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USNS Kingsport (T-AG 164)

Kingsport in the dusk
Look closely and you can see her running lights


USNS Kingsport (ex-Kingsport Victory) was a VC2-S-AP3 type Victory ship and had the second most interesting history among ships in which I lived part of my life. She was also another of the ships I knew well that had an Army history. She had been the USAT Kingsport Victory, an Army transport. Oddly, among the old conversions, my liking the ships seems inverse to interesting history for the ship. I never developed the same attachment for "KP" as I did for Flyer or the cable ships. The ship with the most interesting history, Mizar, is the conversion I liked least of all. For a larger version of my photo above and some excellent shots of Kingsport with the dome see NavSource's page for T-AK-239 Kingsport Victory / T-AG-164 Kingsport.

I am one of those people who after some time tends to think of a ship more like a living thing than a structure and machinery. I don't think it is all that uncommon for people who depend on ships twenty four hours a day month after month for living space and survival to tend to personalize them. They have personalities with their own noises, smells and feel at sea among other things. Some is dependent on the crew at any given time, but even when there is a radical change in the personality given by the crew the fundamental ship character tends to remain. For some reason Kingsport never was a "personality" I particularly liked. That is not to say I found her uninteresting.

Kingsport fell somewhere between those converted from cargo or other work and the newer oceanographic ships of the Silas Bent class. I believe one reason KP never quite grew on me was because KP was, excepting machinery spaces, fully air conditioned and effectively sealed off from the outside world. There were no ports in our living or working spaces and in the course of a normal day the only exposure we had to the outside was in the wardroom, and the curtains there were usually drawn. You could tell if it was bright or cloudy, day or night and little else. It was possible go for days and not know whether it was raining or sunny unless you made an effort to go out of your way and find open deck. When the work days stretched twelve and fourteen hours and it took a special detour to get outside even people like me who liked getting out could realize days had gone by since breathing fresh air and seeing the sea and sky.

I found the quarters particularly depressing. A brown plastic upholstery like insulation was on all bulkheads and the overhead lights were strong fluorescent and turned quarters into something like a beige-brown, padded, glaringly lit run down room with green tile floor and gray furniture. It was a combination of cold light and drab, somewhat dirty surroundings that was coldly depressing to me. I sometimes thought it was a color scheme and space most appropriate for fungi and sometimes referred to KP as the place for becoming a mushroom. Most of the time we had only the little bunk reading lamps and lavatory lamp on. It was either bathe in a fluorescent blaze that exposed the drab and somewhat repulsive details or live in a cave. I liked the cave feel much better. About the only thing that stood out then was the washed out pink of the standard bed spread and a small pool of greenish flooring. Now that I look back all the old ships had much the same scheme except for the brown padded cell effect. That must have been what tipped the scales in favor of cave dwelling. My only real memory of full overhead lighting being on was in the last hours before port when packing to go ashore or home. Then it was handy to have the blaze to see everything and you were about to escape anyway.

The Kingsport Victory was laid down in Los Angeles 4 April 1944, launched 29 May 1944 and delivered for service 12 July 1944. She was assigned by the War Shipping Administration to Army and was in the Western Pacific by October. She carried cargo to New Guinea, Eniwetok, Iwo Jima, Guam, Ulithi and Okinawa. She returned to New York through Suez in February 1946. She was acquired by the Navy in 1950 for operation as an MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service) ship, the Kingsport Victory (T-AK 239), in the Caribbean, Europe and Mediterranean. By 1956 she was operating in the Pacific again carrying cargo between Japan, South Vietnam and points between. From then till 1961 she continued cargo service including runs back in the European area and deployed to the Mediterranean. Her service seems to have included most ports connected with supporting U.S. Forces.

In an odd aside, a recent search on Kingsport Victory revealed another bit of history. Kingsport came up as part of a lawsuit, JOHANSEN V. UNITED STATES 343 U.S. 427, where a crewman had been injured while alongside a pier. The quote: "PETITIONER JOHANSEN WAS A CARPENTER IN THE CREW OF THE TRANSPORT KINGSPORT VICTORY. ON AUGUST 5, 1949, HE SUSTAINED A LACERATED LEG IN THE COURSE OF HIS DUTIES ABOARD THE VESSEL, WHICH WAS LYING AT A PIER AT THE BETHLEHEM SHIPYARD, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK."

In 1961 this routine changed. Kingsport Victory was modified in Portland, Oregon to be the first satellite communications ship, renamed Kingsport and reclassified as AG 164. This conversion equipped her with a 53 foot white plastic dome (seen to left in photo provided by Bruce Boles whose father served aboard 1961-1963). The dome protected a 30 foot stabilized parabolic antenna for defense satellite communications experiments supporting Project Advent. There were other changes internally with less visible impact -- still that 53 foot white dome was a feature that could not be missed by anyone and sort of existed in ghost fashion after removal. Its platform became the sunning and open air place favored by many, particularly the technical component. Air locks and other remnants were present to the end.

Across from our quarters was a sealed, but fully equipped, 1961 vintage radio station with an "ON AIR" light above the door. As far as I know nobody ever went in, but we could see the control and broadcast rooms from a window. Kingsport, and very probably this room, had been part of a significant event leading to our current communications capabilities. The following is from a report by the National Academy of Sciences titled The Navy and Satellite Communications, National Academy of Sciences, Naval Studies Board - National Research Council:

In 1962, the U.S. Navy took a significant step forward, building the first satellite communications ship, the USNS Kingsport, mounting a 30-foot stabilized antenna to provide a mobile terminal capability for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Syncom satellite. Kingsport, in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria, relayed the first telephone call ever over a geostationary satellite, from President Kennedy via the Syncom II satellite. Kingsport later provided communications services in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas for several years in support of tracking and recovery operations for NASA's Gemini program. (Click for full text)

The conversion was noted by a plaque above the builder's plaque. These were once located on the forward superstructure at the main deck level. I believe at some time they may have been moved inside.

I found it somewhat puzzling that the references for what turned out to be a significant event -- the birth of our worldwide near instant, clear communications age -- did not contain more detail. Even the exact date was not clear. I checked microfilm of newspapers and found it was covered reasonably well, though perhaps even then the significance was not recognized. The Syncom satellites, in geostationary orbit, could cover the world with steady communications while being few in number. Low orbit satellites would be more numerous and require more complex switching to avoid the satellite's "setting" from interrupting a call.

Syncom II was launched 26 July 1963, a few days later than planned. It played the Star Spangled Banner to Kingsport as it reached orbit. Then delicate adjustments had to be made over a considerable time to nudge it into position over the South Atlantic where it would remain in geostationary orbit. Syncom I had not achieved such an orbit and considerable care was being taken with Syncom II. Kingsport was tied up in Lagos and was testing data, FAX, and voice channels.

The planned phone call between President and Prime Minister was delayed a week, taking place on 23 August 1963. According to reports Vice President Johnson, UN Secretary General U Thant and others were at the White House. PM Balewa was aboard Kingsport with his Foreign and Communications Ministers and other dignitaries. The call was routed to Lakehurst, N.J. then up to Syncom II and down to Kingsport. The event is noted as being the first satellite linked phone call between heads of state. The significance of the capability demonstrated is much larger as I can remember shouting to be heard and wondering what was being said in overseas calls as late as 1968. As these birds began to roost in those relatively stable perches we began to expect direct dialed conversations across oceans as clear as to next door.

The dome (or "balloon") was removed at the end of the satellite support mission, leaving the technical group a large "beach" for sunning and general outside gathering place. There was also a large helicopter deck at the stern, but we rarely went there. In later years, after a service in really remote areas far from the usual support, this helicopter deck had large walk-in refrigerators that had been used to carry extra stores.

There was a fully equipped small hospital, by far the best medical facility I know of on any of the ships. There was a basketball court down in one of the holds with weights and some other recreational equipment over in a corner. The movie facilities were by far the best. Instead of a lounge or wardroom doubling as a place for movies we had a movie room with rows of comfortable chairs and Navy issue sofas that doubled as a lounge. This was the "extra" stuff, but for me did not make up for the lack of other facilities and less cave like atmosphere typical on later or other old refitted ships. For one thing shower and toilet facilities were communal unlike those usual on other ships' officer and technical quarters. They were also fewer. While most had one facility for about four people, usually in a connecting bath, Kingsport had less than a one in six ratio with a normal sized group. A shower could involve several trips down to the two or three stall community shower to find it in use.

The working spaces were large. Survey control was good sized area forward. From there, in the early days, one walked down a wide passage past several bays with long dead equipment from satellite days. These bays had blue and red light as well as white light options on a rotary switch. Far in the back, usually only a pool of light at the end of that passage, was our working space. Off that was a technical library with several thousand volumes - complete with check out file and catalog. The overall effect could be a bit spooky. I remember working alone at something like 0200 and thinking how like some derelict this was with the long abandoned electronics, dead library, and empty spaces around

In about 1972 all the old equipment went over the side. One of those bays was converted to a bright, roomy working space for us and our old space by the library became an electronic repair shop and storage area, usually a dark cave down the passage where people rarely went. I have no idea what happened to the library.

The forward area occupied by our living quarters was marked by a cross passage that went to similar quarters for the ship's CPO and Navy crypto people. Forward of that passage were more rooms, all closed. I heard they had been opened on occasion for big operations. Forward of those rooms was a "ghost" section that had been sealed since satellite days in the early sixties. Sometime in the late seventies the sealed door forward of our quarters was opened for a few days. We got to explore a huge section of rooms, showers, heads, offices and other spaces on two decks that had been closed down for a decade or more. Right in the bow was a fully equipped dry cleaning and laundry facility with linens still in bags. They had apparently been abandoned there without being cleaned. There were scraps of newspapers and magazines lying about and soap in soap dishes. We had a few hours to explore the section before it was sealed again. I never knew why it was unsealed, some sort of maintenance or check I suppose, but that was a break in a boring trip.

I accidentally came across another odd section that was some sort of facility under the balloon deck. There was an air lock there from the days the balloon was inflated. The space had been converted to some mysterious ship use. It ran across almost the entire ship, but was narrow fore and aft. There were sinks, cabinets, desks, lockers, and other things largely unused - and several huge algae filled aquariums with very fat gold fish. Somebody's pets? The whole space had an abandoned feeling and I've often wondered if the gold fish ever had visitors or just grazed on algae for years in a closed system. I never went back and never found what the place was used for, though it almost looked like messy and ill equipped "wet lab" on oceanographic ships.

All these big converted ships had seldom used, unused or sealed void spaces, but on KP there were quite a few places where you went every day and got a view of dark passages leading to unused areas. Then there were places like the radio room where you looked in through windows many times a day, but never saw anyone open and knew were never used any more.

I always felt an emptiness - a slightly spooky feel that we were last survivors on a ghost ship. When I saw the movie Silent Running on another ship Kingsport immediately came to mind. Was I the first person to see those goldfish in their algae in years? Those vast and empty spaces were often lonely and a bit creepy, particularly with a bit of sea running and the creaks and groans active.

A sleepless night in Kingsport could be a more than ordianry shipboard start of "where is everybody?" It wasn't always so reassuring to walk down to survey control. There you'd find another person, but there was that dark passage down to the deserted library past the deserted equipment. Going down to the basketball court (left) didn't help. A line from another movie, Twilight of the Gods, comes to mind. An old sailing ship trading in the Pacific long past its days is sinking. The Captain tells a passenger "All ships leak a little, this one just leaks more than most." Well, all ships are a bit spooky at night, Kingsport just quite a bit more than most.

Be sure to take a look at Kingsport and other ships in "Views from the Upper deck" on Slowbell's Pages. "Slowbell" is actually a former master of many of these ships. The patch that used to be here is on his Kingsport page. To get one of the best "feels" in words for one of these ships at night read The Ghost of the Kane and Kane was a little, tightly compact thing with few empty spaces by comparison with Kingsport.

Kingsport was a good ship, but never one to which I could get personally attached. I will have to say the food on board was some of the best in the fleet. For years there was a Chief Steward by the name of Fergerson or Ferguson who could compete with good restaurants. Though we had hints of her career and knew of the telephone call from the little memorial, we were not really aware she had one battle star, traveled quite so widely, or the other events. Somehow we just assumed she was a late built Victory who got laid up, did something with satellite communications and got converted again. In retrospect only the USNS Mizar (T-AGOR 11) had a more interesting history and singular physical features.

The old KP could also outrun any of the others, at 16-17 knots, and often overtook our other ships when we were headed for the same port. The vibration above 15 knots was terrible and made finishing work difficult.

Kingsport is shown as decommissioned on 31 Jan 1984 and donated for scrap 21 Jan 1992.

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Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Ramon Jackson

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