Thursday, June 30, 2022

In the Collection: USS San Pablo Bell Remnant

By Nick Wieman
HRNM Intern

Pictured here is a remnant of the original bell from USS San Pablo (AVP 30), a Barnegat-class seaplane tender in service with the US Navy between 1943 and 1969. Rear Admiral Stuart H. Smith, Supply Corps, USN (Ret.) donated this bell to the Museum in 1990. Smith served aboard San Pablo as a “plank owner,” meaning he was with the ship since its commissioning. According to Smith, this ship’s bell has the ignoble distinction of having been destroyed not by the Japanese, but by San Pablo’s crew itself!
Front view, USS San Pablo bell remnant. “U.S.S/San Pablo/1943” (HRNM)
When standing upright on its base, the bell fragment measures 11.25” in length, 4.5” in width from the lip (bottom of the bell), and 9” in height; as this plaque is made up of the ship’s bell cut in half, when in service the bell would have measured a total of 9” in width. It appears to be constructed of brass or bronze, which over time has dulled into a sort of beige. It prominently features a molded with “U.S.S/SAN PABLO/1943”, with a reddish-brown metal inset. The bell is set in a wood base, painted black, with a green felt cover on the bottom and a reddish sticker on the back.
Top view, USS San Pablo bell remnant (HRNM)
Overall, the bell is in good condition, if showing its age. The lettering in the inscription is severely cracked, showing the discolored metal underneath. The paint on the wood base is fading and flaking in places, the green felt base has several holes showing the unpainted wood underneath, and the wood itself is chipped and scratched.

The ship’s bell has had a long history in the world’s navies for both functional and ceremonial purposes, and the United States Navy is no different. The bell can serve many functional purposes aboard a vessel, from warning signals in poor visibility to alerting the crew to a fire on board. Until the invention of modern time-keeping devices like the chronometer, the bell and an hourglass were the only means of accurately recording time at sea, with the bell being rung every half hour. From this, the bell’s most common function in modern navies is to mark the passage of time during a ship’s watch, with eight rings signaling the end of a four-hour watch. The bell also continues to be rung to mark the arrival and departure of the captain, officers, and important guests aboard the ship.

By representing a tradition dating back to the earliest days of the Age of Sail, the ship’s bell provides a sense of continuity for Sailors in modern navies with their nautical forebears. The importance of the ship’s bell cannot be overstated. Most dramatically, bells are often used in baptisms for children of the crew, either held aloft above the child or as a baptismal font (a vessel for holy water). The children’s names are then inscribed inside the bell, forever linking the child and their parents to the ship. The U.S. Navy’s ships’ bells are also unique for being permanently owned by the Department of the Navy. Once a ship is decommissioned, the bells are often loaned to state governments or national parks with some connection to the ship on which it served.
USS San Pablo (AVP 30), one week before commissioning (Wikipedia)
Commissioned March 15, 1943, the Navy dispatched USS San Pablo from the Puget Sound to San Diego, and then to Brisbane, Australia, to receive its flight crews and begin its mission. As a seaplane tender, San Pablo was a critical partner of the “Black Cats,” PBY Catalinas and PBM Mariner seaplanes engaged in night-fighting, reconnaissance, and search-and-rescue operations for downed pilots in the South Pacific Theater; their name comes from their black paint schemes for camouflage in the night sky. San Pablo was based out of Noumea, New Caledonia, and Samarai, Papua New Guinea, alongside Patrol Squadron 101 (VP-101) and Patrol Squadron 52 (VP-52), together forming Task Force 73.1. Between summer 1943 and fall 1944, San Pablo patrolled the waters of the Bismarck Seas supporting the men of VP-101 and VP-52, returning once to Brisbane in October 1943 for maintenance and shore leave. In late 1944, USS San Carlos (AVP 51) relieved San Pablo, and San Pablo went to Anibongen Bay on Leyte Island, Philippines, to assist with anti-submarine operations.
Sister ship USS Timbalier, shown for size comparison with two PBM Mariners (Wikipedia)
In late December 1944, San Pablo was attached to a supply convoy enroute to Mindaro when it came under severe and sustained attack by Japanese kamikaze aircraft. For up to a week, San Pablo and the other ships fought off the aircraft with heavy anti-aircraft fire and support from escorting planes. It was during this engagement, according to Smith, that the ship’s bell was “shattered by the intensity of our own defensive fire.” While San Pablo was not damaged during this period, a kamikaze plane narrowly missed the ship astern. That same plane hit the nearby USS Orestes, and four crewmen were wounded by shrapnel from the resulting explosion.
USS San Pablo (AGS 30) in oceanographic service (Wikipedia)
While set to be deactivated following the surrender of Japan, the ship received a new lease on life when the Navy recommissioned it as a hydrographic research vessel in 1948. Between 1948 and 1969, USS San Pablo (AGS 30) undertook a wide range of oceanographic studies in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, from measuring the vast Gulf Stream current to developing more accurate topographical maps of the ocean floor. San Pablo’s service came to an end on May 29, 1969, and the ship was struck from the Navy’s registry on June 1. It was briefly owned by the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (affiliated with the University of Georgia) before being sold to a private citizen. Its final fate is unknown, although it can be presumed that San Pablo was scrapped.

Smith’s description of the incident, brief as it is, allows the reader to envision a truly chaotic scene. “The intensity of our own defensive fire” conjures images of burning ships and a smoke-filled sky, the deafening roars of anti-aircraft guns and aircraft screaming past or colliding with ships, and the smells of hot brass and oily smoke filling the air. In such an environment where the anti-air crew frantically whipped their guns about and raked the skies against Japanese aircraft, it’s easy to see how the bell could have become accidentally shattered by a stray bullet or shrapnel. It also speaks to the respect that the crew had for their ship that they salvaged what they could of the bell and preserved it in some form.

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