Ships of Pearl Harbor: USS Tern

May 07, 2019

Launched in March 1919 and commissioned into service on May 17 of the same year, the Lapwing-class minesweeper USS Tern (AM-31) was first assigned to Train Squadron 2 of the Fleet Base Force, at the US Navy installation at Pearl Harbor. After several years operating in Hawaiian waters, the squadron was assigned to San Diego, where they remained for the next six years. Her next home port was at San Pedro, until she was assigned back to Pearl Harbor on June 19, 1941.

USS Tern at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941

USS Tern (AM-31) fighting fires on USS West Virginia (BB-48)

USS Tern (AM-31) fighting fires on USS West Virginia (BB-48)

On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Tern was moored alongside USS Argonne (AG-31) at the north end of 1010 Dock . Because she was undergoing maintenance, she was receiving all her power from the dock. Within minutes of the time the Japanese fleet roared into the harbor and launched its attack, Tern’s crew began firing on incoming enemy planes. Her gunners were credited with downing a Japanese warplane that crashed near the Officers’ Club.

Less than two hours after the start of the attack, Tern set out into the harbor, where she began rescuing sailors from the burning, oil-slicked waters. She was reported to have picked up 47 survivors from the ships that were struck during the attack.

As she steamed toward the stricken USS Arizona (BB-39), which was already sinking into the harbor, she was ordered instead to assist USS West Virginia (BB-48). Fires raged throughout the battleship, which had sustained heavy damage. When the fires on West Virginia were finally extinguished on the afternoon of December 8, Tern shifted her attention back to USS Arizona to help the extinguish fires that burned until the following day.

USS Tern and the War in the Pacific

USS Tern ship's bell

Ship's bell, USS Tern

In the wake of Pearl Harbor, the minesweeper joined in the Pacific war effort, beginning with towing a fuel barge to Johnston Atoll, southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. She returned to Pearl Harbor briefly, before setting out for the Society Islands in February 1942, where she became station ship at Bora Bora. In June of the same year, USS Tern was converted into an ocean tug designated AT-142, ultimately joining Service Squadron, US 3rd Fleet, operating in Hawaii. For the next year, she served as a support vessel in the area, recovering training torpedoes and towing targets for gunnery and bombing practice.

In July of 1944, USS Tern set sail for the Marshall Islands, where she would spend the next several months towing vessels between various South Pacific islands. Toward the end of the war, she was assigned to Leyte, where she assisted in the liberation of the Philippines. On November 23, 1945, Tern was decommissioned in San Francisco and was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on December 5.

For her service in World War II, USS Tern earned one battle star.

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