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Update: 12 April 2013: U. S. Army Transportation In The Southwest Pacific Area 1941-1947 extract.

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Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet


Introduction

The idea of a large oceanic Army fleet seems to surprise many people today. When they are told the Army operated a massive fleet during the Second World War some consider it impossible. Why? The Army's maritime history reaches back to the early days of the nation. It involves many branches of the service with a wide range of functions.

The only comparatively well known one is the Corps of Engineers waterway work. Perhaps the second best known is the combat functions of the Engineers in amphibious operations where they operated landing craft and assorted special function small vessels supporting immediate landings and the follow-on combat engineering required for building supply lines and operational support.

Much less well known is the Army Air Corps (AAC), later the Army Air Forces (AAF), operation of small, fast vessels resembling the more famous PT Boat. These were originally intended to be rescue craft for downed aviators, usually termed "crash boats." Their function tended to expand in combat areas where they often became fast gun boats and, as is typical of gunboat groups, acquired weapons entirely outside the "normal" complement. The Air Corps also operated vessels to recover the aircraft that were in fact small salvage craft. The Air Corps/Air Force situation is complicated by the fact that even during the war the air arm was beginning to exercise independence -- sometimes with considerable friction with the War Department in general -- and showing signs of duplicating functions found elsewhere in the Army's own fleet. One contentious area was the air arm's push to create its own supply system and it did operate small freight vessels to that end.

Many e-mails have asked why I don't cover landing, patrol craft, tugs or Engineer vessels. The smaller Quartermaster and Transportation Corps vessels, in wide variety (see "Harbor Boat Designations") were acquired, maintained and generally operated by the Harbor Boat Service. Despite the Army's variety of operations under at least the technical control of various Army organizations I focus only on the large, ocean going vessels with one exception. The exception is the Army Mine Planter Service under the Coast Artillery Corps. That is purely the result of the connection between vessels of that organization having a direct tie to cable laying and one cable ship that are found on pages dealing with "my" ships.

The coverage of Signal Corps is essentially for the same reason, though several large transport type ships were assigned to Signal Corps functions. In all the cases, with apparent exception of the Corps of Engineers for waterway work vessels, it was the operator of the transport fleet that acquired and maintained the ships. First Quartermaster Corps and, in 1942 and after, the Transportation Corps acquired, maintained and operated the large transport vessels and generally did so for the Signal Corps, Air Corps and Coast Artillery Corps. Though the latter two Corps provided crews, the vessel acquisition and maintenance functions lay with the same organization operating the big transports. Interestingly, it is that vital and large logistical function that is so obscure today.

Background

Without adequate transport and logistics military grand strategy and brilliant tactics are hopeless. It has been said that amateurs talk of strategy and tactics, professionals of logistics. Concentration of forces is worthless if they have no supply, no ammunition, no food -- if you cannot concentrate them in the first place. The Army had to rely on its own maritime resources until fairly recently in our history. It had difficulty. The following quote is the opening of a piece attributed to an unknown author on a page of Logistics Quotations (LogisticsWorld):

Logisticians are a sad and embittered race of men who are very much in demand in war, and who sink resentfully into obscurity in peace. They deal only in facts, but must work for men who merchant in theories. They emerge during war because war is very much a fact. They disappear in peace because peace is mostly theory. The people who merchant in theories, and who employ logisticians in war and ignore them in peace, are generals.

Between each war the fleets of Army and Navy tended to shrink to levels that could not support operations of the next conflict. Each conflict tended to teach the same lesson again. Each lesson was quickly forgotten by the public, the politicians in particular and even many of the "generals."

Even for a continental war logistics without ships was entirely impossible. The Army operated a large support fleet and an odd combatant, the Army ram, during the Civil War. One of the few on-line references to these ships of this era is at the Navy Historical Center where Ships of the United States Army has photographs and descriptions. As far as I know there is no similar Army reference. The Army's fleet fell from sight.

The next big war, between the United States and Spain, found the nation lacking military transport. As a result an Army fleet was reborn and became the root of a very large fleet spreading world wide from 1941-1949. It maintained a substantial foothold and in some ways perhaps reached its peak glory after the war with Spain. The Army's fleet was the means of transporting troops, dependents and civilians on government business to the exotic newly acquired territories. In particular, the service to the Philippines became somewhat legend.

The First World War found transport lacking again and ships were rushed into Army service. The fleet grew and a foretaste of the allocations between the Army and the Naval Transport Service of the next war appeared. Ships moved between the two services and sailed together in convoy. Even more interesting is a subplot to the overall story. The Army's decision to form its own fleet was based in part on experiences with charter vessels refusing risks during landings. In the First World War it began having problems with its own civilian manned ships and began a transfer of function to the Navy's transport service that was manned by naval personnel. The Army ships themselves appear to be manned by naval personnel during the First World War. It appears the pendulum swung several times on this issue from 1898 until now. The current drive is to contract out many more fleet and military support functions.

At the end of this "War to End Wars" the fleet fell to a level just adequate to maintain those remote outposts gained largely during the war with Spain. The runs to the remote and exotic islands resumed routine and somewhat romantic (at least for those with better accommodations) operations. Young women dependents met young officers on the transports and weddings sometimes followed. In the unrealistic peaceful glow of those postwar years there was a certain romantic flavor to passage to far off islands aboard these Army vessels.

The nation, particularly the maritime transport situation, was found nearly completely lacking as reality of a true world wide war hit the United States in 1940-1941. Lack of ocean going transport was a dire emergency that crippled early responses after Pearl Harbor plunged the nation into an already well established war. I will touch on some earlier history, but it is the Second World War period and its aftermath that I will cover in more detail.

* * *

Why Such Obscurity?

Perhaps much of the current blame can be placed on the general ignorance today of the fact that Army and Navy before 1949-1950 were entirely separate Cabinet level Departments with sometimes shocking lack of joint planning. It does not explain the fact that even during the days of the huge Army fleet supporting world wide operations the fleet was treated as "surprising" in some news stories.

I've found evidence that even during the height of the Army fleet's size it suffered from obscurity. One of the few news stories treated it as a "surprise, the Army has a fleet" story. Articles in the magazine Yachting in March 1943, "The Army's Navy," and May 1944, "The Army's Fleet Comes of Age," felt the need to explain an Army fleet. Troops boarding transports were often surprised to discover the ship was not Navy with a United States Ship (USS) designation. Army troops were sometimes quite surprised to find they were sailing aboard an Army ship, a United States Army Transport (U.S.A.T.). In discussion groups today you will often find both the veterans and their children referring to the Army transport as the "USS" when it had absolutely no connection with the U.S. Navy, much less as a commissioned vessel. To complicate matters some of the ships did switch with some being SS (commercial), U.S.A.T., USS and even cycling through the series again. They also looked somewhat alike. The Army's distinctive colors went drab for the war. They no longer stood out.

The Army fleet was always considerably below "secondary" to Infantry, Armor and Artillery. Support services simply do not get the attention. One Army expert mentioned in e-mail that Army considered its ships just floating trucks. I've concluded the rather peculiar indifference to its seagoing past might also be a somewhat spiteful reaction to losing these assets to Navy in the consolidation into a Department of Defense in 1949-1950. This is pure conjecture based on some familiarity with such organizational behavior and the peculiar large scale destruction of its records, particularly ship logs, during the period of losing the function.

All organizations are capable of such behavior and I have high regard for the Army's attention to history, but I've also been struck by the heat generated in the turf wars related to the creation of the Department of Defense and demise of the separate cabinet level War and Navy Departments. Microfilm news reports are full of the infighting and in some ways the Army was the big loser. The War Department was Army, but in DoD the Army shed its Air Corps, a combat arm, to become the U. S. Air Force. Compared to that the loss of major components of its maritime arm, largely populated by civilian mariners, was of minor importance. Any time an agency moves or gets reorganized it sheds history, but I can see some despair and anger being involved in what seems a near purge of the maritime history. It would only be human to feel a sense of "what's the use."

Modern historical fiction rarely mentions a ship as being Army. One bit of advice to authors even advises they not designate an Army Transport properly as U.S.A.T. Name because that would bring a reader up short. The advice is to call it USS Name for flow and forget being technically correct. I'm afraid many do exactly that and I find repeated cases on the web where what is clearly an Army Transport is called USS. I'll admit clarity can be a bit challenging. Some vessels were built for Army, almost immediately acquired by Navy and commissioned and then came back into Army service. It is not unusual to see a U.S.A.T., USS, U.S.A.T., USNS sequence meaning Army, commissioned Navy, Army, Navy "in service" (operated by what is now the Military Sealift Command).

Origin of These Pages

I used the term "Ghost Fleet" after some thought. I was not fully aware of the fleet size and variety in Army vessels during the war years even with a long interest in World War II, ships and very extensive reading. I was even less aware of the extent of the Army's role at sea and with ships going back to early days. In researching ships I've personally known I became struck by the number with Army origins and backgrounds. There was hardly a trace of what I was discovering had been a very large fleet. There are many "forgotten" fleets not given due credit. None I know of being so termed are quite so large and have such extensive history. The glimpses of the Army's Second World War fleet were flickers, not quite solid -- ghostly. The material does exist. It just does not find its way into extensive circulation and is not the subject of popular writing.

I personally discovered the extent of the fleet as I was researching history of "my" ships. At least three of these, Albert J. Myer, Sgt. George D. Keathley and Hunt, were actually operated by Army. Another on these pages is ARC 5, Trapper, who I now know is a younger sibling to F. V. Hunt. I have not found firm evidence Neptune operated under Army as William H. G. Bullard. She appears to be one of those wartime ships caught by peace and going directly into reserve. She was, along with Myer, built for Army Signal Corps use.

That led to the initial "Army Ships" page and a good bit more interest and tracking of the history. I've also been struck by the lack of ready references in a very large public library system in the Washington, D.C. area. It takes recourse to specialized military libraries to even find some of the published references and is another reason for the "Ghost" use.

General Comments

The Army operated vessels and water craft of all sizes and perhaps more varied types than any other single organization. Some of the more interesting were small craft. There were the better known Army landing craft and also patrol and even high speed PT boat like vessels. The latter supported the Army Air Corps as "crash boats" and sometimes evolved into gunboat like activities. At least for now my interest is in the larger vessels that range from about 1,000 tons upwards and were intended to operate at sea. Despite probable exceptions that is partly my reason for excluding the large vessels, usually dredges, of the Corps of Engineers that are largely intended for operating in rivers, harbors and shallow coastal waters. Another criterion is that there is some link between a ship covered elsewhere in my ship pages to one of Army operating organizations.

In 1949 the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), under Navy, took control of what had been a fleet of Army transports. According to an Army "Facilities - Equipment" inventory dated 31 December 1946 there were 417 transports in service with total tonnage of 3,590,900 (DWT) and capacity for 269,285 troops. At this point only 110 vessels were Army owned. The remainder were chartered (304) under various schemes and three were still allocated by War Shipping Administration. Apparently the Army owned ships were concentrated in troop transport. A spreadsheet of the tables revealed that the Army owned only 26.4% of the ships and 20.5% of the deadweight tonnage, but those ships had 57.7% of the troop carrying capacity. This 1946 fleet was already showing the effect of the end of the war and draw downs. The fleet continued to change composition as ships moved from Army to Navy to disposition during continued draw down and readjustments until the final drastic change of Army leaving the oceanic transport function to Navy.

Younger people without historical reference may not realize the state of the government in this period (amazing to me, but interest differ). We had the War Department and the Navy Department -- no Department of Defense. In simplistic terms War had what is now Army and Air Force. Navy had what is now Navy. The War Department had transports to support Army needs. Navy took care of Navy. The experience in the war showed this to be a weakness, though ad hoc joint operations had been common. Studies were made, politics played its hand and the decision was made. Under a Department of Defense the Navy would operate oceanic transport and Army would give up all its true oceanic transport functions. There was controversy and all was not sweetness and light. Keathley is one of those involved in the change from Army to Navy with a sudden call to Korean service in the midst of the change. She sailed during the night under emergency orders before fully completing transition.

One reference for anyone interested in the state of affairs with transport when global war caught up with the United States is United States Army In World War II, The War Department, Global Logistics and Strategy 1940-1943; Robert W. Coakley and Richard M. Leighton; Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C. It is one of the official history series often termed "The Green Books" that offer detailed looks at campaigns and organizations of the Army during the Second World War. Shortly after Pearl Harbor we were in sad shape:

The gist? There wasn't enough transport (among other problems) to support an invasion of Vichy French Martinique that appeared to be building as an Axis base in our own belly! Shipping worldwide was in critical short supply. One critical need bled shipping from another and some efforts had to simply wait. Meanwhile the U-boats were taking their toll. Things were about to change with the amazing capacity to produce the Liberty and Victory hulls. Still, shipping shortage is a constant theme that never quite went away and one compounded by organizational disputes and inefficiencies. The major bottleneck in fielding a minimal force overseas was lack of marine transport (Perhaps we are repeating this history).

* * *

Today, there is little in public libraries or on the web about those Army ships. Perhaps the best single source for identification is David H. Grover's U.S. Army ships and Watercraft of World War II. Grover's dedication is interesting: "To the mariners of the Army--civilians as well as soldiers--who manned the vessels of this huge but little-known fleet, this book is respectfully dedicated as a token of long-ovredue recognition."

Grover noted that his intent was largely to recover and consolidate an inventory the ships. This was a scope that did not include a great deal of discussion of exploits of the fleet or individual ships. His count of vessels is 111,006 Army to 74,708 Navy, including all the Navy's combatants and auxiliaries. Both figures include the Army's 88,366 and Navy's 60,974 assault/landing craft. The Army's fleet included 1,665 oceangoing vessels over 1,000 tons. The Army's fleet was almost entirely transport or maintenance. The Navy's was largely combatant. The operation of ships was a continuing bickering point between the two during the war.

Grover's discussion of the difficulty in researching these ships is applicable today. Many novices assume there are vast, highly organized "databases" hidden away in government. There are vast archives. They are well indexed. I've been in some of the Transportation Corps boxes and found that I may have been the first to look as they seem absolutely undisturbed since packing. The problem is that these at times absolutely fascinating records do not appear to contain simple consolidated references to these ships. Grover states the problem:

Later:

Two major sources for Grover's ship listings were a compilation of wartime construction contracts for Army's lesser vessels with many details of those vessels. The other was a Transportation Corps Register of Harbor Boat Designation Numbers with similar information that is "full of pen-and-ink corrections, some of which are undecipherable" and not in agreement with the same information in the other document. That is how records were done at the time.

In one of those boxes I've seen the Chief of Transportaion's "spreadsheet" for hulls, troop capacity and an early summer 1944 landing on the Continent in ink--the handwriting is recognizable. It was a desperate problem and a note associated shows a somewhat desperate solution. Some of the questions I get about ships indicate people expect every movement to be "documented" and preserved. To some extent some ships were "lost" even while operating. There is just no magic wand that opens this subject to an answer to every question and resolves every discrepancy. Even the Navy, with an organization completely dedicated to ship's history has gaps and errors. The Army without such and organization contains many mysteries with respect to its ships.

In a sad closing to this 1987 book Grover notes:

Apparently it was not of great interest to the USNI membership and other customers. A search of their on-line bookstore shows many "ship" books, some of older vintage, but not this one. It does show on some used book seller lists. If the "largest armada of World War II" is forgotten by its operator I don't suppose Navy cares to pick up the slack. It is truly something of a ghost fleet.

* * *

The story of Mac Arthur's Southwest Pacific area (SWPA) "X fleet" or "permanent fleet" is probably more than enough for a book or two if records could be obtained. From Grover's U.S. Army ships and Watercraft of World War II: "Because of its remote location and its low priority status in the allocation of Allied shipping, the Southwest Pacific Area of the Pacific Theater of Operations was forced to create its own system of procuring ships. This system was pragmatic, and not overly concerned with the exact details of charters and the legal status of vessels that were acquired." This fleet approached the numbers in the regular Army fleet at times and was quite varied "19 Baltic Coaster or N3 types, 15 concrete ships, 20 Liberty ships, and 33 of the coastal C1 or 'Knot' type. Many of these ships had been assigned to the command; others had simply been 'retained' or kept in the area after delivering cargoes there, a practice that was resented by their merchant crews as well as by logistic planners stateside."

The 1949 monograph by Dr. James R. Masterson, U. S. Army Transportation In The Southwest Pacific Area 1941-1947, is a basic reference used in many of the official histories. It is available in a set of PDF documents, split into eight segments, from official sites. I have transcribed a portion of Chapter VI concerning the first days of that fleet and some of the issues of its formation.

Among the belated Medal of Honor awards to black heroes of WW II in 1997 was one to Private George Watson of Birmingham, Alabama. He was among the troops being transported aboard one of the foreign ships included in that "X fleet" in the SWPA, the Dutch ship U.S.A.T. Jacob. The USNS Watson (T-AKR 310) is named for Private Watson.

This SWPA fleet included "Lakers" from the Great Lakes and more or less included (at least used extensively) a side wheel steamer built in 1910. It also included ships from nations under occupation, China, and even Italy. Australians and New Zealanders were contracted to crew many of the vessels. Forgotten Fleet by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch is the defining work on the Small Ships section of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, Water Division in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) during WW II. The Small Ships were Australian vessels, crewed almost entirely by Australians wearing U.S. uniforms, that flew the U.S. flag. This page continues the sub section of Army Ships dealing with this topic. This page is written as a "review" to introduce this very neglected subject to readers of these pages. I'm afraid most of these stories have been lost, but hope to find some. One story has now become the page titled An Australian's Experience.

* * *

It is interesting that I get more e-mail on the Army Ship page than all the others combined. Part of the reason may be that so many sailed aboard as both troops being transported, brought home on hospital ships or as crew. The transport crews were often civilian merchant mariners, but also included Army and even Coast Guard and Navy personnel. Some of the Army ships were entirely crewed by Coast Guard.

The merchant mariners in general have lacked recognition. It is little known by many that on a percentage casualty rate it was the Merchant Marine that had the highest casualty rate. There are somewhat amusing stories of these men deciding after being torpedoed several times deciding enlisting in the Army was a safer line of work -- only to find themselves on a truck to an Army vessel shortly thereafter and right back in the sub's sights. In my view these civilian mariners sailing the Army vessels are even more forgotten than the general merchant mariners. The fact that British subjects from "down under" served aboard U.S. Army vessels is even less known, though remembered in Australia and New Zealand to some extent.


Army Ships Index

Sub-page Update
A.T.S - Quartermaster Corps (also brief mention of the Harbor Boat Service) 20 November 2009
Transportation Corps, Water Division 8 February 2010
Coast Artillery Corps, Army Mine Planter Service 1 January 2012
Signal Corps 4 December 2011
Spindle Eye (expansion from note to a page for this floating newsroom) 12 December 2011
Background, References & Today 22 November 2011
Harbor Boat Designations (Transcription of Army TC document in NARA with letter designations for Army vessel types.) 13 November 2009
Transcription, part of Chapter VI, U. S. Army Transportation In The Southwest Pacific Area 1941-1947 by Dr. James R. Masterson, Transportation Unit, Historical Division, Special Staff, U. S. Army, October 1949 concerning formation of the fleet and early issues. 22 April 2013
Special Section - SWPA Small Ships: These ships were crewed largely by Australians. +
Forgotten Fleet "Review" of the book by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch that is the defining work on the Small Ships section of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, Water Division in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) during WW II.
An Australian Experience Personal account of Australian Walter Rignold Marshall's experience as a civilian employee with ATS as the Papua campaign begins. Link to his diary being transcribed by his daughter.
Army FP/FS Vessels Major revision 11 January 2010 An exception to my intent of not getting into Army types beyond Mine Planters and cable ships.

I am seeking information from those with facts about or actual experience with these ships or ship related functions in the Army organizations from 1919 through 1950. I am particularly interested in the period from 1939 through the functional changes resulting from creation of the Department of Defense. If you have such information or have questions please use the "mailto" link at my name below and send an e-mail with "Army Ships" included in the subject line.

I am also particularly interested in events in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) where the desperate shipping situation called into service ships otherwise unfit and people met the challenge with great ingenuity for a makeshift fleet that, while old, odd, and even strange, got the job done. Some responses so far are at SWPA stories.


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Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Ramon Jackson

E-mail me using the "mailto" link above with "Army ships" in the subject line.

Permission is given for noncommercial use and distribution of the text and my photographs, provided copyright and this notice are maintained. If used in a web site concerning these ships I would appreciate notification, if for no other reason than to perhaps link to the site. All commercial rights to my photographs and text are reserved. Any photographs taken by others and used with their permission are so noted and their permission must be obtained for use.