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Return of USS Pirate’s Flag Still a Mystery

 

By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

The United States 48-star national flag flown on USS Pirate (AM 275), circa 1950.  The flag went down when USS Pirate struck a mine and sank Oct. 12, 1950, but showed up in an anonymous package sent to the ship’s former commanding officer two years later. NHC catalog number 85-133-A.
The United States 48-star national flag flown on USS Pirate (AM 275), circa 1950. The flag went down when USS Pirate struck a mine and sank Oct. 12, 1950, but showed up in an anonymous package sent to the ship’s former commanding officer two years later. NHC catalog number 85-133-A.

For this month’s celebration of Flag Friday, we’ll revisit a time a little more than 65 years ago when a ship went down so quickly “nothing of value” could be salvaged, only to find out two years later the assessment was a bit premature.

The sinking involved the minesweeper USS Pirate (AM 275) on Oct. 12, 1950, while clearing a channel in the area of Wonsan Harbor near Sin-Do Island just four months into the Korean War. The minesweeper was no rookie when it came to clearing mines. Pirate arrived in the Pacific in June 1945 as Allied forces were making their final drive on Okinawa. The minesweeper mainly operated near Jinsen, Korea and the northern coast of Formosa following the war.

Decommissioned in November 1946, the minesweeper operated with Service Forces, United States Pacific Fleet (COMSERVPAC) in Japanese waters. When hostilities in Korea increased, the U.S. Navy recommissioned Pirate on Aug. 14, 1950, with Lt. Cornelius E. McMullen as the commanding officer. The ship was stationed with Commander Mine Division 32 and assigned to sweep for mines off the east coast of Korea.

Early on the morning of Oct. 12, Pirate, along with fellow minesweepers USS Pledge (AM 277),  USS Incredible (AM 249), USS Redhead (AMS 34) and USS Kite (AMS 22),  set sail to sweep the area within three miles of Sin-Do Island. According to the commanding officer’s report, at 9:20 a.m. general quarters sounded for “condition able.” Life jackets and helmets were donned and non-essential personnel were brought up from below deck to minimize casualties should the ship strike a mine.

At 11:12 a.m., the ship entered un-swept waters. After Pirate “swept” five mines, a helicopter pilot flying over the area reported a “cabbage patch” of mines, but did not give an exact location. At nearly the same time, Pirate lookouts reported a mine with its leading edge on the port side, sending Pirate into evasive maneuvers. But it was too late. At 12:09 p.m., Pirate struck the mine, blasting a hole the size of a two-car garage in the ship’s hull, according to one survivor. The ship sank within five minutes.

As Pledge attempted to rescue the survivors, she, too, struck a mine and sank. Enemy coastal gun batteries from Sin-Do began firing on the survivors, but the high-speed minesweeper (former destroyer DD-495) Endicott (DMS 35) returned fire, silencing the battery.

Boats from the remaining minesweepers and Endicott rescued the survivors. Six from Pirate were reported missing, and 43 were injured in the blast, while Pledge reported one dead and six missing.  The casualties from Pirate and Pledge added to the 21 missing from USS Magpie (AMS 25), which sank after striking a mine Oct. 1, 1950, and the 13 dead or missing after destroyer Brush (DD 745) struck a mine Sept. 26, 1950.

The day after Pirate and Pledge were sunk, U.S. salvage teams began to recover onboard encryption devices to make sure no classified information remained on the ships. Satisfied there was only “a small chance of obtaining any item of value” from the wrecks, they were destroyed.

That, however, turned out not to be the case. Two years later, McMullen, Pirate’s former commanding officer, received an anonymous package. The note inside explained as the ship’s former commanding officer, he might want to have what was inside the package: It was the 48-star American flag that went down with the minesweeper.

Nearly 35 years after the sinking of USS Pirate, Capt. McMullen, who received the Silver Star for his actions on the day of Pirate’s demise, donated the flag to the Naval Historical Center on May 28, 1985. It is on display in the Korean War exhibit within the National Museum of the U.S. Navy, on the Washington Navy Yard.

USS Pirate received the Presidential Unit Citation for her minesweeping efforts to go along with her four battle stars. The salvaged flag is a reminder of the minesweeper’s dangerous mission, as their motto states: “Where minesweepers go, the fleet follows.”

USSPirate
Minesweeper USS Pirate AM-275 at sea

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