History of SS VERNON S. HOOD/USS WATCHMAN (AGR-16)
Displacement: 10, 760 tons
Maritime Commission Contract (MCE) hull 2343
WATCHMANs keel was laid on January 17, 1945 at the
Wainwright yard of the
J.A. Jones Construction Co., in Panama City, FL. She was launched a little
over a month later as the SS VERNON S. HOOD on February 20, 1945.
Vernon S. Hood (1917-1943) was a merchant seaman lost on the SS JOHN DRAYTON, which was torpedoed by the Italian submarine "Leonardo Da Vinci" off Durban, South Africa in 1943 (from THE LIBERTY SHIPS by R. Deschamps)
Her sponsor was Inez Bulifant who was the wife of the yards General Superintendant of Platen, I.V. Bulifant. She was assisted by Mrs. Hugh Gingras of Jacksonville and her daughter, Joyce Bulifant, who served as flower girl. The following page was taken from the WAINRIGHT LIBERATOR, the shipyards weekly publication, on March 3, 1945.
Joyce Bulifant went on to become an actor who nicely graced our TVs for almost three decades in sitcoms, dramas and game shows.
SS VERNON HOOD was delivered to the Maritime Commission on March 7, 1945 and then began a shake down cruise in the Gulf of Mexico. She was turned over to the OVERLAKES FREIGHT COMPANY under contract to the Maritime Commission from 1945 to 1947. She also did service with the MOORE- MCCORMACK Shipping Co.
In late 1947, she was taken out of commission and
berthed at the reserve
fleet at James River, VA.
In mid-1958, she was taken by the Navy and converted to
a radar picket ship
at Charleston, SC Navy Shipyard. During conversion, she was named USS
WATCHMAN and designated YAGR-16. Later that year the designation for all
YAGRs were changed to AGR which in effect made them a true part of the
blue water Navy. The Ship's Superintendent in charge of the conversion was LT(jg) JIM COLEMAN. It's worth noting that the Navy, realizing that picket duty would be boring and arduous, spared nothing to ensure that the ship(s) were conducive to long stays at sea. Watchman's mess decks was considered one of the best in the fleet in terms of comfort and aesthetics. The ship was replete with a gymnasium and a movie theatre in one of the lower holds which included backed chairs....just like at the BIJOU. There was a well stocked gedunk and ships store. Many crew members got their first exposure to ham radio in the ships own ham radio station. The hobby shop offered most of the tools needed to complete any construction project. Many a fine piece of furniture was produced there. The ship was fitted with "locked water ballast" tanks that provided for a more comfortable ride while on station. This also provided a stable platform for the ship's radars. Crew quarters were probably the best in the Navy. Enlisted berthing was spacious with more than usual in the way of lockers. First class petty officers were assigned to the original merchant marine "foc'sles" on the main deck. Chiefs, in addition to state of the art rooms had a spacious lounge. Junior officers never had it so good...period. JG's normally had their own stateroom that would equal that of a commander on a large ship of the line. My own stateroom the last year was that of the Chief Mate in the merchant marine configuration. Large evaporators produced enough fresh water for showers every day...unheard of on a destroyer. Yes, the Navy did indeed create one of the most comfortable vessels ever. For that, a big "Bravo Zulu". However, that said, the duty was still sometimes very boring. On the northern stations the ship would go an entire month and never see the sun. The seas were just rough enough to bounce you around and make meals a chore. This coupled with a four section watch and full work day took its toll. It was always a joyous time when the engines were revved up to 66 RPM and the heading was easterly toward San Francisco.
On January 5, 1959 at 1000, WATCHMAN was placed in commission at Charleston under the command of Lt. Comdr. IRVIN BOAZ. The PLANK OWNERS are designated as such in the Ship's Company sections of this web page. LT. ROBERT STAMPS stood the first OOD watch from 1000 to 1200 and recalls that it was a miserable day with about a 20 knot wind sweeping across the decks during the commissioning ceremony. Captain BOAZ, apparently not one for such things to begin with was less than amused. Ens. WM. L. WILSON and LT(jg) WALTER PETZOLD were the other two officer's who stood OOD watches on the first day of commissioning.
On the 2nd of February, 1959, the ship got underway for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for underway training arriving on 6 February. After several days of training, on 20 February she cruised to Port au Prince, Haiti for a few days liberty returning to GITMO on the 23rd. Then it was back to Charleston for some last minute modifications
18 March saw WATCHMAN getting underway for San Francisco. After a short stop at Guantanamo, she headed for the Panama canal. On 27 March she anchored off Cristobal to spend the night before transiting the locks. The pilot who came aboard on the early morning of the 28th was as "drunk as possible" and it was obvious that he was in no condition to assist. This became clearly evident when he looked into the wrong end of his binoculars. The Pilot office was contacted and asked for another pilot be sent out with the reason that the current pilot ws "not feeling well". The second pilot arrived and at 0855, WATCHMAN entered the first lock, GATUN. Some 10 hours later she passed the sea buoy on the Pacific side and headed north for California. Swim call was piped on March 29 and 30. On the 2nd of April, at 0920, the ship began maneuvering on various courses and speeds while hunting turtles. The "turtle boat" was launched and soon returned with six turtles that eventually became dinner. After a quick liberty in Acapulco, the ship resumed the voyage to San Francisco passing under the Golden Gate bridge for the first of many times at 1202 on April 8.
In early May the ship spent two weeks at the Pacific Repair facility in San Francisco to mend some difficult mechanical problems. Then, on 25 May, WATCHMAN got underway for her first patrol to Radar Picket station #3 returning on 22 June.
While on the second patrol , HEIDECKER, D.A., SM3 was high lined to the USS BRECKINRIDGE, (TAP-176) on 20 July. He was granted emergency leave to visit his gravely ill mother. He recalls getting into the "chair" and Chief Erickson, BMC telling him, whatever you do, don't get out of that chair!" No one argued with the Chief Boats. All in all it was an OK passage but he does remember more than a little fear when his feet hit the water. But his shipmates on WATCHMAN ran the high line taught and he safely made it to BRECKINRIDGE.
It appeared that WATCHMAN was gaining a reputation as a no nonsense ship. There are many log entries regarding Captain's mast, the results of which were not uncommonly, court martials, time on bread and water and/or reduction in rank. One sailor, a seaman recruit (that says something) while at sea, failed to obey a lawful order of a petty officer and was placed in immediate confinement for three days with bread and water as his only subsistence. As I recall, the brig was located in the after end of the ship and was normally a caged supply department locker.
On 2 September, the shipped rendezvoused with a Navy seaplane so that CYPHER, R.L. SM2 could be transferred to the U.S. Navy Hospital at Bremerton. Diagnosis - appendicitis. As it turned out it wasn't this illness but it usually just took an "it might be....." from the corpsman and nothing was spard to get the individual to a hospital.
WATCHMAN completed her fair share of patrols in 1959 (total of 6). While enroute to RPS #9, on December 17, Watchman picked up an SOS from the SS GUAM PIONEER. It soon became apparent that she was the only ship in the area who could effect a rescue and received permission to alter course. She was designated SAR commander and set course toward the PIONEER's last known position. Mr. West's navigation was right on the money and WATCHMAN sailed right to the survivors. A mere few hours later, lookouts reported several red flares visible. The ship maneuvered and eventually picked up 15 survivors of the SS GUAM PIONEER including the Master, Harry M. Drew. Search and rescue for mariners in trouble was a secondary mission of the radar picket ships - mission accomplished. There was much discussion over what to do with the survivor's life boats including sinking them with 3" gunfire or towing them. In the end Capt. Boaz ordered them set adrift and notified the Coast Guard. The survivors were eventually transferred to the USS PICKET (AGR-7) and WATCHMAN continued to station.
Soon to come, 1960 to 9/1/65
On September 1, 1965, WATCHMAN was taken out of
commission and the name Watchman was stricken from the Navy's list of
ships the same day. As a part of
MARAD, she spent her remaining days at the reserve fleet site at Suisun Bay,
CA. On October 3, 1974, she was sold for scrap to American Ship Dismantlers.
Although Watchmans history may not rank with the
famous ships of the line, she did provide a valuable service from 1958 to 1965. Well
probably never know how important her mission was...one thing's for sure however. No
unfriendly aircraft ever got past the seaward extension of the DEW
(Distant Early Warning) line.