May 5, 1945
It seemed like any another day at sea for the crew of the USS Atherton. The ship’s deck was buzzing with naval dialect as it diligently patrolled the ocean just off the New York coast. But this was no ordinary affair in the sea. The world had been at war, the largest in human history, for more than five years.
The US Navy was on high alert for German U-boats, and the USS Atherton was just one in a fleet of US ships assuming anti-submarine role on this side of the Atlantic. Never before had the United States been more vulnerable to attack by the Nazis. The U-boats, hunting in what is known as “wolf packs”, were credited for sinking more than 4500 military and civilian ships from the Allied forces. And they had reached the other side of the Atlantic–-ready to attack coastal towns and cities at any moment.
From the vantage of their periscopes, U-boat crewmen could see the bright lights of Manhattan. With a click of a button, they could launch high-powered torpedoes towards the unwitting public killing hundreds in an instant.
But the likes of the USS Atherton posed as an effective deterrent to these underwater killing machines. And today was no exception.
The U-boat, U-853, had just torpedoed the Boston Collier “Black Point”. The USS Atherton, on its way from New York to Boston, responded to emergency calls and tracked down the sub. Spotting it just eight miles off the coast of Block Island, RI, the ship quickly launched four depth charges. Moments later, “pieces of broken wood, cork, mattresses, and an oil slick broke the surface”, according to Wikipedia.org. They had sunk the last remaining Nazi submarine in American waters. The sub perished in to the depths along with all of its crew.
A few hours later, on the eastern side of the Atlantic, thousands of Europeans celebrated freedom from the Axis powers. This would be known in history as VE Day.
For her heroic action in the sea, the USS Atherton DE 169 was awarded one battle star. Her crew, meanwhile, received a bronze star for their courageous efforts.
On December 10, 1945, the US Navy decommissioned the Atherton and placed it in reserve at Green Cove Springs, Florida. She would be put back to service a decade later as part of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force where she would sail for 20 years as JDS Hatsuhi.
Japan sent her back to the United States in 1975.
Today, she is the flagship of the Philippine Navy with the official title of BRP Rajah Humabon (PF-11), after the datu of Cebu at the time of Ferdinand Magellan’s “discovery” of the Philippine archipelago in 1521.
One of the world’s oldest warships still in operation, BRP Rajah Humabon was acquired by the Philippine government in 1976 and was unveiled, after extensive overhauling and retrofitting, in 1980 as part of the Philippine Navy.
Her history with the Philippines supersedes a colorful life as a World War II destroyer. For years, BRP Rajah Humabon has patrolled the seas surrounding the nation, enforcing the archipelago’s sovereignty.
But does the ship remain to be an effective naval article?
BRP Rajah Humabon mirrors the overarching military capability of the country–riddled with outdated weapons and equipment. Modernization programs within the military are hampered by a culture of self-entitlement particularly at the commanding level.
In recent days, China has become more active in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) sending survey ships and reconnaisance planes to the Spartly and Paracel Islands, at times committing territorial incursions. The country has also put up permanent structures on some of the outcroppings, ostensibly laying claim to the island chain.
For this, China has earned the ire of countries which also hold stake to whole or part of this vast body of water. Vietnam and the Philippines in particular have been very vocal of the outright violation of international maritime law committed by the economic giant.
Local politicians have called for boycott of China-made products, a chant seemingly futile in nature. Others tread the line in a more diplomatic sense saying that increased trade between the country and China will do relations better.
Then, a few days ago, China sent its biggest maritime patrol vessel to the area on its way to Singapore. This prompted the Philippines to “flex its muscle” and send its biggest and only warship on patrol to the Scarborough Shoal. But this is part of BRP Rajah Humabon’s duty–to patrol the country’s waters–and is in no way a show of force, says military officials. For if it were a show of force, China could easily outsize our military resources.
But despite the country’s abridged defense assets, we make up with resourcefulness and experience. Not only are our troops battle-hardened from decades-long communist insurgency, they are also seasoned emergency and disaster respondents–a role that is part of its mandate under the Internal Peace and Security Program. Despite BRP Rajah Humabon’s representation of our military shortcomings, the ship and her crew also epitomizes will, courage and strength against all odds.
This may yet be another season in the long history of BRP Rajah Humabon, of whose status deserve immortalization as a veteran of the seas and a protector of Philippine sovereignty–a stark contrast to the life led by the U-boat she sank 66 years ago.
Today, the U-853 is a popular deep sea diving site resting under 37 meters of water. Fifty-five of its crew remain inside, a poignant reminder to divers of its rich yet grim history.
With information from Wikipedia.org, http://www.navy.mil.ph and ussathertonde169.com