Title graphic

Gray Steel and Black Oil

Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1995

Thomas Wildenberg


Naval Institute Press · Annapolis, Maryland

© 1996 by Thomas Wildenberg
[Reproduced here by permission of the Author]

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.


Wildenberg, Thomas, 1947-

Gray steel and black oil: fast tankers and replenishment at sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1995 / Thomas Wildenberg. p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references (p. ) and index. ISBN 1-55750-934-4 (alk. paper)

1. Tankers--United States--History. 2. United States. Navy-- Fuel--History. 3. United States. Navy--Mobilization--History. 4. Merchant marine--United States--Military aspects--History. I. Title.

VM455.W55 1996

359.9'858--dc20 95-37453

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper

03 02 01 00 99 98 97 96 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
First printing

To C. A. Evers, onetime "Oil King" of the USS Aucilla (AO-58), and all tankermen--past, present, and future--whose unglamorous labors have served the U.S. Navy for the past seventy years.

  Fuel stands first in importance of the resources of the fleet. Without ammunition, a ship may run away, hoping to fight another day but without fuel she can neither run, nor reach her station, nor remain on it, if remote, nor fight.



Preface ix
Introduction: Fuel and the Battle Fleet 1
1. The First Oilers 5
2. NOTS, the Shipping Board, and the Acquisition of Merchant Tankers in the First World War 16
3. The Treaty Navy and the Problem of Refueling an Overseas Expedition 27
4. Rebuilding the Fleet 46
5. Standardization of Merchantmen and the T-2 Design 56
6. Fleet Oiler Design, 1934-1936 62
7. The Merchant Marine Act and the Issue of Speed 71
8. Admiral Land and the Construction of National Defense Tankers 83
9. Cimarron, First of the Fast Tankers 98
10. Navalization and Armament 108
11. The Second Group of National Defense Tankers 122
12. Enter the Carrier 128
13. Naval Expansion and the Acquisition of Additional Oilers 135
14. The Emergency Building Program and the Development of the T2-SE-A1 Tanker 141
15. Wartime Requisition and Conversion of Merchant Tankers 146
16. Early Operations in the Atlantic 161
17. Fleet Logistics and the Operational Use of Oilers in the Pacific 168
18. Combat Logistic Support Emerges as an Integral Component of Operational Planning 190
19. Under Two Flags 204
20. The Korean War Experience and the Neosho Class 217
21. The Fast Combat-support Ship and Improved Techniques for Transfer at Sea 227
22. "Jumboization," AORs, and the War in Southeast Asia 238
23. Downsizing and Austerity in the Decade after Vietnam 248
24. Resurgence in the Reagan Years and the Gulf War 257
Epilogue 267
A. Tankers Assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service 269
B. Tankers of the Treaty Navy 272
C. U.S. Navy Oilers Acquired between 1939 and 1945 274
D. Fleet Oilers Commissioned in the U.S. Navy, 1915-1993 276
Notes 287
Bibliography 321
Index 333



  Our ships sailed on water, but they moved on oil, and the demand never ceased.

Beans, Bullets, and Black Oil

This project began as a modest effort to locate original plans of the United States Maritime Commission tanker Cimarron, the first vessel launched by that organization and the forerunner of the largest class of naval oilers ever built. The success of this first venture led to the discovery of an ever-growing file of information on oilers in the U.S. Navy and the development of fueling at sea.

As I began to search out additional design details of these ships, I found that published sources of information on fleet oilers were difficult to come by, especially for those acquired by the U.S. Navy between the years 1939 and 1945. Collecting accurate data on the various tankers taken into the U.S. Navy during this period was made difficult by the lack of any central filing system for such vessels and the expeditious manner in which these ships were obtained and pressed into naval service. Without exception, all started out as merchantmen either procured directly by the U.S. Navy, or as became the norm, constructed by the U.S. Maritime Commission. Because they were not built originally as naval vessels, much of the previously published information concerning the design and development of these ships is inaccurate, contradictory, or incomplete. Yet the importance of fleet oilers to the success of U.S. naval operations in World War II is unquestionable. Without doubt they were the most valuable auxiliaries in the navy, especially in the Pacific where their presence facilitated the wide-ranging carrier operations and amphibious assaults conducted thousands of miles front the nearest naval base.


In fact, one could argue that it is quite probable that no other surface ship type within the U.S. Navy, with the exception of the aircraft carrier, contributed as much to the successful conclusion to the war with Japan; for the procurement of adequate numbers of oilers and the perfection of fueling at sea were critical for the unrestricted and prolonged deployment of carriers throughout the vast expanse of the Pacific. With few exceptions, if any, fleet oilers accompanied every major carrier task force and proved essential for the development of the unbridled carrier tactics that evolved during the course of the war. As the number of combatants expanded, so did the need for tankers capable of accompanying the fleet. During one three-week period in April 1945, Task Force 58, then engaged in operations preceding the invasion of Okinawa, required the services of no less than thirty fleet oilers (four times the entire number in the prewar navy) to provide refueling at sea.1 The fuel required for the Okinawa operation far exceeded that consumed during any previous campaign with total deliveries to the carrier force averaging 167,000 barrels of fuel oil and 385,000 gallons of gasoline daily.2 The magnitude of this achievement can best be appreciated by noting that the total shipments of both crude oil and refined petroleum products to Japan averaged just 101,809 barrels per day during their height in 1940.3

Unraveling the procurement history of fleet oilers acquired in World War II is an arduous task. Although the majority of wartime tankers acquired by the U.S. Navy was built by the United States Maritime Commission, virtually nothing has been written about the U.S. Maritime Commission's early tanker program or the navy's influence on the merchant shipbuilding policy of the United States during this period. Classifying fleet oilers of this era is further complicated by the number of ship types acquired and the confusion concerning the manner in which they were authorized and procured, particularly during the early stages of the war. The deployment of growing numbers of combat forces after the attack on Pearl Harbor led to an immediate increase in the number of navy tankers needed to support the fleet. Between 7 December 1941 and 1 January 1943, the U.S. Navy authorized and/or acquired no less than eight separate ship types for conversion to fleet oilers! The rush to obtain vessels suitable for the navy's needs frequently led to the assignment of hull numbers unrelated to ship class; that is, hull numbers within a given class were not always sequential since they were assigned as vessels were acquired--not as they were laid down. More confusion surrounds the maritime commission designations under which the majority of oilers were built during the war years.

The material that follows will put these questions to rest and will provide the reader with detailed information on the design history of all major classes of fleet oilers acquired by the U.S. Navy. As the reader


can surmise from the foregoing, considerable emphasis will be placed on the design and development of the fast tankers acquired between the years 1939 and 1945. Not only did these vessels play a critical role in the navy's dramatic advance across the Pacific, but the biggest and first to be commissioned, those of the Cimarron class, or T3s as they were designated by the U.S. Maritime Commission, remained an essential component of the navy's service force for more than three decades. Many T3s were not retired until the early 1970s, some survived into the 1980s, and the last, Caloosahatchee (AO-98), was not decommissioned until February of 1990.

No treatise on fleet oilers would be complete without a discussion of the development of underway replenishment, or UNREP as it is currently called in the U.S. Navy. First implemented as a means of refueling ships at sea, the techniques pioneered by the U.S. Navy in the first months of the First World War were continually improved and upgraded until it became a routine procedure used on nearly a daily basis in the closing months of the Second World War. Only refueling at sea provided the range and mobility needed to fight a naval war far from base--a strategy that became the hallmark of U.S. naval planning throughout the twentieth century. Later expanded to include the transfer of ammunition, stores, and provisions, UNREP gave the United States an unprecedented edge in naval supremacy for more than fifty years.

This book, then, is about fleet oilers in the U.S. Navy. It traces the early history of these ships from the planning stages through their commissioning. Along the way the reader will discover the important part played by the U.S. Maritime Commission in the design, development, and acquisition of the Cimarron-class oilers of World War II fame. Where applicable, wartime experiences and the histories of the more notable members of this ship type are described. Additional information will be presented concerning the development of replenishment at sea and its employment by the U.S. Navy from its inception in the first days of World War I to its use during the Gulf War. It is hoped that the comprehensive picture of fleet oilers and the evolution of replenishment at sea provides further insights into the planning activities of the United States Navy throughout this period and shows how the timely development of these ships and their capabilities had a positive effect on global U.S. naval operations.

Many people assisted me in this endeavor. I am particularly indebted to the following for furnishing important source material that I would not have been able to obtain without their help: Dr. William N. Still, Jr., Director of the Program in Maritime History, East Carolina University (now retired); Mary Jane Harvey, Records Management Officer, U.S. Maritime Administration (now retired); Marvin O. Miller, Manager, Underway Replenishment Department, Port Hueneme Division,


Naval Surface Warfare Center, Port Hueneme, California; and Rear Adm. Mason Freeman, USN (Ret.), former commanding officer of the USS Conecuh (AOR-110). The staff of the Naval Historical Center were most helpful as were the archivists at the National Archives. Ed Finney of the Photographic Section (NHC) was always accommodating as was Dr. Evelyn Cherpak, Head of the Naval Historical Collection, Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. My thanks to Capt. Bernard (Bud) Cole, USN, for editorial assistance; Mel Lizotte for his generous gift of the Fat Lady; and to my good friends Chris Evers and Ed Miller who provided advice and encouragement on numerous occasions. To all the others who helped me along the way, I proffer my sincere thanks.


Introduction: Fuel and the Battle Fleet

When steam supplanted sails as the primary means of locomotion onboard ships in the latter half of the nineteenth century, fuel replaced the unpredictable nature of the wind as the number one concern in moving from place to place across the seas. Once sails were abandoned, a warship's mobility depended upon the availability of adequate supplies of coal. While steam gave increased certainty and quickness of movement, it drastically reduced a fleet's cruising radius. Fuel became so critical that Mahan placed it first in importance of the resources of the fleet for without it ships could neither run, nor fight, nor remain on station.1

In the early days of the steel navy, coal was the only fuel that could provide enough energy to produce the huge quantities of steam needed for propulsion and auxiliary power. Warships of this era consumed prodigious amounts of this precious commodity. Even at cruising speed--typically around 10 knots--a large man-of-war consumed three to four tons of coal per hour.2 At maximum speed, such as needed for battle, the amount of coal burned could rise to as much as eight to nine tons per hour or even more! To meet this demand, legions of coal passers located below decks would ceaselessly shovel coal from the ship's bunkers into the ever-hungry boilers.

Since a warship's endurance was limited by the size of her coal bunkers, the problem of securing an adequate supply of fuel was always foremost in the mind of a vessel's commander. Fueling ship-- commonly called coaling--was an extremely arduous task that, once started, was carried on nonstop day and night until all the ship's bunkers were full. It was a tough and dirty job that required the efforts of all hands.

Coaling was usually conducted in port with the vessel tied up alongside either a coaling dock or a collier. This allowed large bags of coal, the only means of handling such material in the days before mechanization, to be hoisted aboard ship. The canvas bags were loaded


with up to half a ton of coal by crew members stationed on the coaling dock or in the hold of the collier if the latter was the source of supply. When full, the bags of coal were attached to whips and derricked over to the deck of the ship being fueled. Once on board, the coal was dumped into long chutes leading down to the hold where it was distributed throughout the ship's bunkers by the "black gang," or engineering force.

The task of coaling ship was often regarded as a drill and great efforts were made to attain record loading speed. Though a good crew could handle more than 100 tons per hour, coaling was almost always an all-day affair with 10,000 tons of coal needed to fill the bunkers of the largest ships. After the job was done the crew members swabbed themselves down and cleaned the ship: hosing the superstructure and holystoning the decks.

The problem of getting coal to the fleet encountered by the navy during the Spanish-American War did not go unnoticed. In 1905, Henry C. Dinger, a lieutenant in the regular navy and a member of the prestigious Society of Naval and Marine Engineers, published a discerning article in the society's journal titled "Fuel for Ships of War." Although Dinger was concerned primarily with coal, his observations regarding the need for fuel ships to accompany the fleet would prove to be a portentous forecast of the future.

The question of supplying a fleet with fuel in time of war he wrote] is a problem of transporting fuel from the source of supply to a movable fleet. In order that this fleet be supplied, it must either go to a permanent station or a movable station must come to it. If the fleet goes to the station, the fleet's military value is lost during that time. If the movable station can go to the fleet, the only time taken away from the military duties will be the actual time needed for transferring fuel.

It is obvious that to supply a fleet during a campaign the movable fuel station or collier is the most desirable.3

While the U.S. Navy recognized the value of colliers, the need to acquire fuel ships capable of accompanying the battle force did not receive serious consideration until after the cruise of the Great White Fleet completed in 1908. Though much celebrated as an engineering triumph, this fourteen-month voyage around the world by sixteen coal-burning dreadnoughts caused much embarrassment for the U.S. Navy when it came to the logistics of supplying the huge amounts of coal needed for steaming. The fundamental problem centered around the dreadnoughts themselves, which one senior captain described as "insatiable monsters] whose demand is ever for coal and still more coal."4 To provide the 430,000 tons of semibituminous coal that would be consumed during the course of this world cruise, the U.S. Navy


chartered forty-nine foreign colliers (mostly British-owned) to deliver coal to the various ports of call along the route.5 Despite this arrangement, the fleet frequently found itself short of fuel when coal deliveries failed to arrive when planned.

The inability of foreign colliers to provide fuel on a timely basis was probably the most important technical lesson learned from this epoch-making circuit of the globe. If the U.S. Fleet was to have complete freedom of movement, it would need to have an accompanying force of naval colliers. The navy, according to Scientific American,

Tests of Spencer Miller's coaling-at-sea rig were conducted in 1913 between the collier Cyclops and the battleship South Carolina. The battleship was equipped with a sliding padeye attached to a vertical spar mounted on South Carolina's fore deck that was used to raise and lower the highline along with the load. (U.S. Navy)

Tests of Spencer Miller's coaling-at-sea rig were conducted in 1913 between the collier Cyclops and the battleship South Carolina. The battleship was equipped with a sliding padeye attached to a vertical spar mounted on South Carolina's fore deck that was used to raise and lower the highline along with the load. (U.S. Navy)


needed "a fleet of large and fairly fast colliers, built expressly for naval purposes."6 This glaring deficiency was partially addressed in the 1908 Naval Appropriation Act, which authorized the U.S. Navy to construct two 14-knot fleet colliers while simultaneously providing funds to purchase three merchant-built colliers of American registry. Remarkably, Congress earmarked more than 50 percent of the navy's expansion budget for the coming year for these ships. Never before, and never again, would the acquisition of auxiliaries exceed the cost of combatants in a given year.

Realizing the difficulties in transferring coal between ships, the navy equipped each of the fuel ships constructed under the 1909 building program and every collier built thereafter with special machinery, called Marine Transfers, designed to facilitate the transfer of coal from one ship to another. This apparatus, of which there were several variations, consisted of a number of boom-mounted, independently controlled, winch-operated, clamshell buckets, which could lift large amounts of coal in one scoop. The booms could be swung out over the receiving ship allowing the buckets to discharge the coal directly onto the deck of the ship to be refueled. Although capable of delivering up to 465 tons of coal per hour, this equipment was intended for use in a protected mooring, although it was possible to refuel ships at sea provided the sea was perfectly smooth.7

Despite the improvement in the amount of coal that could be transferred in a relatively short time, the problem of how to fuel ships in anything but a dead calm remained unsolved until the introduction of liquid fuels. The changeover to black oil began in earnest in 1909 after an experimental oil-burning installation on the steam monitor Cheyenne was successfully demonstrated.8


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