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Historic Fleets – The Saga of the Williebee

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Naval History Magazine, December 2012
Shortly before the end of the midwatch on 8 December 1941, a radioman on board the destroyer-seaplane tender USSWilliam B. Preston (AVD-7), at anchor in Malalag Bay off Davao Gulf, Mindanao, in the Philippines, picked up an urgent message: JAPAN HAS COMMENCED HOSTILITIES. GOVERN YOU[R]SELVES ACCORDINGLY.

Lieutenant Commander Etheridge Grant, the ship’s commanding officer, seeing no mention of exactly where the Japanese had “commenced hostilities,” immediately put his ship on a full war footing. Bluejackets belted ammunition for the ship’s four .50-caliber water-cooled Browning machine guns on the galley deckhouse amidships.

Within hours, 13 Nakajima Type 97 B5N “Kate” attack planes and nine Mitsubishi A5M4 Type 96 “Claude” fighters from the carrier Ry­u­jo swept in, destroying two Consolidated PBY-4 Catalina patrol bombers moored a mile from the ship, killing one man and wounding two. The William B. Preston slipped anchor and zigzagged out of the bay Noting the enemy approaching from downwind, Grant remembered he “had always had a tendency to over-shoot [in those situations] . . . thinking that the Japs weren’t any smarter than I had been I applied that lesson to good advantage.” Thus when the B5N pilots reached the drop point on the beam, Grant had the ship turned toward them. “We took aboard some muddy water and a few bomb fragments,” he noted later, “but no one got hurt.” The William B. Preston , the first ship of the Asiatic Fleet to come under Japanese attack at the start of the Pacific war, had survived her first battle.

The William P. Preston (AVP-20) as she was first commissioned as a small seaplane tender in the summer of 1940, painted in No. 5 Navy Gray with her identification number in white with black shadowing. J.M. Caiella

The William P. Preston (AVP-20) as she was first commissioned as a small seaplane tender in the summer of 1940, painted in No. 5 Navy Gray with her identification number in white with black shadowing. J.M. Caiella

Authorized on 6 October 1917, the William B. Preston (Destroyer No. 344)—named for the Secretary of the Navy under President Zachary Taylor—was laid down at the Norfolk Navy Yard on 18 November 1918, a week after the Armistice that ended World War I. At launching on 7 August 1919, however, it appeared as if the ship did not want to go to sea, for she proceeded just 28 inches in 45 minutes before she stuck fast. The next day a tug pulled her an additional 190 feet before she once again stopped. Divers discovered her weight had forced the ways apart some 10 feet. A 150-ton yard crane was positioned and put into use, allowing the William B. Preston finally to enter her element at 2022 on 9 August.

After fitting out and receiving a new identifying number (DD-344) during the Fleet-wide assignment of alphanumeric hull numbers on 17 July 1920, the William B. Preston was commissioned on 23 August 1920, Lieutenant James B. Ryan in command until the arrival of Commander William B. Eberle on 7 September.

The new destroyer’s initial service, often with an 84 percent complement as dictated by post–World War I austerity, ranged from the Caribbean to Callao, Peru, before she sailed for duty with the Asiatic Fleet. There, from 1922 to 1929, she carried out the gunnery exercises and engineering performance competitions common to ships of her type on other stations.

But as Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur wrote in 1925, she also was “employed for the protection of American lives and property in the coast cities of China and on the Yangtze and West Rivers.” In 1927 she transported American refugees and exchanged gunfire on the Yangtze with persistent, but largely inaccurate, Chinese riflemen and artillerists. Next assigned to the Battle Force, the William B. Preston ranged from America’s East Coast to the Caribbean, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of California.

Decommissioned on 15 October 1934, she lay in reserve at the Philadelphia Navy Yard until selected for conversion to a small Childs -class seaplane tender on 18 November 1939. Redesignated AVP-20, she entered the New York Navy Yard soon thereafter. When Lieutenant Commander Francis J. “Frank” Bridget, her prospective commanding officer, noted that the condition of her hull reflected her “history of a high corrosion rate and expensive . . . upkeep,” he had his crew remove scale down to bare metal inside and out. His sailors worked so zealously that they punched holes through the old ship’s skin in eight places.

During that metamorphosis, workmen removed the four 21-inch triple-torpedo tube mounts and half of the ship’s 4-inch battery, the 3-inch/23-caliber antiaircraft gun, and the depth-charge tracks, as well as boilers one and two, the forward smoke pipes and “all engineering machinery, piping, and gear” that went with them. They then carried out the modifications necessary to enable the ship to function in her new role—tender for a 12-plane patrol (VP) squadron—installing a 30,000-gallon aviation-fuel tank, as well as living spaces for aircrew that would operate from the tender.

A deckhouse was constructed in the former well-deck space, extending from the bridge to the galley. Four .50-caliber Browning machine guns—with guard structures “to prevent damage to the ship and personnel from misdirected fire”—replaced the two 4-inch guns atop the galley deckhouse. The existing searchlight platform was strengthened to allow it to support a boat derrick and gear. Two 30-foot motor launches, each capable of carrying a 600-gallon fuel bowser, were added, nested in cradles aft of the searchlight platform and augmenting two 26-foot motor whaleboats. In addition, plane refueling booms were installed on each quarter. Her magazines held not only 4-inch service ammunition for the two newly relined guns but 48 500-pound bombs and 96 fuses.

By 1941 the William B. Preston had returned to the Asiatic Fleet where, in her new role, she would survive the opening round of hostilities. (Her antiaircraft fire in that first engagement caused one of the Japanese A5M4 pilots to ditch en route back to the Ry­u­jo .) She returned to the bay to pick up the survivors of the PBYs, augmenting her .50-caliber armament with weapons scrounged from the destroyed aircraft. Soon thereafter she slipped away, eluding four Japanese destroyers.

Two months later, on 19 February 1942, the William B. Preston escaped an attack on Darwin Harbor, Australia. A Japanese bomb caused extensive damage aft, however, killing 11 men and wounding two. Repaired and refitted the “Williebee”—a moniker listed as the ship’s cable address at that time in her career—tended the Catalinas of Patrol Wing 10 in Australian waters until the summer of 1944, when she returned to San Diego to serve as plane guard and escort for carriers engaged in training new pilots. Ultimately, she returned to Philadelphia on 9 October 1945, where, on 6 December 1945, she was decommissioned. Stricken on 3 January 1946, she was acquired for scrapping by the Northern Metals Company of Philadelphia on 6 November 1946.

Until the first of the Barnegat -class ships began entering the Fleet in mid-1941, the successful converstion of the Childs(AVP-14) and her sisters augmented the Lapwing -class vessels—filling a large gap created by the the unprecedented expansion of naval aviation. Thus the William B. Preston , like “many other of the old four-stackers [had] served our country well in its hour of need,” her official Navy chronicler noted. On the occasion of her imminent decommissioning and disposal, he concluded that at that point “her history will be complete; her task well done.” To that her sailors could add a nostalgic “Amen.”