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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 PATHFINDER laid a course for Pago Pago for fuel, arriving in the morning, refueling during the day and by evening the ship was headed for Noumea. The sea was too rough to run the printing press, so the charts were actually printed in the Great Roads of Noumea, while reporting to Admiral Halsey's staff. A copy was sent to the Hydrographic Office for review. They reprinted the chart showing 30 feet as the depth of Te Ave Bue Bue. Fortunately their error was caught at once and they recalled all the charts they had issued on Funafuti. There were 4 charts of Funafuti, the entrances and anchorages, and sea plane area.

"The ship cruised up the east side of New Caledonia to Espiritu Santo where a large convoy was being formed. Enemy submarines were reported as awaiting the convoy to the north and west of Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides. So the convoy passed around the east side to avoid the submarines. Twice the convoy with PATHFINDER in the escort turned back to Espiritu Santo. Then word was received that a large enemy task force with a battleship, cruisers and destroyers was ahead.

"The Navy Code had been captured when the Japanese shot down a plane, and the Japanese used the code to cover the evacuation of troops from Guadalcanal.
"A most fortunate experience occurred when the convoy was to arrive by daylight at Guadalcanal and it met another convoy going east in the darkness. It was in this night that the New Zealand Corvette, the KIWI, fought a Japanese submarine to the end, having forced it on the beach and killed the Captain and other officers. A diver found the Japanese Code on the wrecked submarine.

"Reporting for duty to the Commander of the Solomon Islands, the ship was assigned the task of surveying and charting Tulagi Harbor about fifteen miles from Guadalcanal. Tulagi Harbor was fairly large and almost landlocked. There was a huge ammunition dump to the east and the PATHFINDER anchored well inside the harbor - almost up to the creek where the USS NIAGARA was moored with camouflage over it to protect against bombing. The USS NIAGARA was supposed to provide housing for the P.T. boat personnel. But due to the intense heat, the P.T. boat personnel chose sleeping in the makeshift structures at the P.T. Boat Base about a half mile to the south.

"The commander of the base at Tulagi ordered that no ship return fire when the Japs bombed the base in the hope that they never saw the ships and were concentrating their bombs on the base.

"A one kilometer base line was quickly measured and a weak expansion made to locate such points as necessary for control. If there had been any intention of more work to be done later, some additional work would have been warranted to improve the accuracy of the base line and the subsequent expansion.

"Later on orders were received to chart about 20 miles of the north coast of Guadalcanal. Points had been cut in on the north coast from Tulagi Harbor by observing over long distances on large targets. Later again the OCEANOGRAPHER surveyed Indispensable Strait by using the same control on a scale of 1/250,000. They extended the control over that tremendous area.

"The ship's officers had never dreamed of so much expansion of the one kilometer base line. It seemed like a hopeless undertaking to select and measure another base line. There were no possible places and time was pressing. Then there was the question always in mind "Is this necessary to keep ships from going aground?" The founding father of the Coast Survey would have answered the problem differently, but in time of war, would he have?

"Shortly after the PATHFINDER's arrival we were initiated by the Japanese bombers. One night in particular five bombs landed in the harbor straddling the PATHFINDER. Discipline was broken and the ship returned the fire against the high flying planes. One motor torpedo boat was hit and the crews badly shaken up.

"In view of the frequency of the bombing, the PATHFINDER sought a less conspicuous anchorage. Perhaps the Jap planes didn't see the ship and only dropped bombs on the harbor in general. On another night they bombed the ammunition dump to the east and set off explosions and fires that lasted for several days. A Liberty Ship was unloading ammunition with a group of stevedores that took to the jungles which surrounded the base.

"About this time the Commander of the Solomon Islands asked for a volunteer to locate Baruku Island on the map. The Task Force running up the "Slot" each night laid their course 5 miles off the Island and to their consternation found the island much closer than they had thought. One officer accompanied by 2 men trained in Jiu Jitsu went along, traveling on a Destroyer and LCT as far as the Russell Islands, carrying a theodolite and a chronometer.

"They arrived at the Russell Islands headquarters during a bombing raid which the island Commander watched outside his bomb proof shelter. Arrangements were made for a motor torpedo boat to take the party up to Baruku Island. Unfortunately, the officer in charge of the motor torpedo boat was not the same officer, nor was it the same boat, that had landed a Coast Watching party two weeks before. At that time, the officer in charge had arranged that he would be back with drinking water in about two weeks and that he would signal his arrival with a long and two short flashes.

"When the survey party arrived off the part of the island where it was thought the Coast Watchers had landed, the boat crew flashed the regular ship to shore signal and waited for the answer that never came. The motor torpedo boat cruised around the island flashing the ship to shore signal in the belief that they had wrongly identified the landing spot of the Coast Watchers. No answer came from the beach. In desperation, the motor torpedo boat returned to the first place opposite the beach and off a slight cove. A rubber boat was put in the water with a theodolite and a chronometer in the custody of the Chief Quartermaster. The officer started to shore with Bos'n Mate rowing. When the party got within gunfire range, the officer had the Chief Quartermaster call out in a loud voice, 'Navy men from the USS PATHFINDER coming in.' It saved their lives! The Coast Watchers were stationed along the beach with guns trained on the small rubber raft waiting the signal to open fire. That was the 26th of March.

"One young Coast Watcher, not knowing the necessity for concentration, talked incessantly of Lake Merritt and Oakland while the officer was setting up the theodolite. [Bill Gibson was speaking of himself as the officer setting up the theodolite in describing this episode as he lived in Oakland, California, and ended up retiring to that area.] Yes, there were Japs on the island too! They didn't move around much. They hoped the Japs didn't either. They were out of water and couldn't light a fire. They would have to be particularly careful now that the Japs had seen our light.

"At any rate the observations were made and the party embarked in their rubber raft in about 3 hours. The time was set during the dark of the moon, and the moon was now rising and breaking through the clouds. The observation party had taken a line on a tangent between two points. They had observed three stars, one of which was Dubhe in the constellation of the Dipper. For some reason, the Dipper showing in 10 degrees south latitude was particularly comforting. On the way back to the Russells, the P.T. Boat Skipper was very conscious of the fluorescent wake of his boat. Airplanes could pick up the wake and bomb them. The night before a Motor torpedo Boat had opened fire on one of our planes when the plane dropped a bomb near the boat.

"Upon arrival in the Russell Islands, it was found out that a motor torpedo boat was to leave for Guadalcanal at 11 o'clock. This seemed preferable transportation to the way the party had come by Destroyer and LCT. The motor torpedo boat made 30 knots. Just at the time of departure, General Patch and several of his staff came down to the landing with the intention of riding down to Guadalcanal. He asked the skipper about night running. The skipper launched into a dissertation about danger from our planes, and told about the necessity of firing on one of ours a few nights back. General Patch exclaimed, "Was that you?" He then turned and walked away with his staff! There was plenty of room on the boat going to Guadalcanal! Another young skipper of another boat was being called on the 'carpet.' He never divulged what he was going on the 'carpet' for, except he said it was very serious. I surmised that it was he that fired a torpedo at the flagship and sunk it when it strayed into the wrong zone in the Invasion of Munda.

"At Lunga Point, Guadalcanal, a boat was ready to leave for Port Purvis, so the party arrived there well ahead of schedule. There it developed that the PATHFINDER was out, and while waiting on a pier a Marine Officer by the name of Robert Earle [transferred from the Coast and Geodetic Survey to the Marines at the beginning of the war] invited the whole party (one officer and two men) to dinner. The Chief Quartermaster declined because of his charge of caring for the chronometer and guarding it against undue shocks.

"At 7:00 o'clock the PATHFINDER launch took them off to the ship, and the officer and men tumbled into their bunks to get their first sleep in three days. When they awoke, the staff had computed the position of the observation point, and estimated the size of the Island of Baruku from aerial photographs. The chronometer had lost one second and the island was indicated to be several miles out of position. At any rate, we never had any more complaints from the Task Force about it being in the way while heading up the 'Slot' for the nocturnal bombardment after the change of position.

"The work laid out for the PATHFINDER was nearing completion. The ships could enter and leave Tulagi Harbor and Gavutu Harbor with assurance. And the surveys had been made relative to a point left in Port Purvis by the USS SUMNER. The anchorages were laid out in circles in Tulagi Harbor and along the coast of Guadalcanal. The coast of Guadalcanal was made [delineated] relative to the baseline on Gavutu causeway. A light was put on top of Beacon 'B' which could be turned on by notification of the Marine Detachment at Koli Point. (The Marines preferred the light to be normally off, because planes bombing Henderson Field would take a crack at any light and did.) Large convoys coming to Guadalcanal by night had the light to judge their distance off shore and along the shore.

"All that was left was a few soundings parallel to the coast in Sealark Passage. The PATHFINDER was asked to report the date of completion. The dispatch was simple enough. Apparently the headquarters had another job for us! An earlier dispatch had told us to expect air attacks in force. There was pressure to take off leaving the last few lines undone. A similar situation had occurred at Tonga Tabu when a battleship hit an uncharted rock just outside an area surveyed by the USS SUMNER. With this in mind, leaving the site before completion of the work was turned down.

"As the PATHFINDER steamed on line toward Lunga Point, a group of transports was met running east with the lines trailing in the water, and without lifeboats of any kind. They were making flank speed. Also, the cruisers of the Task Force were seen cruising out of Tulagi Harbor where they had been fueling.

"When the ship was opposite Lunga Point the USS AARON WARD was queried. They replied 'air attack imminent' by signal light. Surprisingly the destroyer secured from General Quarters just as the first bomb was dropped from the high flying planes. It hit the AARON WARD in the boiler room. The destroyer had been escorting a large LST containing, among other passengers, one by name of John F. Kennedy. The AARON WARD lay dead in the water and was putting the wounded in a boat while the PATHFINDER maneuvered rapidly to avoid the dive bombers. The Captain was on the flying bridge, the Navigator watching the conn and the 20mm guns on the bridge deck. The 20mm guns were more effective than the 3-inch AA guns.

"The PATHFINDER was maneuvering rapidly running figure eights. When the enemy planes went into their dive, the PATHFINDER was changing course so rapidly that the enemy planes missed their target and in turn were raked with 20mm gun fire or 3-inch anti-aircraft fire. The only trouble was the PATHFINDER, with rapidly changing course, could not hit the planes. However, four Zeros hit the water - two by direct hits and two with assists from some other ship. The planes that missed leveled off and then tried to strafe the ship launches which were in the water. One boat was holed by gunfire while the personnel dived deep overboard. The Zeros then flew over Tulagi and strafed the installations. As they completed their strafing runs they flew directly over the P.T. Boat Tender, the USS NIAGARA. The NIAGARA had removed its camouflage and had a man painting zeros on her smokestack as they were shot down. He got up to 16 zeros that had been shot down. The planes, not knowing NIAGARA was there, ran into heavy gunfire right after strafing Tulagi Harbor. The next day the NIAGARA, with about one dozen motor torpedo boats steamed out of Tulagi Harbor for Espiritu Santo when one lone Japanese plane at high level dropped a bomb on her. She sank almost immediately not having any compartmentation. All of the crew were saved. They transferred to the torpedo boats.

"In the meantime, when the attack broke off, the AARON WARD, which was dead in the water, was taken in tow by a fleet tug. The intention was to get the ship over to the place at Tulagi Harbor vacated by the NIAGARA in the creek in the shoal water. The men were shoring up the compartments when the ship suddenly went down taking 80 men with it.

"The PATHFINDER steering engine and rudder had been damaged by a near miss. The Commanding Officer left his post on the flying bridge and took the wheel to guide the ship after the steering engine went out. His great strength was sufficient to guide the ship to an anchorage off the coast of Guadalcanal. As the ship approached the anchorage a high flying plane appeared overhead coming out of the sun. The ship opened up on it, but the plane was quickly identified as friendly and the firing belayed. It was the only friendly plane that we had observed during the day.

"At the time of the attack the AARON WARD lowered a launch with 19 men on it. When the firing stopped Lieutenant Lorin Woodcock in the motor whaleboat, who had found the AARON WARD casualties on the beach, brought them off to the PATHFINDER. They were immediately taken to the sick bay where they took up all the operating tables plus the CPO mess table. Lt. Evan Kackley and his 3 pharmacy mates worked on them all night and saved many lives. And Lt. Sam Davis and his engineer worked throughout the night on the steering engine in the terrible heat of the poop deck. At dawn he pronounced the ship operational. It was important to get operational as soon as possible because of the danger of additional bombing or from submarine activity.

"At 0700 the wounded and dead were put ashore when a truck showed up to take them to MOB 8. The sounding line was picked up that had been interrupted on the preceding day and the whole day spent on finishing the work.

"On the following day the ship departed for Espiritu Santo but had to return to Tulagi to pick up about 50 survivors of the sinking of the large tanker. [This was the USS KANAWHA which was sunk while attempting to leave Tulagi Harbor during the bombing raid of April 7.] The Task Force had just gotten fuel and left hurriedly from Tulagi when the bombing of April 7th happened. They kept clear of the enemy raid and did not seem to be seen by them. A New Zealand corvette was sunk with the tanker.

"The following date the PATHFINDER dropped anchor in Pallikula Bay, Espiritu Santo, just as Eleanor Roosevelt landed and a lone Japanese bomber dropped a bomb. The long days of hard work in the field under a blistering sun and sleepless nights at General Quarters in the sporadic bombing was about all that the men could stand. However, the quiet of Pallikula Bay tended to give new life to the crew, except the work went on as usual.

"In June 1943 the report on the charting of Pallikula Bay to the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, contained the following: 'PATHFINDER personnel have shown a high degree of loyalty and devotion to duty, but continuous operation in advance areas is making itself manifest --- added is the requirement of learning a new type of work for which they had no previous training. They deserve a great deal of credit.' Almost by return mail came commendations for the officers and men for their part in the action and for the accuracy of information and excellent workmanship of the charts from Admiral Nimitz. Admiral Halsey added that the work of the PATHFINDER would play an important part in the successful prosecution of the war, and ordered the ship to Sydney, Australia, for ten days recreation and for some supplies and equipment. [This would be the first of two trips to Sydney.]

"The ship force were tired but orders were received to survey and chart Pallikula and Turtle Bay and approaches which was done in about 2 weeks time. Then Commander Boak [J.E. Boak, Commanding Officer U.S. Naval Advanced Base, Espiritu Santo] assigned the job of finding an anchorage for a large floating dry dock. The ship revised the chart of Espiritu Santo somewhat and then proceeded south to Undine Bay. Being open to the sea, the PATHFINDER stationed a launch one mile out to give warning of any attack. Here the wire drag kept hanging on a mine which was charted and marked as a buoyed danger.

"After Undine Bay was charted the officers of the ship were invited aboard a carrier to hear Admiral Halsey talk. He predicted that we would meet again in Tokyo but we would not be able to tell one street from another on account of the destruction! (We had not heard of the atomic bomb at that time; perhaps Halsey had.)

"When in Sydney, Australia, some needed supplies were obtained and a much needed radar installed. The officers and crew were wined and dined by the Aussies. They were a very hospitable people. When it came to leave we missed only 4 men, 3 of which were delivered to us at the entrance buoy. One man was delivered to us at Guadalcanal. Three charts of Tulagi and two of Guadalcanal were made and printed and published on board the ship.

"In Noumea, charts were completed and printed on the ship's return from Australia. ComSoPac did not seem aware that the OCEANOGRAPHER had no camera or printing press and her first three months of surveys were unprocessed and on a scale of 1/10,000. Furthermore, the ship had been aground, had bent her propeller, and was in poor morale. Consequently the PATHFINDER had to compile the surveys on a scale of 1/40,000 for printing on a scale of 1/80,000 before returning to the combat areas. Upon return to the combat area the PATHFINDER surveys proceeded very efficiently and seven charts were published in a period of one month.

"While charting the Russell Islands for Commander of Naval Activities, Solomon Islands, orders were received from Commander Third Amphibious Corps to chart Manning Strait (1,200 square miles,) Vovoke Cove on Kolambangara, Hathorn Sound, and Rendova Harbor on New Georgia Island. The surveys of the Russell Islands were for staging a great Invasion Armada, while Manning Straits was useful in the naval battles.

"The PATHFINDER was escorted up the 'Slot' to the north end of New Georgia Island which had been captured by the U.S. Marines in the Battle of Munda, New Georgia. Lieutenant Schoene was in charge of the survey party for the OCEANOGRAPHER during the invasion of Munda. The ship [PATHFINDER] anchored in the middle of Hathorn Sound. The officers and crew laid out a baseline and took astronomic sights for a position. The whole survey was based on this hasty beginning as there was no connection with any other place on New Georgia. No dangers were found in the harbor but the ship was bombed frequently by the Japs whose Coast Watchers saw the ship coming in and reported it as a heavy cruiser. Probably the closest to a hit was obtained on the PATHFINDER here, but it did not explode - a dud. The C.B.'s were building an airfield and got the brunt of the bombing. The ship went to General Quarters with each bombing.

"An officer was sent ashore to look for a Chaplain to hold services on board. A Catholic was contacted who turned him down. Then a preacher was invited out to the ship to hold services inasmuch as some thought each night might be our last. The ship went to 'condition red' in the middle of the service and all hands went to their stations. The preacher tried twice more to hold services and each time it was similarly interrupted. He stayed all night and the next morning reported his watch missing! The Captain picked up his Bible and it fell open at the right page - the 'watch' page. During the scrambling when the alarm sounded the preacher had closed the Bible on his watch.

"The C.B.'s worked day and night, and had to have lights on for the night work. They turned off the lights when the first bomb dropped. They remained dark for about 15 minutes and then the lights came on. By that time the Jap bombers, turned around and heading for their base at Kavieng, dropped more bombs which delayed the C.B.'s another 15 minutes.

"One of our duties at Hathorn Sound was to find a place where a tanker could be moored with easy access from the sea. While this was being surveyed, Manning Strait was surveyed by a party on a YMS with Lieutenant Jarman in charge. He had been watched closely by a reconnaissance airplane and they had given the only code they had at the moment, admittedly outdated. The plane signalled back, 'We know it is outdated!' but kept right on the contact.

"The Vovoke Cove, Kolambangara Island, was done in a matter of hours by a wire drag to 30-feet swinging around an anchored end. The cove was almost circular. The problem then was to get the ship over to Rendova Harbor without going back around the long island of New Georgia. We had not run into any mines in Kula Gulf although we could have because the high speed destroyer that planted them did so in the dark and didn't know exactly where they were. That was during the Battle of Kula Gulf. The PATHFINDER was the first ship in the Kula Gulf after the battle. We took the chance and navigated the Blackett Strait between the islands, with a minesweeper proceeding ahead of us. We made it around to the south side of New Georgia in a portion of one day whereas the trip back the long way would have taken taken about 3 days.

"The PATHFINDER anchored in Rendova Harbor with a sigh of relief. That evening Lieutenant Woodcock and a crew of men were sent to Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, on a destroyer which stopped about a mile at sea for him and his men to come aboard. Two large transports had gone aground on uncharted rocks in the unloading area.

"Heretofore all the Task Forces bombarding the Japanese and supporting the Bougainville offensive had to return to Tulagi Harbor for logistics. By mooring a tanker in Hathorn Sound the destroyers and cruisers could refuel before and after engagements without the long run down to Tulagi. They could run lower on fuel than before and could even chase the Japs right up to their base at Kavieng as did '30 Knot Burke making 31 knots.' During the Battle of Bougainville, our ability to hang on was made possible by refueling destroyers and cruisers there.

"But my orders were in Rendova directing me to proceed to Guadalcanal and report as Executive Officer to the OCEANOGRAPHER. It was with sincere regret that I left the PATHFINDER - my home away from home for the last eighteen months. By this time the PATHFINDER was a smoothly functioning unit of the fleet and well-known and respected.

"Many personnel changes had been made in the past few months. Lt. Comdr. James Baker had been detached in Tulagi to go home as his wife had passed away and his young daughter was alone. Commander Walls, Chief Engineer, had been detached and sent to new construction from Espiritu Santo on our way to Sydney, Australia. That left the PATHFINDER with one Engineer Officer, Lt. Comdr. Sam Davis, who was eminently capable; and Lt. Comdr. Harry Mason, Executive Officer, was ordered to the States about April 15th and I was promoted to Executive Officer at that time. Upon our return from Australia, Lt. Comdr. E.E. Stohsner was sent to new construction, so we lost two Engineer Officers, 1 Executive Officer, and a Survey Officer in a short period of time. The loss of Lt. Comdr. E.E. Stohsner without replacement was especially critical. Commander Stohsner was particularly trained in wire drag work and a long time friend. That left the captain, Lt. Comdr. Walter Chovan, Lt. Hicks, Lt. Jarman, and Lt. Woodcock as Survey Officer; and Naval Reserve Officers Pickhan, Thompson, Glaze, McMurphy, Anderson (the gunnery officer,) and Dondero (a recent acquisition.)

"Cdr. W.M. Gibson had navigated the PATHFINDER from Seattle to San Francisco to Pearl Harbor, and Australia, and acted as Chief Survey Officer for all the time and as Executive Officer the last six months."

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