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October 2009

MSC: 60 years strong
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By Salvatore R. Mercogliano, Ph.D.

Able Seaman Frank Umbrecht
Able Seaman Frank Umbrecht hauls in a line as MSC fleet support ship USNS Mosopelea leaves the Washington Navy Yard in Sept. 1974. The crew of Mosopelea spent a day at port in Washington, D.C., after towing a barge loaded with scientific equipment for the Naval Oceanographic Office. Though some of the crew had a chance to see the sights in the nation's capital, many used the day in port to paint and spruce up the ship and perform routine maintenance tasks. Said one able seaman painting the deck: 'It's a constant battle between me and the rusting sea and the sea always seems to win.' U.S. Navy photo by Howard Rosenberg

World wars divided the globe into two armed camps twice in the 20th century. U.S. military force intervention stemmed the tide and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat both times. When the Cold War and the accompanying threat of nuclear combat emerged in the late 1940s, all branches of the new Department of Defense prepared for a possible hot war with the Soviets by adopting a strategy of maintaining a large-standing military force during peacetime, a first in U.S. history.

On Oct. 1, 1949, the Department of the Navy officially established the Military Sea Transportation Service (previously the Army Transportation Corps), then located at Navy headquarters on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. The Cold War eventually subsided, but the organization it birthed - re-named Military Sealift Command during the Vietnam War - has played a significant role in nearly every major U.S. military operation then and since.

Sixty years later, MSC still bears the marks of the early days of MSTS and the foundational decisions its first commander, Vice Adm. William M. Callaghan, made in order to form the unique command.

Like the ships in MSC's inventory today, the ships that MSTS operated in 1949 were managed and crewed by various entities.

First, MSTS received a fleet of 37 commissioned naval auxiliaries, complete with Navy crews, from the old Naval Transportation Service. Then MSTS incorporated a fleet of 57 government-owned tankers, operated by four commercial shipping firms and crewed by licensed merchant mariners, into the command. Lastly, the organization acquired government-owned vessels from the Army Transportation Corps, crewed by merchant mariners. Callaghan began to establish an administrative network for the command, which evolved into today's Military Sealift Fleet Support Command, which crews, trains, equips and maintains MSC's government-owned and government-operated ships; and MSC's Sealift Logistics Commands - globally located, operationally focused, subordinate commands that provide MSC-unique expertise and operational perspective to Navy fleet commanders worldwide.

Longshoremen move bombs
Longshoremen move bombs from an MSC ship in Sattahip, Thailand, where MSC had a temporary office during the Vietnam War. Much of the cargo that moved through Thailand was ammunition to be used for air strikes in South Vietnam or for transshipment to Cambodia. U.S. Navy photo by Linda M. Quinones

Ships and programs - then and now

In 1949, the MSTS fleet was divided into three components: freighters, tankers and troop ships. Six decades later, these components combined are considered only one of modern MSC's four programs, which were introduced in a reinvention in 1996.

MSTS's premiere assets - which became MSC's current Sealift Program - consisted of 10,000-ton, 15-knot Victory-class freighters, ex-Army freight-supply ships and ex-Navy landing ship tanks to provide intra-theater lift and T-2 tankers to move petroleum. Today, a Victory Ship - assembly-line ships built at the end of World War II, with the purpose of quickly ferrying supplies and troops into theater - pales in comparison to MSC's nineteen 50,000-ton, 24-knot large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships. Joint High-Speed Vessels, which are scheduled for delivery to the Navy and MSC in 2012, are direct descendents of freight-supply ships and landing ship tanks. The vast fleet of T-2 tankers has faded to a quartet of T-5 Champion-class tankers, one shallow draft tanker and numerous short-term chartered commercial tankers. The Champion-class tankers are slated to be retired in Oct. 2010 and are to be replaced in part by two new time-chartered U.S. flag tankers. While the troop ships have gone away, the other missions remain, with the means to perform them faster, safer and more efficiently than ever.

Crew members rig lines and hoses
Crew members rig lines and hoses for an underway replenishment with units of the Navy's 7th Fleet on MSC fleet oiler USNS Taluga, the first MSC ship crewed by civil service mariners, in 1976. The replenishment was Taluga's 875th since beginning operation in support of 7th Fleet nearly three and a half years earlier. Taluga transferred to MSC in May 1972 as part of Charger Log II, a test to evaluate capability of MSC mariners to operate a Navy fleet oiler in direct support of fleet ships. Performance of Taluga's crew confirmed that civil service mariners could handle arduous fleet support tasks and that civilian-crewed oilers could support fleet ships while saving Navy dollars. U.S. Navy photo by Linda E. McDaniel

In 1957, the Soviets shocked the world with the launch of Sputnik and its first nuclear-powered submarine. MSTS responded with an innocuously-named ship, USNS Chain, which signaled the birth of modern oceanographic surveys in support of the Navy's nuclear submarine program. Chain, and the ships that followed, were instrumental in providing an understanding of the three-dimensional battle picture of the world's oceans. Today, USNS John McDonnell and ships of the Pathfinder-class perform this function and many others across the globe.

With the successful orbiting of Sputnik, the Navy and Air Force fielded competing fleets to watch the skies. In 1964, in order to streamline costs and operations, the Air Force transferred its fleet to MSTS. Included in this flotilla was USNS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, which was featured in the news in May when the decommissioned military missile-tracking ship was sunk and turned into an artificial reef off Key West, Fla. Vandenberg, a new tourist attraction for recreational divers, and the other ships in its fleet are predecessors of today's 25-ship Special Mission Program.

A rigger installs weight-handling gear
A rigger installs weight-handling gear used to lift heavy equipment, machinery and supply items on cargo ship Pioneer Moon at the Port of Hueneme, Calif. in January 1979. The need for skilled riggers - a physically demanding and often dangerous job - began to decline with the advent of container ships, the barge carriers, roll-on/roll-off ships and other specialized carriers. This photograph ran on the cover of the January 1979 edition of Sealift. U.S. Navy photo by David Fraker

MSC's third mission area can be traced back to 1972 to a series of tests, code-named the Charger Logs, to see if civilians could provide the at-sea logistics support that had been provided by uniformed-Navy-crewed ships. Tests demonstrated that civilian mariners could perform these support functions successfully and cost-effectively. In May 1972, fleet oiler USNS Taluga became the first underway replenishment ship turned over by the U.S. Navy for civil service mariner operation, marking the birth of MSC's Naval Fleet Auxiliary Force. Taluga was followed by other tankers transferred from the active Navy, and sixteen purpose-built oilers of the Henry J. Kaiser-class. Other types and classes followed. The Powhatan-class fleet ocean tugs and Safeguard-class rescue and salvage ships owe their existence to MSC fleet support ship USNS Mosopelea and her three sisters. USNS Rigel and USNS Kilauea led to the acquisition and transfer of three Sirius-class and six Mars-class stores ships and six subsequent ammunition vessels. The end result is the design of the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo/ammunition ships.

Tensions in the Middle East in the late 1970s led to the creation of MSC's modern Prepositioning Program. Instability in Libya, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan caused DOD to consider options of responding quickly, if necessary, to protect U.S. strategic interests in crisis areas. Afloat prepositioning was one response. The seven-ship Near-Term Prepositioning Force - later renamed the Afloat Prepositioning Force and expanded to 25 ships - was first used when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Today, all U.S. military services rely on the afloat prepositioning of war-reserve material. Today, MSC's Prepositioning Program forward deploys 31 ships worldwide.

Perhaps the darkest moment in the annals of MSTS/MSC came early in its existence. In 1950, during the outbreak of war in Korea, MSTS outfitted two hospital ships - USS Benevolence and USNS Repose - to meet the Navy's medical needs, but tragedy struck. While on sea trials, hospital ship USS Benevolence was rammed by a commercial freighter off the Golden Gate Bridge and sank with the loss of 23 crew members.

Adm. Wm. M. Callaghan
MSC roll-on/roll-off ship Adm. Wm. M. Callaghan, named for the first admiral of Military Sea Transportation Service - the organization that became MSC during the Vietnam War - at sea in 1978. U.S. Navy photo


Throughout its history, the command has been tested from the beleaguered days of the Pusan Perimeter in Korea, to the gunfire-swept region of the Rung Sat in Vietnam, to the contested waters of the Persian Gulf, and to modern-day threats that manifest themselves in the guise of Al Qaeda and Somali pirates. The history of MSTS/MSC can not be solely measured in the names of the 571 ships that have been designated as U.S. Naval Ships, by the 12 USNS vessels sunk in MSTS/MSC service, or by the total tonnage of material shipped every year. MSTS assisted U.S. troops involved in the divide between East and West Germany and the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Today MSC ships are supporting troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and sailors at sea by delivering more than 108 million square feet of dry cargo and 14.5 billion gallons of fuel and other petroleum products - enough fuel to fill a man-made circular lake one-mile across and 88 feet deep and enough combat cargo to fill a supply train that would stretch from New York City to Las Vegas - since 2001. Much of U.S. history since 1949 has involved the efforts of the mariners, sailors and civilians of MSC.

Salvatore Mercogliano, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Central Carolina Community College in Sanford, N.C.; a visiting lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill, and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. He specializes in maritime history. Dr. Mercogliano sailed as a second mate and worked as a marine transportation specialist at Military Sealift Command from 1989 to 1995. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Marine Transportation from SUNY Maritime College; Master of Arts degrees in Maritime History and Nautical Archeology from East Carolina University; and a doctorate in Military and Naval History from the University of Alabama.