July 08, 2020

The Last Sailing Battle

World War II saw a revolution in naval warfare. The big gun gave way to the airplane as the weapon of decision, and radar and amphibious warfare entered the picture. But the last naval battle of the war was something very different, the last action fought under sail.

The USN had been operating in China for decades, and in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, it took the lead in American aid to China's guerilla war against Japan. The resulting Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) had a number of roles. It initially was tasked with setting up a network of weather stations, as the weather over the western Pacific generally forms over China. But many areas were occupied by the Japanese, and SACO ended up training Chinese guerillas to protect the weather stations, which quickly led into wider involvement with the war behind Japanese lines. SACO groups trained saboteurs and ran coastwatcher stations with both American and Chinese personnel that passed Japanese shipping movements to submarines and airplanes.

When the war ended, instructions were radioed to the SACO teams to make their way to Hankow, Shanghai or Chungking by whatever means were available. Unit 8, stationed in Tsingtien and commanded by Lieutenant Livingston "Swede" Swentzel, headed for the coast and acquired a pair of sailing junks in Wenchow. As they made their way towards Shanghai on August 20th, they encountered a strange junk with a 75mm howitzer. As they closed, it turned and opened fire, scoring a direct hit on the American "flagship". Two Chinese crewmen were killed and two more wounded, and rudder damage put the junk out of action. The other SACO junk closed in and riddled the Japanese vessel with machine gun and rifle fire, and eventually got within 100 yards, allowing them to bring their heaviest weapon, a bazooka, to bear. Their third shot hit the Japanese vessel squarely, knocking out the howitzer, and taking most of the fight out of the crew.

A few continued to fire, and the commander of the second junk, Marine Lieutenant Stuart Pittman, decided to board. Pittman led the boarding party himself, and narrowly escaped death when the badly wounded Japanese captain found enough strength to use his revolver on the Americans. A sailor shot the captain, who had enough time before he died to explain that he had mistaken the Americans for Chinese pirates. The Japanese had taken serious casualties, with 48 dead and 35 wounded, with only 4 unhurt. Despite all of the damage, the Japanese junk was still seaworthy, and Swentzel put a prize crew aboard. Four days later, all three vessels reached Shanghai.

Samuel Eliot Morison said it best in his account of the battle. "It is ironic that this fight of 20 August 1945, the final naval battle of a war in which aircraft, carriers, and a galaxy of new weapons were employed, should have been fought by sailing ships, and concluded by the classic tactics of boarding... Sailors, never forget how to sail!"1

1 History of US Naval Operations in WWII, Vol. 13 p.301.


  1. July 09, 2020Doctorpat said...

    I love these little weirdo stories.

  2. July 09, 2020ADifferentAnonymous said...

    Love this too.

    Would you suppose the Japanese force was heading to Shanghai to surrender with minimal odds of unConventional treatment?

  3. July 09, 2020bobbert said...

    Who would they surrender to in Shanghai? Wasn't the city in Jap hands throughout the war?

  4. July 09, 2020bean said...

    The allies arrived in Shanghai fairly early on. I think it may have actually been SACO that took their surrender there. Not sure what the Japanese were doing. Morison didn't say, and other sources haven't had much to add, either. Very well could have been withdrawing to somewhere safer, though.

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