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Update: 22 November 2011


Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet


Background

While the Army at sea was apparently treated somewhat as a curiosity by the press during the war years the public did have reminders. The very famous and emotional story of the Four Chaplains was from an Army transport, the USAT Dorchester, torpedoed in the North Atlantic on February 3, 1943. Anyone unfamiliar with this story can visit The Chapel of Four Chaplains page and read the story. I remember it best from advertising use -- not in the sense of today, but the interesting type during the war where the company or product pitch was subdued and wrapped in a patriotic or inspirational theme. That in itself is an interesting line of research into the period.

References

U.S. Army ships and Watercraft of World War II by David H. Grover; Published: Annapolis, Md. by the Naval Institute Press, 1987 (ISBN: 0870217666).

The United States Army In World War II or "Green Books" dealing extensively with transport ships in their general discussion are not common in libraries. The U.S. Army Center of Military History now has downloadable copies of the volumes. A few are HTML and readable without download. The download sizes tend to run between ten and twenty megabytes. Of particular interest are some of the volumes never popular in public libraries, the ones not dealing with campaigns and battles (more meat, less "bang"), such as The Technical Services important in the Army ship context.

Full hard copy sets of the "Green Books" or digital copies of other valuable references may be available in the libraries of the military historical centers:

Naval Historical and Heritage Command (NHHC), formerly the Naval Historical Center (NHC) has some Army ship information and a small collection of photos. For the large number of Army ships that went into the Navy the official histories in Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (DANFS) usually only mentions the fact the ship was acquired from Army or transferred to Army regardless of prominence of the Army ship's history.

U.S. Army Center of Military History (CMH) responsible for the "The Green Books" and has other valuable history available on site or for download.

Mark H. Goldberg: Author of a series, based on ship types, will include information on many ships taken over for war service. These books are the American Merchant Marine History Series published by The American Merchant Marine Museum, Kings Point, N.Y.

On 20 April 2001 Mr. Goldberg wrote:

I have not seen this book as of 2009. Some of his books on specific types of WW II vintage may be of interest.

Charles Dana Gibson: The Army's Navy series deals with the long history of the Army's involvement with extensive coverage of the Civil War. Gibson is perhaps the expert on operations and is actively writing on the subject. One is worth reading for a view on problems of a land based service sending essentially coastal and harbor craft into oceanic operations:


Today

There are still Army transport vessels. They are little known, but apparently that was the case back when the world was at war and the great Army fleet got little notice. They plug along doing those necessary jobs without a great deal of publicity and recognition. They carried cargo, troops and fought in Vietnam. They are prepared to support rapid deployment today. I suspect even other soldiers are often surprised to find exactly what an 88K does. I wonder if they are still the only troops with authorized footgear of "tennis shoes" or today's equivalent. Today's fleet is limited in scope, but still interesting.

In 1999 I spent a dampish October morning looking at traffic leaving the Chesapeake for the Atlantic from my motel balcony in Virginia Beach. I saw a line of small Navy vessels that looked a bit odd. When I got my glasses on them I realized they were not Navy. They were some of the newer landing craft that are much more ship like. I then noticed the Army insignia and realized I was seeing Army vessels at sea. They were all flying a brilliant red flag with some sort of gold device that I realized had to be that of the Transportation Corps. These were probably operating out of Fort Eustis.

I am removing links in most of the text below as they are dead links and attempting to keep up with Army (and to a large degree any military service) links has become a near full time job. For some reason our military has a need to reconfigure its historical and informational web sites on a near routine basis (Cover and deception? Evasion? One wonders!) that has simply made long term references outside (sometimes even within the historical centers) useless. Even Google is full of dead links to organizations known as active. The services have been subject to much reorganization as the focus has shifted to "terrorism" at the expense of much else. Computer systems have been consolidated under, in some cases external commands, for both efficiency and security at the expense of some more "historical professional" content. Some I knew as highly professional have become slick PR sites with flash at the expense of content. Happily CMH has improved, though NHHC has become a mess in my opinion. Readers might search on terms found below to find information that may have been relocated.

Office of the Chief of Transportation (OCOT)

The starting point for official information on today's Army transport vessels is the page of the Office of the Chief of Transportation (OCOT). There one can find information on a career as an "Army sailor" and, happily, evidence that the Army is not neglecting history and information about the current ships. Even the LCUs have names. It is possible for a person who likes boats and salt water and a desire to be associated with them to find a career in the Army. I suspect you may still have to be prepared for those, even within Army, amazed to find you are something like a Watercraft Operator, Watercraft Engineer, Marine Deck Officer or a Marine Engineering Officer. For details see OCOT's Marine Qualification Division page. People in the career field operate a variety of vessels.

I mentioned the Army is treating its vessels a bit more like Navy. One comment about why the grand history of the Army's former fleet was so neglected was that the Army in general (not those living with them) treated the vessels as "trucks." One usually does not name and do a history of a truck. Why is a vessel different? I'll start with something a former MSC Captain mentioned in writing about lack of respect among some of the "space" people for the Range ships supporting the space program: "For some reason there's a jealousy on the part of those who don't know ships, and have no feel for them...even those who have trusted their lives with sailing on them." A ship is a home and a community in an often hostile environment. It has characteristic smells and often life like sounds, vibrations and movements. Many could recognize a vessel if put aboard under way even if blindfolded. They do have a kind of "life." There is evidence that the Army is recognizing some of this.

The Army appears to be treating its current vessels with more respect. Self deploying vessels fall under policy explained in the memorandum titled "Letter of Instruction for the US Army Vessel Naming Program" that I hope continues giving these vessels historical place. Army's "Registry of Army Vessel Names" is significant in this respect. It is apparently undergoing revision at this time (1/2003) and Sections II - VI that contain the names and biographical backgrounds are not now available.

Those interested in details of today's watercraft organization can read FM 55-50 on line. Chapter two, Organizations and Equipment, is of particular interest. The organization for the smaller craft probably has a direct tie back to Transportation Corps organization into the Second World War period. What cannot be determined is how well the organization for the Army's current larger, Class A vessels (particularly "A2 - fully ocean capable"), correspond to the operation of the transports, "F" and "Y" type vessels of the 1940s.


Of course, the Corps of Engineers has its fleet of waterway and harbor maintenance vessels. They are reasonably well known to the public familiar with navigable waters. The Engineers continued this domestic work and also did similar work overseas during the war years. Some of the Engineer's vessels also operated overseas and in combat areas in roles much like those at home and performing other duties unique to war and combat.


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Copyright © 1998, 2000 by Ramon Jackson

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