If This Hull Could Talk: USS Ashtabula (AO-51)

By Bonner, Kit | Sea Classics, January 2001 | Go to article overview

If This Hull Could Talk: USS Ashtabula (AO-51)


Bonner, Kit, Sea Classics


Now awaiting disposal, this proud ex-oiler was

the last serving vessel to have been struck by an enemy torpedo in WWII.

AN OFTEN OVERLOOKED REASON FOR VICTORY IN THE PACIFIC

Popular American Naval history credits the victories in the Pacific War to the fast carriers of the Essex-- class, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, as well as the submarine force. The multiplicity of ship types that composed the amphibious forces that seized one island objective after another to bring the Allies within range of the Japanese Home Islands could not be excluded from the honor roll.

There is no question as to their invaluable contribution. However, all of the big fuel- and stores-guzzling vessels would have been at the mercy of the wind and currents had it not been for the Fleet Train. The unsung heroes consisted of oil tankers, ammunition ships, specialized repair vessels (destroyer and submarine tenders), floating dry-docks, hospital ships, wounded evacuation ships, and even the ice cream barges that frequented the larger anchorages. The list is almost endless. Mail delivery was not on a par with a strike on the Japanese Home Islands by carriers from "murderer's row," but it ranked high on the scale of importance to crew morale and the long months away from home. It made trips from moments of overwhelming fear back to long days of monotony bearable. One of the primary, yet neglected, players in the Pacific victory over the Japanese (1942-1945) were the fleet oilers that later remained on station in the frozen waters off Korea (1950-1953) and could be found at YANKEE and DIXIE stations off Vietnam (19641975). They were also available anywhere in the world where US warships were needed during the Cold War (1945-1991). The oilers and other replenishment ships provided stores and fuel anytime aud at anyplace. Without this asset, that was developed just prior to World War II, the United States Navy would have had a difficult time maintaining a continued presence when it was necessary right in the enemy's backyard. One such ship was the USS ASHTABULA (AO-51).

THE USS ASHTABULA (AO-51): WORLD WAR 11 FLEET OILER

The United States Navy had only recently developed replenishment at sea when the Pacific War began. Shipyards on all of the coasts, navigable lakes and rivers soon began to turn out vessels of all types including fleet oilers such as the USS ASHTABULA (AO-51). The 7,256-ton displacement (light) oiler was 553 feet long with a 75-foot beam - hardly designed for speed, which was a maximum of 18.3 knots! She was powered by two steam turbines generating up to 13,500 shaft horsepower. The ASHTABULA was not built for speed, yet she could be where and when the fast carrier task forces needed her and also service hundreds of amphibious ships. Her draught was just over 32 feet when fully loaded at 25,425 tons.

The oiler was expected to go into harm's way and was armed with a single 5-in./38-cal. mount, four 3in./50-cal. guns, twelve 40mm and eight 20mm for close-in defense against marauding Japanese aircraft. The close-in weapons proved quite valuable shortly after she was working off the Philippine Islands.

The ASHTABULA was built by the Bethlehem Steel Company at Sparrows Point, Maryland. Her keel was laid on 1 October 1942, and she was commissioned on 7 August 1943, with a record construction time of just over ten months. After her shakedown cruise, she was assigned to Service Squadron 8 in the South Pacific, and then began carrying out the duties of a fleet oiler. She carried fuel oil and aviation gasoline as well as some stores. Her profile and that of other similar fleet oilers (SARANAC, SUAMICO) became familiar and welcome sights for a fleet that seemed to have a "wooden leg" when it came to oil.

She operated in the Pacific until November 1944 when she was detached to the United States for a short period in the Long Beach Naval Shipyard for repairs, upkeep and needed alterations. …

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