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Update 20 November 2009


Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet


Army Quartermaster Corps
Army Transport Service (A.T.S.)
(Some official publications use "Army Transportation Service")
1890's-1942

Army Transport Service Officer's Cap Device


There is only a hint of the Army Transport Service (A.T.S.) and its ships in most readily available sources and libraries today. It was a service founded as a result of chaos in Cuban landings during the Spanish American War:

The Navy would escort the transports with combatants, but did not provide what today would be called sealift for War Department, i.e., Army, use. One has to remember these were separate Departments at Cabinet level until formation of the Department of Defense. Getting the War Department and Navy Department to cooperate was probably at least as difficult as getting State and Defense in full cooperation today. Each had its own mission and parochial interests with aspects of jealously and competition for resources. Out of this chaos on the Cuban beaches came the Army's own sea transportation service. I even speculate it had strong support from that Navy advocate "Teddy" Roosevelt himself since it is reported that one of his horses was among those lost.

A group of large vessels designated as U.S. Army Transport, with names prefixed by "USAT," began operating. The ships were Army owned and directed and crewed by civilian merchant mariners. The ship's officers were licensed mariners that were Army civilian employees with distinctive uniforms. It is clear that at least the larger transports also had Army officers and enlisted support staff aboard for troop and dependent services.

USAT Hancock, ca. 1898-1900


The Army's transport service was somewhat forgotten and neglected after creation, but continued supporting the garrisons of the new and far distant posts in the Pacific under the Quartermaster Corps. It was weak and had few serviceable ships on the eve of U. S. involvement in the First World War, but was greatly expanded to about 500 ships.

After the conflict shipping was again reduced to what was needed to service remote garrisons and limited coastal shipping requirements. The main references in public view appear to be stories of dependents aboard the transports heading for exotic outposts, particularly the Philippines. Knowledge of the service among the general public appears minimal -- the usual story of "Army ships" as ships equal "Navy" in the public mind. It was well known among Army personnel as this was the means of transport for both troops and dependents to garrisons outside the forty eight states. The Army's marine transport was again in sad shape on the eve of World War II.

* * *

The inter-war story of the ships is not easily found in libraries today. The record suffered additional neglect, as did all Army nautical operations excepting perhaps the Corps of Engineers, from the "oddity" of the Army operating vessels. The public at large just did not think about and was little interested in an Army marine arm. In fact, the public was little interested and often antagonistic to anything military after the "War to End Wars" had supposedly ended need for a military.

An interesting article is now posted on the Army Quartermaster Foundation/Museum site: The Work of the Army's Fleet, By Colonel T. M. Knox, Q. M. C., The Quartermaster Review, March-April 1930. That 1930 article gives an overview of the status at the time. Of particular interest to me was the brief discussion of the cable ships. Another interesting comment concerns the evacuation of the Czech Legion from Vladivostok by Army transports.

Dr. Robert Faltin has a single page with interesting photos of the Czech Legion and a number of the ATS vessels involved in their evacuation. The names of U.S.A.T. Logan and U.S.A.T. President Grant are clear. Other ships are obviously U.S.A.T., but not identified. The text is simply "These images are part of a collection documenting the trans-Siberian trek of the Czech legion during the Russian Revolution. More to come."

The format is one page with several very large album pages that may take some time to load on a dial-up connection. I have linked directly to the images for U.S.A.T. Logan and U.S.A.T. President Grant above; however, the entire collection is interesting and a full look is worth the time. There is a fine shot of one of the armored trains along with many of the troops, vehicles, and general locale.

* * *

Interwar Years

I was struck at the almost complete disappearance of references in the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature to Army or Navy from about 1920 to the very late 1930s. More than half the articles that are listed appear to be questioning the need to maintain anything except some coastal defenses and very minor military capability. The public, encouraged by isolationists politicians and business interests unwilling to support an effective military base, put its faith in cheap "fortress" schemes and wide oceans. The only Army ship benefactor was the Coast Artillery Corps with its Mine Planter Service. As soon as modern war struck this comfortable, "ignorance is bliss" dreamland that arm proved essentially useless. in an era when Pearl Harbor demonstrated reality.

Initial survey of records in the National Archives and Records Administration revealed a number of interesting documents covering this period. One, an apparently unpublished monograph titled Water Transportation for the United States Army, 1939 - 1942, (Box 50, Entry 2, Records Group 336) appears to be a key document. It is well organized, fully footnoted, and covers the key organizational relationships.

In the days with war imminent and through the initial period of the emergency after Pearl Harbor we have military sea transportation in both Army and Navy hands with civilian shipbuilding and maritime support resting with the Maritime Commission. The parochial disputes, cross functional operations and mergers of agencies in meeting the demands of a real world wide war requiring massive transport across Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and other oceans are major stories in themselves. Some indication of that follows, but anyone with real interest in the politics of services and agencies coping with an emergency would find the rather obscure references to this period interesting and a warning.

An additional part of the confusion is perhaps a result of the A.T.S. being integrated into the new Transportation Corps as the Water Division in 1942. The official change may also not have "taken" in common usage among the people involved, but in any such organizational move many written records are culled and lost. It happens today, even with more formal requirements for archival, and I'm sure large quantities of what were considered "internal" items that would be of considerable interest today were destroyed.

* * *

Another class of large ships were the U.S. Army Hospital Ships (USAHS). These were apparently crewed in the same fashion. Army doctors and nurses aboard for medical service and Army officers and men were aboard for other patient services. These ships seem to be a little better known than the transports and Ray Seiple has a web site with considerable detail on the Army Hospital Ships.

The Quartermaster Corps also operated the Harbor Boat Service (HBS). This service operated small craft and apparently a few large ones not falling under the ATS responsibility for oceanic transport. The monograph, Water Transportation for the United States Army, 1939 - 1942, was particularly interesting in coverage of organizational relationships of the HBS as those answered questions I had on operation of two specific types of non-transport vessels covered on these pages: cable ships and the Army Mine Planters. It was the HBS that was responsible for these vessels:

A discussion of general HBS duties mentions transporting personnel and supplies at posts and ports along the coasts and waterways, furnishing vessels for mine planting by the Coast Artillery Corps and air rescue for the Army Air Corps. From that last I would gather the HBS was the organization involved with the so called "crash boats" that were similar to the Navy's PT boats and, during the war, began to function as small combatants.

I intend to examine these documents more closely to define exact relationships of the vessel operation for ships covered on these pages.



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Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Ramon Jackson

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