USS Big Horn (WAO-124)

Nov. 6, 2020

Big Horn, WAO-124

(ex-Gulf Dawn; ex AO-45; later IX-207)

A photo of USS Big Horn

Launched: 1936 (commercially)

Commissioned: 16 April 1942 (USN); 17 January 1944 (USCG)

Displacement: 15,405 fl

Dimensions: length: 425'; beam: 64'; draft 27' 8" max

Machinery: 2 x Westinghouse 2-cylinder direct drive turbines; Foster-Wheeler watertube 450-psi main boilers; 3,300 shaft horse power

Propellers: single

Performance: 12.5 knots maximum speed

Complement: 239

Armament: 2 x 3"/50 (single-mount) 1944

Electronics: ??

Cost: Acquisition Navy loan, conversion $150,000


Of the several disguised merchant ships "Q-ships" operated by the Navy to help combat the Nazi submarine menace in the Atlantic during the early days of the war, none was more formidable than USS Big Horn, formerly the tanker SS Gulf Dawn.  Conversion of SS Gulf Dawn began in March 1942 at the Bethlehem Shipyards in Brooklyn.  Construction was then continued at the Boston Navy Yard where the work was completed in July 1942.  Designed as an answer to the Nazi strategy of concentrating their attacks on tankers, Big Horn completed her shakedown cruise in late August 1942.  Her first commanding officer, Commander J.A. Gainard, was formerly skipper of the ill-fated SS City of Flint, which was captured by the Germans at the beginning of the war and was later sunk by a U-boat.

On her first cruise, Big Horn operated out of Trinidad on the aluminum ore route.  Later she traveled in convoy between Trinidad and Norfolk and on at least one occasion was prevented from attacking Nazi submarines because of other ships of the convoy crossing through the line of fire.  In May 1943, while Big Horn was operating with a small task force of PC boats (submarine chasers), Big Horn attacked two undersea contacts, dropping depth charges during a four-hour period, after sighting a. periscope on the starboard bow.  There was a heavy swirl as the U-boat dove below the surface.  Later that day, an oil patch was visible over a wide area and it was presumed that one submarine had been destroyed; and that another U-boat which had been sighted had moved out of the area.

It was after January 1943, when German submarines left the United States Frontier waters, that Big Horn began operations with the small task force of submarine chasers.  In mid-summer of 1943, Big Horn again served as the flagship of a small task group (21.85) at which time Captain Gainard was succeeded by Commander L.C. Farley.  This cruise, the last one in which Big Horn participated, covered the general area north of the Azores and as far south as the latitudes between Brazil and Dakar, French West Africa.  During a five-day period late in November, Big Horn's task group was in the midst of a group of from 10 to 15 German submarines.  Her skipper, Commander Farley, reported that nine contacts, sightings or attacks on the undersea crafts took place in Big Horn's immediate vicinity.  He expressed the belief at that time that the German raiders were wary of attacking an independent tanker and that because of the presence of many independent merchant ships may have escaped attack.

After completing her final cruise on 1 January 1944, Big Horn was assigned to the North Atlantic weather patrol duty under the supervision of the Coast Guard.  Her Coast Guard crew boarded her on 7 January 1944. At the completion of her Coast Guard duty early in February 1945, Big Horn became IX-207 and was assigned to the Pacific, and after the war's end she operated in Japanese waters as a tank supply vessel.

USS Big Horn was one of several "Q-ships" operated by the U.S. Navy in the early part of the war.  Among the others was USS Atik, sunk by a German U-boat three days out of Norfolk while on her shakedown cruise in March 1942.  Another was USS Asterion, which was on duty between March 1942 and October 1943, and was later assigned weather patrol duty in the Atlantic.  Formerly the SS Evelyn, Asterion was a sister ship of USS Atik, both cargo vessels were formerly operated by the A.H. Bull Steamship Company of New York City.


Cutter files, USCG Historian's Office.

Scheina, Robert L. U.S. Coast Guard Cutters and Craft in World War II. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1982).

U.S. Coast Guard. Public Information Division. Historical Section. The Coast Guard at War: Transports and Escorts (Vol. V). (Washington, DC: Public Information Division, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, 1949.