Napoleon said, "An army travels on its stomach," referring to the need to keep an army in the field fed so it can keep moving. By World War Two the saying had expanded to include the "beans, bullets and black oil" needed to keep a fleet at sea. The logistics work behind keeping thousands of ships, hundreds of thousands of men and tens of thousands of aircraft fueled and supplied is, perhaps, not as exciting a tale as the landings at Iwo Jima, but it is an important story. A tiny portion of that tale should be carved out for the men who sailed and worked on the ships known as "AOGs"- or gasoline tankers.
Unlike the big fleet oilers designed to replenish carrier task forces at sea, the AOG was designed to transfer fuel to shore stations, though some could conduct replenishment at sea.
Not generally considered "front line" duty, the role of AOGs during wartime has been underreported. For example, off Iwo Jima, some AOGs carried potable water for use by the Marines ashore, a job which required the AOG to close the beach in close proximity of the fighting. One such ship was USS Tombigbee (AOG-11):
Her tanks filled with fresh water instead of the oil for which she was designed, Tombigbee began replenishing the tanks of the ships of the Fleet and worked out of Guam and Ulithi as she continued this duty for the remainder of the year. The ship's first taste of combat came while she lay anchored at Ulithi on 20 November 1944. A Japanese midget submarine slipped into the anchorage area and torpedoed the oiler Mississinewa (AO-69) which was anchored less than 1,600 yards from Tombigbee.She took part in the invasion of Okinawa.
The tanker remained on the Guam-Ulithi "express" water supply run through January 1945. On 7 February, while she was steaming toward Guam, orders rerouted Tombigbee to Saipan. Subsequently removed to Tinian, with a full load of water, she supplied water until 19 February, when she joined Task Group (TG) 60.9 and got underway for the Volcano Islands. At 0924 six days later, Tombigbee was detached from the task group and entered the harbor at Iwo Jima. There, the water carrier lay-to and kept out of the line of fire of the supporting battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. Rough seas hampered her water-discharging operations, but the need for fresh water overrode considerations such as the desire to avoid minor hull damages caused by the ships bumping and scraping each other in the tossing waves.
After remaining in the Iwo Jima area until 9 March, the ship proceeded to Guam where she reloaded her holds with more of her precious liquid cargo. Later in the month, Tombigbee joined the invasion force heading for the Ryukyus. (source)
During the Vietnam War, AOGs played a very important role, as set out in "How AOGs Fueled the Vietnam War" by Paul Gryniewicz in the Feb 2005 edition of Sea Classics and found here:
To their crews, the gasoline tankers were "Always On the Go," but to the GIs, airmen and sailors fighting the Viet Cong, the AOGs were the most popular - and important - ships in the entire Navy.The job was not without danger, and the AOGs came under attack at various times:
In his Report on the War in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland observed that, "We were utterly dependent upon the sea logistical line."
A critical link in Westmorland's supply chain was made up of six, small slow, 22-year-old US Navy gasoline tankers: USS Patapsco (AOG-1), USS Elkhorn (AOG-7), USS Genesee (AOG-8). USS Kishwaukee (AOG-9), USS Tombigbee (AOG-11) and USS Noxubee (AOG-56). Their mission was to deliver fuel to US forces in the I Corps Tactical Zone, the five most northern provinces of South Vietnam that ran from the Ben Hai River in the center of the DMZ south to Sa Hyuhn. Thirty to 70-miles wide, I Corps was bordered on the west by Laos and on the east by the South China Sea. With the exception of a low, narrow coastal plain, jungle and mountains covered the region. Land-based transportation was practically non-existent. Route One was a narrow winding road running the length of the zone. A single narrow-gauge railroad ran parallel to it. Both were frequently out of commission due to enemy action and monsoon storms. The only established port in the zone was Da Nang.
I Corps' physical condition meant that the only way to practically and consistently move large quantities of supplies around was by water. Without fuel, planes and helicopters could not fly, tanks and trucks could not move, and PBRs and swift boats could not patrol the waterways. In December 1968 alone, shore-based forces consumed 1.7 million gallons of fuel daily. On average, the six AOGs pumped over 15 million gallons of fuel per nine-month deployment. Noxubee set the record by pumping 20 million gallons in 1968, earning a Meritorious Unit Commendation in the process.
For seven hard years, beginning in March 1965 and ending early 1972, at least one AOG was constantly deployed in Vietnamese waters. Tombigbee arrived in Vietnam on 8 March 1965, supporting the Ninth Marine Expeditionary Force as they waded ashore at Red Beach near Da Nang. Tombigbee became the first AOG to pump fuel ashore during the Vietnam War.
Using both bow and stern anchors to keep from swinging with the current, AOGs anchored 1500 to 2000 yards offshore alongside a buoy marking the seaward terminus of an assault pipeline. One of the ship's boats or a boat from shore would float a fourinch hose from the tank deck to the buoy. A swiveling gooseneck connection on top of the buoy gave the AOGs a secure point to attach the refueling hoses. First, a crewman would hop onto the buoy and connect the hose. Once the connection was secure, the AOG would begin pumping fuel ashore. Due to their limited pumping capacity and small-diameter pipelines, it could take as long as 72 hours to unload all 680,000 gallons of fuel.
Tan My was in the cross hairs of the Communists' 1968 TET offensive. The fuel farm was destroyed along with several landing craft and barges. River cargo operations were interrupted for ten days, and 18 men belonging to NSAD Tan My were killed. During one 72-hr period of nonstop operations, Kishwaukee pumped 1.7 million gallons ashore at Cua Viet and Hue. While anchored in the lagoon at Tan My on 28 February, unloading into bladder boats and barges, she came under small-arms fire, quickly got underway without any casualties, re-anchored out of range and resumed pumping. The need for fuel was so critical during the TET Offensive that Kishwaukee spent 144 out of 168 days on the line.Even without enemy fire, handling the nototiously dangerous AVGAS made for dangereous work:
On 28 October 1968, Noxubee (Lt. J.R. McCall) was pumping cargo through the underwater pipeline and to a bladder boat alongside when North Vietnamese artillery opened fire on the ship. Ensign Richard Bland was at the pumping station on the port side of the tank deck when the first rounds came in, sending up plumes of water along the starboard side. Bland called away the sea detail, and ordered the engine room to stand by for an emergency underway. BMC Franklin and the two fantail sentries quickly yanked the stern anchor up, while at the same time, Ens. Andy Bavarik, hauled in the bow anchor.
Meanwhile, Bland and the tank deck crew cast off the bladder boat and grabbed fire axes to cut away the fueling hoses. All the while, the enemy's artillery was bracketing the ship. By the time the fuel hoses were cut free and the bow anchor hoisted off the bottom, Noxubee was underway at 14-kts and safely got out of range. After a few hours, Noxubee returned to the anchorage and resumed pumping.
(Attack on Genesee) The first round was short, the next long, and the next four or five walked down the length of the ship as near misses. The XO, Lt(Jg) Michael Haines, from his GQ station on the signal bridge, directed the crew of Mt. 33 to cut the stern mooring line. He also ordered all exposed topside personnel below and darkened ship. Cutting the stern line enabled the ship to swing about ten feet, just enough to keep from taking a direct hit on the tank deck loaded with JP-4 jet fuel that could have incinerated the ship and all those aboard.
Rounds were exploding all around. It was only a matter of time before the enemy gunners found their mark. The first hit was on the 01 level port side aft. A second round struck the outboard engine on the ammi barge. Both hits sent lethal shrapnel flying up and down the port side of the Genesee and started fires on the ship and the barge. Internal communications throughout the ship were knocked out. Chunks of flying steel perforated Genesee's stack and exploded an acetylene tank stored along the passageway outside the wardroom. Shrapnel sliced through the high frequency antennas, limiting Genesee's ability communications to the outside world. One chunk hit a 55-gal gasoline drum stored on the 02 level aft. Fire flowed down the scuppers and down the side of the ship near the JP-4 cargo tanks. hot metal tore through the tops of empty cargo tanks B-2 and B-4 without causing any additional fires or explosions. The most serious damage occurred forward. As SF3 Art Ball was securing the watertight door from the tank deck, shrapnel blasted through the door, striking Ball in the left chest and abdomen. SA Theodore Perkins, who was standing near Ball, was also wounded.
(Noxubee limpet mine attack) Noxubee (Lt. Dudley Cass) anchored off the Cua Viet fuel farm at 0855 on 8 September 1969. At 1640, YOG-76 moored astern and began filling her cargo tanks. About four hours later, pumping secured and YOG-76 got underway. An hour later, at 2137, fantail sentries SN Paul Gryniewicz and SN Sam Profit and OOD Lt.(jg) Clare Brooks, sighted two swimmers in the water only ten to 15 yards astern of Noxubee. They immediately took the swimmers under rifle fire and tossed concussion grenades at them. Noxubee hoisted her anchors and got underway.
At 2215, Noxubee re-anchored about 1200 yards off the beach so divers could inspect the hull. By 2350, the divers reported that, because of the dark conditions, strong current and rough sea, they could only inspect the stern area and did not find anything. A more complete inspection would have to wait until first light. The divers did speculate that if there was a mine it would probably be a Soviet-made BPM-2 with a 64-1b TNT charge, equipped with a six-hour timer, and magnetically clamped to the hull. With that less-than-encouraging report, Lt. Cass decided to move further out from the beach and anchor for the night.
At 0201 the mine exploded. The swimmers had placed the mine not at the stern by the engine room or the tank deck where it would have done lethal damage, but forward on the port side by the dry cargo hold in a relatively "safe" spot. The blast opened a three-ft by five-ft hole in the hull, flooding spaces underneath the cargo hold and the hold itself with two- to three-ft of water. It also ruptured a fire main causing the Number 2 magazine to flood with over six feet of water. Before the dust from the blast settled, damage control parties under the experienced direction of SFC Eskel Wolf went into action, working in knee-deep water to stem the incoming flood by plugging the hole with mattresses and lifejackets. They also secured the fire main and pumped out the Number 2 magazine.
On 1 May 1968, Genesee arrived at Tan My and anchored alongside the pipeline buoy. US Army LARC-801 came out to assist Genesee connecting to the pipeline. Genesee crewmen SA Donald Shafer and DC2 Harley Cowans climbed aboard the LARC and hooked the ship's hoses to the connection on the buoy. Those on board Genesee witnessed the LARC explode and burst into flames. The stunned observers saw one of the men blown through the air and into the water.As you may have gathered, these ships during the Vietnam War were Lieutenant commands. And very hard working ships they were, indeed.
The LARC was completely engulfed by a lake of fire as the motor whaleboat from Genesee got underway to rescue the crew. SF3 Tony Neil, aboard the whaleboat, dove into the flame-covered water to attempt a rescue. Swimming under water and pushing the flames away with his hands when he surfaced for a breath, Neil located the LARC's driver, SP4 Tommy Miller, who was without a life jacket and badly burned. Neil managed to get the burned driver back to the ship. The others on the whaleboat fished Cowans and another LARC crewman out of the water but could not locate Schafer. By this time LCM-92 and 18 other LARCs were on site searching for the missing seaman but without any luck. Army units recovered Shafer's body a week later. An investigation determined that a spark from the LARC's exhaust caused avgas from the leaking hose line to ignite, destroying the LARC, killing Shafer and injuring three others.
Modern war planning still includes getting petroleum products from the sea to the beach (see here, for example). But the AOGs are no longer with us. Many of their brave crews are, however, and they deserve a big salute!
Thought you might like to know.
(Top photo: USS Tombigbee, lower photos USS Noxubee)