Fleet Logistics and the Operational Use of Oilers in the Pacific
Prior to July 1941, the logistic needs of the U.S. Fleet, renamed the Pacific Fleet after its move to Hawaii, was supplied by the Base Force. This command was responsible for providing fuel, food, ammunition, and provisions. The Base Force also provided the fleet with ancillary services, encompassing such mundane tasks as arranging for its water supply, taking care of garbage disposal, and running the shore patrol. To provide these services, a variety of auxiliaries comprised of oilers, fresh- and frozen-provision ships, repair ships, fleet tugs, and a variety of small craft, from target ships to garbage scows, were assigned to this force. Excluded were the specialized tenders--repair ships, destroyer tenders, seaplane tenders, submarine tenders--consigned to the various type commands.1 As a major element of the fleet, the Base Force was commanded by a rear admiral who was responsible for the operation and administration of all vessels and personnel assigned to his command.
In the spring of 1941, discussions were held concerning the growing needs of the rapidly expanding Pacific Fleet and the possible reorganization of the Base Force, then headquartered aboard the Argonne (AG-3) with the fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Harold Stark, recommended that the Base Force be divided into four separate squadrons: (1) troop transport; (2) units primarily concerned with harbor, towing, and auxiliary services; (3) units engaged in transportation of bulk cargoes; and (4) units for offensive and defensive mine operations.2 Under the new arrangement, the Train would be divided into four service squadrons: Squadron 2--Harbor services; Squadron 4--Transport of personnel and landing force equipment; Squadron 6--Offensive and defensive mining; and Squadron 8--Transport of bulk fuel. The major task of the Base Force, and of Squadron 8 in particular, would still be to furnish logistic support to the main elements of the Pacific Fleet then based at Pearl Harbor.
When Squadron 8 (Base Force) was officially established in July 1941, it included oilers, ammunition ships, store ships, and provision
ships, which were essential for the mission of supplying the Pacific Fleet with fuel, ammunition, provisions, clothing, small stores, and ship's stores. By August the squadron had a total of eighteen ships assigned including the following vessels: Stores issue ships--Antares (AKS-3), Castor (AKS-1), Ammunition ships--Pyro (AE-1), Provision ships--Bridge (AF-1), Arctic (AF-7), Boreas (AF-9), and Aldebaran (AF-10), Oilers--Kanawha (AO-1), Cuyama (AO-3), Brazos (AO-4), Neches (AO-5), Ramapo (AO-12), Sepulga (AO-20), Tippecanoe (AO-21), Neosho (AO-23), Platte (AO-24), Sabine (AO-25), and Kaskaskia (AO-27).3
During the first six months of the war, the activities of the Base Force, renamed the Service Force in March, were limited to supporting the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. No aid was given west of the Hawaiian Islands, leaving the old Asiatic Fleet in the Southwest Pacific to fend for itself (fuel for these ships was provided by the fleet oilers Pecos, Tippecanoe--assigned to the Asiatic Fleet, not the Base Force--and the Standard Oil tanker George G. Henry). With the exception of the delaying actions in the Philippines and the Battle of the Java Sea, the activities of the U.S. Navy during this period were limited to local patrols and hit-and-run raids on some of the Japanese-held islands, primarily in the Marshall and Gilbert groups. Except for fueling-at-sea by fleet oilers, the raiders depended on the facilities at Pearl Harbor for their logistic needs, returning to base after each mission.
The accomplishments of the fleet oilers supporting these missions should not be underestimated, however, since these important raids could not have been undertaken without the improved techniques for underway refueling developed by the Base Force during the prewar months. Fleet oilers, primarily those of the new Cimarron class, accompanied every major task force during this period and were instrumental in proving the concept of underway replenishment as a means of extending the combat range of the fleet (see table 17).
The first of these raids, Rear Adm. Frank J. Fletcher's abortive attempt to relieve Wake Island with Task Force 14, serves to illustrate the importance of accompanying oilers and the problems of fueling under way. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, commander in chief, Pacific Fleet, assigned Fletcher to deliver reinforcements to Wake Island, attacked on 11 December. Fletcher, then commander of Cruiser Division 6, was "one of the senior cruiser commanders in the Pacific Fleet, deemed able and ready to command a task force on an independent mission."4 Task Force 14 was formed around the heavy cruisers Minneapolis (CA-36), Astoria (CA-34), and San Francisco (CA-3), the Saratoga (CV-3), and the eight destroyers of Destroyer Squadron 4. To relieve the Wake garrison, a Marine fighting squadron was embarked on board the Saratoga and
Early Operations Involving Fleet Oilers
Task Force(s) Oiler(s) Action Strike Date TF-14 Saratoga Neches Relief of Wake Canceled because of fueling problems TF-11 Lexington Neches Strike on Wake Canceled, Neches sunk by submarine TF-8
Strikes on the Marshalls and Gilberts 1-2 February 1942 TF-16 Enterprise Sabine Bombardment of Wake 2-4 February 1942 TF-17
Strikes on Salamaua and on Lae on the New Guinea coast 10 March 1942 TF-18
Tokyo raid 16 April 1942 TF-11
Battle of the Coral Sea 7-8 May 1942 TF-16
Battle of Midway 6-7 June 1942  With the exception of Tippecanoe and Neches, both of which were built in 1920, all of these oilers were of the new (18-knot) Cimarron class.  Ships sunk by enemy action.
the seaplane tender Tangier (AV-8) was loaded with troops and supplies. The fleet oiler Neches (AO-5) accompanied the force to provide fuel for the short-legged destroyers.5
Although the round-trip voyage from Pearl Harbor to Wake Island was well within the cruising range of the destroyers, they would have had virtually no reserves for battle. They would need to take on oil en route to insure sufficient fuel for engaging the enemy.6 Ordered to "fuel at [his] discretion," Fletcher decided to wait until he was just outside the air-search range of the enemy forces attacking Wake before refueling. By the evening of 21 December, the task force was closing to within 600 miles of Wake, close enough to the battle zone to begin topping off the accompanying destroyers on the next day. Unfortunately for Fletcher's reputation, the ensuing operation was hampered by moderate winds and a long cross-swell that made fueling extremely difficult. "Several towlines parted, seven oil hoses were ruptured, and only four destroyers were filled during a ten-hour fueling period." The force was still 425 miles from Wake on the morning of 23 December, yet four of the destroyers still had to be fueled. By then it was too late to save the island and Fletcher's force was recalled.7
There is no question the task force's speed of advance was greatly hindered by the slow steaming speed of the Neches (she could make no more than 123/4 knots) and the two days it took to refuel the destroyers' accompanying escorts (see table 17). Because of these delays
Fletcher was unjustly blamed by some naval officers for the failure to relieve Wake. After the war, the esteemed naval historian Rear Adm. Samuel Eliot Morison went so far as to suggest that Fletcher should have elected to make a 20-knot run in without the destroyers commencing at 2000 on 21 December. Had this been done, Saratoga's planes might have surprised the Japanese forces on 23 December.8 This marvelous example of Monday morning quarterbacking takes into account neither Fletcher's orders (presumably to land reinforcements and deliver the marine fighters) nor the prevailing doctrine within the fleet with regard to the operational use of carriers, which stressed their scouting (they were the "eyes of the fleet") and defensive capabilities. Admiral Fletcher flew his flag from the heavy cruiser Astoria throughout the operation and was known to leave the carrier behind when the latter swung into the wind to launch or recover aircraft.9 From these actions, it is clear that he did not consider the Saratoga's air group his most important asset. Like most of his contemporaries in the navy at the start of World War II, Fletcher had not worked closely with a carrier force before December 1941 and thus was not familiar with the potential striking power of aircraft. It is probable that Fletcher hoped to engage the enemy in a surface action consistent with fleet war plans prepared in July.10 If such an action materialized, Fletcher would have been in dire need of his destroyers and it is most unlikely that he would have left them behind under any circumstances.11
It is interesting to speculate about the outcome had Fletcher reached Wake before 23 December. The Saratoga, with an inexperienced air group on board and outnumbered two-to-one, would have been hard pressed to give a good account of herself. Had she engaged the enemy, it is likely that the results would not have been favorable to the U.S. Navy. Fletcher's inability to close Wake Island was a blessing in disguise, since the loss of the Saratoga at this early stage of the conflict could have had disastrous consequences.12
The refueling problems encountered by the Wake task force during its abortive effort to relieve the beleaguered island are understandable. Although fueling exercises were routinely included in the prewar war games, they were rarely, if ever, attempted in anything but a calm sea. Not all oilers participated in these exercises either, and there is no evidence to suggest that Neches's crew was particularly proficient in the techniques needed to fuel ships while under way. Although her fueling gear was probably marginal, the frequent parting of fuel lines does not appear to have caused undue delay. In all likelihood, Neches's fueling rig was unable to support the extra lengths of hose needed to span the raging waters that gapped between ships attempting to fuel in rough seas. The Kaskaskia had experienced a similar problem during her first practice exercises conducted off Johnston Island earlier in the year.13 Larger kingposts and/or better placement would have
permitted more hose to be suspended between fueling ships thereby providing a greater margin of safety during marginal conditions. It appears that this deficiency in the fueling-at-sea gear installed on the new oilers was quickly identified and soon remedied by enlarging kingposts on these ships so that they could handle larger booms.14
Neches's inability to exceed 123/4 knots was an inescapable liability, which surely contributed to the twenty-two-year-old oiler's demise on 23 January 1942 when she was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Neches was sunk while steaming in company with the Lexington task group en route to Wake for what was to have been the first scheduled carrier raid in the Pacific. The raid had to be canceled after the loss of the Neches "as the force could not proceed without fueling at sea and Cincpac had no other tanker to spare."15 Though oilers continued to be scarce, Nimitz would make sure that at least one of the new Cimarrons was available to accompany all future raids.
The important capabilities of the fast, highly maneuverable 25,000-ton, T3 oilers was not long in coming. One week after the Neches sinking, the Platte fueled the entire Enterprise (TF-11) task group during a marathon dawn to dusk operation in preparation for the high-speed run-in for the planned attack on Kwajalein and Roi in the Marshalls. Developed during the fleet problems of the 1930s, the highspeed run-in was a tactic devised by carrier forces for attacking enemy air bases. Carriers were considered highly vulnerable to attack from land-based aircraft so it was deemed necessary to launch a surprise raid on the enemy's base before the carrier's presence became known. This could only be achieved by approaching the target under cover of darkness so that the carrier would arrive at the scheduled launching point just before first light, allowing for a dawn attack on the enemy's airbase to catch his planes on the ground. Similar tactics were employed by the Japanese on their highly successful attack on Pearl Harbor.
Fueling at Sea during Fletcher's Abortive Attempt to Relieve Wake
Date Name Came
22 Dec 41 Bagley DD-386 0710 0805 0916 800 Ralph Talbot DD-114 1105 1121 1159 830 Henley DD-391 1323 1357 1438 715 Hammann DD-393 1521 1549 1701 1,325 23 Dec 41 Selfridge DD-357 0645 0714 0911 1,430 Mugford DD-389 0945 0952 1137 1,071 Patterson DD-392 1207 1225 1402 1,060 Blue DD-387 1532 1553 1718 1,319 SOURCE: Data extracted from Neches deck log.
Cimarron(AO-22), wearing Measure 32 camouflage in February 1942. Bound for the Pacific, she was destined to provide logistic support for the carrier task forces taking part in the Tokyo Raid. Note the longer fueling booms fitted to stations three and four and their effectiveness in rough seas. (National Archives)
An eight- to ten-hour run-in at 25 to 30 knots was generally required to meet these objectives, and could be easily accomplished by the ships in the task force provided the carrier and her escorts had sufficient fuel reserves needed for the high-speed sprint to the target, any ensuing action that might develop, and the high-speed withdrawal. In preparation for the task, the entire Lexington group beginning with the escorts commenced refueling in the early morning hours on 28 January. At dawn, the first of the escorts approached the oiler to take on fuel urgently needed to fill her nearly depleted bunkers. In preparation for this task, Platte's crew spent the predawn hours rigging the specialized gear that would soon be called upon to transfer thousands of tons of "navy special" fuel oil carried by the big ship (when fully loaded the Platte displaced almost as much as the Enterprise). As each ship came alongside in an unending progression that would last well into the night, a heaving line would be passed to the approaching ship followed in rapid succession by messengers, hawsers, a telephone line, and finally the fuel hoses that had to be secured before the pumps could be started.
It was dark by the time the Enterprise came alongside for her turn. No heavy ship had ever been fueled in the open sea at night, but the carrier had to have oil for the fast run-in. Smoothly and steadily, Capt. George Murry eased the carrier toward the Platte to a position close abreast "as if it were a summer noon in Long Island sound." The seamen and engineers did the rest. Below decks the "oil king" and his helpers on both ships directed the flow of
Sabine(AO-25), with three hoses deployed, refuelsEnterprise (CV-6) during the approach phase of the Tokyo Raid. (National Archives)
oil from one tank to another as the two ships steamed side-by-side for five and a half hours.16 As the gap between the two vessels widened and contracted the topside crew tended the lines and hoses making sure that none parted, though ironically, other men stood by with axes to cut everything away in the event of enemy attack or other emergency.17
Replenishing Enterprise's depleted bunkers or for that matter any large ship while under way at sea was, as it continues to be today, an exacting task that demands superb seamanship. The dynamic forces involved when a 30,000-ton (or larger) aircraft carrier and a 25,000-ton oiler are maneuvering at 8 to 12 knots within 50 feet of each other are difficult to comprehend or image. Yet the two vessels had to steam at identical speeds within 20 to 70 feet of one another for hours while a trickle of black oil flowed through 6-inch rubber fuel hoses suspended from saddles rigged to booms projecting over the oiler's side. Quick, skilled hands and precise judgment were necessary to keep the two ships separated. It may have looked easy, but it
Wartime experience with fueling alongside during the first six months of World War II led to improvement in fueling gear carried by oilers. Changes made to Sabine while undergoing refit at Mare Island Navy Yard in July 1941 were typical of those made to other oilers and included installation of electric winches, addition of a raised cargo deck, and extension of kingposts. The need for more AA defense was addressed by adding more 20 mms (note circled gun platforms indicating changes). (National Archives)
wasn't, and although collisions did not occur often, they could have disastrous effects. On one occasion, Kaskaskia lost every one of her portside booms and had to put into Pearl for emergency repairs after being sideswiped by the Yorktown.18
The Loss of Neosho
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor at 0755 on 7 December 1941, the Neosho, second of the Cimarron-class oilers to be launched and the only one of her class in the Pacific, was tied to the fueling dock on Ford Island having just finished unloading a full cargo of high-octane aviation gasoline. No one knows for sure, but her small 3-inch,
Neosho(AO-23) backs away from the Ford Island loading dock during the air raid on Pearl Harbor. (National Archives)
23-caliber deck guns may have been the first to open fire that fateful morning. It took 30 minutes to raise enough steam before Capt. John Phillips could clear the berth, ordering the mooring lines cut with fire axes. Backing away slowly, she cleared the dead Oklahoma, passing the Tennessee and the West Virginia, and came close enough to the Arizona to feel the heat of the flaming funeral pyre consuming the stricken ship. With the engine-room telegraph ringing "Full ahead," the big gray oiler threaded her way through the channel. Twisting and dodging but never slowing down, Captain Phillips reached Merry Point and brought up there without having lost a man or a bit of paint--an act of seamanship under fire that earned him the Navy Cross.19 For the next five months, she fueled fighting ships all over the Pacific--the Lexington (CV-2), Astoria (CA-34), Hammann (DD-412), Hammann (DD-393), Sims (DD-409), and Yorktown (CV-5)--filling their bunkers with black oil from Neosho's cargo holds. There was a short breathing space when she hurried off to the United States for better armament taking on one new 5-inch 38, three 3-inch 50s, and eight 20 mms before hurrying back to duty.
Her journeys to the islands and back to sea with fuel were tense junkets. Often she made them alone, for an escort could not be spared to protect an oiler then alone. She waddled about on the fringes of disaster, doing her wet-nurse's tasks and taking the kidding of men who lined the rails of the real fighting ships and called her their "Fat Girl," their "floating gas station."20
On 1 May 1942, the Neosho met the two carrier task groups that had come together under Fletcher's tactical command at a point some 250 miles southwest of Espiritu Santo in the Coral Sea and immediately commenced fueling the Yorktown group, TF 17. Fueling continued through 3 May with Fletcher topping off his destroyers during the daylight hours. At 1900, Fletcher received a report from MacArthur that "gave him a hot foot." Allied planes had sighted Japanese transports debarking troops off Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. This startling news brought an immediate change in Fletcher's plans and he turned north to strike with the one carrier available (refueling the Lexington group had taken longer than expected and she had been left behind the previous evening21). The Neosho was ordered to peel off and proceed in company with the destroyer Russell (DD-414) to Point "CORN." The oiler was directed to pass through this position one hour after sunrise on even days and Point "RYE" 120 nautical miles further east on odd days.22
Fletcher's planes hit Tulagi early the next morning. After recovering her aircraft, the Yorktown headed south, arriving at the scheduled rendezvous point at 0816 where she met the Lexington and the Neosho. Admiral Fletcher spent the rest of the day refueling from the oiler, which had become an invaluable asset. The Neosho accompanied the Yorktown task force group until the evening of 6 May when she was once again detached, this time with Sims (DD-409) in escort.
Proceeding south, the two ships arrived at the next designated fueling point before daylight. The Sims was patrolling about a mile ahead of Neosho shortly after 0900 when a single plane appeared and dropped a bomb nearby. Both ships went to General Quarters. Half an hour later, the first of two waves of horizontal bombers attacked the two ships without achieving any hits. At noon, dive bombers from the Japanese carriers Shokaku and Suikaku arrived overhead. The Sims went to flank speed and turned left to take position on the Neosho's port quarter as the lead plane peeled off and plummeted down aiming for the big oiler. The stark terror of the attack that followed and its aftermath was later described in the Saturday Evening Post:
The dives were not steep, but long, holding on until four and five hundred feet before releasing. From below, the 20-mms spat and sprayed. The 3-inch 50s barked. The sea around the two ships was
Neosho refuels Yorktown (CV-5) just prior to the Battle of the Coral Sea. Note the difficulty the crew was having while trying to work in the heavy seas smashing over the well deck (one seaman in the center has even fallen down). Problems such as these led to the universal adoption of the elevated cargo spar decks for winches and other handling gear. (National Archives)
crowded with noise and terror and death. The Sims was hit amidships almost at once. She exploded, shot up a tremendous cloud of flame and steam, and then, broken in two, quickly sank. . . .
The Neosho's first hit was a demolition bomb on the starboard side. Its fragments shrieked up at the bridge. A machine gunner there was decapitated through his helmet and a battlephone operator was also killed. Captain Phillips standing close, had their blood washed off his face by the water blown inboard by the explosion. . . .
A dive bomber aiming at the port quarter was met coming in by the stern 20 mm at 600 feet. It set him ablaze and killed his engine.
He came on in a glide, losing altitude and streaming fire like a thrown torch. The ship was turning and the Nip pilot, turning with her, could be seen sitting in a solid cockpit of flame trying to die for Japan. If the Neosho had more knots in her screws, he would have landed in the wake and failed. Instead, he floated against the No. 4 gun station on the stack deck. The plane exploded in a blazing floor. The pilot's body, hurtling free, struck the No. 4 gun, then slumped down against its base like a flung mudpie.23
Chaos reigned aboard the Neosho. The after deck was untenable. Men with clothes and life preservers burning, cut off by flames, hurled themselves into the sea. Below decks, damage-control parties worked desperately to save their ship.
Forty-two-year-old Chief Water Tender Oscar V. Petersen was in charge of one such party. They were waiting in the crew's mess when a 500-pound bomb exploded in the fireroom. The force of the blast demolished the bulkhead separating his party from the fireroom injuring all his men, knocking him down, and burning his face and hands. Petersen worked his way into the fireroom to shut off the four main steam valves, his job in the event of battle damage. He lay there with his head pillowed in his arms until the steam in the compartment had dissipated enough that he could reach the valves without dying on the way. He went in and closed the valves, then worked himself out of the compartment. When he reached the open air, the skin on his hands, not waiting to blister, sloughed off at once, "like the leather in the fingers of a half-pulled-on suede glove." He died six days later, though his heroic action earned him the Medal of Honor (posthumously).
The ship took seven hits before the attackers departed. Without power and nearly gutted throughout, the Neosho "looked more like a smoldering volcanic reef than a ship." For four days she drifted westerly with the trade winds while her crew tried frantically to keep her afloat. The destroyer Henley (DD-391) arrived on the afternoon of 11 May to rescue the 123 survivors still on board, then scuttled the "Fat Lady" ending her short, but glorious career.
The Emergence of the At-Sea Fueling Group
From the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943, the South Pacific was the most active theater of operations in the Pacific. Because of the great distances involved, ships operating there were supplied from a number of advance bases that had been rapidly constructed and stockpiled with all sorts of supplies needed by both combatants and auxiliaries. Supply lines for this area of operations ran directly from the West Coast to bases in Samoa, the Fijis, New Zealand, and New Caledonia. Advance bases were also established at Segond Channel in Espiritu Santo and at Tulagi, once the Solomons had been taken. A number of supply ships, tankers, and provision and store ships,
which had been placed in Service Squadron 8 for type command and administrative purposes were assigned to the South Pacific Area (ServRonSoPac) for operational control. The duties of Service Squadron 8 (ServRon 8) during this time period were established by the commander of the Service Force, Rear Adm. William L. Calhoun, in a letter to the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet dated 4 August 1942. The functions of ServRon 8 were clearly set forth in this letter as follows:
- The general functions of Service Squadron 8 are the supply, transportation, and distribution of fuel oil, diesel oil, lubricating oils, gasoline, provisions, general stores, and ammunition to the fleet.
- All Service Force oilers, provision ships, stores issue ships, and ammunition ships are assigned to Service Squadron 8. Chartered tankers and chartered provision ships are also assigned to the squadron, and, at Pearl Harbor, self-propelled barges and small craft are included for the delivery to ships of fuels, provisions, and stores.
- Commander Service Squadron 8 is directly responsible for the administration and operation of the Squadron to best meet the logistic requirements of the Fleet and bases and to comply with directives of the commander, Service Force.
- Requests by ships at Pearl Harbor for fuels, provisions, stores, and water will be made direct to commander Service Squadron 8, except where otherwise directed by current instructions.24
When the Pacific Fleet was reorganized in March of 1943, Capt. August H. Gray was assigned command of ServRon 8. By then the squadron had grown in size to forty-four vessels of which twenty-seven were fleet oilers.25 Up to this point in the war the technique of oiling at sea had been used solely to increase the steaming radius of the task forces engaged in hit-and-run strikes--a situation dictated by the small number of combatants available and the lack of suitable auxiliaries. By the fall of 1943, however, new ships were joining the fleet in increasing numbers. For the first time, the navy had enough resources to begin its long-planned campaign across the Central Pacific.26
The Gilberts (Operation GALVANIC), November-December 1943
The first large-scale amphibious operation planned by the navy in the Pacific was the invasion of Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Islands.27 During the planning stages for this operation, code-named GALVANIC, it was anticipated that large numbers of the fleet would be required to remain at sea within the forward operations area for extended periods of time. Pearl Harbor, which had previously served as the main naval base for the Pacific Fleet, was considered too far from Tarawa (over 2,100 nautical miles) to support the massive advance planned for the fleet.
Further evidence of the difficulties experienced by oiler crews as they attempted to conduct fueling operations in heavy seas. Here, Kaskaskia (AO-27) with "white water" on the well deck refuels Enterprise (CV-6) on 18 August 1942. (National Archives)
Although some advance bases had been established in the South Pacific, the nearest to the invasion beaches, Espiritu Santo, was still over a thousand miles away. To eliminate the time-consuming need to return to base for fuel, a round-trip of at least five days at 15 knots, it was decided to refuel all major elements of the invasion fleet at sea. Thus the Gilberts became the first operation in history in which an entire fleet was refueled at sea, eliminating the need for warships to leave the combat area for fuel.
The logistics of providing fuel for the two hundred combatants in the Gilberts operation was handled by Service Squadron 8 under the command of Captain Gray, headquartered at Pearl Harbor. While plans were being developed for the operation, it was decided that the fuel tanks of all ships would be topped off before leaving port and that each attack force would be accompanied by two fleet oilers. Additional fuel sources also had to be provided, since it was anticipated that the high maneuvering speeds required during combat operations would consume more fuel than could be provided by the two oilers. Accordingly, a task group of thirteen fleet oilers drawn from ServRon 8 (see
table 19) was set up as a roving fueling group. Fleet oilers in "deuces" and "treys" escorted by destroyers were dispatched to designated positions near the Gilberts where they refueled relays of combatant ships at a standard fueling speed of between 8 and 12 knots.28 Fueling at sea was done at predetermined fueling rendezvous; these were changed daily and unnecessary radio traffic was held to a minimum to reduce the possibility of submarine attack. As the groups of oilers were emptied, they returned to Pearl Harbor to reload before returning to rendezvous once again with the fleet. A separate fleet of commercial tankers was kept busy shuttling fuel between the West Coast and Pearl insuring that the underground storage tanks at Oahu were always kept full.29
A major change occurred in the doctrine of fueling carriers at sea during the Gilberts operation. Until then, oilers had always approached the carrier instead of vice versa. Capt. Truman J. Heeding, chief of staff to commander Carrier Division 3, thought this was silly. [30 Heeding had frequently chaired the board set up by Nimitz to revise the tactical instructions for carriers during the planning stages of the operation and was in the forefront on the efforts to develop new carrier tactics. While conducting operations off Tarawa, Heeding saw a tanker with a cruiser alongside making an approach on a carrier. Turning to his boss, Rear Adm. Charles A. Pownall, Heeding made the following comment: "Look, isn't this the silliest thing you ever saw? We all know how to fly formation. Let's set the tanker up there, and let everybody come up and make an approach on the tanker and just run the fuel lines across." "Maybe that will work," replied Pownall. "Let's try it." Apparently they did, finding that it was possible to fuel without
Fueling Group, Service Squadron 8, Gilberts Operation, 10 November to 10 December 1943
Name Hull no. Program Type Data ordered Commissioned Cargo oil
Cimarron AO-22 NDF T3-S2-A1 1/38 20-Mar-39 103,233 Platte AO-24 NDF T3-S2-A1 1/38 1-Dec-39 101,638 Sabine AO-25 NDF T3-S2-A1 1/38 25-Sep-40 104,938 Guadalupe AO-32 NDF T3-S2-A1 1/38 5-Jun-41 104,938 Lackawanna AO-40 NDF Kennebec 1/40 10-Jul-42 93,195 Tappahannock AO-43 NDF Mattaponi 4/40 22-Jun-42 103,233 Neches AO-47 NDF Mattaponi 4/40 16-Sep-42 103,233 Neosho AO-48 NDF Kennebec 1/40 16-Sep-42 93,195 Suamico AO-49 L/L T2-SE-A1 4/41 10-Aug-42 106,710 Tallulah AO-50 L/L T2-SE-A1 4/41 5-Sep-42 106,710 Pecos AO-65 L/L T2-SE-A1 4/41 5-Oct-42 106,710 Neshanic AO-71 EMSCF T3-S-A1 8/41 20-Feb-43 91,929 Schuylkill AO-76 L/L T2-SE-A1 4/41 9-Apr-43 106,710 TOTAL 1,326,332 NDF = National Defense Feature Tanker Program, L/L = Lend-Lease Bill, EMSCF = Emergency Ship Construction Fund.
running into the wind and doing away with the encumbrance (and time-consuming procedure) of rigging breast or spring lines. All that was needed was to run messenger lines across, a distance line, and fuel lines. According to Heeding, "It was very simple; you just flew formation, and it worked fine."31
Kwajalein Island in the Marshalls (Operation FLINTLOCK), January-February 1944
When plans for penetrating the Marshall Islands were being formulated, it became evident that the projected fueling-at-sea areas designated for the Fifth Fleet would be subject to attack from land-based enemy aircraft. At the insistence of Adm. Raymond Spruance, the atoll of Majuro was taken at the beginning of the operation to provide a secure base for refueling and repair. As a result of this action, fueling-at-sea activities during Operation FLINTLOCK were limited to refueling ships at prescribed points en route to operation. As in the Gilberts operation, fueling was done at prescribed points on a predetermined schedule. Better coordination and control of the at-sea fueling operation was achieved by placing Capt. Edward E. Paré, chief of staff for ComServRon 8, in command of the oiling group at sea. It should be noted that this was the first time an officer assigned to the Service Force had been given command of a task unit in the order of battle.32
The Marianas (Operation FORAGER), February-June1944
With the capture of the Marshalls, the islands of Majuro, Kwajalein, and Eniwetok became the staging points for the next major push in the Pacific: the advance on the Marianas. During the planning stages for the operation, code-named FORAGER, it was anticipated that the total fuel needs for all of the forces involved would be about 100,000 barrels per day. To meet this demand, fleet oilers would have to deliver at least 1,400,000 barrels (one oiler a day) to the forward areas every two weeks. The man in charge of executing this plan was August Gray, now a commodore (an unusual rank for the navy at this time) and known as the "Oil King of the Pacific." As commander of Service Squadron 8, Commodore Gray would be responsible for getting the oil to the advance bases. From there, Capt. Burton B. Biggs, an experienced logistics officer on Admiral Spruance's staff, would direct the fueling operation.33
Fueling at sea was considered so important to the operational plan of the fleet that the fueling group was included in the order of battle as Task Group 50.17. The twenty oilers within the group were divided into eight task units, 16.7.1 through 16.7.8 inclusive, which were formed to provide fueling at sea. Each consisted of three oilers and at least two destroyer escorts, which were reinforced with a destroyer whenever possible. Four escort carriers were added to the group to provide replacement aircraft. Two of these, the Copahee (CVE-12) and the Breton (CVE-23), carried navy replacement aircraft. The other two, the Manila Bay (CVE-61) and the Natoma Bay (CVE-64), transported
Fueling two ships at one time became the norm in the latter part of World War II. Here, Kankakee refuels light cruiser Montpelier (CL-57) in the Solomons on 13 January 1944 while a Fletcher-class destroyer approaches to starboard to receive fuel from that side of the oiler. Note the modifications that have been made to improve oiling at sea; particularly prominent are the large combination kingpost/ventilator shafts aft with their huge fueling booms. Other notable features include elevated cargo winches, a spar deck with its cargo of lube oil drums, and the addition of twin 40 mm gun positions atop the after deck house. (National Archives)
army aircraft (P-47s) for Saipan once it was secured. Four hospital ships were also included in Task Group 50.17 to take advantage of the always scarce escorts attached to the task force.
As in the Gilberts and Marshalls operations, fueling was done at prescribed points on a predetermined schedule. Capt. Edward Paré was again charged with directing and coordinating the fueling operations at sea. Designated commander Task Group 50.17, he embarked in the destroyer John D. Henley (DD-553) to direct and coordinate the
operations of oiler and aircraft replacement units in support of Vice Adm. Marc A. Mitscher's Fast Carrier Task Force 58. In addition to exercising tactical command, Captain Paré was also responsible for consolidating the cargoes of fleet oilers as they became empty, dispatching back to Eniwetok for reloading any oiler that had been emptied or had been reduced to less than 20,000 barrels of its cargo of black oil.
Late in the campaign, three of Captain Paré's tankers--the Saranac (AO-74), Neshanic (AO-71), and Saugatuck (AO-75)--were attacked by Japanese bombers while fueling four destroyers and destroyer escorts. The attack, which occurred at 1630 on 18 June 1944, was the first upon navy oilers in the Central Pacific. Of the three ships (all were hit), Saranac with eight killed and twenty-two wounded was the most heavily damaged and had to proceed to a navy yard for repairs. The Neshanic had a close call when a bomb exploded among gasoline drums stowed on deck, starting a fierce fire. Although the flames rose mast high, the fire was quickly extinguished by a damage-control party.34
Fuel Logistics after the Marianas Campaign
Prior to 1944 much of the fuel for Pearl Harbor, other bases, and the fleet at sea was transported in navy oilers. Even though tankers of large capacity were reporting every month, the demand for their services increased so rapidly that after the Marshalls campaign, fleet oilers were used primarily to distribute oil directly to ships at sea. The long haul from southern California, and the longer one from the Caribbean through the Panama Canal, was made almost entirely by an endless chain of large commercial tankers, which then discharged to the fleet oilers in such anchorages as Majuro, Eniwetok, and Ulithi. In spite of the broad functions originally assigned to Service Squadron 8 and the manner in which it had expanded in number of ships and logistic planning, the existing organization could not keep up with the increasing complexity of the logistics of trying to provide enough fuel to every command in the Pacific. The first organizational change came in July 1944 when, at the request of the Army-Navy Petroleum Board in Washington, a separate Area Petroleum Office was established within Service Squadron 8. By December 1944, the magnitude of this office and the increasing importance of high-octane gasoline (used primarily by the army air force) was such as to warrant its separation from the fleet, and with it responsibility for several hundred merchant tankers and the distribution planning for oil and petroleum products.
Operations in the Philippines (STALEMATE), September-December 1944
Operations conducted for the invasions in the Philippines were divided between the Third and Seventh Fleets. Supplies and fuel for the combined forces in the Southwest Pacific under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, that is, those of the army and part of the Seventh Fleet, were handled through the normal logistic channels and came by way
Aircraft carriers also conducted fueling at sea, especially to top off the short-legged DEs that accompanied the CVEs. Here, the crew of the Paul G. Baker (DE-642) is taking a fuel hose from Altahama (CVE-18). Note the seaman with the line-throwing gun standing in front of the 1.1-inch mount. (National Archives)
of Australia and the Admiralty Islands. Before the invasion of Leyte, the Seventh Fleet was composed largely of submarines, amphibious craft, and motor torpedo boats. Consequently, it had a small Service Force that was ill equipped to provide logistic support for the dozens of warships from battleships down that were lent by the Pacific Fleet for this operation. Fuel oil, gasoline, and lubricants for the Seventh Fleet came largely from Aruba in the West Indies and the West Coast of the United States. Commercial tankers carried petroleum products to Australia, Manus, and Hollandia, where shore and floating storage facilities were used to produce a quick turnaround of the fast-fleet oilers. Before the operation began, Seventh Fleet possessed only three fleet oilers that were equipped for fueling at sea: the Salamonie (AO-26), Chepachet (AO-78), and Winooski (AO-38). Three more--the Ashtabula (AO-51), Saranac (AO-74), and Suamico (AO-49)--were lent from Service Squadron 8 to make another fueling unit.35
The Third Fleet, consisting of Mitscher's fast carrier groups and Vice Adm. Theodore S. Wilkinson's southern attack force, continued
Fueling rig typical of that utilized by the large fleet carriers to refuel their escorts while under way. The second Yorktown (CV-10) refuels a Fletcher-class destroyer during the campaign to capture Okinawa. (National Archives)
to receive its supplies through the Service Force Pacific Fleet. When Service Squadron 10, the second mobile service force, was shifted from Eniwetok in the Marshalls to Ulithi in the Marianas, 1 October 1944, another 2,800 miles was added to the round-trip voyage of the commercial oilers that were being used to ferry oil directly to the advance bases. Although greatly expanded, the number of oilers available for this purpose was still limited. The added distance extended the turnaround time of the oilers involved in this task, restricting the amount of oil that could be delivered while an operation was in progress. To insure that the fleet would not run short of fuel during this period, a number of obsolete tankers were moved to Ulithi to form a floating tank farm for storing an oil reserve. This made more sense than building permanent storage facilities (as was the case with Guam and Saipan), since the navy did not intend to develop Ulithi into a permanent base once the war was over.
Once again, the task of transferring fuel from the storage facilities at the advance bases to the ships at sea was delegated to fleet oilers drawn
Suamico (AO-49) as she looked during Operation STALEMATE. (National Archives)
from Service Squadron 8. As in the Marianas campaign, they were assigned to their own task group, the At-Sea Logistics Group Third Fleet, designated Task Group 30.8. In addition to oilers and escort carriers, fleet tugs and ammunition ships were added to the logistics group now numbering 114 ships under the command of Capt. Jasper T. Acuff. The logistic group contained thirty-four fleet oilers, eleven escort carriers, nineteen destroyers, twenty-six destroyer escorts, ten fleet tugs, and fourteen ammunition ships. It is an interesting commentary on the navy's command policy during World War II that command of the At-Sea Logistics Group at this time was not considered worthy of flag rank, although an aviation rear admiral had to be temporarily removed from command of the escort carriers in order to permit them to operate under the command of a captain from the Service Force! The fact that a service squadron such as ServRon 8 was only accorded a commodore in command even though it consisted of several hundred ships,36 is further evidence of the second-class status of the service forces.
Fueling operations during the retaking of the Philippines differed from previous campaigns in the manner in which fuelings were scheduled.
Unlike previous operations, when fast-carrier forces rendezvoused with the oilers according to a predetermined plan, times and locations were established by Adm. William F. Halsey as needed, thus allowing him maximum freedom of action. To ensure a constant source of fuel oil, Task Group 30.8 was divided into ten or twelve task units, each consisting of three oilers, and assigned to fueling groups made up of three or four task units so that one group was always at sea within easy reach of fast carriers. Halsey's fleet was fueled in echelons so that the oilers in the fueling group were kept steaming from one rendezvous to another located just beyond the reach of enemy land-based air. About every three or four days, a fresh task unit from Task Force 30.8 would be sent to the fueling group to relieve those oilers that had already issued most of their oil. Those oilers that were low or close to empty would transfer the remainder of their oil to other tankers and retire to Ulithi for a new load of fuel. Each task unit was accompanied by an escort carrier that brought up replacement planes and pilots for the fast carriers. One or two fleet tugs also operated with the fueling group in readiness to be sent forward, if required, to pass a towline to a damaged combat ship.
From the beginning of September when operations in the Palau Islands began, through the first phase of the liberation of the Philippines, which ended on 23 January 1945, fleet tankers of the At-Sea Logistics Group delivered over eight million barrels of fuel oil and fourteen and one-half million gallons of aviation gasoline to the fast carrier forces at sea. The thirty-four oilers assigned to the group constituted the principal means of supplying the fast-carrier task group, which was at sea for thirteen out of sixteen weeks between 6 October 1944 and 26 January 1945. In addition to fuel, fleet oilers delivered everything from drums of lubrication oil, compressed gases, bottled oxygen, food, spare belly tanks, and personnel replacements, to mail.37
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