Tankers: Fuel for Thought
(Military Sea Transportation ServiceTankers)

By Salvatore R. Mercogliano

In 1944, the Allies initiated two offensives aimed to cripple the war-making ability of the Axis powers. In the skies over Europe, American and British bombers focused on the oil production and transportation network of the Germans. At the same time, American submarines concentrated their efforts on Japanese tankers carrying fuel. Without petroleum for their armed forces, the war machines of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan ground to a halt.

This lesson was not wasted on the United States military, for in the post-war years, the Navy aimed to ensure that an adequate pool of tankers would be available to provide the necessary fuel to sustain the American military in any operation. In 1945, the Chief of Naval Operations created the Petroleum and Tankers Branch within the Navy staff, OP-422. With the selling of a large majority of the U.S. merchant fleet under the Ship Sale Act of 1946, the Navy received permission to transfer 27 Mission-class T-2 tankers from the reserve fleet to OP-422.

Typical T-2 Tanker
Typical T-2 Tanker

By 1949, when this branch, along with the Naval Transportation Service, was merged into the new Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), 55 T-2 and 2 T-1 contract operated-tankers, along with 16 commissioned Navy tankers, formed the backbone of the Navy's petroleum fleet.

In their first year of operation, the tankers transported a little over 5 million long tons of fuel. The majority of this was Navy special boiler fuel, or "black oil," with only a small percentage of jet fuel being carried. This eventually peaked at 28.1 million tons in 1968.

Today, the fleet is a shell of its former self. Consisting of only 5 ships under long-term charter and 1 small shuttle tanker, transporting in 1998 a total of 5 million tons of petroleum, the lowest level of operations since fiscal year 1950. While the amount of fuel is the same as in 1950, the make-up of that cargo is quiet different. The major cargo being shipped is now jet fuel, followed by diesel, a much cleaner product.

The history of the MSTS/MSC [Military Sealift Command] tanker force is one of innovation and heroic performances, alongside of controversy and criticisms. From the creation of MSTS, tanker operators criticized the service for the operation of its tankers. To operate the 57 tankers, MSTS continued the contracts established by OP-422 with four operating firms ­ Marine Transport Lines, Inc., Tankers Company, Inc., American Pacific Steamship Co., and Pacific Tankers, Inc.

However, the independent tanker companies, which differed from the larger proprietary companies such as Exxon, Gulf, and Mobile, sought their business on the open market and continually lobbied against the MSTS tanker fleet that they viewed as competition. In deference to them, the service began to lay-up a portion of its fleet on the eve of the Korean War, an event that led to the re-activation of these ships at considerable cost to the taxpayers.

To alleviate this tension, MSTS embarked on a long-range program that would both provide the necessary tonnage to transport the military's fuel requirements, ensure that a secure source of ships were available in case of contingencies, and also keep the commercial tanker companies in operation. The concept, known as "build-and-charter," began in July 1952 when MSTS awarded a contract to the Orion Shipping and Trading Co., Inc.

This deal led to the construction of four 29,000 deadweight ton tankers and an operating contract for a fixed five-years. These ships, which were substantially larger than the 17,000 dwt. T-2 tankers used by MSTS, also meant that the productivity of each ship would increase and allow each of the Orions to replace two T-2s in service.

At the end of the Korean War, the industry once again lobbied heavily for the inactivation of many of the government-owned contract-operated T-2 tankers. MSTS began to return the 16 Navy-manned tankers to the control of the fleet. It also called for a program that would provide for the construction of 15 larger and faster ships under 10-year charters.

On August 10, 1954, following lengthy testimony by the Commander of MSTS, Vice Admiral Francis Denebrick, the 83d Congress passed Public Law 575. This authorized MSTS, through the Secretary of the Navy, to initiate the program. However it proved unsuccessful. One key provision of the law required that the charter hire for the new ships not exceed $5 per DWT per month, and unfortunately no ship operator could obtain firm commitments to this rate by shipyards or banks to finance their construction.

Two consolations to this program have a direct link to this day. The first was the diversion of funds intended for the construction of these commercial ships. Instead they were used to build 4 new T-5 Maumee-class tankers and complete 1 unfinished T-5, American Explorer, for use by MSTS. These ships were the first ones purposely built for MSTS and remained in active service through the mid-1980s. The second aspect included the establishment of consecutive voyage charters. This set a firm period of five years, instead of the 120-day charter periods that had been standard, and resulted in the construction and chartering of 8 new tankers, including the 65,000 dwt Orion Hunter, along with the rechartering of the four Orion tankers of 1952 for five years in January 1957.

American Explorer T5-RM2a Tanker
American Explorer T5-RM2a Tanker

With the increased reliance on commercial ships, MSTS once again deactivated part of its nucleus fleet. In October 1956, the world of tanker operations underwent a lasting change when Israel, Britain, and France attacked Egypt over its nationalization of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians responded by closing this strategic chokepoint. With this waterway blocked, tankers traveling from the Persian Gulf had to steam the additional distance around the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean, Europe, and North America.

This provoked a huge demand for tanker tonnage on the world market and with charter rates escalating, MSTS had to once again reactivate the ships it had just recently laid up. Even with this build-up it proved insufficient and it acquired 13 commissioned naval oilers to supplement its tanker fleet, along with 12 T-2s laid up in the reserve fleet. These ships only remained in service till the end of 1957 and were then returned to the fleet or placed back in reserve. The mad rush to build new tankers to profit from the Suez crisis, flooded the market with tonnage and in response, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered another reduction in the nucleus fleet and the increase in commercial-chartering.

Technological Improvements of Tankers

Amid the feuding between MSTS and the commercial industry, the service did introduce several unique technological improvements during this time that are common today. In the spring of 1954, Admiral Denebrick authorized a program to retard the steel corrosion in tanks and minimize the contamination of cargo. Within cargo holds, the upper portion of the tanks, where fuel and air interact was the most common place that steel corrosion occurred. Typically, tankers would have to put into shipyards every few years to have substantial portions of the tanks replaced with new steel, an expensive and lengthy process.

To correct this, the Navy Bureau of Ships recommended the coating of the tanks with Saran, a tough film of vinylidene resin in a solution of methyl ethyl ketone. While the process was expensive, $334,690 per ship, it is estimated to have saved over $1.7 million on each of the 11 T-2 tankers it was applied to in 1954-55. It also reduced the cleaning time in the tankers from 5 to two and a half days and reduced the particulate matter in the fuel, a concern for the higher performance jets entering service. This program eventually encompassed all the ships in the MSTS/MSC fleet.

Hazardous duty

Work on board MSTS/MSC tankers proved hazardous for some. The loading of jet and diesel fuel, a high tempo of operations, and a heavy demand on maximizing the use of each ship placed some crews in life and death situations. In 1957, MSTS lost two of its T-2 tankers to accidents. USNS Mission San Francisco, under the command of Captain William C. Allen and operated by Mathiasen Tankers Industries, Inc., was sailing up the Delaware River early on the morning of March 7 when she met the Liberian-flagged freighter Elna II proceeding downstream. A collision between the two produced an explosion in the gas-enriched tanks of the Mission San Francisco and resulted in the loss of the ship and ten crewmembers, including her master.

Several months later, a sistership operated by Joshua Hendy Corporation, the USNS Mission San Miguel was enroute to Seattle from Guam when a navigation error resulted in her grounding on Maro Reef in the Hawaiian Archipelago. Compounding the stranding, the ship's cargo valves jammed and the crew was unable to use the pumps to counteract the flooding, resulting in the loss of the ship. Fortunately, no lives were lost, although the senior deck officers were charged with negligence in failing to keep a proper ship's position and the chief engineer for inattention to duty.

Two other tankers were later lost: the chartered-tanker SS R. C. Stone broke in half on September 8, 1967 after grounding off Wake Island, and the USNS Cowanesque was a constructive loss off Okinawa on April 23, 1972.

Perhaps the greatest, and most dramatic loss occurred on the evening of September 26, 1961 at Morehead City, North Carolina. That evening, at 1850 hours, the new T-5 tanker USNS Potomac and operated by Marine Transport Lines, Inc., was discharging fuel for Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, when a fire erupted on the water surrounding the vessel.

The Coast Guard later determined that a suction valve had been left open and allowed aviation fuel to spill and it only took a spark to ignite the propellant. The fire engulfed the forward section of the ship and the crew attempted to move the ship from the pier. As the engineers began backing the ship away from the dock a tremendous explosion jolted the ship from vapors accumulated in the forward tanks. Captain Arthur W. Hunter, realizing the gravity of the situation, ordered the ship abandoned.

The ship continued to burn for the next six days and it took a concerted effort on the part of the military and local firefighters to contain and extinguish the blaze. Two of the ship's crew did not survive the disaster, but the Potomac proved resilient. Keystone Shipping Inc., received a contract for five-years, with options for 15 further years, to rebuild the ship and she re-entered service as the SS Shenandoah. In 1976, MSC purchased the ship and returned her former name. Today, the refurbished Potomac is operating as part of the Afloat Prepositioning Force (APF).

Another tanker assigned to the APF met a new threat when the SS American Osprey, while docked in the port of Mogadishu, Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope came under fire from bandits on June 25, 1993. The ship suffered damage from a suspected mortar or rocket propelled grenades. The damage opened one of the jet fuel tanks and some of the cargo piping on deck. Miraculously, it failed to cause a fire or explosion.

Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force

In the late 1950s, MSTS began a test program that culminated in the creation of the Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force in 1972. Chief of Naval Operations Arleigh Burke directed Vice Admiral John M. Will in 1958 to develop an underway fueling capability and techniques for commercial tankers. While initial tests with astern refueling rigs proved unsatisfactory, the crews of the MSTS tankers rose to the challenge of performing consolidation operations (Consols) with Navy oilers.

All MSTS nucleus fleet, and long-term charters, were equipped with manifolds and equipment to receive underway replenishment rigs. This proved fortunate for in the Middle East crises of 1967, 1973, and then 1979, commercial tankers served as mobile fuel farms for the Navy.

USNS Pasumpsic reflueling aricraft carrier USS Oriskany and destroyer USS Morton
USNS Pasumpsic reflueling aircraft carrier USS Oriskany and destroyer USS Morton

Modernization of the Tanker Fleet

By the time of the Vietnam War, the five T-5s, and sixteen remaining T-2s, along with the long-term chartered tankers, provided the core of the MSTS petroleum fleet. Eleven of T-2s had undergone an extensive overhaul, which added ten years to the lives of the ships in the early-1960s. However, the large crews and limited size and capabilities of the ships led the service to search for a replacement. In May 1967, the Department of Defense identified the requirement for 9 new ships to replace the Maritime Commission-built tankers of the 1940s.

Original plans were for Navy funding to be used to construct these vessels but as money earmarked for shipbuilding evaporated, MSTS fell-back on its build-and-charter program. The service began negotiations with Central Gulf Lines to construct these ships but was terminated in 1969 due to problems in the financial arrangements. The project was revived, and on June 21, 1972 an agreement was made with Marine Transport Lines, Inc., Citicorp Leasing, Inc., and Salmon Brothers to construct the 9 Sealift-class tankers at Todd Shipyard, San Pedro, California, and Bath Iron Works, Maine for five years, with options for a total of twenty years. Built with medium-speed diesels and capable of carrying 25,000 deadweight tons of fuel at 16 knots, they only required a crew of 26 and could handle four different product. By 1975, the nine Sealifts had replaced the T-2s in the nucleus fleet.

Besides the replacement of the T-2s, MSC looked toward the augmentation of the T-5s with additional larger and more fuel efficient ships. A build-and-charter arrangement was made with Falcon Carriers, Inc., to construct four 37,000 dwt tankers in October 1967. These ships represented a technological leap over the older tankers. Equipped with medium-speed diesel engines, and automated pump rooms they utilized a crew of 23, instead of the 40 on the older T-5s, or 39 on the T-2s.

The ships proved technologically adequate, the operation of them proved mixed. In April 1972, MSC re-negotiated with the owner of the ships, Iranian Destiny Tankers Inc., to bareboat-charter the tankers and replace the crews with civilian mariners. The company had suffered financial problems and the material readiness of the ships had decreased. The MV Falcon Princess required over $1 million in repairs to put the ship back into operation.

Unfortunately, the Falcons were not the only tankers that had problems with their contract operators. In April 1990, the International Marine Carriers, Inc. (IMC) assumed the fourth five-year option of the 9 Sealift-class tankers from Marine Transport Lines. The Government Accounting Office, in their investigation of the contract found MSC at fault for lack of oversight in the maintenance of the ships and the failure to ensure that qualified and fully staffed crews were available.

These conditions occurred because of the lack of program oversight, failure to assign responsibilities within MSC, and no contracting officer to oversee the performance of the new commercial operator. Added to the problems was the decision to issue a fixed-price contract with the goal to save money. In actuality, a fixed price prevented routine maintenance from being accomplished due to the need to ensure funding was available to correct emergent casualties. When these ships completed their contracts in 1994 and 1995 they did so under the stigma of impropriety which tarnished their twenty years of valiant and resolute service to the armed forces.

As part of the sealift enhancement programs of the early 1980s, MSC initiated contracts with Tampa Shipbuilding for 5 Champion-class T-5 tankers. These ships were earmarked as replacements for the older T-5s built in the 1950s. For the first time, ships of MSC would be named for merchant mariners honored with the Merchant Marine Distinguished Service Medal for heroism in World War II. Contracted along similar lines with the maritime prepositioning ships, they were negotiated for five years, with four five-year options.

The first of these ships, MV Paul Buck entered service on June 7, 1985. A few months later, the USNS Yukon, the last government-owned tanker in the fleet, was transferred to the Maritime Administration for incorporation into the Ready Reserve Fleet.

Today the five T-5 tankers, and one T-1 under charter for use in the Western Pacific, are all that remain of a fleet that numbered over a hundred ships during its peak in the Vietnam War. Yet the importance of fuel has not diminished in importance. The recent conflict over Kosovo, while commonly touted as a victory through air power, emphasized the importance of sea power. To sustain the aerial armada that dominated the skies over Yugoslavia required a tremendous amount of fuel.

In response to this demand, the MV Richard G. Matthiesen, assigned to operate in the Mediterranean, was augmented by the MV Gus W. Darnell from the Persian Gulf and USNS Henry J. Kaiser from Diego Garcia. The brevity of the conflict precluded a larger U.S.-flag involvement. Of the 20 ships voyage chartered to supply fuel, only 2 were American. All these ships supplied nearly one million tons of fuel.

USNS Henry J. Kaiser an MSC oiler
USNS Henry J. Kaiser, an MSC oiler

Operation Allied Force demonstrated the need for a viable tanker force, for without one the ability of the U.S. to respond overseas may run out of gas.


Illustrations from:
Personal collection
Military Sea Transportation Service, NAVPERS 10829-B, bureau of Naval Personnel, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962
Sealift, October 1974, Military Sealift Command
Sealift, 50th anniversary Special 1999, Military Sealift Command

www.USMM.org is grateful to Professor Salvatore R. Mercogliano for providing this article. Mercogliano is writing his doctoral dissertation about the history of the Merchant Marine, Military Sea Transportation Service and Military Sealift Command.

Special Missions of MSTS and MSC by Salvatore R. Mercogliano

MSC Ships of the Line by Salvatore R. Mercogliano
MSTS and MSC Operations Other Than War by Salvatore R. Mercogliano
MSC Ships that Wait by Salvatore R. Mercogliano


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