In mid 1943, the first 303-foot, Tacoma class patrol frigate, or PF, joined the fleet. These ships were originally classified as Gunboats [PG] until the PF classification was establish in 1945. All but two of them were manned by Coast Guard crews. They were not Coast Guard Cutters in the true sense of the meaning but U.S. Navy ships manned by Coast Guard crews. The frigates were mass-produced escort vessels that were designed during a time when, in the Atlantic, U-boats were sinking freighters, tankers, and warships faster than the Allies could replace them. The Coast Guard, under an agreement with the Navy, manned a total of 75 of these warships. They began entering service in late 1943, a time that saw the U-boat threat abate and the frigates were therefore assigned to other duties, including service throughout the Pacific Theater.
Tacoma class ships bore some resemblance to USN destroyer escorts in size and layout, but were considered inferior due to their structural weakness and larger turning radius. They were also hot below decks, but the design compromises giving rise to these shortcomings enabled mercantile yards such as Kaiser Richmond to turn out large numbers of escorts.
Tacoma Class frigates, based on the British-designed River class, were ocean escorts built in US Maritime Commission yards. These yards built ships to merchant rather than military standards. The first two units, acquired from the British, were sisters of the Canadian-built River class which became the 1st American frigates. The River design was adapted to US mass production techniques and equipped with triple expansion steam engines. The resulting Tacoma class could be distinguished from British River class vessels by the prominent pole foremast (River class frigates had a tripod foremast) and heavier gun armament.
The apparently insatiable demand for anti-submarine vessels in 1942 led the Navy to utilize merchant shipyards for their construction. These yards were not thought capable of building ships such as DEs to naval standards, so the British River-class frigate design, similar to the DEs, was modified for American construction techniques. Shipyards in California and on the Great Lakes received contracts for 69 of these ships in 1942; ultimately, 96 were built, 21 of which were transferred to the Royal Navy. They were laid down as gunboats (PG) and later redesignated frigates (PF) - the frequently used term patrol frigate is erroneous, based on the mistaken assumption that each letter in the designation must stand for a word.
Actually, PF simply indicated that frigates were vessels of the patrol type, as opposed to the DEs, which, built to naval standards and most carrying torpedo tubes, were destroyer type ships. The frigate program was plagued by delays; only 12 had been completed before the end of 1943, by which time more than 200 DEs were in commission and the Allies were winning the Battle of the Atlantic. Thus, the Coast Guard was made responsible for manning 75 of the no longer essential frigates. Only two Canadian-built River-class vessels had Navy crews. After the frigates were completed, their entry into service was often delayed by alignment problems with their triple-expansion reciprocating engines. Some had their main engines rebuilt after failing trials or during post-shakedown availability.
The California-built frigates were ready first. Eighteen of them reported to the 7th Fleet in the Southwest Pacific in 1944, where they were joined by four of their Great Lakes sisters. For the remainder of the year, they escorted convoys, made anti-submarine patrols, and occasionally provided fire support for American and Australian troops advancing westward along the northern coast of New Guinea and landing on islands offshore.
The Coast Guard manned and operated these rather unusual ships during World War II in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans - they were unusual in that they had two firerooms generating steam for two large triple-expansion steam engines with all machinery, such a force-draft blowers, anchor engines and steering engines, all of them being single cylinder steam engines - the only variation was the two turbine-driven generators furnishing electric power for ships utilities. The ships were twin screw with twin rudders making them extremely easy to handle provided one allowed for the high bow, the low stern and the vagaries of the wind. With those characteristics, the ships were dry forward and wet aft.
By 1944 nearly half the units of this class had been transferred to the Soviet Union.
The USSs Bisbee and Gallup put rangers ashore on islands in the approaches to Leyte Gulf at the beginning of the Philippines invasion, and eight of their sister ships were among the escorts that brought the first reinforcement convoys to Leyte. The frigates were detached for duty elsewhere early in 1945 when faster steam-powered DEs with more effective armament joined the 7th Fleet. The remaining 12 California-built ships performed training and patrol duties in Alaskan waters and the eastern Pacific.
Most of the Great Lakes frigates served in the Atlantic, a number escorting convoys to and from the Mediterranean. Several operated temporarily with task groups investigating reported U-boat activity, and on one such mission the USS Moberly shared credit with a Navy DE for the destruction of the U-853 off Narragansett Bay in May 1945. By that time, many of the frigates were being converted for weather-patrol duty, for which they were quite suitable because of their endurance and sea kindliness - they were much more comfortable in a seaway than DEs. The conversion involved the replacement of the after three-inch gun by a small deckhouse for inflating weather balloons. Forty-four of the ships were so fitted, manning weather stations in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
Those serving in the Atlantic after VE Day had their decks and bridge structures painted bright yellow to make them more readily visible to aircraft on transatlantic flights, a form of reverse camouflage that did little for the ships' appearance.
Following the end of the war, most of the patrol vessel fleet having outlived it's usefulness was either sold to Allied countries, mothballed or sold for scrap. By late 1970 all patrol vessels were stricken from the Naval Register.
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