Gray Steel and Black Oil: Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1992

By Mahncke, Frank C. | Naval War College Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Gray Steel and Black Oil: Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 1912-1992


Mahncke, Frank C., Naval War College Review


Wildenberg, Thomas. Gray Steel and Black Oil: Fast Tankers and Replenishment at Sea in the U.S. Navy, 19121992. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996. 360pp. $39.95

When Alfred Thayer Mahan spoke of "those far distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked," he neglected to credit the water hoys: sturdy, reliable vessels that brought fresh water to the British fleet as it blockaded the French coast. Without them the British could not have "stood between it [the Grand Army] and the dominion of the world." Those water hoys were the progenitors of today's fast oilers and underway replenishment ships of which Thomas Wildenberg has written.

In 1916, as events presaged American involvement in the First World War and the U.S. Navy realized that many of its ships were too short-legged to reach Europe unaided, the first oilers, USS Maumee and USS Kanawha, joined the fleet. By July 1917 Maumee had refueled thirty-four destroyers at sea on their way to Europe.

These first at-sea refuelings were done with a rig that required taking the receiving ship under partial tow, while it remained under power, in relatively benign sea conditions. Robust deck seamanship for alongside refueling at speed, the capability to do it in heavy seas, and the development of refueling ships (fleet oilers) are the stuff of Wildenberg's admirable history.

These ships are an important and often overlooked part of American naval history. The technical and operational development of reliable at-sea replenishment in the U.S. Navy was a major revolution in military affairs. It gave the Navy the capability to wage an oceanic campaign across the expanse of the Pacific theater. Without extensive at-sea replenishment capability, the World War II Pacific campaign would have had a very different character and probably lasted much longer.

The basic technical and operational elements of at-sea replenishment were laid down in the interwar period. Wildenberg does a thorough job of recounting the design and acquisition of standardized fleet oilers, the practical matters of refueling rigs, at-sea exercises, and the emergence of replenishment doctrine in this period.

By the mid-1920s, Japan's expansionism in the Pacific had led the U.S. Navy to begin staff planning for a campaign across the reaches of the Pacific Ocean. This campaign, dubbed War Plan Orange, became the centerpiece of interwar naval planning, and it also had significant ramifications for the design and operation of fleet support vessels.

Many combatants of the day were unable to cross the Pacific, let alone operate in the theater, without refueling en route. Both war games at the Naval War College and fleet exercises showed clearly that to enable a wide-ranging Pacific campaign the Navy would need a fleet of oilers with considerable speed and range. In 1933, the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration included the construction of naval vessels in the public works program. The Navy Board responded with specifications for a class of fleet oilers capable of six thousand miles at fifteen knots, with ten thousand tons of fuel oil and basic self-defense armament. In 1934, Rear Admiral Emory Land, father of the Navy's at-sea replenishment capability, pushed those specifications up to ten thousand miles, 16.5 knots, and twelve thousand tons. But in fiscal 1937 funding for construction of naval auxiliaries lapsed, and no further design work on Land's specifications was done by the Bureau of Engineering.

Fortuitously, the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 authorized the U.S. government to pay the cost of "national defense features" added to privately constructed vessels of interest to the Navy. Rear Admiral Land, whom Roosevelt had appointed to the United States Maritime Commission, lost no time in seizing the opportunity. In January 1938 a contract was signed with Standard Oil for the construction of twelve high-speed tankers with naval features including 16. …

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