Patrol Gunboat Cruise to the Marianas

The following story is contributed by Dave Donaldson, PGRA Historian, and taken from ALL HANDS Magazine, July 1974.

When a recent opportunity came up to make a four-day voyage to the northern Marianas Islands of Alamagan, Pagan and Agrihan, I jumped at the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these infrequently visited, exotic volcanic islands.

The trip aboard the Guam-based patrol gunboat USS Welsh (PG 93) in company with USS Tacoma (PG 92), was billed as a combination goodwill/training cruise. When not visiting islands, a hefty schedule of military training exercises was to be held.

Having been a "carrier man" for a number of years, I was immediately made aware of one of the most striking features of the PGs — their size, which is small.

While you can easily run a full-scale football game (several, in fact) on a carrier flight deck, with another dozen or so basketball contests under way on the hangar decks; you’d be hard-pressed to play a decent game of snooker on a gunboat. Besides that, the table, players, cues, and so forth, would probably be tossed into the briny deep.

Going to sea in a gunboat, which is 23 feet wide and 165 feet long, can be likened to going to sea on a ping-pong ball. The boat only weighs 270 tons (soaking wet!). Don’t think the ocean doesn’t know that. After the first day out, I was convinced that the sea has "this thing" for PGs.

First day out wasn’t exactly a tourist’s delight. I saw the hazy maze of piping above my bunk, the water rushing by as I leaned over the side, the piping above my bunk, the blurred images of people moving out of my way as I bounced from side to side down the passageway, and the piping above my bunk. Nice day!

Second day dawns bright and spectacular. Sea legs having returned, "The Old Salt" casually saunters (less bounce) down a somewhat familiar passageway to breakfast. Later, out on the fantail, "Salt" relates tales of old to spellbound (?) audience while clutching tightly to stanchion to keep from being tossed overboard by the sea which knows the truth.

Also on the second day, around noontime, we visited the first island, Alamagan, which is located approximately 260 miles north of Guam. Later that afternoon we visited the island of Pagan where both gunboats anchored for the night before making our way still farther north to Agrihan, the last island visited.

I was in the first raft to be put in the water for the trip ashore. One thing I had not counted on, however, is that once you’ve become accustomed (if that’s possible) to riding the waves in a PG, the feeling of being tossed about constantly remains with you for some time. During our brief visits to all three islands, I had the distinct impression that the entire land mass was about to get underway.

Because of their extreme remoteness and lack of regularly scheduled transportation, the northern islands of the Marianas have few visitors. As a result, we found ourselves a bit of a curiosity, particularly to the children who, first, maintained a respectable distance, peering shyly from behind their parents or around trees.

However, it didn’t take them long to warm up to us, especially when you introduced two friendly, outgoing individuals like Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Bill (Doc) Belgard, Welch’s corpsman, and Seaman Ken (Lew) Llewellyn to them. As we walked along a palm tree-lined pathway leading to a small cluster of houses on a hill overlooking the beach, the smiling, happy children rushed about in a game of tag, caught up in the spirit of our visit.

Both Doe and Lew immediately set about the task of winning the favor of the children. Lew, dressed in tropical shorts and island shirt, dug down into his mailbag filled with candy and began distributing it to the children as they inched within reaching distance.

Meanwhile, Doc chatted with the village leader to determine if there were any special medical problems which needed attention. Although there were no specific problems, he later held an impromptu "sick call" for the villagers. Doe’s "gimmick" for the children was to offer them an opportunity to listen to their own heartbeats; however, he maintained a "me first" policy which gave him the chance of checking the children before they could get to hear their own hearts.

While Doe held the informal medical exams, other Welch and Tacoma crewmen delivered items of clothing and community relations materials, such as household items, including pots, pans, etc., tools and school supplies to the village center. Other sailors set up a volleyball net and began playing, later to be joined by some of the village children.

On each island visited, one of the senior PG officers, usually the commanding officer or executive officer, would come ashore to talk to the chief about their needs and to determine if there was anything that he or his crew could do for the islanders during their brief stay. Also during this time, an informal census was conducted which revealed that there was approximately 130 residents on the three islands.

Within a very short time after departure from Alamagan, the next island, Pagan, became visible on the horizon. As we neared the island the stark contrast between Mt. Pagan, an active volcano with an elevation of 1850 feet, and the lush green mountains and black, sand beaches became apparent. Once ashore, Doe was immediately alerted to a medical emergency.

He set about examining the patient, but was unable to come up with a firm diagnosis, although he knew the man’s situation was serious. After consulting with his skipper and holding a radio consultation with Tacoma’s corpsman, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Dave Doyle, it was decided to notify the district medical officer on Saipan. The following day, while we were on the island of Agrihan, the man was air-evacuated from the island for a gallstone operation.

Since the ships were to remain at overnight anchorage near Pagan, the two crews teamed up to provide the island residents with some special entertainment in the form of a movie.

Welch contributed the film, while Tacoma added the projector. Although there were only a handful of people visible when we first reached the island, according to Lieutenant James R. Tinsley, III, Welch’s skipper, all but three of the island’s residents turned out for the special screening.

The following day, on Agrihan — another richly green island which boasts a huge, black sand beach — things began as usual. After our gear was delivered by a carabao-driven cart to the village, Doe again held his medical exams, Lew distributed candy and gifts, and other PG crewmen handed out community relations articles and clothing.

But the day had in store several treats, which brought a fitting end to a pleasurable journey northward. For the islanders, there were five gallons of ice cream, donated by Tacoma. And for the visitors, there was a tuba toast (fermented sap of a palm tree) by the village men and later a chance for a swim before returning to the ship and turning homeward.

One thing you can learn about PG sailors is that they’re a special breed of cat. They’re fiercely proud, a tightly knit group who really pull together and will go out of their way to help their fellow man. They may talk about the rough riding characteristics of PGs as a whole, or life at sea in general, but they all exhibit a special pride in that 23x165-foot ship they call home.

—Story by JOC Bill Wedertz, USN.

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