Warship Wednesday, June 8, 2022: The Ship Behind the Ships Behind the Torpedoes
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 8, 2022: The Ship Behind the Ships Behind the Torpedoes
Above we see the lead ship of her class, the submarine tender USS Fulton (AS-11), arrive at Pearl Harbor with her decks crowded with USS Yorktown (CV-5) survivors on board, 8 June 1942– 80 years ago today– following the Battle of Midway. While she didn’t get any licks in at Midway, Fulton’s important contribution to the war in the Pacific was huge and overlooked by the history books. For some 1,900 men of Yorktown, she was incredibly important on this day, and these rescued carriermen would soon be put back to work.
Fulton was of course named for famed American engineer and inventor Robert Fulton who developed the world’s first commercially successful steamboat. However, he also designed an interesting sail-powered submersible (“Nautilus”) and thought up “anchored torpedoes” similar to a floating mine.
In 1801, Mr. Fulton sank a small, unmanned ship using such a mine with an explosive charge of 20 pounds of gunpowder at Brest, France, then ten years later conducted a high-profile exhibition attack against the brig USS Argus in the East River via a rowboat and a spar torpedo.
Our vessel is at least the fourth– and somehow last– such ship on the Navy List following in the wake of a sidewheeler that saw much use in the 1840s and 50s, the Navy’s first submarine tender, and a patrol tug, the last of which was decommissioned and scrapped in 1934.
The Navy’s first officially-designated submarine tender, the USS Fulton (AS-1). Built at Fore River, she was ordered in 1911 and spent two decades in her intended role then, too small to service the Navy’s more modern subs, was reclassified as a survey ship/gunboat in 1930, serving for another few years until she was gutted by a fire in 1934 off Hong Kong.
When it comes to submarine tenders, besides a motley list of ~30 old minesweepers, monitors, and cruisers who spent their final days in such auxiliary service in the 1900s-1920s, the Navy’s early AS pennants included a few increasingly larger purpose-built ships– the 3,500-ton Bushnell (AS-2) in 1915, the 8,000-ton Holland (AS-3) in 1926, the repurposed old gunboat Alert AS-4, and converted merchant cargo steamers and passenger liners such as Beaver (AS-5), Camden (AS-6)– ex SS Kiel, Rainbow (AS-7)– ex SS Norse King, Savannah (AS-8)– ex SS Saxonia, Canopus (AS-9)– ex SS Santa Leonora, and Argonne (AS-10).
With the Navy building increasingly larger squadrons of increasingly larger “fleet boats” for long-range service in the Western Pacific, the need for a new and modern class of submarine tenders was realized, one that could be used to both succor those divisions of American subs and replace older, more limited tenders such as Alert (sold 1922), Bushnell (reclassified as a survey ship in 1940), Camden (converted to a barracks ship after 1931), Rainbow (sold 1928), Savannah (sold 1934), and Argonne (converted to an auxiliary repair ship 1940). In fact, of the pre-WWII tenders, only the “aging but able” Beaver, Canopus, and Holland were still in the submarine game when the U.S. entered the war.
Some 9,250 tons (18,000 full load), the Fulton and her class of six sisters (Sperry, Bushnell, Howard W. Gilmore, Nereus, Orion, and Proteus, numbered AS 12, 15-19) were all built in the Bay Area, with the first five by Mare Island Naval Shipyard and the last pair by Oakland’s Moore Dry Dock Company with four hulls laid down before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Fulton was ordered in FY38 while the others were ordered in 1940. With a length of 530 feet and a reliable diesel-electric engineering suite (four General Motor 16-248 diesel generators supplying power to an electric motor via a Fairbanks Morse Main Reduction Gear), they could sustain 15.4 knots (Fulton hit 18.7 knots on trials!). Using 130 frames, she was made tough, with special protection over her magazines to withstand hits without going sky high.
With an endurance of up to 40,000 miles if she used all her stores and could defend themselves against surface and air threats via a battery of four 5″/38 cal DP guns controlled by a Mark 37 (later Mark 51) director. Ammunition trunks were located on the hold level under the position of the 5″/38s and hoists lifted the powder and shells upward to the gunners. This was later augmented by two twin 40mm AA gun mounts and a dozen 20mm Oerlikon AA gun mounts– essentially the gun armament carried by a destroyer.
However, it was her stores– including 26,600 bbls of usable diesel– and shops allowing her to mother up to a dozen submarines at a time, which made Fulton and her sisters so special. This included a total design accommodation for 64 officers, 22 warrant officers, 70 CPOs, and 1,144 enlisted, allowing for not only the tender’s crew but for the flag complement of a submarine squadron and two full relief crew divisions for her submarines.
Via the 1990s HAER report on sistership USS Sperry (AS-12) of the class:
Most of the ship was devoted to the manufacture, refurbishment, and storage of submarine equipment. The hold contained several spaces devoted to the storage of torpedoes and other equipment. Void spaces filled with ballast water and fuel oil in the hull protected the equipment from mines or torpedoes. The third deck included a number of repair shops and storage areas for electrical equipment, metals, and torpedoes. The second deck had a large machine shop for fabricating machine parts, a metals department, and a welding area. The machine shop office and main tool issue room were in the forward section of the ship on the same level. A large portion of the main deck was allocated for pipe fabrication (metal and rubber), as well as a foundry for the blacksmiths and a small welding room. A number of compartments dedicated to the repair of electrical equipment, mechanical instruments, and optics were located on the main deck amidships. The upper deck had spaces for carpentry and accompanying equipment. Just aft of the carpenter and pattern shop was a small gyrocompass repair shop. A calibration lab, communication and sonar repair area, and radar shop were at the stern. Finally, at the aft end of the superstructure, there was a technical repair library and printing shop, as well as a machine shop and fluid repair facility for governors, valves, and hydraulics. Above the superstructure
was a small cryptographic repair shop.
There were two messes, a bakery, a butcher shop, and a vegetable prep pantry. There were six diesel generators in the machine rooms supplying power to both the ship and any submarines moored alongside.
To supply the physical needs of the crew, there was sufficient space for showers, heads, and washrooms around the ship and near the living quarters. A dentist and medical doctor were permanently stationed onboard with offices and amidships on the upper deck. A barbershop was on the port side, forward of the crew’s berthing on the second deck. Laundry facilities were on the same deck at the stern. There was a ship’s service store where the crew could purchase personal items. A post office, chaplain’s office, library, and a career counselor to advise the crew on future positions were also onboard.
As described by Tendertale of the class:
Submarine tenders enabled the Navy to move into a conquered island and in a matter of a day or so have a submarine base in full commission, able to service and repair any of our submarines regardless of their type or special equipment. At our island bases in World War II, submarine tenders worked indefatigably to keep the submarine at sea and on the firing line.
Sponsored by Mrs. A. T. Sutcliffe, great-granddaughter of Robert Fulton, she was christened on 27 December 1940 and commissioned USS Fulton (AS-11), on 12 September 1941, just three months shy of Japanese carrier planes rounding Diamondhead. Her first of 34 skippers were CDR Alexander Dean “Doug” Douglas (USNA 1917), the swaggering career submariner from Oklahoma who had brought the disabled USS R-14 110 miles back to Pearl Harbor on improvised sails made from hammocks and blankets in 1921.
Underway on her shakedown cruise out of San Diego when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Fulton (AS-11) was ordered at once to Panama and then spent the next month working as an ersatz seaplane tender, establishing advanced bases for PBYs in Nicaragua’s Gulf of Fonseca and the Galapagos Islands.
She arrived at Pearl Harbor, ready to get into the sub-tending biz, on 15 March 1942, at a time when the harbor’s waters were still black with leaking bunker oil from the hulks on Battleship Row. Mooring at Pier S-1, she clocked in for SubRon Eight. Her first sub, the brand new Gato-class fleet boat USS Drum (SS-228), moored alongside later that afternoon.
At 0545 on 5 June 1942, Fulton received verbal instructions from ComSubPac to prepare to get underway as soon as possible under direct orders handed down from Nimitz himself. Amazingly, less than two hours later, picking up the elderly four-piper destroyers USS Breese (DD-122) and USS Allen (DD-66) as escorts, she stood out of Pearl Harbor at 0734 then proceeded northwestward at 17 knots, zig-zagging to avoid Japanese submarines. Her destination was to meet ASAP with “undesignated vessels of Task Force 16 and 17 to “transfer excess personnel.”
Said “excess personnel” hailed from the damaged carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), which had been mauled in an air attack on the afternoon of 4 June by a strike from the Japanese carrier Hiryu that left the flattop with two torpedoes and three bomb hits, dead in the water and with a severe list.
As Fulton and her escorts made the best speed for the Yorktown and her escorts, the Japanese submarine I-168 came across the scene on the afternoon of 6 June and fired four torpedoes, hitting both the destroyer Hammann and Yorktown, sinking the destroyer in minutes, and forcing the withdrawal of Yorktown’s salvage party, though she would continue to float through the night.
It was during the next day, at 1300 on 7 June, just hours after Yorktown dived for the ocean floor, that Fulton came alongside the cruiser USS Portland (CA-33) and destroyer USS Russell (DD-414), which between them were carrying the bulk of the carrier’s crew. Slowing to eight knots and rigging five trolleys and whips, they began to send over survivors via coal bags, but the transfer was stopped after a few hours after a suspected submarine contact was made by one of the destroyers.
Dropping lines, the transfer was finished under cover of darkness via whaleboat.
By 2245, Fulton was headed back to Pearl with 101 officers, and 1790 enlisted from Yorktown, including 59 stretcher cases.
From her War Diary for July 1942:
She would arrive back at Pearl early the next afternoon and was greeted by Nimitz, who, ironically, was the division commander for a younger LT. Alexander Dean Douglas when he had sailed R-14 into the same harbor some 21 years prior.
With her decks cleared by dark, Fulton welcomed the submarine USS Growler (SS-215) alongside for refit and manned her AAA batteries, shells at the ready, as part of the base defense plan. Back to business as usual.
The rest of Fulton’s War
With the frontlines moving ever toward Tokyo, Fulton was ordered first to Midway, then to Brisbane in Australia where she established a submarine base and rest camp. As noted by DANFs, “and in addition to refitting submarines between their war patrols, acted as tender to other types of ships. Milne Bay, New Guinea, was her station from 29 October 1943 until 17 March 1944, when she sailed for a west coast overhaul.”
Returning to the war in June 1944, Fulton tended boats at Pearl (again), then Midway (again) before being assigned to Saipan, and eventually to recently-liberated Guam in June 1945, where she was when the Japanese threw in the towel. She celebrated VJ-Day at sea, headed back to Pearl, and arrived in Seattle on 22 September.
Between May 1942 and August 1945, from no point further East than Pearl and typically much closer to the lines than that, Fulton completed an eye-popping 110 submarine overhauls (twice as many as Holland) and 222 submarine voyage repairs “some of the latter, while not actually classified as refits were in the nature of refits due to the magnitude of work done.” In short, at least 300 war patrols were made possible by the floating torpedo warehouse, workshop, and hotel known as “Building 11,” a vessel that returned a submarine to service on average roughly every third day of the war.
With such a feat, if you find the nature of the American submarine force’s war in the Pacific amazing, you must give a slow hand salute to the men of Fulton.
Fulton received just one battle star for World War II service.
Post-War miles to go
Fulton was assigned to TG 1.8 for the Operation Crossroads atomic weapons tests in the Marshalls in 1946, acting as a repair vessel for the task force and supporting the half-dozen subs taking part.
With that behind her, she was laid up at Mare Island on 3 April 1947.
With the Cold War getting colder during Korea, Fulton was taken out of mothballs in 1951 and, just three weeks later, would be tending boats at New London, her home for the rest of her career, a period that would see her sortie out and welcome the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), from her historic submerged passage under the North Pole in August 1957.
After upgrades were completed as part of the second Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization Program (FRAM II) in 1959-60, Fulton’s primary duties shifted from repairing and replenishing diesel-powered submarines to performing similar tasks on nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) and attack submarines (SSN). Importantly, she would host the world’s first all-SSN squadron, SubRon 10, serving as flagship.
She, along with her sisters, would continue to serve in such roles throughout the Cold War.
On 30 September 1991, SubRon 10 was disbanded at New London and Fulton was decommissioned at her berth. The Queen of the Submarine Force, the only vessel older than her on the NVR that day (other than the USS Constitution) was the repair ship USS Vulcan, which had actually been laid down after her.
Fulton was the last ship afloat associated with the Battle of Midway, outliving the New Orleans-class submarine USS Minneapolis (CA-36) which was scrapped in 1960, and the Gato-class fleet boat USS Grouper (SS/SSK/AGSS-214) which was sent to the breakers in 1970.
Besides her sole WWII battle star, Fulton earned two Meritorious Unit Commendations and two Navy “E”s across her 50-years of service.
The Fultons were all long-serving ships, with two, Orion and Proteus continuing to serve until 1992 and 1993, respectively. The latter would remain as a barracks barge (IX-518) sans her stacks, cranes, and other topside fittings into 1999 and was only scrapped in 2007.
Fulton herself lingered in storage on the James River for a few years, finally being sold for scrapping in Brownsville, Texas, on 17 November 1995. Her scrapping was completed on 21 December 1996.
Of note, the first boat she tied lines to, USS Drum— the first Gato-class submarine to enter combat in World War II– has been preserved as a museum ship at Mobile since 1969, ironically at a time when Fulton still had another quarter-century of service ahead of her.
As for Fulton’s first skipper, the man who was on the bridge during Midway, “Doug” Douglas left his tender in October 1942 to serve as a commodore of a Torch Landing convoy and retired as a full captain in 1947, marking 30 years of service. Passing in 1989 at age 94, he donated his remains to medical research and has a headstone at Arlington.
There remains a USS Fulton Association that treasures their former home.
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