PENSACOLA CONVOY
(PLUM CONVOY)
ARRIVING IN AUSTRALIA
DURING WWII

 

On 29 November 1941, a US convoy of eight ships escorted by the cruiser USS Pensacola left Pearl Harbor on its way to Manila to reinforce the Philippines. The reinforcement and resupply of the Philippines was ordered by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt who approved the plan for Operation Plum on 14 November 1941.

US Navy Ships
USS Pensacola (CA 24)
USS Chaumont (AP 5)
USS Republic (AP 33)
USS Niagra (PG 52)

US Army Transports
USAT Meigs
USAT Willard A. Holbrook

American Merchantmen
S.S. Admiral Halstead
S.S. Coast Farmer

Dutch Merchantmen
M.S. Blomfontein

The Pensacola Convoy crossed the Equator on 5 December 1941. At 0825 hours on the morning of 7 December 1941, they received word from CinCPac that hostilities had commenced with Japan. Within a short time of the receipt of this message the ships went to "general quarters" and crews were getting the ships ready for any possible action.


Photo:- US Navy Archives #19-N-67932

USS Pensacola (CA 24) on 14 October 1943.. USS Pensacola was the first cruiser the US had built
in decades and its first heavy cruiser. Her only sister ship was USS Salt Lake City (CA 25).

 

The Pensacola Convoy continued towards Manila until 9 December 1941 when orders were received to turn back to Pearl Harbor. These orders were changed within a short period of time, and the convoy headed for Brisbane, in Queensland, Australia via Suva, in the Fiji Islands. Some sources suggest that this last minute change was ordered by President Roosevelt.

When the Pensacola Convoy reached Suva, USS Niagra left the convoy when it was turned back to Pearl Harbor.

Royal Australian Navy (RAN) ships HMAS Canberra and HMAS Perth berthed at Newstead Wharf on the morning of Monday 15 December 1941 and refuelled. HMAS Canberra hoisted the Flag of the Rear-Admiral Commanding, H.M.A. Squadron, Rear-Admiral J.G. Grace, C.B. R.N. (F.O.C.A.S.) during the afternoon of 15 December 1941.

HMAS Perth sailed from Newstead Wharf at 1440 hours on 15 December 1941 and anchored in Moreton Bay at 1715 hours to await HMAS Canberra. HMAS Perth weighed anchor at 1830 hours and proceed ahead of HMAS Canberra passing Cape Moreton at 2200 hours by which time HMAS Canberra had overtaken HMAS Perth. Hoisted the flag of At 2300 hours, once clear of the swept channel, both ships set course 080 degrees at 19 knots proceeding in the direction of New Caledonia to cover convoy and shipping movements.

At 1450 hours on 17 December 1941 aircraft from HMAS Canberra and HMAS Perth carried out an air search for USS Pensacola and Convoy 400Z Suva to Brisbane. HMAS Canberra's aircraft sustained minor damage whilst being recovered at sunset. At 2000 hours course was set for New Caledonia. On morning of Thursday 18 December 1941, HMAS Perth's aircraft carried out another search and was subsequently sent in to Noumea with signals.

At daylight on 18 December 1941, at a location about 15 miles south west of Amedee Light, HMAS Perth launched an aircraft for a reconnaissance of the north east coast of New Caldedonia between Tyo Pass and Cape Baye and the south west coast between St. Vincent's Pass and Port Buvai and returned at 0815 hours with nil found. The aircraft took off again at 1100 hours to take signals for transmission into Noumea and returned at 1545 hours. After the aircraft was recovered they proceeded to the south west.

At daylight on 19 December 1941 HMAS Perth altered course to the west and parted company with HMAS Canberra at 0630 hours. HMAS Canberra proceed south west to attempt to make contact with HMNZS Achilles. HMAS Canberra rejoined HMAS Perth at noon at position 22º 31' S 165º 36' E. They remained in this general area until 1630 hours when they then set course to the south west at 19 knots.

Just before noon on 19 December 1941, USS Pensacola sighted a ship on the horizon, which was soon identified as HMNZS Achilles, which joined the convoy not long past noon.

At 1230 hours HMAS Perth and HMAS Canberra altered course to the ESE at 21 knots. At 1840 hours they sighted the Pensacola Convoy now escorted by HMNZS Achilles to the ENE. HMAS Canberra, with Rear Admiral John G. Crace aboard, and HMAS Perth then joined with the convoy making a total of 11 ships.

HMAS Perth launched its aircraft at 0745 hours on 20 December 1941 for a reconnaissance to the north west. The aircraft returned at 1100 hours.

A suspicious ship was sighted to the south at about 1730 hours on 20 December 1941, but on investigation by HMAS Canberra  it was found to be the Free French ship A.M.C. "Cap Des Palmes" on its way from Noumea to Sydney. At 1840 hours that same day a firm Asdic contact was made and it was attacked with three depth charges. This was subsequently proved to have been a whale.

At 0426 hours on 21 December 1941, a single Curtiss SOC-1 Seagull floatplane catapulted for inner antisubmarine (AS) patrol.  The floatplane reported two ships approaching the convoy. HMAS Canberra left the convoy to investigate. At 0700 hours, the SOC-1 received proper identification that the two ships were the sloops HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego, clearly intended as AS escorts.

At 0645 hours on 21 December 1941, HMAS Perth launched its aircraft for an outer antisubmarine patrol ahead of the convoy. The aircraft was recovered at 0830 hours. Shore based RAAF Hudson aircraft (possibly from 23 Squadron RAAF) then took over to provide outer antisubmarine patrol cover. HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego then joined the convoy escort at 0940 hours.

 


Photo:- US Navy Photo #:80-G-5885

Curtiss SOC-1 Seagull Scout Observation floatplane

At 1001 hours on 21 December 1941, USS Pensacola catapulted a SOC-1 floatplane for a liaison flight to Brisbane. At 1046 hours a second SOC was catapulted for inner AS patrol. HMAS Canberra also dispatched an aircraft to Brisbane on the morning of Sunday 21 December 1941. At 1900 hours HMAS Canberra and HMNZS Achilles left the convoy escort and proceed to Brisbane.

At 0019 hours on 22 December 1941, USS Pensacola sighted the loom of the Cape Moreton Lighthouse on the northern tip of Moreton Island (loom is the diffuse light apparent before the actual light source is visible), estimated to be 49 miles away. At 0220 hours, radar picked up a surface craft at 29 miles distance. HMAS Perth informed that this was the escort sloop HMAS Moresby.

 

Moreton Lighthouse in 1951

At 0400 hours on 22 December 1941, HMAS Perth left the convoy escort to enter Brisbane harbour. At 0419 hours, USS Pensacola began launching aircraft.

At 0430 hours the convoy arrived at the outer end of the Brisbane searched channel. At 0503 hours, the convoy entered Moreton Bay.

At 0609 hours on 22 December 1941, Curtiss SOC-1 Seagull floatplane 5-CS-10 (Bu. No. 9977) of Detachment C of the Heavier Than Air Cruiser Scouting Squadron Five, Cruiser Division Five was launched from USS Pensacola for an anti-submarine patrol during the entry of the convoy into Moreton Bay. The Accident Report states that the aircraft was catapulted from USS Pensacola at 0558 hours, whereas the USS Pensacola records show it as 0609 hours.

At 0719 hours on 22 December 1941, USS Pensacola took aboard the Brisbane harbour pilot.

On the morning of Monday 22 December 1941, HMAS Canberra arrived in Moreton Bay and refuelled from the RAN fleet tanker "Falkefjell". At 0800 hours, HMAS Perth anchored in Moreton Bay and at 1100 hours it proceeded alongside the RAN fleet tanker "Falkefjell" which was already alongside HMAS Canberra.

USS Pensacola passed HMAS Perth and HMAS Canberra whilst coming into Brisbane at 1120 hours.

HMNZS Achilles left Brisbane at 1230 hours on Monday 22 December 1941 headed for Auckland, New Zealand.

The USS Pensacola moored alongside Newstead Wharf in Brisbane at 1247 hours on 22 December 1941 while the rest of the convoy remained anchored off the Pile Light in Moreton Bay.

 


Photo:- University of Queensland

Moreton Bay Pile Light

 

At 1300 hours, the alarm was raised when the Curtis SOC-1 Seagull had not returned to the USS Pensacola by 1030 hours. The aircraft was last seen at 0800 hours that day. At 1310 hours two other Curtiss SOC-1 Seagulls (5-CS-9 and 5-CS-12) were launched to conduct a search for the missing floatplane. Australian shore based aircraft also assisted with the search.

At 1420 hours on 22 December 1941, USS Pensacola began fueling from Newstead Wharf . At 1425 hours HMAS Swan and HMAS Warrego stood in. At 1610 hours USAT Meigs stood in.

HMAS Perth slipped from alongside the fleet tanker "Falkefjell" at 1645 hours on 22 December 1941 and proceeded to sea. HMAS Perth then rendezvoused with HMAS Canberra at the outer end of the searched channel at 2115 hours and headed SSE for Sydney at 16 knots.

The two other SOC-1 Seagulls returned from their search for the missing floatplane and were hoisted aboard USS Pensacola at 1813 hours and 1819 hours. The Royal Australian Navy District Naval Officer was also requested to assist in any possible way.

At 1851 hours on 22 December 1941, USS Pensacola had completed fueling, with 1565 barrels of oil taken onboard. The sailors from the USS Pensacola had a great time in Brisbane as they had escorted the first convoy to Australia from America and the Brisbane locals gave them a right royal welcome.

Between 0450 and 0456 hours on 23 December 1941, two SOC-1 Seagull floatplanes were hoisted out from USS Pensacola to search for the missing aircraft. Their search was again unsuccessful.

At 0800 hours on 23 December 1941, SS Coast Farmer stood in and moored. At 0923 hours on 23 December 1941, USS Pensacola left Newstead Wharf  and moored port side to Hamilton Wharf. At 0925 hours MV Bloemfontein stood in and moored. At 1020 hours USAT Willard A. Holbrook stood in and moored. At 1157 hours USS Pensacola hoisted in the two search aircraft. At 1250 hours USS Republic (AP 33) stood in and moored at Hamilton Wharf at 1331 hours and began disembarking the troops aboard at 1450 hours and soon began unloading cargo as well. This was not completed until Christmas Day.

The search for the missing floatplane was discontinued after an early morning search flight on 24 December 1941. The SOC floatplane was given up as lost. The loss of the aircraft was reported to the Secretary of the Navy via Cincpac.

The two aircrew lost in this accident were as follows:-

Ensign Robert F. Rogers A-V (N) United States Naval Reserve, Service No. 0-081562
RM1c Glen Dwayne Saxton, United States Navy, Service No. 3212801

The USS Pensacola carried four Curtiss SOC Seagulls.

At 0708 hours on 26 December 1941, USS Pensacola was underway out of the Brisbane River.

At 1000 hours on 26 December 1941, SOC's were catapulted for patrol and gunnery observation. Between 1358 hours and some time after 1600 hours, the main battery, secondary battery, and AA battery carried out battery practice. Recovery of the SOC-1 aircraft began at 1648 hours after the completion of the battery practice. After 1800 hours, machine gun training runs were undertaken, whilst the ship was zigzagging at 15 knots.

USS Pensacola arrived back in Brisbane at 1310 hours on 27 December 1941 alongside the Hamilton Cold Storage wharf.

At 1729 hours on 28 December 1941, the USS Pensacola was underway and stood out. She was joined at 2146 hours by transports USS Chaumont (AP 5) and USAT Willard A. Holbrook. 

At 1302 hours on 31 December 1941, USS Pensacola and the two transports were near Townsville in north Queensland when she launched a SOC-1 Seagull to deliver a message to Townsville. The aircraft was recovered at 1553 hours.

 At 0900 hours on 2 January 1942, the Dutch MV Bloemfontein caught up and joined with the convoy.

 At 0832 hours on 3 January 1942, the convoy entered the swept channel for passage through Torres Strait above Cape York. At 0846 hours USS Pensacola sighted USS Houston (CA 30) and several American DDs. At 0930 hours on 3 January 1942, USS Edsall (DD 219) joined astern of the column. At 1005 hours USS Houston relieved USS Pensacola as the convoy's heavy escort.

At 1019 hours on 3 January 1942 USS Pensacola anchored off Goode Island; in the Torres Strait and the Captain of USS Houston soon came aboard to exchange courtesies. At 1059 hours on 3 January 1942, USS Pensacola weighed anchor and began the return to Brisbane, whilst USS Houston and the rest of the convoy proceeded on to Darwin in the Northern Territory, Australia.

At 0827 hours on 7 January 1942, USS Pensacola moored again at Newstead Wharf in Brisbane. USS Pensacola was underway again later that same day at 1414 hours headed back to the States. At 1521 hours in open seas she streamed the bombing sleeve and at 1551 hours RAAF aircraft commenced practice bombing runs on the bombing sleeve. At 1610 hours, RAAF aircraft then commenced practice strafing runs. The 23 Squadron RAAF Operations Record Book shows that six Wirraway aircraft were engaged in Naval Co-operation exercises on 7 January 1942.

 


 

The Convoy's Cargo

 

The SS Coast Farmer carried some cargo but did not carry any aircraft.

The SS Admiral Halstead carried nearly 3,000 drums of high octane avgas.

M.S. Blomfontein carried 18 crated 24th Group P-40 Kittyhawks. One of the P-40E’s apparently lacked a Rudder. M.S. Blomfontein also carried the Headquarters, 26th Field Artillery Brigade, and 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, along with the latter’s organic artillery (12 M1897 75mm guns on modern split-trail, high-elevation M2 carriages) along with 48 M1917A1 75mm guns ("British 75s" on high-speed carriages) without gun crews, originally intended for the Luzon garrison. The 75 strong AVG P-40 outfit was also on board the M.S. Bloemfontein.

7th Bomb Group personnel were on the USS Republic.

The USAT Meigs was later sunk at Darwin on 19 February 1942. USAT Meigs carried 52 A-24's of the 27th Bomb Group (Light) in Brisbane.

U.S. Army Air Forces ground crews were also on board, along with aircraft disassembled in crates: 52 Douglas A-24 dive bombers and 18 Curtiss P-40 fighter planes.

The convoy was carrying a brigade from the U.S. Field Artillery Corps, made up of 4,600 National Guard (reserve) personnel:-

Material on board included: 20 off 75 mm field artillery pieces, AA ammunition, 2,000 500-lb bombs, 3,000 30-lb bombs, 340 motor vehicles, 9,000 barrels of aviation fuel, 500,000 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition and 9,600 rounds of 37 mm anti-aircraft shells.

The original intention was to send two battalions from the 147th Field Artillery Regiment (South Dakota) and two battalions from the 148th Field Artillery Regiment (Idaho), (i.e. two full regiments) but the 2nd Battalion, 148th Field Artillery, was not fully trained, so it was replaced by the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery Regiment from the Texas National Guard.

Many of the British 75mm guns in the Oahu garrison were also carried as cargo on the ships of the Pensacola convoy headed for Manila. They were not accompanied by gun crews and were intended simply to increase General MacArthur's fire power. He had requested 105mm howitzers but they were not available. The British 75mm stayed on board after the ships left Brisbane and were then taken to Java. Only one of the many guns was used at Java. It was used to replace a standard gun damaged by a Japanese air attack. All of the guns were later captured intact by the Japanese.

 

Casey to Evatt

Washington, 11 December 1941

Cablegram 1135

 

Secret

 

As you know a convoy of American ships is likely to be diverted to Brisbane carrying American personnel, aircraft and artillery, previous destination Philippines. You also realise that American Naval Forces  and Aircraft are likely to retire to Australia if forced from Philippines. It occurs to me that it would be good to suggest strongly to relevant American quarters here that a shipment of appropriate American ammunition, spare parts and bombs be sent to Australia at the earliest possible moment to enable abovementioned vessels, aircraft and weapons to be employed effectively from Australian bases if need be.

[AA: A 5954, Box 535]

 

The following "Most Secret" note was sent from Nankervis, the Secretary, of the Department of Navy (Australia) to Shedden, the Secretary of Defence Co-ordination (Australia):-

Nankervis

Melbourne, 12 December 1941

To Shedden

Note

 

Most Secret

I desire to forward information the following copy of a message which has been received by the Chief of Naval Staff [Royle] from the Australian Naval Attache, Washington [Harries]. The message is dated 11 December.

"Convoy 4002 (7 merchant ships) escorted by U.S. Cruiser Pensacola now in vicinity Fiji has been ordered to Brisbane. Contents include 2,400 United States Army Air Corps Troops, 2 Field Artillery Regiments, 52 A-24 Fighter Bombers, 38 Tomahawks (what we call a Kittyhawk). Further details equipment and subsequent disposal will be signalled later. Approximate date arrival 16-17 December Australian time.

[AA:A 5954, Box 535]

 

Another source states that there were approximately 70 crates of A-20 and A-24 aircraft on board. Many of these were sent to Amberley for assembly. Archerfield was then to receive later shipments of crated aircraft for assembly.

General Barnes, on board the USS Republic, was welcomed to Brisbane by Colonel Merle-Smith from the American Consulate in Melbourne. By 5 pm General Barnes and his officers had established their temporary Headquarters and their accommodation in the original Lennons Hotel in George Street.

Harries, the Australian Naval Attache in Washington sent a Cablegram to Royle. The Chief of Naval Staff, told Royle on 12 December 1941 to advise that that Brigadier General Julian F. Barnes, of the U.S. Army, who was on board the Pensacola convoy, was about to receive the following message.

......You are designated as Commander U.S. Troops in Australia which includes troops in your convoy, those already there and those to arrived in future......

......Contact General [MacArthur], U.S. Forces ... Far East at Manila and place your force under his direction, informing him of units, armaments and supplies included. Immediately on arrival have senior Air Force officers assemble and prepare for combat all planes. Make every effort to get these planes to Philippine Is. General MacArthur has been requested to send additional pilots to Australia if practicable. If he cannot do this, call ... Australian authorities who have been requested to assist. Before unloading other troops and equipment, consult Commanding Officer of your Naval Escort and C. in C. U.S. Asiatic Fleet to see if any possibility of moving troops to Philippine Is. If this is impracticable, unload and use your force and supplies as situation dictated with following [objectives] in mind: First[,] Aid defence of Philippine Islands. Second, Aid our Allies.  ....

[AA: A 5954, Box 535]

 

Casey to Evatt

Washington, 16 December 1941

 

Cablegram 1160

 

Most Secret

 

General MacArthur has telegraphed appreciation to the War Department, the gist of which is that the retention of the Philippines is the key to the Far Eastern situation. In consequence everything possible is to be done to reinforce the Philippines with fighting and heavy bombing aircraft. It is probably safer not to telegraph the proposed methods of so doing other than to say that, in the process, American fighter (P.40) and heavy bombing (B17 and possibly other) aircraft may be passing through Australia. These will be in addition to aircraft in convoy now approaching Australia of which you know. I have asked for notice of their probable arrival so that R.A.A.F. may be warned.

Above is also additional to heavy bombers which may be flown from Philippines to Australia for reconditioning and return.

United States army air corps is enquiring what air transportation (civil or otherwise) is available in Australia for transport of United States army air corps ground staff personnel, ammunition and bombs from Brisbane to Darwin ex abovementioned convoy. I have said this best discussed with Officer Commanding army air corps troops on arrival although I would relay enquiry as a warning to R.A.A.F. ...

[AA: A 5954, Box 535]

 

Another Cablegram (below) talks of 125 P-40 Tomahawks and 5 DC-3's being sent from California in December 1941 to Australia. From another source, I believe that the 4th Air Depot Group left San Francisco on 15 December 1941 on board the U.S. Army transport, President Coolidge, and arrived in Melbourne on 1 February 1942

 

Casey to Evatt

Washington, 17 December 1941

 

Cablegram 1163

 

Most Secret

 

....

United States is sending "in the next few days" two fast ships (President Polk and President Cooleridge) [sc. Coolidge] from the Californian coast to Australia, containing 125 P 40 fighter aircraft, 5 transport aircraft D.C. 3 type, together with United States Army Air Corps fourth mobile depot group of about 550 officers and men. Each aircraft will be accompanied by pilot, crew, observer and armourer. Above ships will also carry some ammunition and bombs. The mobile depot group will have hand tools and such other necessary maintenance equipment and machinery as the ships can carry. This depot group is to establish itself at the most appropriate place in Australia (they presume either Brisbane or Townsville) for the assembly of the above-mentioned and subsequent arriving aircraft. Subsequently about 35 or 40 P 40 fighter aircraft with pilots, bombers and ammunition may be expected monthly as reinforcements by subsequent ships.

All of the above fighter aircraft are destined on the present plans to fly to the Philippines via Darwin and appropriate stopping places.    ......

[AA: A 5954, Box 535]

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Nelson Lawry and David Rawlings for their assistance with this home page.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

"Australian War Strategy 1939 -1945"
By John Robertson & John McCarthy

"Gateway to Victory"
By Noel Tunny

"Fight Back from the North"
By Noel Tunny

 

 

 

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