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MV Western Pioneer in WWII when it was USS Vent (ARS-23). (Source: Naval History and Heritage Command).

For actions on August 25, 1959

Gallant Ship Award citation:

“Responding to a distress call from the Canadian fishing ship, QUEEN KATHLEEN, grounded and breaking up on the rocks of Cape Lutke, Alaska, on August 26, 1959, the WESTERN PIONEER raced forty-five miles to the aid of the stricken ship. In thick fog the WESTERN PIONEER felt her way dangerously close to the rocky shore in search of the disabled ship. When the splintered hulk was located an her crew was sighted among the shoreline rocks, where they had taken refuge, the WESTERN PIONEER sent her big forty-one person lifeboat, with only six men at the oars, through the same waves and rocks that had claimed the QUEEN KATHLEEN. With strong hearts and great nerve the men fought their way through the surf, and with fine seamanship slid the lifeboat through the perilous rocks and onto a narrow steep beach. With fine timing between the ship and the lifeboat crew, the boat was relaunched on the crest of a roller and returned to the WESTERN PIONEER with eight survivors of the QUEEN KATHLEEN.

The courage, resourcefulness, expert seamanship and teamwork of her master, officers and crew in successfully completing the rescue operation caused the name of the WESTERN PIONEER to be perpetuated as a Gallant Ship.”

MV Western Pioneer was a small wood-hulled Aleutian freighter, built in 1944 by the Bellingham Marine Railway Company for the U.S. Navy as USS Vent (ARS-29), a rescue and salvage ship.  After it was commissioned, the vessel operated in Hawaii and the south Pacific, helping to clear the hulks of several exploded LSTs that had sunk in the West Loch of Pearl Harbor. It later conducted salvage operations on USS Apache (ATF-67), USS Tawasa (ATF-92), and SS Dominican Victory at Utupua Island. After the end of World War II, the Navy redeployed Vent to Okinawa, where it assisted in salvage and recovery efforts following a typhoon in 1946. Vent returned to the United States in 1946 and was decommissioned that year before being sold to a private citizen in 1948.

Later, the vessel was purchased by Kimbrell-Lawrence Transportation Company and was, in 1958, registered under the name Western Pioneer. Now converted for freight service, Western Pioneerdelivered goods from Seattle to the Aleutian Islands, sometimes returning with mainland-bound cargo.

Early in the morning of August 26, 1959, while en route from Seattle to Shemya, Alaska, and sailing in heavy fog, Western Pioneer received a distress call from Canadian vessel Queen Kathleen as it passed through the Unimak Pass. The wood-hulled fishing boat had been transiting the pass overnight; the master had set the vessel’s steering to autopilot. While attempting a radar-assisted position check, he noticed foam in the water, and before the ship’s course and speed could be altered, Queen Kathleen ran hard aground at the base of a steep cliff near Cape Lutke on Unimak Island and began to break up in the crashing surf.

Western Pioneer, about 45 miles from the wreck site, was the only vessel to hear Queen Kathleen’s distress call; as it proceeded to the stricken fishing boat, it lost radio contact and the freighter was forced to conduct a search of the shoreline. With the fog lifting, the crew of Western Pioneerspotted the wreck of Queen Kathleen at about 5:30 in the morning. The master of the vessel, Captain Edward Kimbrell, had previously alerted the U.S. Coast Guard of Queen Kathleen’spredicament, but a rescue vessel would not arrive at Cape Lutke until early that afternoon.

After waiting for an hour for the seas to calm, Captain Kimbrell, concerned for the risk of shock and exposure to the now-marooned crew of Queen Kathleen, decided to launch one of Western Pioneer’s lifeboats and attempt to land it on the beach near the wreck. Eight crewmen from Western Pioneer, with only six at the oars, managed to maneuver a large 41-person lifeboat through the surf and onto the shore, where it was partially buried in the sand by the crashing waves. Foreseeing this problem, the crew of Western Pioneer had rigged the lifeboat with heavy line and attached it to the capstan of the freighter.

Western Pioneer was ready to tow the beached life boat away from the shore at the opportune time; the eight rescued crew members from Queen Kathleen and the eight from Western Pioneer held the life boat in place until the vessel spotted a large wave approaching. Signaling to men on shore to jump in, Western Pioneer was able to begin towing just as the large wave partially refloated the lifeboat. By just after 8:30, only 3 hours after the wreck of Queen Kathleen was spotted, all eight rescued crewmen were safely onboard Western Pioneer.

Western Pioneer continued in freight service under several owners until 1991, when it was sold again and converted to a fishing vessel, Lucky Lisa. Notably, in 1968, the vessel struck a reef and briefly ran aground near Helmkin Island, British Columbia. It was, however, able to be refloated and underwent repairs at nearby Port Alice. In 1993, the ship was transferred to Panamanian flag and its fate from that point is not known.