The rusting hulk of a warship lies in mudflats off Redwood City, a vessel with a cargo of history that includes two world wars and a tragic naval disaster. What’s left of the USS Thompson, clearly marked “South Bay wreck” on nautical charts, is easily seen from the air, but if you want to get close then kayak to the remains of the destroyer about six miles from shore.
That’s what Jerry Pierce does.
“If weather is nice and the tides are good” it takes little over an hour to get to the Thompson from Redwood City, said Pierce, adding that the wreck is first visible as he leaves the harbor, becoming “a small bump on the horizon toward Fremont.”
Pierce has visited the wreck, which sits high on the mud at very low tide, several times.
“Over the years we have watched the effects of the salt water continue to eat away at the structure of the old USS Thompson,” he said.
There’s little left of the 314-foot Clemson-class ship that was built for World War I but just missed that conflict when it was launched in 1919.
The Thompson’s remains may very well serve as the tombstone for a line of ships that more than proved their worth — aging destroyers that wrote many of the Navy’s finest chapters in World War II, which saw the Thompson relegated to being a target for airplanes practicing bombing runs on San Francisco Bay. Other ships of its class, all of them obsolete for years and dubbed “four pipers” because of their quartet of smokestacks, battled fascism in both the Pacific and Atlantic. One, the USS Ward, sank a Japanese submarine at Pearl Harbor moments before that naval base was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Thompson never fired a shot in battle. Still, it had a brush with history. It was part of a flotilla of 14 destroyers that was headed from San Francisco to San Diego on Sept. 8, 1923, when the lead vessel made a wrong turn and smashed into jagged rock near Point Conception on the Santa Barbara County coast. Seven ships were lost and 23 sailors died. The Thompson was last in line, and its skipper did not make the fatal turn.
Stricken from the Navy list in 1930, the Thompson was sold for scrap, but instead of being broken up, the destroyer’s future included a stint as a restaurant and bar during Prohibition.
In 1976, the Redwood City Tribune reported that a local man who did not want his name used said he conducted his own salvage operations on the Thompson while a student at Sequoia High in the early 1950s, selling as much as $300 worth of materials to scrap dealers in just one day. In addition to salvaging, the man and his friends held parties on the Thompson.
“They still had the canvas bunks below and even magazines left behind by the last crew,” he told the Tribune. “We made fires on the deck to roast hot dogs and generally partied it up, sometimes for whole weekends. The old ship was good to me.”
The fact that there was still so much left of the ship indicates that explosives probably weren’t used during the practice bombings in World War II when, the Tribune reported, the ship was “attacked relentlessly by Army Air Corps P-38s, P-51s, Navy Corsairs and other craft.”
The last of the Clemson class destroyers, the USS Hatfield, was stricken from the Navy’s list of ships in 1947. However, taking note of the four stacker’s diversity, John Alden wrote in his 1965 book “Flush Decks & Four Pipes” that “perhaps even now one survives as a barge or hulk.”
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.