She was once a rum runner’s yacht or so the old timers told arriving new sailors. The new arrivals aboard the USS Sumner (AGS-5) didn’t know whether to believe it or not. She had a sleek design with a long prow and didn’t fit the image of a conventional Navy vessel. The reality, however, was that she was built in 1915 as a submarine tender and switched identities in 1940 to become a hydrographic survey vessel.
There was nothing about the Sumner (AGS-5) that made her appear dangerous to the enemy. My dad used to say that with a top speed of 12 knots and one three-inch gun mounted aft, the best she could do was fire on her attackers as she was trying to get away.
During her active service she earned three battle stars, but with only one exception, she never successfully fired on the enemy. That one exception, however, was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Most people with any hint of a nautical background will often describe their ships and boats in terms of human personality traits. To them, these vessels, whether row boats or aircraft carriers, are alive. And, with apologies for the obvious sexism, vessels are usually feminine: “She’s a good ship” or “She is slow to turn, but fast when you wanted her to be,” and of course, “She was a happy ship,” or on other occasions, not a happy ship.
The Sumner by all accounts was a happy ship. However, given that her mission was particularly technical and scientific, the ship had a tendency to be a little quirky. My dad, Roger T. Kerr, joined the ship’s company in 1944, and referred to her as “different.” That was also the same term he used to describe his offbeat great uncle, an early practitioner of living off the grid who lived by himself in the Arizona desert.
This trait also extended to the way the ship’s officers and crew tended to view regulations and directives. Though Navy through and through, the ship was always pristine and combat ready, they still weren’t always that interested in always doing things the Navy way.
A good example of this came early in December 1941 when an order went out to all the ships at anchor in Pearl Harbor to stow their anti-aircraft ammunition below deck. This was apparently for safety reasons. Given the state of the world at the time it seems like a strange order. Still, most ships were used to following such directions to the letter and complied.
However, the Sumner either didn’t get the order, always a possibility, or chose to ignore it. It’s not clear which. Its anti-aircraft ammunition remained on deck.
When the Japanese attacked on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, the Sumner, like every vessel at Pearl Harbor, was preparing to raise the colors. That happens at eight o’clock. However, as we well know 78 years later, the morning didn’t go as planned. The ship’s log notes that at 0759 the ship went to general quarters. According to the Sumner’s logs, “aircraft with “red discs” on their wings were attacking.”
The Sumner was anchored near the submarine base. Remarkably this meant that she was ideally positioned to fire on the enemy aircraft as they began their bomb runs on the battleships at anchor in Pearl Harbor. The Sumner herself was never a target, the Japanese weren’t the slightest bit interested in her, but her antiaircraft guns at the ready began firing almost immediately. Her gunners were tireless and their aim was surprisingly deadly. Remember, none of her crew had ever been in combat before.
Sadly, other ships, those who had obeyed the Navy’s order to stow their ammunition, faced a devastating delay trying to haul ammunition back to their guns while the attack was taking place. The Japanese attack came in two waves and continued until about 10 a.m. The Sumner, throughout it all, caused as much damage to the attacking enemy aircraft as she could and claimed the downing of at least three aircraft. Given that U.S. forces only downed 29 Japanese aircraft that day, it was an impressive performance for a hydrographic survey ship.
She would never do that again, she would be in harm’s way a number of times, and even get hit by a dud shell on Iwo Jima. But, like a lot of people at a moment of crisis, the Sumner proved what she was made of.
David Kerr, a former member of the Stafford School Board, is an instructor in political science at VCU. He can be reached at email@example.com.