Eyes of the Fleet

Eyes of the Fleet

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sunday Ship History: Freight Supply Ships

Once upon a time, the biggest "fleet" in the world belonged not to the U.S. Navy, but rather to the U.S. Army.

That is, if you count hulls of all types, of course. Largely, the Army fleet was a logistics fleet. If you count combatant ships, the U.S. Navy in WWII was big. Really big.

On the other hand, what wins wars is not always the point of spear, but rather the ability of spear to keep moving forward, constantly sharpened, replenished and sustained. And to do that, well, you need a great big logistics force. The Army Transport Service, with its 127,000 hulls of various types helped do the job.

And among these hulls were some little ships, unnamed but numbered as Freight Supply (FS) ships. They served in the South Pacific, where their shallow drafts made them good ships for resupply mission among the island groups. They served in the Aleutians, they served off Okinawa where they fought kamikazes. They were torpedoed, bombed, strafed and generally, like much of logistics, ignored until needed. They did the day to day work getting supplies to the troops.

A large contingent of these Army ships were manned by Coast Guard crews. In the Coast Guard records there is a list of such ships and among that list are reports of the accomplishments of some of the crew:

The Coast Guard-manned Army vessel FS-158 was commissioned 17 May 1944 at Los Angeles, California, with LT Sloan Wilson, USCGR, as first commanding officer. He later became a famous author and his works included The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. LT Wallace E. Cooke, USCGR succeeded him on 26 September 1945. LTJG Robert J. Pate, Jr., USCGR subsequently succeeded him. She was assigned to and operated in the Southwest Pacific area.
The Coast Guard-manned Army vessel FS-255 was commissioned at Wheeler Shipyard, Whitestone, NY on 6 June 1944... On 10 May 1945, the FS-255 had proceeded to Taloma Bay with the Davao Gulf First Re-Supply Echelon with a cargo of 155-mm ammunition on board, for the use of the 24th Division, U.S. Army in their operations against the enemy. On the night of 10-11 May 1945, she was anchored in 17 fathoms of water, 1000 yards, 140 degrees from the pier at the head of Taloma Bay, Davao Gulf, Mindanao, Philippines. Both #1 and #2 hatches were open and about 80 tons of ammunition were still on board. The ship was dark and the quartermaster on watch was on the bridge and the security watch on #2 hatch, the engineer on watch in the engine room. It was rainy and the weather was thick when at 0030 on 11 May 1945 she was struck by a torpedo on her port quarter in the after crew's compartment. The commanding officer, LT George A. Tardif, USCG, was in his berth at the time, but immediately went on deck with a battle light to ascertain the cause of the explosion and extent of damage. He found that the torpedo had hit her on the port quarter, ordered all hands checked and a search for injured men.... The main engines were nearly flooded and water was pouring into the engine rooms from the bulkhead aft which was badly ruptured... The 140 mm gun had been blown off and one ready ammunition box belonging to it was found on the forecastle head near the anchor winch, with 140 mm shells about forward of #1 hatch. The ship had buckled between #2 hatch and the bridge structure with foot high ridges in the deck plating, extending down the sides of the ship into the water. ...Out of a total enlisted complement of 20, 16 survived. All four officers also survived.

The Coast Guard-manned Army vessel FS-265 was commissioned at New York on 1 September 1944... On 5 April 1945, while on course, a floating horned mine was sighted dead ahead in position 05° 43' S, 147° 09' E drifting across a heavily traveled shipping lane through which an aircraft carrier had been seen to pass not more than half an hour before. The FS-265 maneuvered into a position from which it was possible to explode the mine with machine gun fire. The damage to the FS-265 from the exploding mine was slight, consisting of a few jammed doors and locks, short circuits in the radio transmitter and a leak in the hydraulic rudder angle indicator. All of this damage was subsequently repaired.

The Coast Guard-manned Army vessel FS-280 was commissioned on 9 December 1944 at Wheeler Shipyard, Whitestone, NY ...

Shortly after 2200 on 10 July 1945, the sky at Zamboanga, Philippines was illuminated by a column of flame that climbed 200 feet in the air. The entire fuel dock appeared ablaze. All hands on the FS-280 mere awaiting the explosion of the two large tankers known to be moored there. LT Waldron, commanding officer of the FS-280, assembled a fire and rescue party consisting of himself and five Coast Guard enlisted man and proceeded to the scene, two miles away in the motor launch. As they approached, the fire seemed to be slackening in intensity and they were able to distinguish the source of the blaze, which were dolphins to which the inboard tanker USS Stonewall (IX-185) was secured. Flaming oil filled the area between the dolphins and the fire encompassed a total area of 300 square feet with 2 or 3 small fires on the decks of the two tankers 200 feet from the outboard tanker, M. V. China, a native vinta was observed aflame 75 feet of f the bow of the Stonewall. The flames were 3 feet high and appeared to arise from three distinct sources of fuel within the vinta. The Coast Guardsmen proceeded down the seaward side of the China and observed a lifeboat overcrowded with an excited Chinese crew. Going alongside they quieted the Chinese and directed them to follow them to the fuel dock. Swinging under the stern of the Stonewall they observed that four hoses were hooked up on the port side aft and fire fighters aboard the Stonewall were directing three streams at a surface oil fire, 50 feet long, blazing under the counter and along the port quarter. The other hose was cooling the mid-ship sides, dock, and dolphins that it could reach. The launch headed in and attempted to douse the flames by splashing water with floorboards ripped from the launch, but the blaze spread and they ware forced back. A hose was requested and lowered and the flames under the port quarter were extinguished within five minutes. Flames still leaped from a forward dolphin just beyond reach of the ship's hose and the Coast Guardsmen requested another hose and easing under the dock that drenched the only remaining dolphin afire. Approaching within 20 feet with a third length of hose their solid stream made short work of the blaze. Going aboard the Stonewall, after the hull and remaining dolphins had been drenched to cool them off, it was learned that an accidental discharge of five barrels of aviation gasoline had been set afire by sparks from a native boat. Only the courageous action of the fire fighters on board the two tankers had prevented them from being blown "galley west." It had been touch and go with hundreds of gallons of gasoline within 50 feet of the last flame to be extinguished. The five Coast Guardsmen who worked with LT Waldrop for an hour to save the two tankers acted in the best traditions of the Coast Guard and were recommended for recognition. They were:

Paul T. Doyle
Lawrence Bendoski
Philip C. Hayes
Robert A. Mulford
Isadore Weinstein


The Coast Guard-manned Army vessel FS-309 was commissioned at New York on 10 April 1944 ... FS-309 proceeded to New Guinea, via Honolulu and Ellice Islands. At Milne Bay, New Guinea she unloaded and reloaded for Hollandia and joined a convoy for the Philippines.

As she approached Leyte the crew was notified that "enemy air attack can be expected at any time," but they sailed up Leyte Bay without firing a shot. A few days later, however, on Christmas Eve, 1944, the airfield at Tacloban was attacked and she began shooting at enemy planes along with shore batteries.

Sailing shortly afterward for Mindoro, the FS-309 was subject to concentrated attacks from enemy kamikazes while steaming through the Surigao Straits, the Mindanao Sea, the Sulu Sea and the Mindoro Straits on 28 December 1944. The convoy shot down some 26 enemy planes. The FS-309's guns fired into one Zero, putting her ablaze shortly before she banked into the ammunition-laden USS Porcupine (IX-120) 200 yards ahead. A terrific explosion followed, the concussion picking everybody several feet off the deck of the FS-309 and tearing the flying bridge to pieces with all shatter proof windows which were not down being completely pulverized. As the smoke rose from the Porcupine, the remnants of the ill-fated ship were seen falling from the sky into the sea as shrapnel littered the deck, with booms, life rafts, hatches, etc. of the ill-starred ship dropping not 20 feet ahead of the FS-309. Out of the smoky area, three huge, mountainous waves were seen approaching and two men were seen frantically waving and shouting in the water. The FS-309 maneuvered closer and Francis L. Owens, USCGR, of the FS-309's crew jumped overboard. He carried lines to them and they were rescued. The two men turned out not to be from the Porcupine, but from a Navy vessel in the column to the left of the FS-309. They had been blown overboard in the Porcupine explosion. The enemy had scored three hits. The Porcupine had entirely disappeared except for a floating body and two others were seen abandoned and burning in the distance. Attacks continued while anchored off Mindoro Island and the FS-309 went to the aid of a burning gasoline tanker hit by suicide divers and rescued her crew. On 31 January 1945, the FS-309 pulled into the partially wrecked Wawa River Wharf at Nasugbu Bay where the last 300 defenders of Bataan and Corregidor had been landed and held prisoner for many days, many of them dying for want of medical care. Here enemy "Q" boats--small fast speedboats carrying two depth charges aft and attacking shipping at anchor with suicidal intent were known to be operating. The FS-309 was the first United States vessel to remain overnight. A raft extending out from the ship was accordingly built to provide additional protection. Five days later, the expected "Q" boat attack came. Shortly after 1 AM, a watch sighted three helmeted Japanese in a motorboat. He gave the alarm and the searchlight was turned on them. Not 50 yards away they became confused and ran into the raft near the fantail. The explosion that followed blew the Japanese and the "Q" boat into the air and lifted the stern of the FS-309 out of the water. So great was the explosion that a lifeboat on the FS-309's boat deck was completely filled with sand and water. Crewmembers just starting for their battle stations were thrown violently on deck while water poured into their quarters through weather doors and passageways. The men thought an enemy aerial bomb had hit the ship. No one was hurt and the ship was comparatively undamaged thanks to the protective raft. The bodies of a Japanese captain and lieutenant were found, indicating the importance of the mission. If they had succeeded the dock would have been rendered useless for some time...
The Coast Guard-manned Army vessel FS-367 was commissioned April 29, 1944, w... She reached her final destination in the Philippines on 30 December 1944. In Operation L-3, near San Jose, Mindoro Island, Philippines, she anchored 500 yards off Bulong Point midway between Blue and White beaches. The USS Mariposa, Navy X-126, Liberty-type, converted oil tanker, dropped anchor about 300 yards away and some 800 yards from shore. At 1530 Japanese planes, in a sudden and devastating attack of shipping in the harbor sunk or damaged 24 ships. One crashed the USS Arturus, a PT-boat tender, which sank almost immediately. A second made a low level strafing and bombing attack on a group of LSTs unloading at White Beach blowing the stern off one of them and than turned on the Mariposa, into which it crash dived. The tanker immediately burst into flames and a number of the crew either were blown or jumped into the water. The FS- 367 went to her assistance. At the same time a third Japanese plane made a low-level attack on the destroyers outside the harbor, straddling two destroyers with bombs and finally crashing into the USS Ganesvoort, which immediately began to burn and settle in the water, being assisted by two other destroyers, in a sinking condition. Proceeding to assist the Mariposa, the FS-367 took several men aboard with her boarding net and James D. Ellis sighting a man struggling in the water and calling for help, dove into the water and supported him until both were picked up by an LSM. The FS-367 stayed alongside the Mariposa until all survivors had been taken off. About 1900 the FS-367 withdrew out of the line of fire of guns that were about to shell the Mariposa. Later, this was cancelled and the Ganesvoort launched 2 torpedoes into her. Immediately thereafter a great amount of burning gasoline spread over the bay making the FS-367's anchorage unsafe. As she was preparing to move, the Ganesvoort requested she come alongside and take off her crew. By the time she had reached the destroyer, however, the gasoline had spread so widely that the Ganesvoort was in immediate danger of being engulfed. The FS-367, instead of stopping to take off personnel, warped alongside the destroyer and began towing her to a safe anchorage. While so occupied another alert sounded and a Japanese plane was shot down immediately overhead. The FS-367 finally got the Ganesvoort to safety several hundred yards off White Beach. The next day the Ganesvoort was abandoned by her crew in a sinking condition. No casualties were suffered by the FS-367....
Of the non-Coast Guard manned ships (of which there were man, but not much in the way of written history exists), one crewman serving in the Aleutians also gained some fame as a writer, Gore Vidal served, it seems, as first mate on an FS. The experience prompted the writing of his first book, Williwaw.

Although Thomas Heggen, the author of the book Mr. Roberts, never served in an FS (he served in USS Virgo, a cargo ship (AKA-20) later converted into an ammunition ship (AE-20)) the movie Mr. Roberts did use an FS (or in Navy terms an "AKL") as a set. Apparently there is some controversy about exactly which AKL was used, with one side asserting it was USS Hewell (AKL 14)(formerly FS-391) and another group claiming it was USNS New Bedford (T-AKL-17) (formerly FS-289), now known as Sea Bird, a fishing vessel based in San Diego. Whichever, the vessel will live on forever in a great Navy movie.

Another collection of FS/AKL ships that will live forever in history began their lives as FS 344, FS 217 and FS 345. These eventually became Navy ships and were converted into USS Pueblo (AGER-2), USS Palm Beach (AGER-3) and USS Banner (AGER-1)- "environmental research ships" (with a mission described as "electronic intelligence collection and other duties").

As most of you know, Pueblo currently resides in the custody of the North Koreans.

Others of these ships probably plied the waters of the Pacific until they could no longer go on. A few others helped usher in the space age and missile testing, as set out here concerning the testing of the "Snark" missile:
The Air Force saw rockets as unreliable, inaccurate, and too small to deliver the massive nuclear bombs of the era. Instead, Cape workers focused on subsonic, jet-propelled cruise missiles. One such missile was the Snark, which would become the United States' first intercontinental missile. At the Cape, though, the Snark is best remembered for its numerous failures. So many of these missiles hit the drink off Cape Canaveral that locals began referring to that section of the Atlantic as "Snark-infested." But the Snark eventually achieved its intended long-range capability, (roughly 5,500 miles), and in so doing, it forced the construction of the tracking stations that would become the Eastern Test Range.

The West Indies stretch 1,600 miles southeast of Cape Canaveral and were perfectly placed for Snark tracking. Beyond these islands, though, range planners had 3,000 miles of unbroken ocean to contend with before tiny Ascension Island came into view. If a Snark went haywire during this leg, the only sign of its demise would be its failure to appear on Ascension's radar screens.

In 1956, Air Force officials, in an attempt to plug this gap, went to the mothballed World War II fleet. From there they selected six ships of the "FS" class ("Freighter, Small"). (James Cagney's much-maligned ship in the movie Mr. Roberts was an FS.) The ships were nameless, but the Air Force gave them call signs-- Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, and Kilo - and sent them off for a facelift. For one thing, the port and starboard gun mounts had to go. In their place, shipyard workers installed telemetry antennas. (White radomes covered these antennas, and the resulting assembly came to be known as the ship's bra.) Belowdecks, a cargo hold became the ship's electronics center. It contained all the equipment necessary to lock onto the Snark's beacon and record the data for later mailing back to the Cape.

By October 31, 1957, the ships were in position, ready to track the first Snark to travel the entire length of the range.
You might note the FS working in the Snark program has a USAF hull number. Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force. These little ships got around...

So offer up a salute to the brave men who served in these sea-going cargo trucks and who fought them in hot war, cold war and in the service of their country.

UPDATE: An email sent me to a site at which Vietnam service for at least one AKL is demonstrated. The site is here, the vessel being USS Brule (AKL-28) (formerly FS-370) - although the site asserts it was a T-AKL, in the photos, I see indications of it being a commissioned Navy ship and not USNS or MSC. See also here, for site run by Albert Moore devoted to Brule. Mr. Moore also notes that USS Mark (AKL-12) served in the Riverine Navy. Mr. Moore has a bit of her Vietnam combat history:
In 1968 the USS Brule sustained seven rocket hits while on one of her normal runs. Despite extensive damage to the superstructure and electrical cabling, Brule suppressed the enemy fire and proceeded on schedule. The true spirit of the Officers and Men of Brule was exemplified by their own words reporting the damage, "ship and crew ready to haul cargo or fight and not necessarily in that order."

Although small and unprepossessing in appearance, this gallant little ship was definitely considered a stellar and vital performer in the "Brown Water Navy" of the Mekong Delta area of South Vietnam. Notes of interest: Far from being one of the glamour ships of the fleet, the USS Brule (AKL-28) had a unique personality of her own. A small crew of 43 enlisted and 5 Officers maintained her 176 feet by 32 feet of hull. Occasionally she may have been spotted with deck red, in a constant effort to keep her looking like a "lady", but whether her cargo was fizzies or civic action items, she traveled thousands of miles of rivers and oceans to carry out her support and to fulfill her motto: SERVICE-OUR MISSION FOR FREEDOM."
USS Satyr (AKL-23) was also one of the former FS's that served in the waterways of Vietnam. My apologies for leaving them off the original post. Good site for some additional background is Brownwater Navy from whence comes the photo of Brule.

UPDATE2: More discussion about the ship used in making Mr. Roberts here, with photographic evidence and "eyewitness" testimony here. Big hat tip!

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