Title graphic

Enter the Carrier

As the navy began to flex it muscles in the late 1930s, it became increasingly evident that when war came, the carriers would need to be capable of refueling at sea. Although Adm. William V. Pratt, when commander in chief, had recommended that aircraft carriers be equipped and trained for oiling at sea, there is no record of any response or action taken by the fleet in response to this suggestion, first made in 1929.1 The complete lack of any reference, discussion, or attempts to develop a method for fueling large vessels at sea in subsequent years during the early to mid-1930s suggests that the bureaucracy within the department had simply decided that this type of operation was too hazardous to attempt. In fairness to the navy, it should be noted that during this period, the fleet was operating under such austere budget constraints that funds for routine repairs and maintenance were severely limited. Needless to say, no captain wanted to be responsible for incurring damage to his ship that would necessitate repair charges above those normally budgeted for routine maintenance. This tended to dissuade the practice of any potentially dangerous maneuver such as refueling large vessels at sea by the riding-abeam method.

This climate started to change toward the end of the decade as war clouds began to gather on the horizon and Congress began to allocate more and more funds for the navy. The first indication of a change in attitude with regard to fueling large vessels at sea came in the fall of 1938. In October, the chief of naval operations, Adm. William D. Leahy, issued a memorandum to the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet (CinCUS) requesting that he undertake all steps (including the acquisition of equipment) necessary for the development of fueling battleships, carriers, and cruisers from tankers while under way.2 The impetus for this action appears to have originated within the War


Plans Division, which prepared a lengthy draft of Leahy's memo in September.3 War plans seems to have been particularly concerned with the problem of fueling cruisers and carriers "especially when operating or maintaining station in areas distant from [their] own bases."4 What triggered this action is not exactly known. There is considerable evidence, however, to suggest that fuel consumption of the carriers was at the heart of the matter.

This shortcoming first surfaced during Fleet Problem XVI of 1935. During this exercise the Lexington (CV-2) became critically low on fuel after just five days.5 While participating in Fleet Problem XVII in the following year, the Saratoga (CV-3) consumed copious amounts of fuel--as much as 10 percent of total capacity on a single day--when operating aircraft in company with the fleet.6 The exercises conducted during this problem involved extensive movements of the fleet from its bases on the West Coast to Midway Island and back. Flight operations conducted by accompanying carriers demonstrated the extremely high rate of fuel consumption that would transpire under such circumstances. In order to launch and recover aircraft, a carrier had to steam into the wind at relatively high speed. This usually required that the carrier maintain a course different from that of the main units of the fleet. After recovering aircraft she would again need to maintain high speed in order to catch up to the rest of the fleet, which had moved off in a different direction. Steaming at high speeds, of course, used up prodigious amounts of fuel. At 25 knots, the Saratoga's normal speed when operating aircraft in light winds or when trying to overtake the fleet, the fuel consumed by the Saratoga exceeded 30 tons per hour!7 As a result of these problems, the General Board recommended that the fuel capacity of the Lexington and the Saratoga be increased by installing underwater blisters, which would also provide torpedo protection.8

The fuel problem when operating far from base was again brought to light during Lexington's dramatic attempt to locate Amelia Earhart in 1937. On 3 July of that year, Capt. Leigh Noyes, the ship's commander, was ordered to steam immediately to Howland Island in the South Pacific to search for the lost aviatrix.9 Proceeding in haste from Coronado Roads, the task group (including the destroyers Lamson [DD-367], Drayton [DD-366], and Cushing [DD-376]) soon slowed down to 231/2 knots when it became known that the Lexington would be unable to fuel at Pearl Harbor due to dredging operations blocking the channel.10 Instead, the ship was directed to Lahaina Roads off the island of Maui where she would have to refuel repeatedly from small lighters. Fortunately, the Ramapo (AO-12), then enroute to the Western Pacific, was directed to rendezvous with the carrier to hasten the fueling operation.11 The Lexington sent her three destroyers ahead to top off at Pearl while she continued to Lahaina, anchoring in the roadstead on


8 July. She was joined the following day by Ramapo, which transferred 905,000 gallons of fuel oil, "a staggering amount," which left the Lexington with a "three degree list" to starboard.12 The big carrier then made for Howland Island at moderate speed to conserve fuel for the destroyers that preceded her. There were no oil-storage facilities beyond Hawaii 1,600 miles distant; so the Lexington, in addition to her search duties, was required to serve as a mobile filling station for the short-legged destroyers also looking for the missing flyer.

Though their efforts proved futile, the whole saga emphasized the importance of adequate and timely replenishment at sea. Joseph (Jocko) J. Clark, the famed carrier admiral, claims that this event revealed the need for at-sea fueling of the carriers.13 To what extent this is true cannot be determined. Undoubtedly Captain Noyes would have submitted a report on the operation after its completion, but his comments, if any, have not been ascertained.

Regardless of the reasons behind Admiral Leahy's request of 20 October, it drew prompt response by the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, Adm. Claude C. Bloch. On 27 October 1937, he instructed the Battle Force and Scouting Force commanders to submit plans and recommendations for refueling the ship types assigned their commands.14 Adm. Edward C. Kalbfus, commander Battle Force, responded with a suggestion that a preliminary study of the information available on refueling large vessels be made and that a conference be held to outline the scope and procedure to be used in the prospective tests.15 While this information was being collected, Admiral Bloch assigned responsibility for conducting the proposed tests, now limited to cruisers and carriers, to Rear Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of Battleship Division 1.16

Tests were planned for the spring of 1939 using elements of the fleet left on the West Coast while the rest of the fleet was in the Caribbean participating in Fleet Problem XX. Nimitz was scheduled to remain on the West Coast aboard his flagship the Arizona. The aircraft carrier Saratoga, the heavy cruisers Chester and Vincennes, and the light cruiser Trenton would also be left behind. These ships, with their escorts and at least one oiler, would constitute Task Force 7. Nimitz, as senior officer present, would be in command.

Nimitz's management of this assignment is indicative of his skill as an administrator and leader--characteristics that would ultimately catapult him to command of the Pacific Fleet in World War II. Within two weeks of Bloch's order, he had prepared a detailed study of the problem, including references to some sixteen documents going back as far as 1925.17 Citing the fleet's familiarity with the broadside method for fueling at sea and the limited capability of the over-the-stern method, Nimitz recommended "that the fueling experiments be limited to the fueling of a heavy cruiser at sea under favorable conditions


by the 'BROADSIDE' (or some approximation thereto) method." He proposed that this be undertaken between 1-14 April 1939, using the Brazos (AO-4) and either the Chester or the Vincennes. Nimitz's recommendation to try the broadside approach is not surprising based on his prior experience aboard the Maumee. Reading his report, however, one is struck by the careful manner in which Nimitz structured his argument for testing this method. As noted earlier, the broadside method was considered extremely hazardous for use on any ship larger than a destroyer. The fact that none of the prior correspondence concerning this operation, of which there is a considerable amount, mentions any other method except the over-the-stern approach, indicates the extent to which this attitude prevailed in the fleet. Nimitz's report is particularly revealing because it demonstrates his foresight in overcoming this unfounded bias. Referring to the 10,000-ton heavy cruisers that had been added to the fleet since the earlier tests, he suggested the following:

While this type can undoubtedly be fueled at sea at low rates by the "OVER THE STERN" method it is considered important to determine whether these ships can be fueled at sea under favorable conditions by the "BROADSIDE" method. Greater risk to material will undoubtedly exist than when fueling destroyers or light cruisers by the "BROADSIDE" method but such risk must be accepted if the desired information is to be obtained.18

This clearly demonstrates Nimitz's early awareness of the calculated risk and its value in achieving necessary objectives.

Admiral Bloch concurred with the recommendations made by Nimitz in his report and approved them forthwith.19 Nimitz took immediate action by forwarding the procedure used by Cuyama while fueling Omaha in 1924 to the commanding officers of the ships that were scheduled for new tests.20

Unfortunately, the records of the Base Force, from which most of the preceding discussion on the broadside method was obtained, have not been located for the succeeding years (1939 or later). What discussions or further actions transpired that spring is not known. From the events that ensued, it appears that the decision was made to conduct extensive tests of the broadside method for replenishment at sea.

The first of these exercises was begun on 19 June 1939. On that day, the Kanawha left Long Beach in company with the Saratoga on a two-day exercise to test the broadside method of fueling aircraft carriers while under way.21 As was the case in the third series of tests between Kanawha and Arizona, the first day was used to test the towing arrangements. From the Deck Log of the Kanawha, it appears that she was taken in tow by the larger vessel. After taking in a breast line, towing line, and telephone line, the two ships practiced steaming in company,


Rear Adm. Chester Nimitz (right) during change of command ceremonies on board Arizona, 26 May 1939.
Rear Adm. Chester Nimitz (right) during change of command ceremonies on board Arizona, 26 May 1939. Rear Adm. Russell Wilson (left) relieved Nimitz as commander of Battleship Division 1. While Nimitz was in command of the division, he convinced the fleet to try the "alongside" method for fueling large combatants even though most, if not all, of the AO commanders thought it couldn't be done. (Naval Historical Center)

making up to 10 knots. On the next day, two fueling lines were also passed to the Kanawha (fore and aft), and she commenced pumping fuel oil while maintaining a speed of 7 knots. Next, a gasoline line was passed so that this fuel too could be delivered to the Saratoga. The entire operation lasted just over five hours and appears to have gone off without a hitch.

The success of this exercise led to a further series of tests of the broadside method to determine the best practical speed that could be achieved under various sea conditions and the materials (e.g., the rig)


that should be used. These were conducted with the Chester (CA-27) playing the part of the oiler and the destroyer Mugford (DD-398) as the receiving ship.

Many years later, the Mugford's commanding officer, Cdr. Arleigh Burke, described how these experiments were performed.

The tests were run as directed by the Skipper of Chester. We had several full days in good weather at the beginning not far off of Honolulu. The initial runs were into the wind with Chester making 10 knots, we made quite a few separate approaches with some slight variations on the angle of approach. Each time we took aboard a spring line and a bow line. I tried to slow just enough to keep a slight strain on the spring line but that didn't work out very well for it reduced the maneuverability of Mugford and was of no help at all in keeping station. We took the fuel hose, connected up and Chester would pump about ten gallons and then we would disconnect and stand off to make another approach. By the time we had made a dozen runs our crews had become pretty good on the lines and the hose. By that time too I had found that neither the bowline or the spring were helping us so we tried a few runs without any lines. It was hard to keep station although we found it was easier to keep station at 30 feet than 40 feet from the cruiser. Any closer than that caused the Mugford to be affected by the bow wave of Chester. Then somebody got the fine idea that most of our trouble was without seaman's eye and none of ours were calibrated down to the yard, let alone to the foot. So we put a heaving line across from the Mugford to the Chester and had a line tender call out the distance as it changed. It didn't take long to put some markings on that distance line similar to those on a log line. We ran a few more runs and found that a distance line alone was much easier than trying to use the bowline and/or a spring line.

. . . Mugford made high speed approaches on Chester, who was steaming at fueling speed. We slowed on the approach so that we would be making the same speed as Chester when we were in proper fueling position. That meant we had to be down to fueling speed some time before we were alongside and drift up to position as we were coming down in speed. That took quite a long time, so after checking with the Chief Engineer of Mugford to make sure that both engines could be operated absolutely together at the same rate, I first tried very high speed approaches. We would make the approach at about 30 knots and when Mugford's bridge was just opposite Chester's fantail, I would back from flank speed to back full for ten seconds and then go ahead directly to the fueling speed. After a couple of runs we could be on fueling station, at fueling speed, and get line over and connect up in much less time than was possible by the ordinary approach. On the first few runs though we didn't get it quite right and had to cast off the hose before we could connect because we were going either too fast or too slow when we


settled down. It was not so hairy for me because I had lots to do, but the Exec. . . . could only watch and pray. . . .

The bad weather tests I would just as soon have skipped and I rather hoped we wouldn't have to make those tests. Sometimes there are storms off Honolulu though and eventually we got one--just a medium sort of a storm though--not a hurricane. Of course these runs were more difficult. We made them only into the wind--no down wind runs and certainly no cross wind runs. Our biggest trouble was from the occasional yawing of Chester. We could anticipate and handle our own yaws but not those of Chester. Our approaches had to be much more cautious and at slower speed, i.e., not above 15 knots fueling speed and no backing full by Mugford. It could be done with very well trained ships but it was not easy and refueling in a storm should be attempted only in an emergency. Not a very profound finding. Any seaman would instinctively arrive at that answer.22

These experiments demonstrated conclusively the advantages of the broadside method for fueling at sea, albeit the shortage of navy oilers limited further development of this technique vis-à-vis larger vessels. Although the navy had begun to acquire new oilers of the fast Cimarron class, budgetary constraints severely limited the number of ships that could be procured until the "Two Ocean" bill was passed in the late spring of 1940 (see chapter 13 for details). After passage of this bill, five more of these national defense tankers were acquired from the maritime commission and quickly added to the fleet. The need for oilers was so great at this time that their fitting out was assigned as a "first priority" over new construction.23

As more oilers were added to the Pacific Fleet, it became possible to schedule practice fueling exercises with these new vessels. Unfortunately the rapid expansion of the fleet after April 1940, coupled with the added logistic support required to maintain the fleet at Pearl Harbor, continued to strain the navy's oiler capacity. Nevertheless, the Kaskaskia was able during her first year of operation to test her fueling gear off Johnston Island while conducting fueling exercises with a battleship, a heavy cruiser, several destroyers, and a submarine. This exercise proved invaluable in disclosing weaknesses in the fueling at sea gear installed on the new ships before the fighting started. As one member of her crew explained, "Our booms were too short, there were no quick release hooks, no quick shut off valves."24 Kaskaskia's ability to provide fueling at sea while under way improved considerably when larger after booms were installed by the Mare Island Navy Yard in late 1941. Undoubtedly, the knowledge gained by her crew was passed on to the Bureau of Construction and Repair enabling additional equipment and further refinements in the technique of fueling ships at sea to be developed in the ensuing months.25


Previous Chapter (11) ** Next Chapter (13)

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