering and anchoring in the atoll could be determined by using our positions as shown on the chart, as long as they did not stray outside of the area marked off for anchorages or use the old chart.

"This all took time and the ship was perilously low on fuel. The one and only ship to enter the atoll while the PATHFINDER was there was the inter-island steamer called the USS CAMANGO. She had ample fuel to get back to Pago Pago. She agreed to furnish the PATHFINDER some fuel oil; and the PATHFINDER went alongside her for that purpose. Unfortunately, the Captain of the USS CAMANGO turned off the fuel going to the PATHFINDER almost immediately and took back suction on the hose. Later the Engineer was doubtful if the ship was any better off.

"The tidal note on the chart was carefully considered. The island lay in South Latitude and East Longitude. We had to give the time of tide in terms of Navy time and West Longitude. The exact time used was given on the chart.

"The anchorages were laid out, the beacons accurately determined, the markers placed on coral heads, the channels buoyed, and the range for entering and leaving via Te Ave Fugea in place and the tidal note was on the chart. The Commanding Officer tested the charts by having the PATHFINDER run at 13 knots in and out of the channel and through the atoll. His assumption was that if we had no confidence in our charts, how would others? This test was made just 4 weeks after starting the job - one week over.


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