Thursday, January 3

IDing a WWII Ship

     Longtime readers of this brand new blog will recall that I once promised a post about a World War II U.S. Navy submarine chaser. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on how you look at it) I was sidetracked by my encounter with Bill, then by an old photo album I received for Christmas. But today I hope to begin to right that long forgotten wrong.

     I'm still researching the history of the ship in this image (which I bought for $1 at a store called Cool Stuff Weird Things). But in order to get to that point, I had to first figure out the class (type) of ship using only the clues available in the image. Clearly the number "1277" jumps out as a potential lead, so that's where I decided to start my search...

     Now is a good time to mention that I know next to nothing about naval operations or history. As far as WWII goes, I have a decent understanding of the major naval engagements in both main theaters and their context within the war. But before I bought this photo, specifics like "what the numbers on the side of a ship mean" were never something I had studied. (They weren't big on covering the inner-workings of the military at the Quaker college I attended...)
     Stupidly hoping that this might have been the only ship designated "1277" used by the U.S. Navy during the war, I began by searching for "USS 1277". This was dumb of me as the U.S. fleet grew to be MASSIVE during WWII. Ships of various classes had been assigned the number - it alone would not be able to take me any further in my research.
     Next, I went to the back of the image. On it were two distinct lines of handwritten text...

2nd Line reads "4th from flag is Walter H Sullivan"
     It may seem as though I've chosen to ignore the fist line of text, which reads "No For Publication". If it does, it's because that's exactly what I've done. This is a crew photograph, taken at (or near) the beginning of their deployment. The first line was most likely written by some Navy bureaucrat before it was even given to the sailor. I'm pretty sure the publication embargo on this photo has been lifted sometime since the war.
     And speaking of the sailor to whom this photo was given, I'd say the second line makes it pretty clear that it once belonged to Walter H. Sullivan. Unfortunately for my purposes, Walter H. Sullivan is a fairly common name. Googling variations of the name proved to be a case of information overload. Adding "1277" into the mix didn't help either. It would have been nearly impossible to find the Walter H. Sullivan I was looking for until I knew more about the specifics of his military service. But that was what I was hoping he would lead me to, so it was another dead end.
     At this point, I realized I would need to use more subtle details within the photo to determine the ship's class. I started by looking at the crew...

     From the make up of the crew, I knew that the ship was of a smaller class-size. Four officers and twenty enlisted men is a small crew and a small crew would serve on a small ship. Still, I was able to get a little bit more specific than that by using the crew as a reference to approximate the length of the bow (front) deck.
     If the average person is roughly 2-feet-wide and there are 20 people in the front row, then a very rough estimate for the length of the bow deck is around 40 feet. (And the ship would be at least double that, so I was probably looking for something in the 80-120 foot range.) It's not a very scientific process, I'll admit, but it helped me have a general ballpark measurement for comparison later on.
     At this point, I began to wonder about the actual measurements of WWII naval vessels. A quick search and I found the technical drawings from the Office of Naval Intelligence ID recognition manual that was issued during the war. Alas, all the ships featured on the site were too big to be the ship in my photo but I still wasted a bunch of time there. (Couple of my favorites - Tennessee & Fuso) I also learned that I would probably need to identify the ship from a profile view, so I turned my attention to the ship's railing...

     In many of the drawings from the recognition manual, I had noticed that the railing was not a gradual slope to the bow. Some were stair-stepped or more angular, so I counted this among potential identifiers. Plus, I thought that the guide wire might be distinctive as well.

     At the very tip of the bow is a small flagpole. At first, I thought it would be another good ID landmark. But I came to realize that it might not appear on a diagrammed version of the ship. For my purposes, the presence or lack of a small flag pole in the diagram would not preclude a given ship from my search. So I moved on.

The floodlights indicate that this ship was used on night patrol
     Unlike the flagpole, I did put emphasis on the box-like cabin structure and single mast. It was a very simple design. Knowing that would help me to eliminate more complicated looking vessels from my search. If I didn't see that 90 degree box-shape in a profile, or if I saw more than one mast, I knew I could eliminate that class.
     By combining those various details, I knew I was looking for a ship that met the following details:

-bow deck of approximately 40 ft. (roughly 80-120 ft. total)
-gradual, smooth-sloping bow railings
-simple, box structure with 90 degree angle
-single mast (possibly with lots of rigging)

     Some further searching lead me to a WWII history site called and its wonderful U.S. Minor Combatant Types-Naval Ships page. Matching the diagrams against the list of details I had compiled, I narrowed my search down to four classes. After a Google image search for each class; PC-Submarine Chaser, LCI-Infantry Landing Craft, PCE-Patrol Escort and SC-Submarine Chaser, I was fairly confident I had found my match.

     The ship in my photo was most likely an SC. The diagram had the sloped railings, the guide wires, the box-like cabin and a single mast. So, of course, my next search was to combine the SC class with 1277. And the very first result was this page (perhaps you'll recognize the first image when you scroll down.)
     Finally, I had found the ship. It was the U.S.S. SC-1277.
This post has already gone longer than I had planned, so I'm going to stop here for now. Sometime soon I'll follow up with more about the SC-1277, the history of WWII sub chasers and the next phase of my search. In the meantime, I'm always looking for more input. Please feel free to leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comment section.

1 comment:

  1. I posted the photos of the 1277 on the page you found. My grandfather Clifford Davis served on her during WWII. I have additional photos of her and the crew along with some copies of passenger manifests. I wish there was some way to match the names to the photos. Thank you for posting the photo of the ship. My grandfather's copy was damaged.