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Army Ships

Original: 23 December 2001. Updated 8 February 2010 with new photo of LT-536 showing colors of 1949.

Army Ships -- The Ghost Fleet

Transportation Corps
Water Division

Transport responsibility was divided and proving unable to meet the demands of a world wide war even within the War Department's own area of responsibility. The problems of equipping existing forces in new ways and marrying the equipment for both those forces and the newly created units as they deployed overseas required an integrated operation. Global Logistics and Strategy 1940-1943 presents some distressing examples of ships, already in critical short supply and pressed on schedules, ready to sail with chaos in the ports as uncoordinated land and sea transport did not match. Almost typically shipments from point of origin using the land portion were out of synchronization with ship availability and schedule. The result was either a mass of "stuff" piled in the port without hulls or a ship sailing with some supplies intended for its destination somewhere in route by rail or truck. In cases of the more remote posts the next hull availability might be months away.

It became obvious separate transportation commands within War Department had to be consolidated and integrated with war production. The situation was well beyond the simpler problem of moving material from Army depots to the port. The problem was movement from the factory line to the port. An entirely new system was desperately needed in which war production planning included land and sea transportation to destination -- and yes, the intended recipient may well be on the move too. It was an situation impossible to totally cure, but it was absolutely hopeless under the old command and planning structure.

A solution of the Army problem was one of several critical issues involving shipping. The Navy's inefficient and uncoordinated use of shipping was similar at the national level. It was possibly not quite as bad as Army in the matter of disconnect at the ports. Navy's supply system was naturally centered more upon ports and therefore had more native efficiency in marine shipments. The Maritime Commission was responsible for the national merchant marine infrastructure and was assuming the role for resource allocation of cargo type hulls and the mariners needed to operate them. The Commission was growing impatient with the military usage of this resource that was in sum well below requirements that included supply of allies already in actual combat. A sense of the problem can be gained from this and following quotes from United States Army In World War II, The War Department, Global Logistics and Strategy 1940-1943 (more extensive extracts at link):

The real wartime power was to reside in the War Shipping Administration (WSA) under Rear Admiral Emory S. Land, U.S.N. (Ret.), who was also Chairman of the Maritime Commission. The President gave the WSA responsibility for allocating shipping in the tonnage crisis that had to balance demands British and Soviet armies in actual contact with the Axis, U. S. forces building to wartime strength, national production needs, and all the other segments relying on maritime commerce. There simply were not enough transports The President's order did not carry effective enforcement and the services continued to operate pretty much as they had, though perhaps with less vigor and more cooperation. The Army in particular cooperated:

As the solution to War Department's coordination issues its sea, truck, rail and air transport functions were combined in the new Transportation Corps as symbolized in the Corps insignia composed of a ship's wheel, highway marker and winged railroad wheel. This was a significant segment of the transport solution for such large scale and complex logistics. A single Army command would at least work the Army transport issues and coordinate with other military and civilian organizations working the entire issue.

The Army Transport Service became a component in the Water Division of the Transportation Corps. It apparently retained much of its character and indication that it remained known, at least in common usage, as A.T.S. for some time. In my own experience I've seen a long term agency name linger in use among many for almost a decade. Within a decade of this change the Army's fleet of big ocean going transports was gone.

Still, the President's policy was not being fully implemented by Army and particularly by Navy. Ships were sailing half loaded on parochial missions and waiting in ports for full loads. The latter was a problem for the total manufacturing and transportation policy levels to solve, but the WSA was created and given powers to solve, as best as was possible the problem of enough hulls until shipbuilding caught up with demand:

This is the often cited miracle of our wartime shipbuilding program. It was really considered impossible by experienced shipbuilders, particularly during wartime shortages of men and material. But it wasn't just men, the shipyards recruited large numbers of women and we had "Rosie the Riveter" combined with entirely new production line methods pushed by Henry Kaiser. Ships of all types, but most famously the Liberties, began filling this void.

At the same time the emergency drove innovations beyond hull production. A report under "Washington Trends" in Newsweek of 6 July 1942 mentions ship turnaround being cut from 10-14 days being cut to 3-5 days by A.T.S. "to make the most of our available vessels." The short paragraph also noted changes in packing with an example of clothing being baled rather than boxed for a 35% space saving. The same page noted though that Army wanted its troops trained to unload ships in foreign operation areas, but was having trouble with the unions who were reluctant to train the troops due to fear of their use as strikebreakers.

One legend that grew in the afterglow of victory is that everyone always pulled together and there was peace and goodwill on the home front. Nonsense, read the papers of the day for the usual strife and crime. This is a tiny sample of serious strife that threatened war production. It wasn't just labor. Management often resisted the necessary discipline and in some cases uniformed troops were sent in to enforce discipline on labor and management. One corporate President was carried from his office by armed troops after refusal to obey wartime orders. More than one corporation tried to gain undue profits at the expense of front line troops with one incident involving winter clothing.

Still, in the end troops and labor and corporate heads did cooperate. It is little known and often forgotten that the greatest casualty rate of all was borne by the civilian merchant mariners, some of whom "sought safety" after experiencing burning tankers and sinking freighters by enlisting in the Army -- only to find themselves back on the Army Transports and other Army ships.

The WSA was able to move from crisis mode to operating mode as the shipyards turned out ships in record numbers. The Army began to get ships and eventually had a fleet of large transports, small oilers, and other vessels under the Transportation Corps that was one of the largest fleets ever assembled. One must remember though that this fleet was allocated by WSA. For that reason finding a ship can be difficult and confusing for someone "looking for the ship that took me (or my Dad)" because the ships often switched between Army, Navy and commercial service. At first this was almost on a case by case, need by need basis. Later there tended to be some agreement on division of responsibilities and a reallocation along more functional lines began to govern.

One clear example, using vessels not covered anywhere here, was the fact that both Army and Navy not only operated landing craft, they developed and contracted production of these craft. We have nearly identical Army and Navy boats being built by Higgins under different contracts. In a sample of what was to happen on a massive scale in 1949-1950 the Army got out of the landing craft development, construction and to a large degree operation. By the late amphibious operations Army troops landed in boats with Navy or Coast Guard (in Navy for the duration) crews. And we had the usual disputes where Army accused Navy of not landing them properly and Navy claiming Army lack of cooperation, but that is normal griping that would have probably occurred even between the Army organizations.

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Despite being entirely separate organizations at the Cabinet level (Secretary of War and Secretary of Navy), Army and Navy did begin unprecedented cooperation during this crisis. They were forced to find ways of working together to avoid the excessive waste at a time when such organizational waste could not be afforded. Lessons of the war created new thinking about responsibilities that were to bring drastic organizational change in the half decade following. That reorganization was for the best, the one greatest casualty may actually be the very memory the Army once operated a major fleet. A photograph at the National Archives and Record Administration helps illustrate the situation with an Army fleet in a very Navy city. The description is: "Aerial photograph of piers at headquarters and at U. S. Naval Repair Base during loading operations showing nine Army transport ships docked at the commercial wharfs at San Diego, California." [NARA photo data & source: Record Group 181, Control Number: (NRHL-181-ND11PLANGC-NA11-GOF01); Eleventh Naval District. District Planning Officer, General Correspondence, Box 42, File: NA11/A7-5F1.]

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Department of Defense

Out of the organizational issues raised by this global conflict the seeds of an entirely new defense structure were sown. What we know today as the Department of Defense has a direct origin in the resolution of the transportation and other coordination issues of the years at war. The reasoning can be seen in a December 19, 1945 speech by President Truman.

In the postwar reorganization, driven by the lessons of that global war, the Department of Defense was formed to rationalize the functional roles and put the defense of the country into the hands of a single Cabinet level post, The Secretary of Defense. On 2 August 1949 the Secretary of Defense issued the directive ending the major role of Army in maritime transport and making Secretary of the Navy the single manager of maritime transport, or "sealift."

The Transportation Corps continued operating a fleet of large transports until the standup of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) on October 1, 1949 which assumed operation of ships from the Army and the Navy Transportation Service. The Sgt. George D. Keathley was a part of this Transportation Corps fleet until she became the USNS Sgt. George D. Keathley. Her DANFS entry states: "When war broke out in the latter country [Korea] in June 1950, Sgt. George D. Keathley was at Yokohama awaiting transfer to the Navy for service in the newly established Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS). Within 24 hours of receipt of the news of the Communist crossing of the 38th parallel, she had taken on a full cargo of ammunition and a deck load of guns." For details see my page on the Sgt. George D. Keathley. Part 2, Troops and Supplies, of the History of United States Naval Operations: Korea, posted on the Naval Historical Center's web site 7 June 2000, has additional information on Keathley and, particularly, a brief description of the new Military Sea Transportation Service's role and the shipping situation.

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What did these Army ships look like? During the war everyone went dull. All the ships were painted in gray or camouflage patterns (more common in WW I). In peacetime I think these ships had an elegant suite of colors. Below are two images that may help visualize one of the large transports in Army colors.

In 1969 I was surprised at the idea of a U.S. Army tug and rushed for my camera as the U.S. Army helped us into Okinawa. The old colors are continued on a more recent vessel . Only hours after I added the picture a reader identified the tug as "LT-536 which was stationed in Okinawa during the Vietnam period and made trips hauling cargo as well as being one of the port tugs in Naha. I was one of the last Army mariners aboard her as we pumped all the fuel off prior to her going to Norfolk where she was repowered for a trip to Africa and use through some Foreign Military Sales program." The tug was apparently at the Transportation Corps home, Fort Eustis, Virginia in 1983 before that sale."

On 8 February 2010 Gary Kitchen sent the following:

I recently started scanning some old 35 mm slides that my Aunt took when she was in the Pacific in 1949 .  . . I would like you to have it. Please give my aunt (now deceased) credit for the photo. Her name was Faye Kitchen.

So, we now have evidence of the photo taken by Faye Kitchen that the colors shown in my photo of the same tug twenty years later go back to at least 1949. As far as I can tell the ships were taken out of wartime drab and back into Army livery as soon as paint and scheduled chipping and painting could manage.

This is a reconstruction of the stack colors done by Capt. Carl Friberg in consultation with colleagues who sailed these ships. Here is how he describes the scheme: "The Army Transport colors were basically three: White for the house (superstructure ), Buff for the masts, booms, davits, etc., Bluish-Gray for the hull, and Brown for the decks. Whereas the Navy colors were Haze-Gray for everything, except the decks, which were Deck Gray - a dark gray. In both cases though, Army and Navy, White was used for shrouds and back-stays." A photograph in the Naval Historical Center's online photograph collection of the transport USAT Fred C. Ainsworth in 1949 is particularly sharp. With some imagination one can apply the color scheme to this unusually clear shot of an Army transport.

I do not know the date this color scheme was adopted. It definitely does not go back to the origins of the Army's transportation service as old photographs show light or white hulls. Some of these old photographs are interesting for other details. One shows a white ship with a large very large shield on the bow that appears to be identical to the one on the A.T.S. Cap device. Ships of the 1890-1910 period often carried over decorative frills from the days of sail and one wonders if the white were augmented by some gold trim. In any case, we know the buff, white, blue gray scheme was in place after the Second World War. I am in hope of locating a color photograph of a large transport for addition here.

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Command Relationships

Some may be confused by the idea of Army ships under the command of civilians. A few veterans have objected, saying that this was not the case as they clearly remember a military "troopship commander" as being in charge. Yes, from their point of view. No from the ship's point of view. Some relatives of someone designated "Transport Commander" have argued that the relative "commanded a troop transport ship" in all respects. Not the case. The Transport Commander only commanded his own staff and embarked military personnel.

The transports had an interesting structure. Aboard Army owned or bare boat chartered vessels there would be a Master and a Transport Commander, both under the general command and authority of the Port of Embarkation's Port Commander. There would also generally be unit commanders, but these would come under command of the Transport Commander. Aboard War Shipping Administration (WSA) allocated ships the ship's personnel came under the authority of the ship operators and WSA with only the Army Transport Commander under the Port Of Embarkation (POE) Port Commander. Aboard U.S. Navy ships everyone was under the Ship's commanding officer. Aboard hospital ships the senior medical officer became the Hospital Ship Commander in a position equivalent to the Transport Commander.

These diagrams from War Department Field Manual FM-55-105 of September 1944 illustrate those general command structures:

U.S.A.T. Command Relationships

WSA Allocated Command Relationships

The "Assigned Naval Personnel" in each case would generally be limited to the U.S. Navy Armed Guard manning the ship's guns.

Note two interesting aspects of these command structures:

Thus, all military units being transported on Army vessels were under the direct command of the Port Commander until disembarked at the destination. They had entered that command upon arrival at the POE and remained detached from their normal commands until landed and detached from port control.

Army Field Manual (FM) 55-105 described the relationships in detail. These brief excerpts will help understand the relationships:

A fairly clear description of the Transport Commander is also found in the summary of the memoirs of Ward Loren Schrantz who was such a troopship commander:

The whole picture of transport commanders and staff is complicated by the fact of varied vessel arrangements. The vessel could be Army owned (USAT) or bare boat chartered with an Army employed crew. It could be a commercial vessel with commercial crew allocated to the Army by the War Shipping Administration. It could be a naval vessel (Navy owned or allocated to Navy by WSA). Or, it could be foreign, for example, British is noted in the manual. In each case where Army troops were embarked there would be a transport commander with slightly different responsibilities and authority.

What did such an Army civilian officer's uniform look like? The official Signal Corps photo below gives the picture.

The uniform worn by chartered vessel officers would have usually been the standard Merchant Marine service uniform and perhaps even a company uniform.

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Heritage in MSTS/MSC

One of the striking things to me in looking into this subject has been how much the MSTS culture up through at least the mid to late 1970s owes to its Army heritage. First, it was Army that decided essentially commercial operations could be more efficiently done by civilians. Navy transports were crewed by naval personnel. MSTS adopted the Army model, one that is accelerating even in 2001 where we see major review of whether it is cost effective to have "warriors" doing essentially civilian equivalent support work.

Second, a general culture aboard the ships where the officers were licensed Merchant Marine Officers in the Federal Civil Service. The enlisted crews were also special employees and in the early days unions were prohibited. These were small crews, 60 to maybe 150 where Navy ships of equivalent size might have two to three times the number of people. One difference is that the MSTS people were career seamen expecting to spend years at sea with most of the year actually at sea. Naval personnel had and expected, for the most part, far fewer days at sea in a hitch or even career. One interesting consequence is that there seem to be large numbers of people quite sentimental about their Navy ships and experiences who form ship associations and hold reunions. Time aboard a single ship was a significant and somewhat rare experience. I find the MSTS/MSC people do not do this to any extent I can find. Ships are cared for, even somewhat fondly remembered, but the experience was common and like "going to the office" and there were many ships, not just a dozen, half dozen or maybe one.

As a final comment on the Army influence on MSTS I raise the subject of food. A recent inquiry about a transport put me in touch with the son of a wounded veteran of Italy who was asked by his father to find the ship that brought him home. It turned out to be the U. S. Army Hospital Ship Blanche F. Sigman. I get the impression the father remembered very little, as might be expected of someone essentially in hospital at sea, with little but a 1944 Christmas day menu in terms of memory or evidence of the passage. The son scanned the menu and I was immediately struck by the language and the selections. It was MSTS/MSC in every detail except the inclusion of a number of very English specialties. I attribute that oddity to the fact an English item or two had become popular among troops spending up to several years there waiting for the invasions to begin. The menu also had a list of names. These were the ship's officers, Army staff (including Army Nurses) and some other ship's people troops might be expected to come into closer contact with during their passage. Among the names were several known to my MSTS/MSC contacts. One or two are still active in the retiree association.

Here is the menu of USAT Blanche F. Sigman, a hospital ship, though it has a Transport Commander and not a Hospital Ship Commander. Perhaps the terminology is different because the menu is from a period when the ship was acting more as a transport for recovering wounded than as a treatment vessel. What is strikingly familiar is the wording of the menu items. It was a flashback to Thanksgiving at sea. Lots of adjectives, some becoming cause for wry grins. "Fresh, crisp lettuce salad" even though the almost three week old lettuce was a bit limp. I do believe I have on occasion had "Young Tom Turkey" that was probably far from "young" and was a bit more of a tough old bird. Still, all said and done, the food was generally very good with a few things I truly miss and have found no where else. I truly wish I had brought home some of those menus as the memory brings a nice feeling.

Ernest R. Olson is in command of the ship. Major Charles Fernandez is the Transport Commander with a permanent party of military personnel to deal with the troops and passengers. The listing goes on to include the ship's officers by department and the "Permanent Army Staff" that includes the Army Nurses. Of some interest, in the partial view above, is Thomas Harvey, Ship's Transportation Agent. The agents wore the insignia of the civilian ship's officers but were not exactly ship's officers. They were the civilian business agents of the Transportation Corps and Army Service Forces aboard the ships and appear to have duties somewhat like today's Pursers.

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Thoughts on an Army Fleet

As a final comment on the whole concept of an Army run fleet I must admit I'd gotten an impression it was a mistake. This was partly formed in reading of some serious Army mistakes in sending unprepared small craft into the open sea. I'd even written:

This was shortly after reading the tragic case described by Charles Dana Gibson in his book, The Ordeal of Convoy NY 119 (Published in 1973 by South Street Seaport Museum of New York with a second edition from Ensign Press 1992; ISBN: 0960899650). It is described as "a detailed accounting of one of the strangest World War II convoys ever to cross the North Atlantic." This convoy was composed of 12 large Army "LT" class tugs towing barges and 14 small Army "ST" class tugs, Army coastal "Y" class coastal tankers and some extraneous ships. The Army ships were manned by the Army Transport Service (A.T.S.) all under Navy escort. It might be called a comedy of errors, but not the funny kind. It is more of the type associated with a drunk crossing a busy freeway in rush hour. The casualty rate might be associated with a convoy under attack, not one transiting after the Normandy landings with no enemy contact. There are apparently other instances.

When I dug deeper I found the operation of the large Army ships was excellent. In fact, some who made the transition seem to feel the take over by Navy was not beneficial. The Navy presumes it knows ships and there is a certain jealousy involved. It became a case of trying to impose "the Navy way" upon essentially commercial ship operations. Sometimes the ships themselves were viewed as hulls that should have offered a command billet so that there would be more opportunities to punch that ticket on the way up the naval career ladder. No Army officer saw command at sea particularly career enhancing. Some of those comments shed light on this issue:

By 2001 we had those ships not even manned by Civil Service crews bound by the rules of normal civilian employees of the services. Most today are contractor operated and manned. Some are good, some really bad. I had the experience of the latter on one of my last surveys. I , dressed in coat and tie with my bag, walked aboard one of our "show boats" in a foreign port. I was met not by a civilian mariner in MSC "uniform" but by a rather dirty individual cleaning his nails with a large folding knife. Instead of a business like greeting and request for identification as had been normal it was "Whadaya want" and an attempt to spit over the rail. Ship's equipment was not functioning well. The dumbwaiter was not working at all and the single (not the normal two) steward, with a permanent limp, had to go out, down a passage and down one deck to get plates. Needless to say relieving personnel from watch for meals delayed by such a trek became a real problem. It was impossible to take only thirty minutes end to end because it could take that long to place and get an order. Unauthorized modifications were being made. The ship was filthy. We'd gone from being a show boat to a tramp rather quickly. I heard the contractor did eventually lose the contract after the usual expensive termination procedure.

Whether the military should do essentially civilian things like provide housing and day care is perhaps a question. Contracting out, outsourcing is the buzz word, was being pushed hard again when these pages first went up. The Bush Administration's push to contract out combat area support seems to have led to some real questions on the sense of that level of contract involvement right down to whether it is cost effective or a major boondoggle.

Those who don't know their history . . . There was once a motto of "Remember the Maine" originating in the Spanish American War. "Remember Daiquiri" and maybe Teddy Roosevelt's horse, the spur for an Army Transport Service, might be an interesting additive to this current debate. Maybe history won't repeat because some factor has changed. It should be a consideration so that this can be determined and hard learned lessons can be incorporated into the new situation. Unfortunately, one of the most common statements I heard when someone would mention a mistake and lesson learned was "I don't want any history."

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The Transportation Corps still operates the remaining Army transport vessels, reduced in number and relatively small in vessel size, but important for national defense. Today's military transportation is even further integrated under the U.S. Transportation Command, USTRANSCOM, a joint command at the Joint Chiefs of Staff level, of which MSC is the Navy maritime component. Interestingly, compare the image on TRANSCOM's page with the symbology in the Army Transportation Corps insignia. The DoD super organization incorporates the identical air, truck, sea, rail components as the old War Department TC insignia. Further, under "History" you will find that TRANSCOM's formation was the result of much of the same need as identified in WW II for central resource management:

Anyone interested in the fine details and issues should read the General Accounting Office (GAO) report, GAO/NSIAD-96-60, that also contains an interesting chronology of "Attempts to Realign Defense Transportation" as Appendix III (bottom of long report). Note that a parallel consolidation was made with air where the Military Air Transport Service was created by merging the Air Force's Air Transport Command and the Navy's Naval Air Transport Service in 1948. The following year DoD created the Military Sea Transportation Service by combining the ocean transport activities of the Army Transport Service and the Naval Transportation Service. Note the use of "Army Transport Service" indicating the A.T.S. term was revived or lingering in general use. Maybe it did win the war of words over the cumbersome Water Division of the Transportation Corps.

So, is it reasonable to assume that today's DoD is the old War Department that incorporates Navy and today's TRANSCOM is the old Transportation Corps incorporating Navy too?

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Early records of the A.T.S. under the Quartermaster Corps are located in record group 92.6.2 Records of the Army Transport Service (A.T.S.) in the National Archives and Records Administration. Record group 336.3.1 Records of Ports of Embarkation (POE) likely contains information on shipping under the Transportation Corps. One unit within the group is described as "Architectural and Engineering Plans (6,000 items): Blueprint plans, mostly details, of U.S. Army Transport Ships, 1917-45, accumulated at POE, San Francisco, CA."

Some key inks:

MSC (MSTS became MSC) 50th Anniversary Timeline (nice illustration of blue & gold stack insignia)

Today's Army Transportation Corps has ships! Or as, TC terms them, "watercraft" and (Surprise!) you could get Sea Pay in the Army.

The USMM web site is dedicated to merchant mariners of both Navy and Army and has recently added a short piece by Charles Dana Gibson on A.T.S.. The link, "Comparison of U.S. Army and U.S. Navy Vessels in World War II," takes you to a table based on Grover's U.S. Army ships and Watercraft of World War II data.

Australians in A.T.S. uniforms operating U.S. Army Transportation Crops, Water Division vessels?

If the general Army ship operations are little known there is a part that is even more obscure to most people in the United States. If you don't know all about those U.S. Army ships operated largely by Australians (some of whom owed the ships before they were commandeered) who wore a version of the A.T.S. uniform be sure to see Forgotten Fleet by Bill Lunney and Frank Finch. It is the defining work on the Small Ships section of the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, Water Division in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) during WW II. The Small Ships were usually, but not always, Australian vessels, that flew the U.S. flag and crewed almost entirely by Australians wearing U.S. uniforms. This page continues the sub section of Army Ships (An Australian Experience) dealing with this topic. This page is written as a "review" to introduce this very neglected subject to readers of these pages.

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Copyright © 1998, 2001 by Ramon Jackson

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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, not in the public domain, and used with their permission are so noted and their permission must be obtained for use. Diagrams from FM-55-105 are public domain--feel free to use them.