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Saturday, June 15, 2019
SS Eastern (2)

“The last vessel to escape Wake Island before Japanese forces captured the island”

In the early morning of 8 December 1941 (7 December on the east side of the International Date Line), three warnings had been issued over the radio. Captain Oscar Rolstad, master of the US flag Motor Tug Arthur Foss owned by Foss Launch & Tug Company, then decided to forego roping-off fuelling and immediately take the tug and her tow to sea.

Twelve hours out of Wake Island, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was received and Japanese naval air forces simultaneously attacked Wake Island. The good Captain was acutely aware of the likelihood of being bombed or torpedoed. Painted in highly visible Foss colors of bright green hull and trim with white deck house, he said the Arthur Foss and tow was a ripe target “standing out like a chain of coral islands on an empty sea”.

While underway, the crew hastily mixed all the white paint on board with engine grease to repaint the tug a dark grey to help blend in with the ocean. All lights were blacked out and Arthur Foss proceeded under radio silence. Still towing the two barges at barely more than walking speed, the crew debated whether they should head for Alaska or Hawaii. No one was certain if they had enough fuel to reach either place or whether when or if they arrived, they would find the enemy in control.

The decision was made to follow original orders and head for Honolulu, a distance of 2,004 nautical miles, at a reduced speed to conserve as much fuel as possible. Arthur Foss and tow were spotted by US Naval scout planes and escorted into Pearl Harbor on 28 December 1941 arriving with an estimate of only 500 gallons of fuel. Due to the reduced speed of the voyage, they were a week overdue and presumed missing in action.

The Arthur Foss was the last vessel to escape Wake Island before Japanese forces captured the island on 23 December 1941. Admiral Claude Bloch, USN, at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base, cited the crew for action beyond the call of duty.

The Arthur Foss was built in 1889 at Portland, Oregon as the steam tug Wallowa and is likely now the oldest wooden tugboat afloat in the world

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - May 2019 Issue
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