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12 December 2011. Update 24 March with Vessel Data Card image.

Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet

Spindle Eye

The background of the Spindle Eye, later renamed by the Army Sergeant Curtis F. Shoup, is an interesting and sometimes confused bit of the Army's ship history. In particular the ship's Army history falls in a gap between the much feared invasion of Japan's home islands and the atomic dread of the Cold War. It is significant enough to clarify some of the "confusion" with its own page. It is intimately tied with SWPA and MacArthur's somewhat peculiar interest in public relations and news coverage that originated with conversion of an ancient vessel to be the little news broadcast ship Apache. That ship was often associated with his Radio Relay and Communications Ships or "CP fleet," for his island hopping campaign from New Guinea through the Philippines.

In U.S. Army Ships And Watercraft Of World War II David Grover notes:

The confusion about Spindle Eye exists in those cited documents. Indeed The Signal Corps: The Outcome (Mid-1943 Through 1945) on page 292 treats the ship as a commissioned United States Ship (USS) of the Navy

The Navy is by no means casual about commissioned ships as it is these and this status that gives one commanding such a ship a sizable hole punched in the ticket to promotion. Even small commissioned ships get noted as such in the Dictionary Of American Naval Fighting Ships, DANFS for short. The DANFS entry for the ship already named Sergeant Curtis F. Shoup when Navy acquired the ship simply reads:

If ever commissioned the date and name of the officer placed in command at commissioning would have been noted and "USS" would definitely precede the ship's name. Instead this clearly shows the ship "in service" with he Military Sea Transport Service (MSTS). Thus the real question raised by those documents mentioned by Grover. It is as if neither service really claimed the ship.

That is no longer a question. First it was the Army that renamed Spindle Eye to Sergeant Curtis F. Shoup with that particular rename action appearing on the third page of the notice. The ship was singled out in the opening of the release as an exception to the nature of the others.

It was the Army that renamed the ship, it was after the Bikini bomb tests, Operation CROSSROADS and after the ship had been converted to an Army "passenger-cargo vessel" sometime between those 1946 tests and the November 19, 1947 press release.

There are a number of on line references to the ship during those tests, including a foreboding piece by W. W. Chaplin on Kwajalein in Deadline Delayed:

and later

Perhaps the most interesting of the mentions of this sort appear in a news story concerning great dissatisfaction by the media, after reserving time for a live broadcast of the countdown and bomb's explosion:

There was pressure on Navy to get that "powerful Army communications ship Spindle Eye up to the ringside" for the next test. During the June 30 test "the only part of the June 30 broadcast that you could hear without sitting inside your radio on a hot tube was the part that came from Kwajalein" where Chaplin had stood on Spindle Eye's deck and watched that mushroom cloud rise above the horizon two hundred miles away. What was actually done was put a more capable Navy Amphibious Force Command Ship than USS Appalachian (AGC-1), the USS Mount McKinley (AGC-7), at the test with Spindle Eye relaying from Hawaii.

Something else may have been going on. Broadcasting of July 8, 1946 (link to 8.3 mb PDF copy) on page 17 noted that "radio pickups from the press ship Appalachian, the command ship Mount McKinley, the scientific observers ship Panamint and the special observation plane" were lost in a garble of "interference" and only the broadcast from Spindle Eye was clear. That ship was two hundred miles away at Kwajalein. It went on to note "temperate radio newsmen were apt to charge it up to atmospheric interference" while network executives blamed the Navy, even to mentioning Spindle Eye was MacArthur's creation and he was much disliked by Navy. Those of us having survived the Cold War may wonder if it was not an early observation of EMP and other electromagnetic effects of nuclear blasts.

So, what was Spindle Eye doing during that period DANFS so ignores with "Hence, most of her early career was spent in the Maritime Administration's National Defense Reserve Fleet"?

The best real description of the ship is found in a monograph by Dr. James R. Masterson, Transportation Unit, Historical Division Special Staff, U. S. Army October 1949 titled U. S. Army Transportation In The Southwest Pacific Area 1941-1947. In Chapter VII, pages 422-423 under "Special Fleets" we have:

It was that true broadcasting station wattage that was cited by new organizations later as being this ship's advantage over the AGC command ships that were intended as military amphibious communication centers. Spindle Eye, in a vast update of the old Apache of the island hopping to and through the Philippines had been, was a news broadcasting ship carrying correspondents. I grin a bit as the close association with MacArthur keeps cropping up. He was perhaps the most public relations sensitive ranking officer in all the forces and he made sure he and his operations were well covered. In no other theater were there special ships designed to spread the word so efficiently. Spindle Eye's big "conference room" is described as being full of typewriters and map displays for briefings. She had almost commercial station studios for broadcasts.

MacArthur's greatest exploit was going to be well covered. This ship was designed to broadcast the invasion of Japan to the networks at home. That atomic bomb, that would become a part of the ship's future, changed that destiny and she sailed from Seattle on 16 September 1945, two weeks after the surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay. And there is where her "atomic" career began, for she was sent to Nagasaki.

Robert H. Phelps, in God And The Editor: My Search For Meaning At The New York Times, on page 59 describes the start of that:

A Hal Boyle Column of November 23, 1945 that was published in a number of local papers around that date is datelined "Aboard army transport Spindle Eye, Shanghai." He described her as a "dream press ship" and credits her predecessor, Apache.

She went on tour of the Asian post war zone with correspondents and there are vague hints that perhaps a bit of intelligence gathering, though Signal Corps had lost that function by then, in that unsettled time as the Soviets emerged to occupy the minds of planners. I've seen nothing beyond hints, but a ship with the equipment and space of Spindle Eye would be a logical platform for either or both signals intelligence and a beginning evaluating of radiological effects created by the new weapon. There are some personal accounts of personnel debarking at Nagasaki with test equipment. A personal e-mail noted that "my dad's team of Signal Corps technicians and engineers had the job of monitoring and decoding Japanese communications preceding what they thought was to be the invasion of Japan. . . . Their mission was changed to post-surrender intelligence gathering after the bombs were dropped. My dad's letters home during that period were powerful recounts of the devastating destruction of nuclear weapons."

So far these intelligence missions are only supported by the e-mail messages. Those were not followed by additional information. I've found no firm documentation and consider these other missions possible, but unconfirmed. Confirmation and more detail would add an interesting chapter to what is now known about early shipboard communications intelligence.

What about the little oddity in DANFS, a usually accurate source on bare facts, with "delivered to the Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. on 9 July 1945," months before she sailed as an Army ship for Tokyo? It is possible, perhaps likely, that delivery was for the purpose of final conversion of an ordinary C1-M-AV1 cargo ship into this "radio city" mobile broadcasting ship. It is even more likely that the mode of Army operation was a bareboat charter rather than outright ownership. In that Grover reference earlier, The Transportation Corps: Responsibilities, Organization, And Operations, on page 228 is a breakdown:

And on page 301:

Most of the Army's fleet under direct control and operated by the Transportation Corps was not outright owned by the Army. The long term bareboat charters and War Shipping Administration allocated ships were treated and appeared as if owned. They might bear the designation United States Army Transport or just simply U. S. Army for those smaller vessels not categorized as "transports" but title was not with Army itself. In any case, Boyle and others mention in considerable detail the crew of the ship from Japan through the Bikini tests. The ship's crew was Army Transportation Corps civilian personnel with the technical equipment manned by "trained Signal Corps" personnel. Regardless of the hull's ownership technicalities this was an Army ship operated by Transportation Corps under the technical control of Signal Corps.

The Vessel Data Card for the ship in the MARAD Vessel History Database has the key points, down to the official hour, of the major status changes:

As Sergeant Curtis F. Shoup (TAG-175) this vessel was briefly a survey ship for the Navy as mentioned on my Miscellaneous Ships page under Sergeant George D. Keathley (T-AGS 35). I never saw the Shoup. A number of my colleagues did as she was one of our bathymetry geophysical "ships of opportunity" as she collected her primary mission gravity and magnetic data. On at least one of those trips she returned to the Pacific and SWPA areas of her predecessor Apache and the CP fleet.

In summary, this ship was the follow on to the first MacArthur conceived press ship Apache. Her purpose of covering the invasion of Japan was aborted by the unexpected quick end to the war by the atomic bombs. The Hal Boyle column cited above starts with "This is the ship that came too late." She was used to carry correspondents to Nagasaki and then Korea and China before leaving the theater in April 1946. By July 1946 she was relaying atomic tests at Bikini, creating some controversy about Navy incompetence and muttering about her being excluded because she was Army. Then, in November 1947 there is notice she is to be renamed along with a number of regular cargo ships for Medal of Honor recipients. From there she seems to vanish until January 25, 1950, when the Army was losing its fleet to Navy, and she was returned to the Maritime Commission to become part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, Olympia, Washington. She sat there thirteen years before being reactivated and placed in service as the USNS Sergeant Curtis F. Shoup (TAG-175) to support geophysical surveys in support of the nations ballistic missile program. She had a brief history collecting gravity, magnetic and bathymetry data and establishing shore gravity stations in the Southwest Pacific, in a sense a return to her conceptual origins in MacArthur's GHQ and an interesting trip for one of my colleagues, before final deactivation and disposal.

From U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office Geomagnetic Surveys 1953-1965
(Copy at DTIC, 3.9 mb PDF)

For more on some of the ship's electronics, call signs and such see The Broadcasting Fleet page on Spindle Eye and, while there, take a look at a photo of Apache.

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Copyright © 2011 Ramon Jackson

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