When Rita Piette visited Hawaii a little while back, she intended and expected to see the Pearl Harbor Memorial. What she didn’t expect was the reaction from some of the Navy veterans she met when she told them that the North Kingstown company …
When Rita Piette visited Hawaii a little while back, she intended and expected to see the Pearl Harbor Memorial. What she didn’t expect was the reaction from some of the Navy veterans she met when she told them that the North Kingstown company she worked for owned and operated the last working survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago.
“They couldn’t believe it was still around,” said Piette. “When I told them we still used it, they were amazed. Some of them actually cried.”
What those Pearl Harbor veterans were marveling at was “The Hawk,” the official tugboat of Specialty Diving Services, a marine construction company headquartered at Quonset Point.
Some time after the war, YT-153 was put on a larger boat and shipped to New Jersey. After working the waterfronts of that state, a marine building and repair company in Galilee brought the tug to Point Judith. The tug was called the Hawk by the time Specialty brought it to Quonset in 1995.
But on December 7, 1941, the Hawk was still YT 153, a U.S. Navy tugboat built in 1940 and stationed at Pearl Harbor at the outbreak of America’s war with Japan. YT 153 may well be the first and possibly the only tugboat that ever tried to sink a submarine. Specialty’s CEO, Nick Tanionos keeps a loose-leaf binder in his office that contains pictures of the Hawk and a weathered copy of the log that was written by Boatswain’s mate Ralph Holzhaus, who was at the wheel of the tug that morning.
“At 0645, The YT-153, which was the duty tug, got underway with pilot OTTERSON, for entrance buoys to bring in the USS ANTARES. When we were about five hundred yards past buoy #4 my engineer said, "aren't those funny looking planes. I believe they are Japanese planes. There is a big red ball on every one of them.
I then became alert and looked aft to see a bomb explode in the vicinity of the Hickam field Hangers. The crew and myself were stunned for a moment. In a very few seconds there seemed to be planes all around us. The first actual thing I saw fall was a small yellow training plane, which I believe was from the John Rogers Air Port. At that moment pilot OTTERSON ordered me to come about, and return to YardCraft. When I was steady on the reverse course, all I could see was smoke and fire. We sure thought every thing was finished for the 153, for at that moment a plane machine gunned at us, missing by about 15 feet to starboard. I am sure he would have gotten us if it had not been for a four motored bomber with a U.S. insigna, that was just coming in for a landing. The "Jap" then turned his [guns] on the bomber, to our relief. I then looked out to port, and saw another yellow plane hit the water.
Pilot Otterson then ordered me to steam closer to shore. We all put on life jackets, and cut loose the life raft for use. We steamed along towards Ford Island, and all had a good session of swearing. We could see that the Navy Yard and Ford Island were both catching hell. When just about even with the hospital, Ludwig, who was stationed next to me with a pair of binoculars spotted a periscope, going around buoy #19, towards north channel. All I could think of was to run him down, and after him we went. When I thought I had him he pulled his periscope down. The water being kind of murky, I couldn't see him below. I cruised around slow hoping he would raise his periscope again. When we were up to about even with F-10, I looked back to see the Curtis and Medusa, firing into the water. I couldn't watch, as I had to steer the tug through all the timbers and drifts from the UTAH, who was on the starboard side down.”
Holzhaus later learned that the other ships did manage to sink the miniature submarine that snuck into the harbor the night before. The miniature sub was another example of the Japanese military commissioning weapons with a high regard for tactical advantage and almost no regard for human safety. The sub had a crew of two and was brought to Hawaii aboard a full-sized submarine and released, along with several others, the night before the planes attacked the sub’s mission was to sink ships that were trying to escape from the harbor in the middle of the channel with the hope of bottling up the fleet for months as the Japanese launched their conquest of Dutch, British and America territory in the far east.
What Holzhaus and his crew did was to attempt to tow ships out of the channel to keep it clear.
Holzhaus and every other tugboat crewmember worked endlessly for days after, towing, rescuing, fighting fires and providing first aid to the wounded. Tanionos’s binder also has a timeline that Holzhaus put together to describe sequence of events after the attack:
“Sun. Dec. 7, 1941.
0645-Underway for entrance buoy. Pilot #1 to assist ANTARES TO port.
0720-Buoy #1 Rapue, MM1c., sighted Japanese dive bombers diving at Hickam field.
0725-Observed Jap plane shoot down yellow cub training plane.
0726-Came about to return to Yard Craft on orders from Pilot Otterson.
0730-Jap plane shot down second yellow civilian training plane. Jap plane machine gunned Y.T. 153. No hits. Bullets paralled tug 15 feet to starboard. Same plane then attacked four motored bomber coming in for landing at Hickam Field.
0745-LUDWIG, BM2c sighted submarine periscope about 2 feet above water at buoy #19 heading into north channel. Changed course to run down periscope. When about 50 yards from periscope it was pulled down. Slowed speed on same course. Periscope did not show again.
0755-Moorings F10N observed gunfire from CURTIS & MEDUSA into water apparently at submarine. DD 354 then steamed over spot.”
According to some historians, the attempt to ram the submarine forced it to the surface. A newspaper story written about Holzhaus long after the event claimed that the tug actually did ram the submarine, causing damage that forced the conning tower up out of the water. But that’s not likely. The log of that day would have hardly mentioned the attempt to run down the sub without mentioning that it actually hit it.
But that does not detract from the YT-153’s story of courage of and stamina contained in the verified details of what all the tugboats did at Pearl Harbor and the extraordinary efforts they made to save lives and ships.
Two other Pearl Harbor tugs survive. YT-142, also known as the Nokomis, is now in the care of the Historic Tugboat Education and Restoration Society in San Francisco. YT-146, the Hoga also survived but it faces an uncertain future in spite of efforts by enthusiasts to find it a permanent berth. Only the Hawk is still making a living for itself.
Later that day, YT 153 joined the fire brigade around the USS Nevada and turned her hose on the ship’s bridge, took aboard some of Nevada’s wounded and patched them up with the boat’s first aid kit. YT 153 had within the space of a few hours performed as a tug, fireboat, a submarine hunter, and finally a floating clinic.
More importantly, by getting the Nevada out of the channel, the tugboats robbed the Japanese of the chance to block Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor was a vital base for the efforts to turn back the Japanese. More importantly, Pearl became a rallying point for Americans as news of the heroic crews of all the American ships in Hawaii got back to the states and woke, as Admiral Yamamoto, the chief planner of the attack said ominously to his staff, “We have awakened a sleeping giant.”
Inexplicably, the Japanese virtually ignored huge tanks of oil being reserved in Hawaii. If they had taken out those tanks of oil, the war in the pacific would have lasted much longer than it did. Within two years, the Japanese were retreating in the Pacific, making their victory at Pearl Harbor one of the hollowest achievements in military history.
Holzhaus was later promoted to Lieutenant and awarded the Bronze Star for his actions as Commanding Officer of the LST-914 during the amphibious assault against Inchon, Korea, in 1950. He retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant in 1952, after which he became a policeman in his native Arizona town.
He honored the past of the YT-153 with the future he made for himself.
And, still, the Hawk continues to work for a living, pulling construction barges and heavy equipment around Narragansett Bay.
“We’re getting her ready now for painting,” said crewman John Roche last week. “She needs to get painted about once a year.”
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