USS Wake (PR-3): The US Navy Gunboat Taken Captive By the Japanese During WWII

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / NavSource / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / NavSource / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

For being a relatively small river gunboat, the USS Wake (PR-3) had a surprisingly long history. Initially put into service in 1927, the vessel was captured a number of different times and, as such, saw active service as a warship for multiple countries. This is the peculiar history of the former US Navy ship.

Origins as USS Guam (PG-43)

USS Guam (PG-43) at sea
USS Guam (PG-43), 1927. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / NavSource / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The USS Wake began life as the USS Guam (PG-43). She was launched on May 28, 1927 in Shanghai, China, and commissioned in December of that year, with Lt. Robert K. Awtry in command. Guam was one of the six new river gunboats that had been built to replace older vessels on the Yangtze River.

Initially, Guam‘s primary mission was to ensure the safety of US missionaries and other foreigners. On July 4, 1930, she sailed for Yochow and Chenglin to check on the Americans and foreigners, as both had fallen into the hands of the Communists. As the boat neared the post of Yochow, she was met with rifle fire from shore. This brief encounter resulted in the death of one crew member.

Guam also functioned as a radio spy ship to track Japanese movements. As China fell further into Japan’s control, the vessel  continued her patrols of the Yangtze River. By 1939, Guam was followed by a Japanese warship wherever she went.

The USS Wake (PR-3) is captured by the Imperial Japanese

Imperial Japanese soldiers celebrating
Imperial Japanese soldiers celebrating the capture of the USS Wake (PR-3), 1941. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

In 1941, the USS Guam was renamed the USS Wake, as her former name was being used for a new battlecruiser.

In November 1941, Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Earl Harris was ordered to close the US Navy installation at Hankow and sail for Shanghai. On the 28th, he and most of his crew were transferred to gunboats and told to sail to the Philippines. On the same day, Lt. Cmdr. Columbus Darwin Smith was summoned by Adm. William Glassford and asked to take command of Wake.

Smith seemed to be the obvious choice for the position as an old “China hand” with years of experience in the Far East. He was also a member of the Shanghai Pilot’s Association, who assisted in guiding international shipping up the Yangtze River, toward the Whangpoo River and Shanghai. Furthermore, Smith was able to speak Mandarin and could get by in Japanese.

On November 30, 1941, Wake reached the Chinese coast. It was here that her crew was divided between two ships, the USS Luzon (PG-47) and Oahu (PR-6). The two vessels then set sail for Manila while a skeleton crew of around 14 reservists stayed aboard Wake to serve as a radio outlet for the handful of Marines and Consular force that remained. There were no docks, so the gunboat was stationed at an anchorage in the middle of the Whangpoo.

One week later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Immediately after, they demanded that Wake’s crew surrender and quickly captured the gunboat. Smith was the first American taken prisoner by the Japanese. He and the crew were thrown into a prison camp near Shanghai, where US Marines and Navy sailors captured on Wake Island would also be imprisoned.

During the Second World War, Wake was the only American vessel captured by the enemy, intact.

The USS Wake (PR-3) enters service with the Imperial Japanese

RCS Tai Yuan at sea
RCS Tai Yuan, late 1940s. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / NavSource / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

By December 15, 1941, the USS Wake had been renamed the IJN Tatara and attached to the Sasebo Naval District. Tatara was assigned to the China Area Fleet in the Shanghai Base Force.

Throughout the Second World War, the gunboat was attacked by the Allies. By September 1945, the Japanese troops stationed in China formally surrendered and Tatara was given back to Americans. The US then gave Wake to the Chinese Nationalist Party, which renamed the gunboat the RCS Tai Yuan. 

In 1949, the RCS Tai Yuan was captured by the People’s Republic of China and served with the Communist force until the 1960s. No other US Navy ship has since been named Wake, although a Casablanca-class escort carrier launched in 1943 was given the name USS Wake Island (CVE-65).

Fate of Lt. Cmdr. Columbus Darwin Smith

Japanese official standing in front of American prisoners of war (POWs)
American prisoners of war at Woo Sung POW Camp, 1942. (Photo Credit: FPG / Getty Images)

An interesting side story to the USS Wake‘s history involves Lt. Cmdr. Smith, who was taken prisoner by the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Smith escaped Japanese internment not once, but twice during a three-year period. In January 1942, he was moved to Woo Sung Prisoner of War Camp, where he met Cmdr. John Woolley of the British Royal Navy. In March of that year, Smith, Woolley and two others dug beneath the electric wiring surrounding the camp and escaped. However, only hours later, they were recaptured by Chinese soldiers working with the Japanese.

The escapees underwent brutal punishment at the hands of the Japanese for their escape attempt. They were taken to Ward Road Jail to be tried with desertion from the Imperial Japanese Army and put on trial before a military court. After the trial, they were thrown into solitary confinement for 52 days, all the while not knowing their fate.

Finally, they were taken back into the courtroom and Smith received a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment.

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Smith and Woolley were still determined to escape. The pair and a handful of other POWs made a rope from sheets and worked together to climb over a 25-foot-high wall. After successfully breaching the perimeter, they traveled over 700 miles on foot to the Chinese Nationalist Lines and were flown to freedom.

Madeline Hiltz

Maddy Hiltz is someone who loves all things history. She received her Bachelors of Arts in history and her Master’s of Arts degree in history both from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis examined menstrual education in Victorian England. She is passionate about Princess Diana, the Titanic, the Romanovs, and Egypt amongst other things.

In her spare time, Maddy loves playing volleyball, running, walking, and biking, although when she wants to be lazy she loves to read a good thriller. She loves spending quality time with her friends, family, and puppy Luna!