Mother of all supply ships

The Hamilton County was a reasonably small ship with about 100 officers and men. About a third was the Supply Department. While I was the only officer in the department, a few individuals with bachelors degrees enlisted in the Navy to avoid the alternatives. As such they served only two-year terms. The department had several such sailors, a nice bonus for handling the departments functions. As most were bachelors they managed to survive on Seaman Second Class pay, together with a few seasoned veterans in the department.

The Supply Department included a host of somewhat discrete supply functions, a few of them common to the larger ships in the Navy. They included the following:

1: Enlisted Mess: The ships cooks provided three squares a day for all the crew, and were particularly proud of the breakfast meal that featured SOS, a favorite of many of the sailors. In addition to food preparation and eating areas, food storage included non-perishable, dry, and refrigerated storage.

2: Wardroom and Officers Quarters: Stewards distributed food from the enlisted mess, and took care of the officers cabins.

3: Ship’s Store: The corner convenience store sold cigarettes, candy bars, film, shaving supplies, and hundreds of other personal items.

4: Geedunk Stand: The ships soda fountain and ice cream shop.

5: Clothing and Small Stores included uniforms, shoes, and navy issue boxer shorts with ships embroidered on each pair.

6: Laundry services washed and pressed uniforms for all hands aboard.

7: General Stores included commonly required consumables like office supplies, tools, cleaning products, toilet paper, mops, and holystones. After the renovation, the ship took on additional supplies for flagship and tender operations.

8: Aviation repair parts included a separate cage of spare parts for support of a HUP-2 helicopter, which was assigned to the ship.

9: Minesweeping Gear: This included many of the things needed for use by minesweepers.

10. Disbursing was the ships banking function and payroll. Individual accounts were maintained for all hands on the ship. Payday was held in cash every two weeks. The amounts paid were as requested by each individual. Unpaid balances accrued on each pay record for future payments.

All the above functions were mine, together with the skills and training of men in the department. My preliminary assessment of the department was that everything was in fair shape, except for one very serious problem, the newly acquired minesweeping gear and supplies. All the items to be supplied were included in a load list prepared by the Commander of Mine Forces, Pacific Fleet. It was the guts for our existence as a minesweeper tender, and was the reason for the ships conversion only six months prior to my reporting aboard. As the Hamilton County was the third LST converted to a minesweeper tender, one might think the bugs would have been worked out of the load of supplies needed to do the job. Not so.

When all the structural modifications to the ship were complete, the ship moved to a dock area adjacent to a railroad track. Then railroad flatcars and boxcars filled with items on the load list began arriving alongside the ship for loading. As each car was unloaded, new cars arrived in what appeared to be an endless stream of such cars. The following is a reconstruction of the conversations that were likely to have occurred during this loading process. The first is between the Commander of Mine Forces, Pacific Fleet and Captain Vernon Weatherby on the Hamilton County.

“Admiral, This is Captain Weatherby on the Hamilton County. We just tied up along the dock in the shipyard to receive minesweeping gear. There is a whole string of railroad flatcars and boxcars, and I understand we are supposed to load all of it aboard the ship as soon as possible. Just how many cars will we be receiving, and where are we supposed to put it all?”

“Vernon” he said “There should be a load list of the equipment you are receiving. It itemizes everything you will get in the next few days. We have been busy loading everything we could find in our warehouses that you might need. We have a lot of stuff coming from other warehouses and some is being shipped directly from manufacturers. I really have no idea how much stuff you will be receiving, but you should do your best to store it on the ship’s tank deck.”

“Admiral, I don’t remember receiving any list. Just who is responsible for all this stuff?”

“Vernon, your supply officer should have a copy of the complete list, and should know how to take care of it. It is really his responsibility aboard your ship. You might want to talk to him about the stuff that is coming aboard.”

“Thanks, Admiral”, said the Captain “I’ll do that right away.”

Shortly after this conversation, Captain Weatherby called the supply officer, and asked him to bring the load list up to his quarters.

“Come in, George”, said the captain. “I just called the Admiral at ComMinePac about the gear we are loading aboard the ship. I was concerned about how much there was, and how long it was going to take to get it all aboard. Do you have the list of gear?”

“Yes, Captain. Here it is. Its a pretty long list, and we only have one copy of it.”

Have you had a chance to study it?

“No, sir. We just received the list in the mail yesterday from ComMinePac. We started loading it aboard early this morning, and I really haven’t had time to study it in detail.”

“Are we going to have room for it on the tank deck?” asked the Captain? “When I saw the string of railroad cars on the dock with gear for us to take aboard, I wanted to know how many railroad cars we would be receiving, and where we would put it all. The admiral said you would be responsible for it.”

“Yes sir. We will be storing most of it on the tank deck. Some of the items are larger than we can physically handle aboard the ship. We can lower these large items through the hatch onto the tank deck, but we have no way to move them once they are there. I have no idea how many items of this size are on the list. It would be best for us to delay loading these items until after the smaller stuff has all come aboard. Then maybe we can decide whether to load it on the main deck, or send it back to the Admirals warehouse ashore.”

“What will the Admiral think if we did that?” asked the captain.

“I really have no idea.” George said. “If we take it aboard, we should keep it on the main deck so we can move it using the ship’s electric booms. If we put it on the tank deck, it will block access through the hatch to everything else, and we wont be able to move around on the tank deck at all.”

“I really have mixed feelings about storing a bunch of supplies on the main deck said the captain, particularly when I have no idea how many items there will be, and how much they weigh. We can’t have very much because the helicopter requires a margin for clearance of its rotors. There is also a problem with the ships stability.”

“If you like, Captain, I will go through the load list to see how many items are so large we will have a problem handling them on the tank deck. We can just leave them ashore, if you prefer.”

“Why don’t you do that, George, and get back to me if you think there might be a problem with it.”

“Aye, Aye, Captain. By your leave, sir.”

Over the next few days, as much stuff as could be crammed onto the tank deck arrived and was accounted for on the load list by a single check-mark. At this point, the supply officer called on the captain again.

“Captain, we have stacked as much mine-sweeping gear on the tank deck as we can handle. The pile is from ten to fifteen feet high in some places, and we are beginning to have trouble getting the forklifts through the center passageway. I think we have a record of everything we have taken aboard, but I would suggest that we stop loading any more stuff.”

“How much is still ashore?” asked the captain.

“There are dozens of individual items we left ashore because they were just too big for us to handle aboard the ship, and there are a number of boxcars and flatcars still on the tracks waiting to be unloaded that we haven’t touched. I have no idea how many cars have not yet arrived, but some additional railroad cars just arrived today.”

“We are taking an additional foot of draft from what we have loaded. I am not sure I want any more stuff on board either.” said the captain. “I will call the admiral and tell him we have taken as much on board as the ship can handle, and will be sending everything that is left back to him.”

“When you talk to the admiral, tell him that we unloaded the railroad cars on a first come, first served basis, as the cars did not arrive according to any priority system that we know about,” said George. “You better tell him that there are a number of railroad cars in the loading area that we couldn’t get to at all. In addition, there are several dozen items that were too large for us to put aboard the ship at all, and we left those items on the dock area by the railroad.”

Shortly thereafter the captain called the Admiral.

“Admiral, this is Captain Weatherby on the Hamilton County. I just talked to the supply officer about the minesweeping gear we have been loading. He said we have loaded all we can handle aboard the ship. A number of items were just too big for us to get on the ship at all. We left them on the dock near the railroad tracks. There are also a number of railroad cars of gear that we didn’t even get to.

Vernon, said the admiral, did you get the important stuff aboard?

“The supply officer said we took the cars on a first come, first served basis. If the most important stuff was in the first cars we unloaded, then we got some of the most important stuff. Some of the items were too big for us to handle aboard the ship at all, and that gear we left ashore.”

“Why didn’t you put the big stuff on the main deck?” asked the admiral.

“Because the helicopter requires clearance for its rotor blades. Stability is also a problem, as we are taking an additional foot of draft without putting anything on the main deck. We couldn’t have gear stacked above the main deck. said the captain.

“Just what am I supposed to do with all the gear you are returning?” asked the admiral.

“Maybe you can find the people who made up that list of gear, and see if they can put it where the sun doesn’t shine,” replied the captain.

And so it was. The tank deck was loaded with minesweeping gear for several days. The orientation at the time was to get as much of the gear aboard as possible. As soon as the maximum was reached, the loading was terminated, and all additional gear was returned to the sender.

On the tank deck, there was a problem. It was one huge pile of junk. The tank deck was 200 feet long, 40 feet wide, and had an overhead of 20 feet. To handle the material aboard ship, we had two forklifts, neither of which was very large. A forklift can only lift palletized materials to the top of its rack, and no farther. Most of the material was not palletized. A passageway wide enough for a forklift was maintained through the middle of the tank-deck. On either side was open storage, with no shelves, no partitions, no bins, no nothing.

In the hustle to get material aboard the ship, the only record of what was aboard was a single checkmark on the load list by each item we had received, and nobody knew where on the tank deck anything was located. This was the story when I assumed responsibility for the Supply Department. As a minesweeper tender, a supply ship, we knew what we had, but it might take several days to find it. I found myself, uncomfortably, agreeing with the captain. Was this really a supply ship? I retrieved my three little steel balls, and started my own routine. Clack, clack, clack, clack went the three little balls.

For the next eighteen months, the storekeepers had one simple assignment, beyond their usual responsibilities. We needed to set up a locator system for the items we had aboard, then inventory all the items and show where, on the tank deck, each item was stored. We took inventory for eighteen months, and added where it was on the tank deck.

As a matter of great curiosity, I examined the load list of gear that was supposed to be aboard the Hamilton County. One of the descriptors for each item was the volume required for storage. With a Marchant calculator, I totaled the volumes for all the items on the list, and discovered the complete load list of items would have filled the tank deck three times stacked solidly. It was clearly a load list from hell, and it was all mine. We had no idea if we had “all the important stuff”.

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