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Update 27 December 2009

USS Neptune (ARC-2) / USNS Neptune (T-ARC-2)

USS Neptune (ARC-2) coming alongside in Atlantic to get survey charts

USS Neptune (ARC-2) a short time later

Normally only a light line was used for data, but in this case some of Neptune's officers' luggage had not made her departure time. It had been delivered to Flyer for later delivery to Neptune. I believe there was also some desire on Neptune's part to turn the transfer into a full scale drill.


Army Cable Ships

Two ships, the William H. G. Bullard and Albert J. Myer, were delivered to the U.S. Army in early 1946 as Maritime Commission type S3-S2-BP1 cable ships by Pusey and Jones of Wilmington, Delaware. They were intended for service with the Transportation Corps supporting Army Signal Corps requirements. If it is surprising these ships were built for the Army take a look at my Army Ships page. There may be more surprising bits about Army's role at sea. For example, Army operated more vessels than Navy during World War II.

P&J Hull # Original Name Type MC # Delivered
1108 William H. G. Bullard - became Navy's Neptune (ARC-2) S3-S2-BP1 2557 Feb-46
1109 Albert J. Myer S3-S2-BP1 2558 May-46

The basic design for these cable ships was for 370-foot overall length and 47-foot beam with two boilers and reciprocating Skinner Uniflow engines driving two shafts. They were slow, with 13 knots being pretty much top speed, but wonderfully quiet. Perhaps "wonderfully quiet" can only be appreciated by someone who has lived with the high noise levels of most ships and the first nights ashore may be sleepless due to the unnerving quiet.

These ships were launched at a time when there was a massive oversupply of vessels and drastic draw down of fleets following the end of the war. In addition, Army's big ship role was being redefined in examination of military organization that led to the establishment of the Department of Defense. Army's oceanic operations were largely transferred to Navy in 1949-51. Both went immediately into reserve. I have been unable to confirm some rumors that Bullard ever came out of reserve as Myer did in support of Army projects.

This was also the time frame when a major project requiring her services was gearing up. Submarine warfare was a major concern and during the same period these ships were going into reserve studies were undertaken that led to an entirely new and very large undersea surveillance project. William H. G. Bullard was acquired by Navy in 1953 and converted to become the USS Neptune in Baltimore for Project Caesar, the installation and support phase for the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS).

IUSS/CAESAR Alumni Association site has a brief history of Caesar. Part of the conversion was an upgrade of cable equipment as described by this extract from "The Origin of SOSUS" that was once on the Commander Undersea Surveillance web site:

The new Commander Undersea Surveillance web site has even more information after a period of redesign. The heading "About IUSS" has pull down sub topics that include "IUSS History" with similar information as on the alumni page with the addition of links to information about the shore sites and CAPT Joseph P. Kelly, USN (1914-1988), known as the "Father of SOSUS."

More detail on construction and early years for Neptune can be found in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships at the Naval Historical Center's web site. Additional photos, including some taken during her conversion from Army to USS Neptune, are at the ARC-2 Neptune page at NavSource.


Operations

The ship was first operated as the USS Neptune (ARC-2) with Navy crew. Jerry Search has a series of photos showing Life on the USS Neptune ARC-2 during Neptune's Navy days. In 1966 her sister was acquired by Navy from Army and operated as USNS (United States Naval Ship), the USNS Albert J. Myer (T-ARC 6) also supporting Project Caesar. In 1973 Neptune also became civilian crewed under the Military Sealift Command and thus became the USNS Neptune (T-ARC-2).

There were differences between these sister ships by then. The Navy heavily modified the original Army design. One of the photographs at NavSource shows the Neptune before modifications as far as I can tell in comparison with some photographs taken at launching. The navy later modified the bridge wings to the form seen above and at the larger version I have given NavSource. Myer remained largely unchanged as I discuss on her page.

In the first photograph on this page people are standing on a grating above a well deck. Myer had a catwalk bridging the well deck with no grating. She also had the enclosed bridge added above the level of Neptune's bridge (where people are also standing) and ports replacing Army's large bridge windows. Myer's working spaces for survey were in the spaces where Neptune's and the original bridge would be. The Myer's bridge give her a high "boxy" look Neptune never had after the Navy conversion. The grating above the well deck was a Navy addition. The earliest photos of Neptune show her as Navy with the catwalk still in place.

In any case, Myer's survey working spaces were adequate and located in the old bridge area while Neptune's were located in remote places, very cramped, poorly lighted and had no outside ventilation. They were difficult, to say the least, sometimes with makeshift plywood work tables.

Both ships had pretty simple quarters and wardrooms. I do not recall any lounge area or recreation facilities, but these are my second favorite ships even before their modernization. They had a comfortable ship like atmosphere. They were real working ships with no nonsense. Like Flyer, they had deck space and a feel of being open in good weather. The big difference on deck was that these two ships had wood planking that gave a very different look and feel to the decks. The ship breakers indicated that, unlike ship's lore, Myer did not have teak decking and had white pine as did Titanic and other passenger ships. They were then surprised to find that Neptune, the second to be scrapped, did have teak decking.

These ships also had one absolutely unique feature that sticks in my mind to this day. They were quiet. They were as close to big sailing ships as one could get when cable machinery was not actively running. Unless passing through a generator room or chipping was going on the dominant sound was the sea and some creaking. Even then, they usually only came up to "normal" ship noise. I once stood at Myer's stern and noticed the pier moving. We were pulling out and there was no vibration, no noise, nothing but the breeze that had been there and the appearance of things moving away. I looked down and saw a strong swirl around the twin screws, but that was all. The old Skinner Uniflow steam engines provided the quietest sailing I ever experienced without sails. Those twin screws added another feature only thruster equipped oceanographic ships could out do. Neptune and Myer could "twist" using their twin screws. They could sit dead in the water and turn using one screw astern and the other forward, a maneuver handy in cable operations and station keeping. The screws were often used in addition to the rudder for low speed maneuvering.

The quiet really made life better. Ships are noisy and sometimes the first nights ashore were restless because of the silence even in hotels not noted for their distance from traffic noise. These ships did not have the usual constant rumble and vibration. I moved to the vacant top bunk in my room once on Neptune just to go off to sleep with nothing but the wind and sound of the ship passing through nearly calm seas outside the port that was inches from my head. It was more restful than the sound of surf.

* * *

The two larger cable ships, USS Aeolus (ARC-3) (ex-Turandot ex-AKA 47) and USS Thor (ARC-4) (ex-Vanadis, ex-AKA 49) were attack cargo transports (S4-SE2-BE1 type -- Artemis Class) converted into cable ships in 1955/56 also for Project Caesar and related work. They were transferred to Military Sealift Command and became civilian manned USNS in 1973. Only the USNS Aeolus (right) was operated for any length of time. Thor was reportedly in very poor shape when transferred and construction of two new Zeus type cable ships was envisioned. I do not believe she was put into service for any substantial time after transfer.


1982 Neptune and Albert J. Myer Rebuild

After modernization I suspect these would have become my all time favorite ships. The modernization was a class act. I'd dreaded the loss of the old quiet engines, but the diesel replacements were not unduly noisy and the gutting of everything had turned these ships into ones I'd liked to have known better. I only made one trip on Neptune after modernization and it was a real pleasure. She looked better and had a smarter crew than I'd ever seen. I'd known Captain Tobar back when he had been Third Mate on Myer and we talked about the spirit and looks on the ship. He was proud of her and that seemed to translate to the crew and operations. There were all sorts of little extra touches, even pin stripes in MSC blue and gold running in strategic places.


Look at that trim work and piping on the boat. Beautiful job.

The real joy here was cable control. In the following picture the big windows seen immediately below those of the bridge (roughly in line with the orange buoy) and running around the sides are those of cable control.

USNS Neptune (T-ARC 2) After Modernization

From cable control you had a complete view of the deck and what was outside. The sense of space was great.

And a great memory was sitting in warm comfort, perched in a chair waiting for charts hot off the plotter or just taking a break, looking out on views like the one below.


"Sea, Smoke, Snow and Fog" taken in warm comfort from the starboard windows of Neptune's cable control.

The survey working spaces were several decks below main deck and also hugely spacious, running the full width of the ship.

Quarters were well laid out and spacious, though not so much as the old Flyer, with other nice features. One was a telephone system that had full call forwarding, pickup, messages and such. This was more than a luxury. It was a tool that had been missing in the other ships. I could call from our working spaces and see if we were near the end of a survey line so data could be pulled. I could take care of laundry or grab a nap after working most of the night and still be reached if something happened. It was possible to call up to survey control (in cable control) and ask questions about odd navigation or other problems with no need to take a hike.

Another feature that made them great working places, even in the old days, was deep draft and stability. They put the transducers down below the surface noise area and we could get good results in seas that blanked the smaller ships built for "oceanography," probably from a university research view of such ships. They were good for the on-station, wet work of pure oceanography. They were often terrible bathymetric platforms due to their size and the relatively shallow depth of the transducers. Their tendency to bounce about , rock and roll and put air bubbles underneath did very, very nasty things to the echosoundings. In the first picture, and these seas are not particularly rough, there is some "Neptune" left in the water while the little guys would have had daylight by then.


Neptune's End

I went in different directions and eventually the Cold War ended. The intensity of these cable repair ships' main mission began to wind down with both changed threat and technology. I wish we'd had the modernized versions earlier. Some of the more memorable moments (and those quiet nights with open ports) would be lost, but the improved versions were more efficient.

Neptune was decommissioned 1/1/91. For at time she lay with Myer in the James River Reserve Fleet, Fort Eustis, Virginia. A former officer from Myer wrote and mentioned he was "saddened to see her belly filled with cement and towed to the James" -- a fate Neptune shares. Another e-mail is from one who prepared Neptune for the James. All cable machinery was removed and she was essentially stripped for scrapping.

Neptune, along with Albert J. Myer were shown in the National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF) Inventory of February 28, 2001, as being "Ready for Disposal Non-Ret Exceptionally clean; good reef candidate." With accelerated disposal schedules they are probably soon to go. Yes, I suppose they are "exceptionally clean" (meaning no asbestos, PCBs and such) as they are essentially new ships awaiting disposal. The 1940 vintage shown is misleading as they are essentially 1980s vintage -- post recognition of asbestos and PCB dangers.

To me such disposal so soon after modernization seemed ill advised. The modernization was not a shallow refit. It was more in line with the old Navy trick of "build under the guise of repair" that dates to sailing days. New engines, completely new superstructure, and major work on hull was done. Neptune and Myer came out of the modernization as essentially new ships. Fiber optic cable has changed cable laying and there seem to be adequate supplies of small to medium cable ship types for the commercial world. Still, it seemed a real waste to commit to disposal so soon after large dollar outlays making these ships modern cable ships with a potential commercial value. I've held this view for some time; however, there may be another factor. One of Neptune's post rebuild Captains, my almost daily correspondent and valued friend, wrote January 28, 2001:

It could be the guts of the ships, the power plants, were essentially defective. Two new ships of the eighties, Maury (AGS 39) launched 09/04/1987 stricken 10/01/1994 and Tanner (AGS 40) launched 02/28/1989 stricken 10/01/1993, reportedly had horrible power plant problems accounting in part for such short service lives. Along with our nearly lost merchant marine we've perhaps lost the ability to build sound large non combatant power plants.

* * *

A single ship, USNS Zeus (T-ARC 7), now takes their place. Zeus is huge by comparison (picture). Neptune and Myer would be invisible behind her with perhaps a bit of masthead showing above Zeus' open decks.

These account for ARC-2, ARC-3, ARC-4, ARC-6 and Zeus is T-ARC-7. So what about the missing numbers between one and seven? One has something oddly in common with Albert J. Myer.

Some other details of cable ship characteristics and submarine cables can be seen at:

International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) pages. Select "Cableships" for bow sheaves from all over (they take some time to load). Under "Information" the "Learn About Submarine Cables" provides an overview of the cables and links are provided to many areas of interest to cable operations, including geology.

Kokusai Cable Ship Co., LTD(KCS), part of the KDDI Group, has interesting technical facts about submarine cable and its ships.

AT&T, the contractor responsible for cable installation operations on the projects supported by Neptune and Myer, spun off their Submarine Systems to become Tyco Submarine Systems Ltd. (TSSL). More name changes followed and as of October 2005 a Tyco Telecommunications (US) Inc. Web page states that "Transoceanic Cable Ship Company, Inc. (TCSC), a business unit of Tyco Telecommunications, operates one of the most advanced cable ship fleets in the industry."

Note: The links to these companies seem to change fairly frequently (Only the U.S. military web sites are worse for "vanishing web pages" and changing links!). Constant tinkering with the information pages' URLs make it difficult to keep up with this "Easter egg hunt" (weird for people interested in PR). If links are dead, I suggest a search using what seems to be the last true search engine, Google.

A look at the modern cable ships shows that what we knew as a cable ship's most prominent feature, the bow sheaves, are going very fast. They are all going to stern laying and the bows show no sign the ship being a cable layer. Many are so raked that they look more like liners or yachts in that respect.


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Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2005, 2009 by Ramon Jackson

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