USS ESTES AGC-12
USS Estes (AGC-12)
A Brief History
The sanguinary battle for Guadalcanal forcefully evidenced to the Allies the dire need for increased building and rapid, advanced training of an efficient amphibious war machine. Through the bitter college of experience in the island-dotted Pacific, an overall amphibious technique was developed and soon grew in stature and success. A flagship, specifically designed to function as the floating command center, exercising operational as well as administrative control over the combined land, sea, and air components in an amphibious assult was a natural development of our island-hopping Pacific campaign.
USS ESTES (AGC-12) was the twelfth in the rapidly growing series of these new Amphibious Force Flagships and the sixth of the improved USS MOUNT McKINLEY (AGC-7) class. The story of Amphibious Force Flagship ESTES began in the early part of 1943 at the North Carolina Shipbuilding Company, Wilmington, North Carolina. Here on 25 August 1943 the keel of the Maritime Commission C-2 hull, intended as the merchant vessel SS MORNING STAR, was laid, and on 1 November 1943 she was launched with Mrs. R.A. Carter of Newport News, Virginia, as sponsor. The U.S. Navy acquired the partially completed hull on 22 February 1944 and three days later she was towed to the Todd Shipyard, Erie Basin, Brooklyn, New York to be converted to AGC-12.
As Amphibious Force Flagships were named after mountains, the Navy's newest was named for the mountain range in Colorado near Estes Park, and is the first such U.S. Navy vessel so called.
During the mid-war months of May through October 1944, the vital and hastened conversion of ESTES by the Navy continued under the supervision of the prospective Commanding Officer, CDR Bob O. Mathews, USN, who had spent most of his boyhood and early schooling in the region of Colorado within the shadow of the lofty Estes Range. Meanwhile, a green nucleus crew was undergoing intensive training at the U.S. Naval Training Center at Newport, Rhode Island. By early October, these none-too-briny neophytes entrained for Brooklyn for the first view of their ship. With mixed or proud excitement and awesome expectancy, the crew and their families witnessed the commissioning ceremony on 9 October 1944, with CAPT H.V. McKittrick, USN, delivering the ship to CDR Mathews. By 1700 the same day, the ship was underway.
ESTES saw her last of the Manhattan area in the following two weeks, spent loading ammunition and supplies into the new ship, providing meaning to the term, "all-hands working party." The last of October was devoted to trials, drills, a shakedown cruise, and other rotine preparations. On the 29th, Estes reported "ready for duty and onward routing." Scuttlebutt was rampant as to where she was going. Even clairvoyants could not have imagined that this new ship was to play a major part in two of the longest amphibious assaults in the history of the world -- or that she would be quietly resting in a peaceful port before a year had elapsed.
The following day ESTES, escorted by USS GOSS (DE-444), steamed through the submarine-infested waters off the East Coast, headed for the Canal Zone and the Pacific beyond. Enroute, daily exercises at general drills were highlighted by frequent gunnery shoots. On arrival at Panama 5 November, GOSS was detached and, two days later, ESTES set course for Hawaii independently. On 20 November she arrived at Pearl Harbor, which still evidenced the effects of the Japanese sneak attack three years before. The next day RADM W.H.P. "Spike" Blandy, USN, Commander Amphibious Group ONE, came aboard to make an informal inspection of his flagship.
During December at Pearl Harbor, ESTES underwent further overhaul and had additional equipment installed, particularly radio, radar, and countermeasures gear. She also engaged in final training exercises with USS ELDORADO (AGC-11) and several destroyers. This unit formed at sea off Oahu to rehearse a complete battle problem. Communications were tested, fog (oil smoke) was generated, and paravanes streamed. Returning from this experience, the ship moored again in Pearl Harbor over the Christmas holidays.
RADM Blandy broke his flag in ESTES 3 January 1945. One week later the ship sortied from the harbor and formed up with USS TEXAS (BB-35), USS NEVADA (BB-36), USS ADMIRAL R.E. COONTZ (AP-122), and five screening destroyers, heading west for Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands, thence to Saipan in the Marianas, preparing for her first real wartime operation.
Early in the morning of 14 February 1945, ESTES cleared the protective nets of Saipan Harbor and assumed guide of a large cruising disposition and set course for Iwo Jima, a small but heavily fortified island in the Japanese-held Volcano Island group. At 0700 two days later, the first sight of Iwo Jima, surrounded by a vast armada stretching away in columns to the horizon, led to the release of the screening ships to other assignments while ESTES and the larger ships closed the island. The little-known merchant ship of a year ago then became the flagship and command headquarters for Commander Task Force 52, the Amphibious Support Task Force.
Soon afterward the bombardment of the island began and ESTES stood in close to observe and direct firing. That night the flagship, screened by five minesweepers, circled the island about five miles off shore to observe the night illumination and continued bombardment. The second day, while continuing with fire support units, she was hit by fragments of a small calibre shell which burst near the forward kingposts. Two enlisted men on the open forward deck received minor shrapnel wounds. Henceforth, the warning for "all hands not at battle stations, stay below decks" took on added meaning. That night brought the first of the enemy air raids. A minesweeper received a bomb hit close to her main stack, and her casulties were brought aboard for treatment.
Just before dawn on 19 February, ESTES was approaching Iwo Jima, as usual following night retirement. Those asleep remember the sudden crash that jarred them from their bunks. Cruiser USS CHESTER (CA-27), in the black of night had collided with the flagship. Fortunately, the two vessels had swerved in time to avert a major disaster. The cruiser only inflicted minor damage to ESTES' port bow while she sustained more serious damage to one of her screws and after plating. Also fortunately, no serious injury to personnel was reported from either ship.
Until 24 February, ESTES daily took a position close inshore for observation, retiring at night with screening vessels. Night air attacks called all ships to general quarters regularly, especially those which strayed to carry out night harassment. When enemy planes approached the retirement area, brilliant curtains of anti-aircraft fire went up from the screening destroyers and other vessels protecting the flagship and transports in the center of the formation. There were many anxious moments as the motors of enemy planes could be heard directly overhead, and often ESTES was on the verge of disclosing her position by opening fire.
ESTES was about 5,000 yards directly off the landing beaches the morning the Marines stormed ashore. Soon Mount Surabachi blazed with hidden guns intent on repulsing this great amphibious assult. But the little brown dots that were men and vehicles inched forward through the volcanic dust to secure the foothold that was never to be relinquished. When the Stars and Stripes were flying in the powder-filled breeze over Mount Surabachi, the men of the ESTES also felt proud of the part they played in this victory.
Before leaving for Leyte, screened by the fast transport USS GILMER (APD-11), ESTES transfered to other ships a number of patients, several war correspondents, and the Army, Marine, and British observers who had been quartered aboard. The four day trip to the Philipines was without incident, although the patched-up hole in the port bow caused some consternation.
On 28 February, ESTES anchored in San Pedro Bay off Dulag. A few days later, she went alongside USS DIXIE (AD-14) for underwater repairs. A large plate was patched over the gash in the forward peak tank by divers, who worked nights with the aid of submerged floodlights. A whole forward section was filled with rock and cement after the patch had been riveted in place, and the damaged bow received no further attention until ESTES put into a West Coast shipyard following three more months of operations.
ESTES left the Philipines on 8 March enroute to Ulithi in company with USS MONADNOCK (CM-9), USS RICHARD W. SUESENS (DE-342), and USS PC1260. The formation arrived at Ulithi three days later and anchored in the seemingly peaceful lagoon. That evening, while the crew were enjoying a movie, two large planes were seen flying very low overhead without the red and green running lights customary to friendly planes in the area. A minute later, a "Flash Red" alarm sent all ships in the lagoon to general quarters. Before the flagship's crew had cleared for action, a hugh geyser of fire, accompanied by a terrific explosion, riveted all eyes on a large carrier 4,000 yards astern of ESTES. One bomber had crashed onto the deck of USS RANDOLPH (CV-15). In another second, a burst of flame from Sorlen Island abeam to port of the flagship, showed where the second Japanese bomber had ended. The planes had evidently taken off on their one-way trip from enemy-held islands to the west.
ESTES remained in Ulithi for another week of logistics, upkeep, and continued training. On 21 March ESTES sortied as a guide of Task Force 52, formed with USS TENNESSEE (BB-43) in tactical command, and a large number of warships to engage in her second major operation, the battle for Okinawa. For four days the force steamed toward their objective, passing the long hours with drills and gunnery practice.
As she approached the objective area, ESTES was detached by CTF 52 to form an approach dispossition with Underwater Demolition Group. That night the first enemy aircraft encountered on the operation brought the ship to general quarters and screening vessels opened fire on a "Betty," which was sighted crossing ESTES stern. A bomb splashed less than 100 yards away but did not explode.
Returning to the immediate area off the western beaches of Okinawa, ESTES rejoined TF 52 and observed the intense, relentless shore bombardment by scores of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and fire support ships. Following night retirement for the next three weeks, ESTES returned each morning to Nakagusuku Wan, now called Buckner Bay, or to the eastern islands nearby to observe further diversionary feints and shore bombardments. Enemy air attacks, especially at night on all shipping, east and west, increased in intensity. On 5 April, warning of the first large scale air raid was received. Instead of a few or few dozen planes, the Japanese were to send several hundred. The ESTES took station off the eastern bay in an AA formation of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Unfavorable flying weather delayed the first attack one day. When the assault did come, combat air patrols ("CAP") from the carriers met the attackers. The combined toll of enemy raiders taken by our fighter pilots and the ships' anti-aircraft guns taught the Japanese that they could not maintain large-scale daylight raids. Although the Japanese pilots had sunk some of our smaller ships and had damaged many larger ones, some two-thirds of the attacking planes did not return to base; more importantly, they had lost many top pilots. About all that remained of the once powerful Japanese air arm was the Kamikaze Corps of one-way attacks. After a few more costly daylight attempts, the Japanese switched strictly to dawn, dusk, and night raids.
Guarding the entrance to Nakagusuku Wan was a small, picturesque island named Tsuken Shima. Though it had not challenged the early landings in the bay area, it was known to shelter some guns and defenders. One morning ESTES closed on Tsuken with landing ships and fire support units to take the island. After intense bombardment by destroyers, the familiar formation of landing craft went speeding onto the beach. Several defending guns were still firing and the remaining concrete base of a lighthouse on a small point was the stronghold for enemy machine gunners. A large caliber fixed gun was firing steadily at the destroyers, LST's and the flagship. One LST was hit broadside and ESTES was narrowly missed at a range of about 3,000 yards. Within an hour the assaulting forces, which had been expeditiously and successfully landed, established their beachhead. As usual, the Japanese were well dug in and equiped, and it took until the next afternoon to completely subdue the island.
ESTES' closest call occurred one evening just before sunset. A sudden warning from CIC (Combat Information Center) alerted all guns to a plane approaching aft. When first sighted, the plane was diving out of a cloud bank just above USS WICHITA (CA-45) and was heading directly for ESTES. Soon, ESTES' 40mm and 5-inch guns and those of WICHITA commenced firing. The red circle insigna on the plane's wings flashed for an instant, just as it was shattered by a direct hit from mount 52, the after 5-inch. The burst had blown off the starboard wing and part of the plane's fuselage and tail while it was diving from an elevation of less than 1,000 yards. The remnants of the plane crashed into the water 200 yards off ESTES' starboard quarter. The tension in all hands topside gave way in a triumphant shout. A small bomb, apparently released from the plane, exploded astern of the wreckage, but the downed aircraft did not explode or burn. A parachute was observed to open when the plane was about 150 feet above the water, but the pilot apparently could not get out, as the 'chute remained attached to the sinking plane. No damage to the ship nor to personnel resulted from this near disaster.
ESTES then proceeded to the western beaches off Okinawa and anchored in Hagushi Harbor. With USS ELDORADO and USS AUBURN (AGC-10), ESTES shared responsibility for defense against continuous enemy air attacks. Two captured airfields, Kadena and Yontan, sent up Marine night fighters which the AGCs controlled in addition to the Navy CAP from the carriers. These were the days and nights of the heroic fights of the radar picket destroyers. When the enemy raiders broke through these stalwart picket defenses, it was time for the AGCs to vector the CAP to intercept enemy bombers and suicide planes. The flagship's Combat Information Center, with its overall control of the air picture, proved to be a key defensive and offensive weapon.
The bugler's call to the movies each evening at 1930 seemed to be an invitation for Japanese raiders to start their night attacks. Frequently, the sound of the bugle had scarcely died down when the general alarm gongs and Boatswain piping, "...all hands, man your battle stations," preempted the evening's entertainment. It came to be an expected event. ESTES witnessed almost continuous anti-aircraft fire after sunset during her last week off Okinawa. She saw untold numbers of Japanese planes shot down, winced as her sister ships -- including USS SAMARITAN (AH-10) -- were hit, and respectfully watched the battered picket destroyers enter the harbor to be patched up and rushed back into action.
In the evening of 14 April 1945 that word came to the fleet at Okinawa of the death of their Commander-in-Chief. Colors were lowered to half-staff in honor of President Roosevelt.
When ESTES received orders to depart for rear areas on 20 April, she had completed a full month of operations as a unit of "The Fleet Which Came To Stay," within 300 miles of the Japanese homeland.
ESTES proceeded to Saipan and enjoyed a short period of "R&R" (replenishment and recreation). Her first combat tour concluded, ESTES then, amid shouts of joy, departed for the United States via Hawaii, arriving not at "the Golden Gate in '48," but "back alive in '45." Sighting Farallon Island on 27 May, ESTES passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and steamed into San Francisco Bay. By noon all passengers had disembarked at the docks, and the ship headed up the bay to unload ammunition and fuel. While the officers and men were rewarded with leave, ESTES was tied up at Moore's Drydock in Oakland for a sixty-day availability. Following a complete overhaul and modernization, RADM R.O. DAVIS, USN, Commander Amphibious Group THIRTEEN, came aboard with Staff. Finally, on 8 August, the day after the epic disclosure of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima, ESTES steamed out of San Francisco, headed once again for the far reaches of the Pacific.
On arrival at Pearl Harbor 14 August, word of the Japanese surrender was received. However, these tidings did not delay AGC-12, and ESTES weighed anchor the following day and continued westward to the Philippines, arriving Leyte Gulf on 28 August, where the first of the ship's crew to be discharged were returned to the United States. Throughout the month of September, ESTES operated in the Philippines, visiting numerous ports in preparation for occupation duty.
On 2 November ESTES took leave of Manila and set course for Shanghai to become the flagship of ADM Thomas C. Kincaid, USN, Commander Seventh Fleet, breaking his flag 7 November. At the same time, RADM Davis transfered his staff to USS ROCKY MOUNT (AGC-3). On 19 November ADM Kincaid left the ship and VADM D.E. Barbey, USN, shifted his flag to ESTES.
During the next ten weeks ESTES cruised much ocean and visited many ports, stopping at Tsingtao, Chinwangto, and Hultao, China. The Christmas and New Year holidays were spent swinging at anchor in Shanghai Harbor. Early in January 1946, ADM Barbey was relieved by ADM Charles M. Cooke, USN, the new Commander Seventh Fleet. The long period until 18 March 1947 was spent in various ports of China, Japan, and Korea. On this date in Shanghai, CAPT W.H. Brereton, USN, relieved CAPT Mathews as Commanding Officer. As CAPT Mathews had served aboard since commissioning, this was a sad day indeed for the crew he led so courageously and capably.
On 4 April 1947 ELDORADO arrived as relief flagship for ADM Cooke. The Admiral shifted immediately and ESTES set course for San Francisco the same day.
On Monday, 21 April, the by now partially "Asiatic" crew saw the United States for the first time in two years. After a week in San Francisco ESTES took departure for Bremerton, Washington, where she remained in overhaul status until July. While in the yard, CAPT J.B. Hogle, USN, relieved CAPT Brereton as Commanding Officer. ESTES then sailed for WESTPAC, arriving 21 August to repay ELDORADO's favor of four months before, and ADM Cooke and Staff reembarked. During November and December of 1947, ESTES continued her visits around the Orient, her itinerary including Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei Bay, Manila, Keelung, Subic Bay, and Tsingtao. Here was ushered in the New Year. On 24 February 1948, ADM Cooke was relieved by ADM O.C. Badger, USN, as ESTES continued in the service of another in a long line of distinguished Flag Officers. The first of March found the flagship at Pier One, Tsingtao, as Headquarters for Commander Naval Forces, Western Pacific. Upon completion of this tour of duty, ESTES returned to the U.S. where her career was briefly interrupted through decommissioning on 30 June 1949. A brief stay in residence at the Pacific Reserve Fleet at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard ensued.
On 26 December 1950, exactly six months after North Korea troops had launched a full-scale offensive against the Republic of South Korea, the second chapter of ESTES' episodes began. A reactivation detail hurriedly undertook the difficult task of restoring the World War II veteran to a combat-ready condition. With most of the mothballs cleared away, ESTES was recommissioned 31 January 1951 at Hunter's Point. RADM Ross Cooley, USN, Deputy Commander, Pacific Reserve Fleet, relinquished command to CAPT R.W. Wood, USN, and orders soon followed to train diligently in preparation for action in the troubled Far East.
ESTES arrived Yokosuka 15 July 1951. In ten days she was in the combat zone near Inchon, Korea, having steamed around Kyushu. MOUNT McKINLEY had already returned to the U.S. leaving ELDORADO as the only Amphibious Force Flagship in the Far East. VADM I.N. Kiland, USN, Commander Amphibious Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Staff transfered immediately when ESTES came alongside ELDORADO in island-sprinkled Inchon Harbor.
Inchon was oppressively hot, and those who ventured ashore found the community noticeably lacking in amenities they had grown accustomed to expect. It became forcefully evident that this was a war zone. With little to do but wander along dusty streets and look in empty shops, the Ship's Company either remained on board or drank rationed beer while watching ESTES' softball team engage that of USS EPPING FOREST (LSD-4).
On 6 August ESTES arrived once more at Yokosuka. In another change, unofficially designated "Operation Back and Forth," ComPhibPac returned to the San Diego-bound ELDORADO. Shortly thereafter, RADM T.B. Hill, USN, Commander Amphibious Group ONE, broke his flag in ESTES. The flagship steamed to Prusan on 6 September by way of the Shimonoseki Straits -- the narrow channel between Honshu and Kyushu -- then to Inchon, which was nearly as stifling and just as pungent as in July. Korea was a good place to leave, and after five days at anchor, ESTES moved to Moji on 19 September. The following day all hands observed a somber ceremony honoring the heros of the Korean War whose lifeless bodies were loaded aboard SS EXEMOUTH for transport to the U.S.
In Yokosuka on 8 October, RADM C.F. ESPE, USN relieved RADM Hill as ComPhibGruONE and Commander Task Force 90 in ceremonies on the Forward Boat Deck. Four days later, with BrigGEN Dulaney, Assistant Commander of the 45th Infantry Division aboard, ESTES sailed for Mukawa, Hokkaido, to observe landing exercises. The rough seas caused by Typhoon Ruth interfered but did not prevent the successful amphibious training assault. The flagship then proceeded to Sasebo for her annual Operational Readiness Inspection. On completion of this profitable but strenuous ordeal, ESTES cleared the submarine nets guarding Sasebo's harbor and retraced her Inchon to Pusan to Yokosuka route. On 13 November, ESTES steamed to Mukawa for another landing exercise, this time involving a Regimental Combat Team of the 45th Infantry Division.
After another short stay in Yokosuka, ESTES took departure for Kure, the headquarters for British naval units operating in Japanese and Korean waters. It was amusing indeed to hear the Japanese speak English with a British accent and in the British idiom. While in Kure, aircraft carrier HMAS SYDNEY tied up accross the pier. ESTES and Flag personnel found the Australian custom of having "spirits" aboard most convenient and hospitable.
The flagship again sailed for Inchon on 27 November. At Inchon, all hands contributed to and many attended a highly successful party for Korean War orphans.
Before first light of a morning in early December, ESTES, in company with transports and screening units of TF 90, steamed from the harbor with several thousand men of the First Cavalry Division who were being rotated to a rear area. Leaving the battle-weary soldiers near relatively peaceful Pusan, ESTES returned to what was by now her unofficial homeport -- Yokosuka -- for the Holiday Season. At night the flagship and USS ROCHESTER (CA-124), tied up alongside the same pier, made bright, decorative displays with their colored lights and Christmas trees. Christmas afternoon a group of Japanese orphans came aboard for a lively party in the Crew's Mess. The guests were given presents, shown movies, and offered a good deal more from the festive board than they could eat.
ESTES' yuletide holidays came to a close 7 January, and the ship sailed for Inchon, then to the pretty harbor at Koje-do, an island near Pusan where more than 150,000 North Korean and Chinese prisoners of war were held. The following day the flagship got underway for Nagasaki, Kyushu. No one noticed any resentment toward American servicemen. To those aboard, it was surprising that in this city -- where six and a half years before 75,000 had been killed in the holocaust of the second atomic bomb -- the people should be so friendly. Two days of tours and parties and ESTES departed for Sasebo. Enroute, she passed in full view of the house of the legendary Madame Butterfly, who Puccini portrayed as killing herself with her father's sword when LT Pinkerton, USN, returned to duty in Sasebo with his American wife.
Hoisting anchor 23 January, ESTES departed for Korea. Ending her first year of reactivation along the eastern coast of the war-ravaged country, "Condition One and Warning Red" were the usual for the darkened-ship nights in Inchon Harbor. Fortunately, the MIGs never made their bombing runs specifically on ESTES. She ventured north on its anniversary day to Sokcho-ri, a village on the eastern shore of Korea and on the Communist side of the 38th parallel, in order for RADM Espe to participate in a key conference held on this enemy-surrounded beachhead. The following day, ESTES quickly got underway for a return jaunt to Kobe, with stops enroute at Pohang Dung and Pusan. ESTES then steamed back to her Yokosuka lair on 10 February for a yard availability period.
After one more trip to the battle-scarred Inchon and back, Commander Amphibious Group THREE embarked, relieving ComPhibGruONE. ESTES then weighed anchor and set course for home via Pearl Harbor, arriving in San Diego 19 April 1952. Eleven days later, CAPT Jack S. Holtwick, Jr., USN, 1 relieved CAPT Wood as Commanding Officer. Off Aliso Canyon, training exercise AMLEX I interrupted a quiet spring before ESTES set course for Mare Island Naval Shipyard for the summer.
Electronics were upgraded and highly specialized communications equipment were installed during this unusual yard period in addition to the usual upkeep. It was during this time that the mysterious "elephant-ears" were installed on the forward starboard kingpost. The elephant-ears were to be ESTES' unique distinction for the next two years. Other departures from the past included the installation of ESTES' first flight deck aft atop the potato locker, replacing mount 52, and the rigging of what appeared to be a stem-to-stern sprinkler system topsides. ESTES certainly had taken on a new character!
With the memories of Korea still fresh, a modernized ESTES took her departure 2 September and sailed into the future for a new type of operation scheduled to take place at Eniwetok Atol in the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific. Embarked were RADM C.W. Wilkins, USN, Commander Task Group 132.3, the Navy Task Group attached to Joint Task Force 132, and many scientists to conduct vital experiments to be known as "Operation IVY." IVY added a new word to the vocabulary: "thermonuclear." Also aboard were a number of newsmen and one actor: Reed Hadley (of TV's smash hit, "Racket Squad"), who would narrate a documentary film to be produced by the U.S. Air Force. The film, titled "Operation IVY," would chronicle the events leading up to and including the entry of the United States into the thermonuclear age on 2 November 1952, with the detonation of "Mike," an experimental thermonuclear ("hydrogen") device that vaporized Elugelab Island at Eniwetok Atol.
A little more than three months later, ESTES passed Old Point Loma lighthouse abeam to port, in time for the Christmas holidays. Just into the new year of 1953, ESTES proceeded to Mare Island once more for a short yard period, receiving a sparkling new paint job.
Returning to San Diego, ESTES hosted VADM Martin, USN, Commander First Fleet, and LtGEN Hart, USMC, Commander Fleet Marine Forces Pacific, in connection with PACPHIBEX II, an amphibious training exercise that continued into May.
With RADM F.S. Withington, USN, Commander Amphibious Group THREE and Commander Task Force 9, embarked, ESTES bade farewell to San Diego 6 July 1953, setting course for Kodiak, Alaska, and another of the "unusual" operations for the ship -- unusual operations that were to become norm. This time, the purpose of "Operation Blue Nose," as it was called, was to resupply government installations -- the "DEW LINE" -- in the far north. ESTES arrived Kodiak one week out of San Diego. Proceeding north, the personnel of TF 9 were officially inducted into the "Honorary Order of the Arctic" as "Blue Noses" when the force crossed the Arctic Circle 19 July. While at anchor at Icy Cape, ESTES received the news that a truce had been signed in Korea. Continuing north to Wainwright on 31 July, ESTES pressed on to Point Barrow the following day. At anchor off Point Barrow, ESTES fell temporary victim to a shift in the wind which allowed pack ice to move inshore, immobilizing the ship for the better part of a week. USCGC NORTHWIND (W-282) proved her mettle and freed ESTES, plus USS ELECTRA (AKA-4) and USS SKAGIT (AKA-105), from the icy confines of the anchorage. The resupply mission complete, ESTES eagerly but cautiously set course for home port San Diego 9 August.
The following four months found ESTES operating out of San Diego. On 8 September 1953, CAPT Jacob W. Waterhouse, USN, relieved CAPT Holtwick as Commanding Officer.
As 1954 began, ESTES, now with her elephant-ears removed, took her departure for the Marshall Islands for her second thermonuclear test series: "Operation CASTLE," serving as flagship for Joint Task Force 7. This protracted series of tests lasted until 16 May, after which ESTES escorted USS CURTISS (AV-4) back to San Diego, non-stop.
Within six short weeks, ESTES, with RADM Lorenzo S. Sabin, Jr., USN, ComPhibGruONE, embarked, was underway 6 July for a six-month tour of duty in the Far East. By 26 July, a happy MOUNT McKINLEY greeted her relief at Yokosuka. On arrival, RADM Sabin relieved ComPhibGruTHREE as Commander Task Force 90 and ComPhibGruWESTPAC.
Scarcely had the crew grown accustomed to the aromas of Yokosuka when secret orders sent ESTES south on 14 August. Rumors and tension mounted until RADM Sabin announced that ESTES was headed first to Okinawa, then to Subic Bay, and to Henrietta Pass, at the outlet of the port of Haiphong, French Indo-China (now called Vietnam), into the South China Sea, arriving 18 August. ESTES would play a major part in "Operation Passage to Freedom," history's greatest civilian evacuation by sea; hundreds of thousands of freedom-loving Vietnamese would forsake their homes in the north to flee from the impending tyranny of Communism to then-still-free southern Vietnam. From mid-August until the end of October, the ships shuttled between Haiphong, Tourane, and Saigon. ESTES had the distinction of transporting the 100,000th refugee, Phan Hung Son, and his family, from Haiphong to Saigon.
The reward for a job well done was a short visit to Singapore, and on 2 November 1954 ESTES neared the Equator. Crossing the line the next day, all lowly "polywogs" were duly initiated and welcomed into the Ancient Order of the Deep -- the realm of Neptunus Rex.
Following the Singapore visit, ESTES proceeded to Hong Kong, stopped briefly at Saigon enroute. On 18 November 1954 in Hong Kong, CAPT Mell A. Peterson, USN, relieved CAPT Waterhouse as Commanding Officer.
Before returning to Yokosuka for the Yuletide, ESTES again sailed to war-torn Korea. On 22 January 1955, she traced her previous track to Vietnam, but eight days later another set of secret orders ordered her to depart. When underway, the crew were informed they were to take part in the internationally important evacuation of the Nationalist Chinese forces from the Tachen Islands, only a few miles from the coast of Communist China. RADM Sabin was to command the amphibious phase of the evacuation under the aegis of American Naval Forces commanded by VADM Alfred M. Pride, USN, Commander Seventh Fleet. After three days of preparation in Keelung, the port at the northern tip of Formosa (where it rains 246 days per year, on the average), ESTES departed for the Tachens, rendezvousing with the beach units on the morning of 7 February. For five super-tense days the evacuation proceeded on a 24-hour basis, with the flagship anchored close to the islands in company with USS SAINT PAUL (CA-73) and a division of destroyers, while CAP from Task Force 77 provided air cover. A greatly relieved crew set course for Yokosuka 12 February after the Tachens were successfully cleared with minimal opposition from the Reds. One aircraft was downed by small-arms fire; the pilot was rescued by a unit of the Nationalist Chinese Navy.
During the following two months, ESTES made an extended good-will cruise, calling at Hong Kong once more and at Kure and Beppu on Japan's Inland Sea. On 12 April, after ComPhibGruONE and Staff had moved ashore, ESTES took departure of Yokosuka for Keelung, reporting to Commander Seventh Fleet on arrival. Off Taiwan (Formosa), ESTES exercised daily with ships and aircraft of the Nationalist Chinese in preparation for the possibility of action in the tense international hot spot of Amoy, the tiny Nationalist-held island outpost within artillery range of the Chinese mainland.
In a welcome break in this tense period, the officers of the flagship had the honor of attending a reception hosted by the Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek at the Government House in Taipei. The occasion was to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the Military Advisory Group, Formosa.
At 0930, 5 May 1955, the long-awaited ELDORADO arrived in Keelung to relieve ESTES. Less than six-hours later, ESTES was underway for a short stop at Yokosuka to reembark ComPhibGruONE and Staff, then for San Diego. After a 13-day non-stop race (at 15 knots!) across the Pacific, the mile-weary ship arrived in San Diego, receiving a hearty welcome from families, friends and brothers-in-arms. Thus ended the eleven-month-long "six-month tour" which began in July of the previous year.
Soon, ESTES was back in Mare Island Naval Shipyard for a major overhaul, but she returned to San Diego in time to serve as flagship for RADM I.T. Duke, USN, and his massive amphibious exercise PACTRAEX 56-L, conducted off the shores of Southern California between 7 and 18 November. Also embarked for the operation were MajGEN Twining, BrigGEN O'Neil, and BrigGEN Dawson, all USMC.
On 21 December 1955, just 5 days short of the fifth anniversary of ESTES' recommissioning, CAPT Maxim W. Firth, USN, relieved CAPT Peterson.
In the five years since recommissioning, ESTES had added yeoman service in the troubled areas of Korea, Vietnam, and the Tachen Islands to her impressive WW II record. The peaceful Christmas of 1955 was only the third active duty Yuletide season ESTES had spent in the U.S. Even then, feverish preparations were in progress for "Operation REDWING," ESTES' third tour to participate in nuclear weapons testing at the Marshall Islands Proving Ground. Between March and July 1956, she was again in the Marshalls.
ESTES departed for Yokosuka 31 January 1957 with CAPT James B. Burrow, USN, in command. ESTES provided quarters and communications facilities until April, sailing then to visit Hong Kong. She returned to stateside duty 15 May, voyaging to Pearl Harbor in July and August.
In april 1958, CAPT Rollin E. Westholm, USN, 2 relieved CAPT Burrow. The year found ESTES sailing north in July to ports in British Columbia, and again in August to call at Seattle.
By the year 1959, ESTES had taken on a new look; where the elephant-ears had once been located, the air search radar antenna appeared; the air search antenna's former location atop the tower was taken by a new height-finding radar; and the last electronic relic of WW II, the SP radar antenna, was gone from the after kingposts. It was this "new look" ESTES that began her 1959 tour of duty in the Far East, directing important amphibious operations off Japan, Okinawa, and Korea, and exercises off Borneo with ships of the Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy. During the tour, she visited Inchon, Chinhae, Pohang, Sasebo, Nagasaki, Kobe, Keelung, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
On 1 May 1959, CAPT Jesse B. Gay, Jr., USN, relieved CAPT Westholm in Pohang, Korea.
ESTES returned to Long Beach in August. In the Fall of that year occured ESTES' premier non-combat accomplishment: The ESTES Flag Football Team won the West Coast championship, defending the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in the finals at San Diego.
On 20 February 1960 CAPT R.H. Woodfin, USN, relieved CAPT Gay as Commanding Officer. CAPT Paul C. Stimson, USN, relieved CAPT Woodfin as Commanding Officer on 20 May 1961, and through 1962 ESTES operated along the West Coast, serving as flagship of Amphibious Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. ESTES twice visited the Pacific Northwest during this time.
CAPT Allen P. Cook, Jr., USN, relieved CAPT Stimson as Commanding Officer in 1962. In 1963, CAPT Willard W. De Venter, USN, relieved CAPT Cook as Commanding Officer. CAPT William H. Pellett, USN, relieved CAPT De Venter as Commanding Officer in 1964.
The year 1965 found ESTES in Southeast Asia once more for her second Vietnam deployment, under the command of CAPT Albert K. "Bert" Earnest, USN, 3 CAPT Earnest was relieved in October 1966 by CAPT Hugh D. Murphree, USN.
With CAPT Murphree in command in 1968, ESTES proceeded to her third Vietnam tour. While in Subic Bay in February, CAPT Jens B. Hansen, USN, relieved CAPT Murphree as Commanding Officer. The Southeast Asia tour was interrupted by a yard period in Yokosuka in August and, early in 1969, ESTES returned to San Diego, where she was soon to lose her "AGC" designator in favor of reclassification as "LCC-12."
In April of 1969, CAPT Edward B. Rogers, Jr., USN, relieved CAPT Hanson as Commanding Officer. ESTES' subsequent deployment to the Far East commenced that summer and was expected to extend for eight or more months. As soon as her relief, USS BLUE RIDGE (LCC-19), was completed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, commissioned, underwent sea trials, and arrived in the Far East, ESTES would be released for return to San Diego. (BLUE RIDGE was the first of a new class of 23-knot, 19,290-ton LCCs.)
After a stop at Pearl Harbor, ESTES proceeded to the Far East. She made many calls, including Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, Da Nang (Tourane), and Hong Kong. An unexpected turn of events precluded visits to Austrailia and Bangkok.
About three months into the deployment, CAPT Rogers received orders to return to San Diego for decommissioning. Back in San Diego, BOSN Johnny Boy Wade remained aboard to strip everything of value before ESTES was ordered into oblivion.
On 31 October 1969, ESTES was decommissioned for the final time.
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