HOME
Ship Index
Army Ships

Updated 12 December 2011: Deleted section here and creation of new page dealing with Spindle Eye.

Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet


Signal Corps

First some clarification. I am defining "Signal Corps ships" as those with operations dedicated to or heavily tilted toward the Signal Corps function. Records found in Record Group 336 at National Archives during December 2001 indicate operational relationships were much as for today's oceanographic ships. Operational control (crew, maintenance and such) lies with the Military Sealift Command while the technical control (where they go and what they do) lay with Oceanographer of the Navy, a position now downgraded from its former OPNAV status. The status is mentioned in a monograph titled Water Transportation for the United States Army, 1939-1942 with reference to the Harbor Boat Service:

An interesting 1930 article is posted on the Army Quartermaster Foundation/Museum site indicates Signal Corps had full operation of the ships at some time. "The Work of the Army's Fleet" (By Colonel T. M. Knox, Q. M. C., The Quartermaster Review, March-April 1930) states:

I believe the description in the monograph is more closely descriptive of the relationships despite the mention of "control and operation of the U. S. Army Signal Corps" in Knox's piece. I've seen similar descriptions of the oceanographic vessels as their movements are controlled and operations are directed by Oceanographer of the Navy. The crewing, maintenance and operation of the vessels is a Military Sealift Command function and they are considered to be operated by that organization.

In the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) some ships with signal function were also have been operated by a special group, the Small Ships, with a different command structure from the large vessels. These were vessels acquired or built locally and crewed by Australians, New Zealanders or other locally available civilian mariners under contract to the U.S. Army. A very interesting Australian book, Forgotten Fleet by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch, covers this subject in considerable detail.

Others were Army allocated ships from the U.S. that were technically Army ships, but with a very complex control. First, SWPA was Army, under General MacArthur and, though joint operations were necessary, it was not a joint staff. A paragraph in UNITED STATES ARMY IN WORLD WAR II; The Technical Services; THE SIGNAL CORPS: THE OUTCOME (Mid-1943 Through 1945); Chapter VIII (p. 238) paints the picture of how the notably autocratic general ran his show:

With the shortages, indeed the early chaos and scrimping together whatever assets were resident in nearly cut off Australia and had drifted down from the Japanese advances as far up as Singapore and the Dutch East Indies, whatever was at hand was put to use. A sense of that is clear in the SWPA area of this site in the story of the Jeremiah M. Daily. As a result it is becomes very confusing at first glance as to whether a ship was Army, Navy or what command or crew scheme was in effect. It was all mixed up, but these ships themselves were either allocated to the Army by the War Shipping Administration, acquired in Australia or sometimes just acquired and "belonged" to the Transportation Corps. Another quote from the Signal Corps history referenced above notes:

As a result a ship itself might be Army, operate under naval orders as to movements and be under the command of a naval officer or even civilian. The full extract of that reference made for this discussion of the SWPA Signal Corps is worth reading and the paragraph following the one above shows how disaster of divided command was not always avoided. In that case naval practice and orders created a situation in which the Argosy Lemal did not hear an urgent recall order for an Army operation.

Ken Liddane, one of ten Signal Corps personnel aboard FP-47, has furnished first hand information. His vessel was used to transmit news stories from reporters following the Pacific landings. They boarded the ship in Hollandia, New Guinea and followed the action through the Philippines and Borneo. He has provided a photo showing the FP-47 with the Signal Corps emblem and two Rising Sun flags for two aircraft downed.

In a covering letter Mr. Liddane noted presence of the Signal Corps detachment, the U.S. Army Ship and Gun crew and "Additional (civilian) personnel on board included, Captain, 1st and 2nd Mates, Chief and asst. Ch. Engineers" that indicates the crew mix was quite similar to that described in Forgotten Fleet where the civilians were Australian. I have also seen indications the civilians were also people with maritime experience, or at least vessel experience, recruited in the U.S. The crewing of these vessels, particularly in SWPA, seems to have been a pragmatic "whatever works" under the desperate manpower shortages of the war.

In a subsequent e-mail message Mr. Liddane described the method of operation: "There was one other small Navy (Actually this ship was also Army) boat called, Apache, which traveled near us (on the FP47) which carried the correspondents. When they had their material censored and ready, they would signal us and send a small boat with the stories to us for transmission to our last port of call."

Note that we have here an Army vessel with civilian ship's officers and an Army contingent. I have constantly run across these reports of relatively small operational groups with very mixed personnel. The Second World War was the true start of large scale combined operations. The Southwest Pacific Area, probably in part due to being remote from the command centers in the U.K. and U.S. and constantly short of support, seems to have the most varied combinations even though General MacArthur had anything but a combined staff (one history comments he was the combined staff).

* * *

The big Army cable layers, such as prewar layers Dellwood and Silverado, were assigned to the Signal Corps to install and maintain communications cables. Myer and Neptune (ex Bullard) were apparently built for this purpose and caught in the reorganized establishment we know now as DoD before major service in the intended roles. They did apparently do cable work for the Army, but the record of that service is obscure.

Why was the Army engaged in laying long distance submarine cables? As background I'm reminded of a post in a discussion group on the movie Saving Private Ryan that was alleged to be from someone in today's Army with extensive experience. It only succeeded in demonstrating the person's lack of historical depth. This individual claimed the movie was foolish because if the Chief of Staff wanted to find Ryan he would have just sent a message to the unit and found him. Wrong answer. First, those units were scattered more than the movie begins to show. Second, radio communications of the period were simply not that effective. During the Bulge the 106th Infantry Division was cut off and later destroyed in the Schnee Eifel. Uncertain communications played a role in their destruction:

To those in today's military used to powerful radio and satellite links this may come as a shock. Even during my days at sea we were out of touch with land except for dots and dashes on long wave well into the 1970s. A few of the more powerful short-wave stations punched through with rising and fading volume, static, and sudden vanishings. In the late 1960s a long distance telephone call to South America might be more a frustration in shouting and attempting to make sense of unrelated words. Long distance communications were largely by cable and even relatively short distances between permanent installations were linked by cable. In the case of islands this required submarine cables and thus cable layers. Then we had a period of satellite communications that opened the way for the modern concepts of communications. Ironically, with fiber optic, the real world now is again wired with submarine cable as the heavy lifter in electronic communications.

Some of these ships acted as radio relays, particularly in the Pacific. As previously noted, cables connected permanent installations and commercial cables were also used (remember the Pearl Harbor attack warning delivered after the ships were in flames). Forces operating in the deep Southwest Pacific were not going to enjoy clear, reliable links back to Hawaii or even Australia. Signal Corps ships, probably feeling quite exposed and alone on station at sea or anchored in remote island groups, operated as relays for message traffic.

Grover, in U.S. Army ships and Watercraft of World War II, lists the following as Cable Ship (C.S.):

Name

Dimensions (ft)

Gross tons

Notes

Dellwood

321 X 46 X 24

3,478

 

Silverado

246 X 42 X 24

2,298

 

Restorer

358 X 44 X 21

3,180

The linked site is one of the few places I have seen a cable ship designated U.S.A.T.*

Col. William A. Glassford

155 X 37 X 7

575

Ex-BSP (Self-propelled Barge) 2098; later Navy's AG-142

Basil O. Lenoir

155 X 37 X 7

575

ex-BSP 2099

Gen. Samuel M. Mills (II)

189 X 37 X 15

840

ex Army Mine Planter

Joseph Henry

160 X 32 X 17

601

Associated with mine planting & cables

Lt. Col. Ellery W. Niles

185 X 35 X 15

840

ex Army Mine Planter later R/V F. V. Hunt

Albert J. Myer

370 X 47 X 31

3,929

 

William H. G. Bullard

370 X 47 X 31

3,929

later Neptune

Brico

139 X 25 X 16

419

Barge, ex-halibut steamer Chicago and last found as an ex-restaurant in Fanny Bay on the east coast of Vancouver Island

The Gen. Samuel M. Mills (II), and Lt. Col. Ellery W. Niles were ex-Coast Artillery Corps mine planters with Joseph Henry being associated with mine field cable work. The old Mills had been transferred to the Coast Guard as the Coast Guard cable ship Pequot that also operated through the war as a cable ship.

See also Army Cable Ships on my page dealing with all the Navy's ARC designated ships if you have not already followed the Lenoir link. The excellent web site dealing with undersea cables, History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications, has a page devoted to U.S. Armed Forces Cables by Bill Glover. These ships are reviewed there and I recommend that for anyone interested in more detail. Most can also be found in various references to the Alaska Cable System where their activities along with some of the commercial cable ships may be found.

To see something of the origin of the World War II cable ships a look to the Spanish American War and the Territory of Alaska in the first half of the 20th Century is warranted. A mid 1920s report from the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of Interior gives an idea how important the Signal Corps, cables and ships were to the Territory's commerce. An extract:

Signal Corps and the cables laid by both Army and contract ships brought modern communications to both the Philippines and Alaska. Old references to such activities in the Philippines are also worth reading for those really interested in these events. A 1907 account of Burnside can be found in A woman's journey through the Philippines on a cable ship that linked together the strange lands seen enroute by Florence Kimball Russell. In the initial chapter is this description of Burnside's origin:

The next paragraph describes the manning of such ships, one that resembled the later Army pattern:

You have the Signal Corps officers and men, the Army's technical party and civilian specialist, very likely associated with the commercial cables (Just as in my day the Western Electric/AT&T cable specialist were aboard our Navy cable ships.) , a Quartermaster Corps representative and the "ship's officers, crew and servants" with that last an interesting observation. Quartermaster Corps acquired, maintained and managed the Army's ships before that function was assumed by Transportation Corps in early WW II. Compare that with the system in which there was a Transportation Corps representative, representing the Port Captain and the Port of Embarkation aboard a ship with a civilian Merchant Mariner Master, officers and crew.

Paragraphs just preceding had described the cable ship's "Holy of Holies" and that continues into modern times:

Cable ships are different and I think that is why I was taken with them from the day I first stepped aboard Albert J. Myer and enjoyed with near amazement the unique experience of standing aft as we got under way in absolute silence--only realizing that we were under way from the swirl of her twin screws. I loved the near silence of Myer and Neptune's old Skinner Uniflow engines. Then there were the bow sheaves and cable deck equipment and sometimes stepping out my door with cable running by just outside.

* * *

For the communication relay ships:

Grover lists the sailing ships Harold, Argosy Lemal, Geoanna, and Volador and diesel powered FP 47, Apache, PCER 848, PCER 849, PCER 850 and Spindle Eye (later Sgt. Curtis Shoup).

These too are covered in other references, though not quite as easily found as the cable ships. Google should turn up a few.


Later News of These Ships

Grover notes that the Joseph Henry "had sometimes been designated as a cable ship" and other evidence indicates she may have been a Signal Corps cable ship intimately associated for periods with the Coast Artillery Corps' mine efforts. For more on this interesting ship, including the surprising news that you could actually visit her, see Joseph Henry on the Coast Artillery Corps Army Mine Planter Service page.

Miscellaneous bits and pieces on the ships above: Both Geoanna (IX-61) and Volador (IX-59) served under Navy, apparently with Coast Guard crews, before transfer to Army where they were eventually operated under the Small Ships command. Many of the SWPA Small Ships were operated with Australian crews or a mix of Navy, Army, Australian civilians and whatever combination worked. Neither Geoanna nor Volador are noted, though both are mentioned, as having Australian crews in Forgotten Fleet.

An excellent site sheds light into SWPA communications of the time. The material at AboutWW2.com is based on the papers of Lt. Colonel O. Howard ("Dave") Davidsmeyer and includes a page with a photo of Geoanna, now with the Army designation of TP-249, with some recent information from one of the Signals people aboard. This site gives considerable insight into the Signal Corps' operations in SWPA. The page Army Communications Ships has a number of photos (Site may be off line as of 2009).

While Volador is almost traceless as far as my searches can determine, Geoanna turns up now and then. A reader, John Richards, reports (19 Jan 2000) "Geoanna is in Manila and slowly being renovated." I've also found an article, "Schooner G. I." (Naval History; September/October 1997 Volume 11 Number 5), dealing with service aboard Geoanna. For example, in "Summary of Former Transpacific Races" (PDF file) she shows as placing in the 1939 San Francisco-Honolulu race. Her owner, Donald K. Washburn (mistakenly as O. K. Washburn), was president of the 7 Up Bottling Company at the time. Her more current status as a Swedish owned vessel is seen in a series of web pages with a bit on her history. That includes the information that Edward M. Grimm bought her after the war and she was registered as a "motor yacht 129 tons, 115 ft long, 22 ft wide and 13 ft deep at the Customin the port of Manila, Philippines" with a name change to Lannikai II. On that site's index page is a photo of the Geoanna as apparently being restored for Northern Atlantic Shipping AB of Stockholm.

Volador appears to have been in Manila after the war and gets brief mention in relation to an incident in the spring of 1950 in which the yacht, then owned by a Gordon Ross of Yakima, Washington and Santa Monica, California, was detained by the Communist Chinese. Apparently the yacht was subject of a search after being twelve days overdue in Hong Kong. Tey had put in for fuel and storm refuge then detained as "spies." They were "found" when the group was released after nine weeks. Volador was recovered but drops from sight again.

With regard to the SWPA and signals vessels, part of Mac Arthur's Navy seen in more detail at Forgotten Fleet, the following is from "The SIGSALY Story" (SIGSALLY provided secure voice communications:

Basil O. Lenoir stayed in Alaska doing cable work as an Air Force vessel when the Air Force Communications Service took over the cables (Now we have all three services operating cable ships!).

See "Army Cable Ships" under my coverage of cable ships at ARC-1, ARC-5 & Nashawena (AG-142) for more discussion of these vessels and specifically of the Basil O. Lenoir.


Next or Previous page

Army Ships
Ship Index
HOME

Copyright © 1998, 2002 by Ramon Jackson

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.

E-mail me by clicking on name above, I welcome individual mail on subjects covered, but have a very low tolerance for UCE/SPAM.