USS Orca’s second life in Ethiopia

USS Orca (AVP-49) was a Barnegat class seaplane tender. Before WWII, this category was intended to service and maintain long-range float aircraft as it’s name implies. However as WWII progressed, that became unimportant and they were instead used as makeshift smallcraft tenders, repair ships, buoy tenders, tugs, merchant escorts, and other miscellaneous useful tasks.

USS_Orca_(AVP-49)_2(USS Orca during WWII) (official US Navy photo)

USS Orca was built by Lake Washington Shipyards in Houghton, WA. The ship was launched on 4 October 1942 and commissioned on 23 January 1944. USS Orca displaced 2,592 tons and measured 310’9″x41’2″x13’6″. The ship had two Fairbanks-Morse 38D8 diesel engines for a top speed of 18kts, and a crew of 367. Armament was three Mk30 5″, one Mk4 quad 40mm, two Mk3 twin 40mm, and four Mk20 20mm guns; plus two Mk9 depth charge racks, and a 10-ton crane to service seaplanes.

USS Orca was one of the few seaplane tenders which actually parented a seaplane squadron during WWII. During the Leyte Gulf battle in 1944, the ship also landed commandos in the Philippines. After WWII, USS Orca served as a service ship for the occupation of Japan before decommissioning in 1947. USS Orca was brought out of mothballs during the Korean War, recommissioning on 15 December 1951. The aft 5″ gun, sonar, and depth charge racks were deleted. On 1 March 1960, USS Orca was placed back into mothballs.

The warship Ethiopia

At the end of WWII in 1945, Great Britain was still occupying the former Italian colony of Eritrea, which land-locked Ethiopia’s emperor Haile Selassie wanted to be awarded to his country as compensation for it’s own occupation by Italy (and to grant access to the sea). The people in the former Italian colony wanted to become an independent country. As a compromise, the then-new UN joined the two areas in a two-part confederation headed by Ethiopia. Emperor Selassie paid lip service to the confederation scheme from the start, and outright annexed Eritrea in 1961.

ethiopiamap(An old map printed between 1961-1993, when Eritrea did not exist.)

Now that Ethiopia was no longer land-locked, it established a naval department and began seeking warships. In 1961, Ethiopia requested and was granted a “warship suitable for training duties” from the United States. The ex-USS Orca, which had decommissioned several months before, was transferred on a loan-to-buy basis. The ship was towed to San Francisco for reactivation and transfer. All weapons except the forward Mk30 5″ gun and two of the 40mm’s were removed. A modern AN/SPS-12 search radar replaced the obsolete WWII-era sets which were still onboard. The crew was reduced from 367 to 215, freeing up bunks for cadets. The ship was renamed Ethiopia, pennant number A-01, and was regarded by the Ethiopians as the flagship of their new navy.

Ethiopia was much larger than any warship in the surrounding navies of the time, and besides training cruises made active patrols, despite her low top speed and modest armament. Ethiopia split port time between Assab and Massawa (both in the former Eritrea) and spent much time at sea, including port visits as far away as England. The former seaplane tender was popular as the engines were (at that time anyways) reliable, the main gun was powerful and easy to maintain, and the ship was spacious and large enough to navigate bad weather.

orca(The warship Ethiopia, flagship of the Ethiopian navy, at sea in the Red Sea. The aft quarterdeck, where the third 5″ gun turret once was, has a skeleton for a sun awning to protect against the African sun.)

Other than a few patrol boats, Emperor Selassie’s vision of a navy never really came true and Ethiopia remained the country’s largest warship.

In September 1974 an officer in the army, Mengistu Haile Mariam, overthrew the emperor and declared Ethiopia as a communist republic. In reality it was a brutal dictatorship led by Mengistu himself. Mengistu set up a program to “Sovietize” the navy, going on a buying spree the country could ill-afford including two frigates, four missile corvettes, two torpedo boats, and two amphibious assault ships. None the less, the old Ethiopia was kept in service alongside the modern Soviet-made vessels, although now cut off from American spare parts.

In 1977, Eritrean rebels began a new push for independence and began a guerrilla war against the harsh communist government, which was also reeling from other insurgencies and the start of a long famine. The Eritreans gained ground in the mid-1980s as the famine worsened. By 1988, Ethiopia had to coordinate voyages with the army as parts of Ethiopia’s coast were effectively under rebel control.

In March 1990, the Eritrean rebels overran Massawa and Ethiopia, along with the rest of the ships there, fled to Assab. All of Ethiopia‘s spare parts were left behind at Massawa, and the old ship began to rapidly deteriorate.

orca3(The warship Ethiopia pierside.)

The bizarre ending

In 1991, the Eritrean rebels overran Assab and the rest of Eritrea, and declared independence. This left Ethiopia in a very strange situation: a country still with a navy at sea, but, no ports or coast. On 25 May 1991, just prior to rebel troops arriving at the naval base’s gate, any Ethiopian warship still operational (including Ethiopia) fled Assab and limped across the Red Sea to the port of Aden in Yemen, where the ramshackle fleet dropped anchor and set up shop. As the Ethiopian navy’s training program had long since collapsed, the former cadet bunks aboard Ethiopia were filled with ashore personnel and army troops fleeing the rebels.

This ridiculous arrangement of basing the homeless, now-pointless navy in Yemen continued for several years.The Yemenis quickly grew angry at having an entire foreign navy based at Aden (the fact that Ethiopia fell behind on the ships’ harbor dues didn’t help any either). In 1993, the Yemenis told the homeless Ethiopian navy they had to leave, which they did, moving to Djibouti (the Ethiopians tried the same scheme there, however the Djibouti government was having none of it and seized the ships in 1996 to sell as scrap).

However, for the now-50 year old Ethiopia, the end of the road had already been reached. The ship was decrepit, with the hull heavily rusted and leaking. The radar no longer functioned, and the main gun had not been fired in years. When Yemen evicted the homeless fleet in 1993, the Ethiopian sailors were unable to restart Ethiopia‘s engines and the ship was simply left behind with no crew, in uncertain legal status.

The abandoned hulk was cut up for scrap in 1995. So ended the life of the onetime-USS Orca, originally built to tend seaplanes against Imperial Japan a half-century earlier.

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