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Standardization of Merchantmen and the T-2 Design

In the early 1930s, the lack of fast merchantmen began to trouble those in the Navy Department responsible for the development and implementation of War Plan ORANGE. They remembered the shipping problems of the First World War when the lack of sufficient merchant tonnage created a logistic nightmare. Although a large number of cargo ships, transports, and tankers were ordered at war's outset, few were completed before the end of the war. The navy began to address this problem in 1929 when it had provided the Department of Commerce with a list of design features requested by the United States Shipping Board to be incorporated in any new merchant vessels constructed with government aid. The specifications passed on by the Navy Department contained recommendations for compartmentation, structural strength, the stiffening of decks for gun emplacements, the installation of watertight doors, and stability under all conditions of loading. Requirements concerning steaming radius, main and auxiliary machinery, boilers, generators, and radio and navigation equipment were also specified. Incorporating these features into the plans and specifications of a new vessel would permit its "economical conversion into an auxiliary naval vessel," a policy adopted by the shipping board and one of the conditions the board established as a precedent to obtaining a construction loan under the Merchant Marine Act of 1928.1 This act contained a provision making government funds available to aid in the construction and reconditioning of certain merchant ships and was passed with the intent of reestablishing the merchant marine and reviving the shipbuilding industry, but made no mention of the navy's requirements.2

The navy realized that a strong merchant marine would be invaluable in time of war. Its importance to the fleet was stressed by Admiral Standley in a speech he delivered during the Navy Day festivities of 1933, reproduced here to indicate the department's thinking during this period:


In the broad aspect of sea power the Merchant Marine holds an important place. Sea power comprises not only powerful ships of war but merchant vessels quickly convertible, when war threatens, into fast auxiliary cruisers, airplane carriers and scouts, manned with trained navigators and seamen available for quickly expanding the Navy personnel.3

By the beginning of 1934, war plans had compiled an extensive list of the merchant auxiliaries that it felt would be required in a war involving a maximum naval effort (a cleverly contrived expression to describe the plans for ORANGE frequently encountered in Navy Department documents). This information was transmitted to the U.S. Shipping Board, most likely under Standley's direction, with a request to cooperate with the Department of the Navy in the design of merchant vessels that could be used by the navy during war.4 The number of ships was staggering--well over a thousand were listed.5 As construction loans were administered by the Division of Loans and Sales, it fell upon J. W. Barnett, acting chief of the division, to respond to the navy. Barnett quickly realized that a shipbuilding program of the magnitude proposed by the navy could only be accomplished by standardizing all aspects of a ship's design including all of the machinery, fittings, and other equipment that would be needed in its construction. His report, forwarded to the director of the shipping board on 28 February, included a detailed plan to establish a program for the standardization of merchant vessels to be constructed during a national emergency. Since the shipping board did not have its own design staff, Barnett recommended that a technical unit be established within the division to complete the program he had outlined in his report. He also asked for authority "to engage the services of a competent naval architect, and four to six experienced ship draftsmen and estimators."6

Approval from the navy was forthcoming. On 12 March 1934, the secretary of the navy formally requested that the United States Shipping Board Bureau proceed with the preliminary design of merchant vessels for use in a national emergency.7 The original of this document has not been located, but the overwhelming evidence indicates that it was initiated and signed by Standley as acting secretary.8 In endorsing the program, the secretary of the navy specified that the standard ship types were to be prepared in accordance with the characteristics suggested by the navy for each type. Although the shipping board would be responsible for the program, it was understood that the designs would be approved by the navy and that the Bureau of Construction and Repair, the Bureau of Engineering, as well as "any others involved or interested in the program" would lend their cooperation and technical assistance.9 After preparing preliminary designs of the various classes of vessels listed by the navy, the shipping board would


arrange with the navy to conduct towing tests in the navy's experimental model basin in order to develop the most efficient underwater hull form for each design.10

With the secretary's approval to proceed with the program in hand, the shipping board needed to hire a naval architect so it could proceed with the preparation of the planned designs. Barnett wasted no time in engaging George G. Sharp, a well-known naval architect in New York, along with J. E. Schmeltzer and William G. Esmond of his staff. The three men reported for duty at the Navy Building on 26 March 1934.11

In view of the close relationship of the program to the Navy Department, a special joint committee was formed to study the design requirements of the various classes of ships and to provide technical guidance as the work progressed. This committee became known as the Joint Board for the Standardization of Merchant Vessels and was composed of a number of naval officers as well as several representatives of the Division of Loans and Sales. The objectives of the standardization board were defined as follows:

(1) To develop designs of the various types of merchant ships that would be acceptable to the Department of Commerce and the Navy Department as bases for construction loans.

(2) To develop basic designs that would be useful to designers and ship owners as a guide to features in merchant ships which would make the latter adaptable to naval auxiliaries without interfering with their commercial peacetime use.

(3) To have available designs of standardized vessels which could be built in large quantities during a national emergency when requirements for merchant tonnage would be greatly expanded.12

The first meeting of the Joint Board for Standardization of Merchant Vessels was held on 23 April 1934, with Rear Adm. Hutchenson I. Cone, USN (Ret.), acting as chairman. Rear Admiral Cone recognized the difficulties inherent in combining naval characteristics into a commercially viable design. He wanted to limit the navy's requirements for merchant ships "to the minimum deemed essential for naval and auxiliary needs in order to leave development of the plans within the economic limitations for commercial operation."13 Unfortunately, Rear Admiral Cone could not foresee the basic conflict that would develop between the navy's desire for extra speed and the economical operation demanded by commercial owners.

Within a short time, the shipping board's design staff had prepared sets of preliminary plans along with the required design data for three specific ship types: cargo (C-2), tanker (T-2), and combination passenger and cargo (P-2).14 After reviewing these plans, the standardization board recommended that Sharp proceed with the development of the


lines plan for the proposed tanker "in advance of the other types" so that a hull model could be fabricated for the purpose of conducting tests in the navy's experimental model basin.15 The reasons behind the board's recommendation were not stated in the record, but facts suggest that the shipping board may have been evaluating a construction loan for a "fast" tanker requested from a commercial operator.16If such were the case, it is likely that all of the parties concerned (i.e., the navy, the joint board for standardization, and the shipping board bureau) would have wanted such a vessel to comply with the design criteria then being established for the standard type tanker. Obviously, the tanker design would have to be completed before any contracts could be signed. This would explain the urgency behind the board's recommendation. It is also possible that the Navy Department was simply looking to replace its aging oilers, although this concern was not officially reported until the following year.

Design work on the T-2 tanker progressed rapidly. By the end of August, drawings of several different hull lines had been prepared along with plans showing general arrangement, structural profile and decks, and the outline and general arrangement of the engine and boiler room. These were presented for review and discussion during the board's fifth regularly scheduled meeting of 27 August 1934. Although none of the foregoing plans survived, the original design called for a vessel having the following characteristics:

Length:   485 ft (h.p.)
Depth:   37 ft
Draft:   28 ft 11 in
Cargo Capacity:   10,000-11,000 tons d.w.
Speed:   15 knots
Construction:   Isherwood Bracketless System
Block Coef.   0.65

The board considered the design satisfactory, although questions were raised as to the feasibility of increasing the deadweight capacity during normal service (less then 15 knots) and the possibility of adopting welded construction. A proposal was made to increase the cargo capacity at the expense of reduced speed in an attempt to reduce operating costs under peacetime operating conditions, the idea being to design a vessel that would have high-speed characteristics when not fully loaded to capacity, yet one that could be operated at a slower, more economical speed when fully laden. This interesting concept would prove to be impractical to implement. The difficulty of trying to design a high-speed tanker that was also economical to operate in peacetime was a problem that would remain unresolved throughout the thirties.


Up to this point, several hull forms had been considered by the design staff. These were presented to the board along with data obtained from preliminary towing tests that had been conducted in the navy's experimental model basin. The board was especially concerned with the design of the hull form and its effect on construction costs. The information available suggests that the first hull form to be tested in the model basin had relatively fine lines, a feature required for good speed characteristics, but one that would add to the cost of construction. The board was critical of this approach and suggested the adoption of "a straight line form," which would be easier and less costly to construct.17

At the end of November, the proposed arrangement of the T-2 was again taken up. Much of the discussion on tanker design concerned the advantage of different sizes of vessels and the trend in commercial requirements. The board decided to continue with the development of the 485-ft design, although a suggestion to increase its dimensions to 500 feet was made. The board concluded that if a larger tanker was needed, the "plans could be developed for the 520 ft. [T-3] tanker already proposed."18 This is the first mention of the T-3 tanker, a design intended to have a deadweight capacity of 15,000 tons.19 Design work on the T-2 tanker continued throughout 1935 without further mention by the board, although it was changed at some point to the 500-ft length previously discussed.

The design was finalized by June of the following year and published in booklet form. This was distributed throughout the maritime community with a request for review and comment.20 The design was not favorably received by the industry, however. The reply received from H. F. Norton, of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, was typical of the industry's reaction. Norton, a naval architect, severely criticized the design in a letter to the shipping board written on 24 July 1936. He commented:

The design departs so much from usual tanker arrangements that it seems to us likely that the owners will hesitate to adopt it for the reason that considerable departures from usual practice, no matter how good they may be, generally develop unanticipated troubles. It seems somewhat odd that the foreign and patented bracketless type of construction, which while favored by some has been considerably criticized by others, should be adopted.

The body plan consisting of straight sections associated with sharp knuckles seems of debatable value. For experienced yards it is apparently unnecessary and rather undesirable. That it facilitates construction in inexperienced yards seems doubtful.

The desirability of the extreme streamlining of superstructure seems doubtful. There are numerous points in connection with the arrangements and fittings that do not seem good to us.


The optimum economical speed for a tanker of this size seems to us to be not over 13 knots. Owners will probably not be inclined to accept the 15 knots proposed unless Government aid makes it worthwhile.21

The need for greater speed and an easily built hull form were clearly attempts at meeting the standardization board's design criteria. As for the other features, it is not clear what Sharp intended or why he proceeded along the lines that led to Norton's criticisms. One can only conclude that the design was totally unsatisfactory to commercial operators.

Although no tanker was ever built to this plan, the information gained during the development and testing of the various lines forms was to prove invaluable to the Bureau of Construction and Repair's efforts to design a new fleet oiler. Ironically, the T2 designation would later be used to describe the largest single class of tankers ever to be built to a standard design: the T2-SE-A1 (see chapter 14), and was even considered by the U.S. Maritime Commission for potential use in the Liberty Ship program.22


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Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Larry Jewell & Patrick Clancey, HyperWar Foundation