We had a commenter in our series on the Falklands mention the seizure of the USS Pueblo. Did you know the Pueblo was an Army ship? Sorta.
In World War II, the Army faced the enormous logistical challenge of moving about 6 million men overseas. And their equipment. And keeping them resupplied with fuel, food ammunition and spare parts. The only practical method of movement was by ship. Accordingly, the Army quickly amassed a huge fleet of ships. Remember, in the days before the Department of Defense, the War Department and the Navy Department were two separate cabinet branches of government. There wasn’t always the level of cooperation and mutual support we might have wished for. The Army had a long history of operating its own fleet of vessels to fulfill its transport needs (maybe Craig can give us a history of Army vessels in the American Civil War), as well as a robust past of owning and operating harbor and river craft.
We’ve briefly mentioned Army transports and Army landing craft. The middle ground of small seagoing ships is new ground for us though.
Let’s presume a civilian or Army large transport has moved a few hundred tons of ammunition to the SouthWest Pacific Area. Getting this load of ammunition forward from an established port facility to one of the myriad small island objectives the Army seized was a challenge. The distances were too great for landing craft, and the ports and harbors not developed to handle large ships.
The Army’s answer was to buy a series of of small freighters, originally known as FP ships, and later designated FS. The FP stood for “Freight and Passenger.” The later FS designation better reflected is usual role of “Freight and Supply.” While there were more than one series of ships designated FS by the Army, the most common was the 177 foot long, diesel powered steel ship. Known as Design 381, a variety of small shipyards throughout the country cranked out 120 of these handy little ships during the war.
Higgins, famous as the builder of the Higgins boat landing craft, built 55 of the very similar 180’ steel hulled Design 330D.
The small size, shallow draft ships were just the thing to move supplies forward, often discharging their cargoes only a couple miles from the front lines.
The Army owned hundreds of these and similar vessels. While some were crewed by Army soldiers, a great many more were Army owned, but crewed either by the Coast Guard, or by civilians hired by the Army. Many were crewed by Australians hired by the Army. They toiled away from the limelight, but the Army was very happy with its fleet of small freighters, and used them for years after the war.
With the consolidation of the services under the Department of Defense in 1947, the Navy lobbied for control of all sea transportation. In 1949, the Department of the Navy established the Military Sea Transport Service. The Army transferred its remaining FS ships to the Navy. Under the Navy’s designation system, they were redesigated AKL ships, or Small Freighters.
Three AKLs were extensively modified as Auxiliary Environmental Research Ships. In reality, they were electronic and signals intelligence gathering ships. The former FS 344, later named AKL-44 USS Pueblo by the Navy, was modified and redesignated AGER-2. About six months after her conversion, the Pueblo was operating in international waters off the coast of North Korea. On 23 JAN 1968, she was seized by small combatants of the North Korean navy. While the crew was eventually released, the ship herself is still held by North Korea.
There’s one other FS ship you might know. Mister Roberts, John Ford and Henry Fonda’s great movie was set on the fictional USS Reluctant. The Navy in 1954 loaned an ALK to use for exterior shots.
I’ve long been fascinated by the small craft and small ships of the Army. And while the MSC (the modern version of the MSTS) does a fine job, it’s sad that the Army no longer has the ability to use the waters as a logistical highway.