The USS Asheville (PG-21) was a single-screw, steel-hulled gunboat that was laid down on 9 June 1918 at the Charleston, South Carolina, Navy Yard. The ship was launched on 4 July 1918 and was finally commissioned on 6 July 1920, with Lt. Commander Elliot Buckmaster in command (Buckmaster would later go on to fame as commander of the carrier USS Yorktown, CV-5, during World War II). The 241-foot Asheville had a crew of 185 and was armed with three 4-inch .50-caliber gun mounts as well as three 3-pounders. The Asheville was initially assigned to Cruiser Division 1, Cruiser Squadron 1, of the Atlantic Fleet and was based in Galveston, Texas. She made port visits to Tampa and Key West, Florida, as well as Havana, Cuba.
The Asheville was sent to Bluefields, Nicaragua, in August 1921 to “show the flag” and to help put down a revolution, but the local government was able to suppress the rebellion without the help of the US gunboat. She then went down to the Panama Canal, transited the Canal, and then spent the next few months operating off the Pacific coast of Central America. The ship was sent back to Charleston, South Carolina, via the Panama Canal on 10 January 1922, where she was converted from a coal-burning warship to an oil-burning one (the first ship of her type to undergo such a conversion). Then on 5 June 1922, the Asheville, now under the command of Commander James O. Richardson, was sent to join the US Asiatic Fleet via the Mediterranean. On this amazing trip the Asheville visited Bermuda, the Azores, Gibraltar, Malta, and Alexandria in Egypt, went through the Suez Canal, and then went on to Aden, Bombay, Colombo in Ceylon, and Singapore before finally reaching Cavite in the Philippines on 11 September 1922.
After spending a short time training off Corregidor while being based at Cavite, the Asheville was sent to Foochow, China, on 16 October 1922 with a contingent of marines on board. There was a lot of civil unrest in China at that time and the Asheville was sent to China to protect American lives and property, as well as to assist in the defense of the American consulates that were located there. Once the Asheville arrived in Foochow, the marines on board the ship were immediately sent to the American consulate. The gunboat then spent time visiting the ports of Tsingtao and Shanghai, making sure the local Chinese warlords knew that an American warship was in the area in case there was any civil unrest. After a brief trip to the Philippines in April 1923, the Asheville was sent back to China in May and was based in Hong Kong. From there the ship visited the ports of Swatow, Canton, Foochow, Amoy, and Yeung Kong. During this time there were a number of local rebellions and the Asheville sent her Marines ashore on several occasions to protect and assist American citizens and consulates. The Asheville would continue patrolling the coastal waters and rivers of China until 1929.
In 1929 the Asheville was sent back to the Panama Canal. From 5 August 1929 to 17 June 1931, the gunboat was ordered to Nicaragua on six separate occasions. Sailors and marines from the warship were sent ashore to protect American lives and property as local bandits terrorized coastal towns. In March 1932, though, the Asheville returned to the Asiatic Fleet where she resumed protecting American lives and property wherever there was trouble on the coast of China.
Tensions began to rise considerably in China with the start of the Sino-Japanese War in July of 1937. Though neutral, American warships were caught in a very hot war in China, with the US gunboats trying to protect as many American lives as possible. Japan was beginning to invade large portions of China and, even though the US Asiatic fleet was trying to guard American consulates and property, the situation was getting more and more untenable as the months, and then the years, dragged on. After spending the bulk of her life on the “China Station,” the Asheville was finally ordered to return to the Philippines. On 5 July 1941, the Asheville left Chinese waters for the last time and steamed back to Manila.
The Commander in Chief of the US Asiatic Fleet, Admiral Thomas C. Hart, had some tough decisions to make after war with Japan started on 7 December 1941. One of them was what to do with old gunboats like the Asheville. Since these gunboats had neither the speed nor the guns to fight any modern Japanese surface warships or submarines, he assigned them to the Inshore Patrol based in Manila, where they remained on local patrol duty for the next few days. After the Japanese started bombing the Cavite Navy Yard on 10 December, Admiral Hart sent Asheville, as well as a number of other American surface warships, south from the Philippines to Balikpapan, Borneo, and then to Surabaya, Java, where she arrived on 28 December 1941. The Philippines could no longer be defended by sea, so a last stand was to be made in Java. The Asheville was based at Tjilatjap, on the southern coast of Java, but there was little use for her there.
As the months passed, the situation was getting increasingly desperate on Java. On 1 March 1942, Vice Admiral William A. Glassford, Commander, Southwest Pacific Force (formerly the US Asiatic Fleet), ordered all of the remaining American warships to retreat to Australia. The Asheville, under the command of Lt. Jacob W. Britt, left Tjilatjap on 1 March 1942 and was headed for Fremantle, Australia. At 0615 on 2 March, the gunboat Tulsa (ironically the sister ship to the Asheville) sighted a ship and identified her as the Asheville. On 3 March the Asheville radioed that it was “being attacked” about 300 miles south of Java. The radio transmission was received by the minesweeper USS Whippoorwill (AM-35). The ship turned and headed towards the Asheville’s position, which was some 90 miles away. But when a second radio transmission was received by the Whippoorwill stating that the Asheville was being attacked by a surface vessel, the captain of the minesweeper, Lt. Commander Charles R. Ferriter, concluded that, “Any surface vessel that could successfully attack the Asheville would be too much” for his own poorly-armed minesweeper, so he ordered his ship to continue its voyage to Australia. The Asheville was never heard from again.
The Asheville was presumed lost and was stricken from the Navy list on 8 May 1942. It wasn’t until after World War II that the US Navy found out what had happened to the Asheville. A survivor of the heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30) stated that he had met in a Japanese prison camp 18-year-old Fireman 1st Class Fred L. Brown, who had been in the Asheville’s fireroom when a Japanese surface force under Vice Admiral Kondo Nobutake had attacked the ship on 3 March 1942. The Japanese destroyers Arashi and Nowaki attacked the Asheville and pummeled her with numerous hits, destroying the bridge and the forecastle. When Brown reached topside to abandon ship, most of the men he saw on deck were dead. Brown jumped in the water and a sailor on one of the Japanese destroyers threw him a line, which Brown held on to. He was then pulled on board the ship. Fred Brown was put into a Japanese prison camp, but the Asheville’s only survivor died in captivity on 18 March 1945.
The Asheville was the classic gunboat, designed to protect American lives and property in different parts of the world, from Central America to China. Gunboats were never really intended to fight other warships, but they were perfect for “showing the flag” and attacking coastal targets that had no naval protection. They performed tough and hazardous jobs with little recognition and even less gratitude from a Navy that was far too busy to even notice them, let alone honor them. They held the line in parts of the world that few Americans had ever even heard of, much less been to. Yet they did their job with the utmost professionalism under very difficult circumstances. Unfortunately, when World War II finally erupted in the Pacific these ships were forced to fend for themselves since there were no modern ships out there to help them. A few survived, but many were sunk and, like the Asheville, were never heard from again.
Figure 1 (top): “First USS Asheville,” Walter Ashe Collection, D.H. Ramsey Library, Special Collections, UNC Asheville 28804. Click on picture for larger image.
Figure 2 (middle): USS Asheville in China, date and place unknown. Photo Credit: Scott McCoy. Click on picture for larger image.
Figure 3 (bottom): USS Asheville in Hong Kong, 1924, while serving as flagship of Commander, South China Patrol. The owner of this photograph served as a radioman in this ship at the time and has written her radio call letters, “NELV,” on the print. Collection of Henry J. Poy, US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on picture for larger image.