Mike Gerken: Evolution Underwater Imaging | USS Tucker - Wreck Diving in Vanuatu Mike Gerken Photography

The USS Tucker (DD-374)

"A Prestigious Past with an Inglorious End"

Story & Images by

Mike Gerken

©Mike Gerken; Evolution Underwater Imaging

(As published in Wreck Diving Magazine 4th Quarter 2013)

Article in Wreck Diving Magazine

 

  USS TuckerUSS Tucker (DD374)Completion photograph, taken off the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, 2 March 1937. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center.            While escorting a ship through the winding channels of the New Hebrides Islands, on the evening of August 3, 1942, the destroyer, USS Tucker unknowingly wandered in to a minefield.  Suddenly, an explosion ripped through the heart of the ‘Tucker’ and blinding smoke bellowed throughout the ship while torrents of seawater rushed in through the gapping wound amid ship. The blast killed three men instantly while breaking the back of the destroyer. The Tucker folded like an accordion with bow and stern jutting out of the water. In a matter of hours, the helpless ship would succumb to the rising seawater and sink to the bottom of the channel in a mere 60 feet of seawater. The USS Tucker, who was present at Pearl Harbor on the fateful day of December 7, 1941 and whose crew earned a Battle Star for the actions taken there, just met an inglorious end to a prestigious past by striking, by of all things, a mine that was laid by her own forces only the day before.

            The USS Tucker’s keel was laid on August 15, 1934 and launched 18 months later on February 26, 1936. The ship was commissioned on July 23, 1936 and named after Commodore Samuel Tucker, a Revolutionary War commander and ships captain with an illustrious career. The ‘Tucker’, with a length overall of 341 feet, joined the destroyer forces of the United States Battle Fleet based out of San Diego, California.  As tensions between the US and Japan heightened in the Pacific in the late 30’s and into 1940, she would be relocated to the Hawaiian Islands and be a part of a growing United States presence in the Pacific.

The USS Tucker at Pearl Harbor Dec 7, 1941The USS Tucker at Pearl Harbor Dec 7, 1941View taken around 0926 hrs. in the morning of 7 December, from an automobile on the road in the Aiea area, looking about WSW with destroyer moorings closest to the camera. In the center of the photograph are: USS Dobbin (AD-3), with destroyers Hull (DD-350), Dewey (DD-349),Worden (DD-352) and MacDonough (DD-351) alongside. The ship just to the left of that group is USS Phelps (DD-360), with got underway on two boilers around 0926 hrs. The group further to the right consists of: USS Whitney (AD-4), with destroyers Conyngham (DD-371), Reid (DD-369), Tucker (DD-374), Case (DD-370) and Selfridge (DD-357) alongside. USS Solace (AH-5) is barely visible at the far left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.             On the morning of the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor, the ‘Tucker’, while undergoing an overhaul, could be found in the middle of a nest of five destroyers tied up along side the tender USS Whitney. As the roar of Japanese planes began resonating in the skies over the harbor, dropping their bombs and strafing targets, the crew of the USS Tucker quickly went in to action.

            Gunners mate 2nd Class, Walter E. Bowe, before the general alarm even sounded at 0757hrs, immediately manned a .50 caliper after machine gun and began firing off rounds at Japanese planes, downing possibly two of them as they whirled overhead. It was reported by those who witnessed the event from the ‘Tucker’ and nearby ships, that Bowe was responsible for firing the first shots upon the Japanese in WWII (with the exception of the destroyer USS Ward who launched depth charges on a Japanese midget sub prior to the start of the raid on Pearl Harbor).  At 0810 hours, the main gun batteries opened up and threw a barrage of gunfire upon the marauding planes. In all, the USS Tucker registered three confirmed kills with a probable fourth and received a Battle Star for her outstanding performance during the raid. The battle report of the commanding officer, W.R. Terrell reads as follows, “The performance of all personnel of this vessel was outstanding and in the best traditions of the naval service. The quick action of Bowe on his own initiative was particularly outstanding.”

USS Tucker UnderwayUSS Tucker UnderwayUnderway in Massachusetts Bay, 17 November 1937. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center.             Immediately thereafter, the ‘Tucker’ began patrols and escort duties throughout the Pacific arriving in Fiji on July 29, 1942. On August 1st, the USS Tucker was given her final orders to escort the SS Nira Luckenback to Espiritu Santo of the New Hebrides Islands in the South Pacific. Today the islands are known as Vanuatu. It was during the early evening of August 3 at 2145 hours when the ‘Tucker’ tragically ran in to a mine while attempting to enter the harbor.

            The minefield was laid the day before in order to prevent prowling Japanese submarines from secretly entering the channels leading to the port of Luganville in Espiritu Santo. Luganville was used as a major staging ground to halt the rapid Japanese advancement across the Pacific in the early part of WWII. It went on to become the largest naval and military facility in the Pacific with the exception of Pearl Harbor. The USS Tucker had received no written information as to the laying of this minefield nor did they receive any transmission prior to the explosion even though the radioman had translated all communications in a timely fashion.

The USS Tucker SinkingThe USS Tucker Sinking"Jackknifed" amidships and under tow by USS YP-346 in the Bruat Channel, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, at about 2330 Hrs. GCT, 3 August 1942. Tucker had struck a mine in the area at about 2145 Hrs. GCT on that day, breaking her keel. She sank on 4 August. Photographed from a plane based on USS Curtiss (AV-4). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.             The moment the ‘Tucker’ struck the mine her fate was sealed. The massive explosion snapped the keel in the center nearly splitting the ship in two when she folded in upon herself. The flooding of the ship was rapid and all power lost due to flooding of the boilers. The ship now crippled drifted helplessly back the way she came through the minefield. All watertight hatches were sealed and canvas stuffed in to the vents to stem the flow of flooding water. The ‘Tucker’s’ commander, desired to save his foundering ship by towing her to the near-bye beach in order for salvage to take place. When he requested assistance from nearby vessel, the SS Nira Lukenbach, the captain of the ship declined to tow due to fear of standing in to the same minefield the ‘Tucker’ had just gone. However, the ‘Lukenbach’ had sent two boats to aid with the evacuation of any crew.

            A few hours later, the USS YP-346 arrived to assist the ‘Tucker’ and managed to tow her to shallow water, but neglected to bring her to the beach due to the captains fear of running up onto the beach himself. The ‘Tucker’, sinking fast with bow and stern sticking far out of the water, eventually ran aground in 60’ of water. Both ends of the vessel slowly made their descent and sank from sight a few hours later. All, but six crew members managed to successfully evacuate the vessel. Three died in the initial explosion and three more who were reported missing after the ship sank. So came the end of the USS Tucker and the six souls that went with her, the hapless victims of a naval clerical snafu. Revenge for the Japanese attack at Pearl would have to be exacted by others. The ‘Tucker’ had done all she could.

The Wreck of the USS Tucker w/SeafanThe Wreck of the USS Tucker w/SeafanA beautiful seaman decorating the remains of the USS Tucker.             The indignities upon the ‘USS Tucker’ did not end here. After her sinking she became victim of navy salvors removing any equipment deemed valuable to the war effort. After the war private salvors dived the wreck seeking valuable metals and anything else of value at the scrap yard. The vessel was torn limb from limb in the attempt to remove brass portholes, copper piping and heat exchangers. Sport divers, later on, added to the melee by taking whatever could be found in the rubble for souvenirs and keep sakes.

            The first time I dived the USS Tucker was in May of 2006 while spending four months in Vanuatu filming and documenting one of the world’s largest accessible shipwrecks, the SS President Coolidge. With tragic irony, the 650’ SS President Coolidge also struck the same minefield as the ‘Tucker’, but in a different section on October 26, 1942; less than three months later! Apparently, the US Navy had done such a fine job keeping the minefield a secret that two of their own ships unknowingly met their demise at the hands of the mines. This can only be added evidence to support the theory that the US military was highly disorganized and unprepared in the early stages of WWII.

            My main focus while in Vanuatu was to dive the ‘Coolidge’ as much as possible in order to obtain enough footage to finish my first documentary, The Wreck of the SS President Coolidge. (The story of the ‘Coolidge’ is a vast one and should be told in full another time.)

Wreck of the USS Tucker BowWreck of the USS Tucker BowThe bow section of the USS Tucker lying in the sand on its port side.             The dive operators I was working with at the time informed me of another lesser known WWII wreck that was a 40 minute boat ride away. However, I insisted that my main focus was on the ‘Coolidge’ and showed little interest. When they added that the wreck was a US destroyer that won a Battle Star at Pearl Harbor, I responded, “why didn’t you say so before”. With that said, I took the bait and the hook was set. The next day, I found myself racing across the Segond Channel in a small fiberglass skiff with a pair of outboard engines propelling us towards the remains of the USS Tucker on the north east side of Malo Island.

            The local dive guides did not have the luxury of a GPS to aid them in locating the resting place of the ‘Tucker’. Instead they used ‘line-ups’ on the nearby island of Malo. Using triangulation by lining up a rock and a palm tree on one side of the island and a hut and ridgeline on the other they could pinpoint the location of the remains of the ‘USS Tucker’ within 100 feet. Once we were close, the guides jumped over the side with mask and fins to try to visually spot the wreck 60’ beneath them. After about 15 minutes of searching the guide poked his head up and indicated she was right below us. Without hesitation, I backward rolled over the side of the boat and went down to pay my respects to this decorated destroyer and her lost crew.

The Wreck of the USS Tucker HatchThe Wreck of the USS Tucker HatchA diver peering through the hatch into the stern section of the USS Tucker.             With visibility ranging from 50-60 feet, I could make out large sections of the wreck and get a good idea of her disposition. I first came upon the stern section-sitting upright with a list to starboard. With ample room to penetrate, I explored the stern section finding there was plenty of ambient light shining through fissures and hatchways. Within, I discovered that lush sea fans, a school of grunts and a few grouper had now become the rightful tenants of the USS Tucker.      

            As I headed forward, the stern section came to an end and a field of debris began. Hull plates, twisted ‘I’ beams and unidentifiable debris lay everywhere. Through the hazy water I could see two large objects lying in the sand off in the distance. As I approached, I could clearly see they were the two engines with prop shafts projecting out of them. Whether the engines spilled out of the wreck when it sank or if they were dislodged by severe storms or thrown about from salvage efforts, I could not tell. Maybe it was a combination of all of the above. However, the USS Tucker was not recognizable as the distinguished ship she once was.

Wreck of the USS Tucker InteriorWreck of the USS Tucker InteriorThe interior spaces of the USS Tucker.             Continuing on past the engines, there was more rubble scattered about until I came upon the tip of the bow, which was on its port side with a large portion buried in the sand. This was the only other section of the wreck that was immediately identifiable. I wasted no time in snapping a few photos before turning around and making the long swim back to my starting point through the debris field.

            To see a ship with a distinguished record as the ‘Tucker’ in such a poor state gave me pause for thought. I pondered that wrecks, like the Tucker, will gradually disappear and to be saddened by this inevitable fact would be pointless. What is important is that the memory of these ships be kept alive by telling their stories.

            I dived the ‘Tucker’ several more times over the next few months before packing up my gear and heading home to the United States to finish up the film on the SS President Coolidge. Over the years since, I hadn’t forgotten about this lesser known wreck resting on the seabed in an obscure part of the world. I wanted to write a story about her and spread the word as to the significant roll she played in the war with Japan, but held off until I found the right place and time. I’m pleased that now I have found the perfect publication to share the history of the wreck of the USS Tucker.

The USS Tucker Aerial ViewThe USS Tucker Aerial View"Jackknifed" amidships and under tow toward the northwest corner of Malo Island at about 0315 Hrs. GCT on 4 August 1942. She is being towed by a motor launch from the Naval Air Station, Segond Channel, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, in a final attempt to beach her before she sank. USS Breese (DM-18) is standing by, in the foreground. Tucker had struck a mine in the area at about 2145 Hrs. GCT on 3 August 1942, breaking her keel. She sank on 4 August. Photographed from a plane based on USS Curtiss (AV-4). U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

The USS Tucker's Last BreathsThe USS Tucker's Last BreathsSunk near Malo Island, Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, on 5 August 1942. She struck a mine after entering an unannounced defensive minefield during the evening of 3 August and sank early the following morning. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center.

The Wreck of the USS Tucker EngineThe Wreck of the USS Tucker EngineOne of the USS Tucker's engines lying in the sand in 60' of sea water.

USS Tucker Statistics:

OVERALL LENGTH 341 ft

BEAM 35 ft

SPEED 35 knots

DISPLACEMENT 1500 tons.

 

Please visit this link for more images and information on the USS Tucker:

http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-t/dd374.htm