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, Sept. 1st, 2021: Fortunate Son, the Army Flat Top Edition
Here we see USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVN-1), a 14,000-ton floating aircraft maintenance depot, anchored in Cam Ranh Bay, 12 November 66. Note at least three Army UH-1 Hueys on her deck. The Veteran WWII-era Curtiss-class seaplane tender, disarmed and manned by civilian mariners, was the closest thing the Army had to an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.
The two Curtiss-class tenders, which include class leader USS Curtiss (AV-4) and her sistership USS Albemarle (AV-5) — the latter would become the above-shown Army flattop– were the first purpose-built seaplane tenders constructed for the Navy, with the previous vessels being repurposed minesweepers and destroyers. Ordered in 1938, they were laid down side-by-side at New York Shipbuilding Corporation, Camden, New Jersey, and were commissioned in November and December 1940.
Some 527-feet long (keep in mind destroyers of the age were in the 300~ foot range), they had a very wide 69-foot beam and drew over three fathoms under their hull when fully loaded. Packed with four high-pressure boilers that pushed a pair of geared turbines, they could make a respectable 19.7 knots, which was faster than most auxiliaries of the era, and steam for 12,000 miles at 12 knots– enough to halfway around the globe. Equipped with CXAM-1 radars from the time they joined the fleet, at a time when many of the world’s best cruisers and battleships didn’t have such luxury gear, they were well-armed with four 5″/38 singles and an array of Bofors and Oerlikons.
But of course, their main purpose was to support a couple squadrons of patrol bombers such as PBY Catalina or PBM Mariner flying boats, with a large seaplane deck over the stern and extensive maintenance shops in the superstructure forward.
The third (and last) such U.S. Navy ship named Albemarle— after the sound in North Carolina, a traditional naming structure for seaplane tenders– she commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 20 December 1940, CDR Henry Maston Mullinnix in command.
With the Americans and British becoming increasingly cooperative despite U.S. neutrality, Albemarle was dispatched soon after her shakedown to patrol Greenland and the western Atlantic, arriving 18 May 1941 with the PBYs of patrol squadron VP-52 at Argentia, Newfoundland. It should be noted that, just two days later, the Royal Navy was bird-dogging the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen across the North Atlantic. Soon, VP-71, VP-72, and VP-73 would join the tender.
Her crew earned the American Defense Service Medal for the ship’s peacetime actions in the Atlantic, 23 Jun 41 – 22 Jul 41, 15 Aug 41 – 1 Nov 41.
She was one of the unsung Brotherhood of the F.B.I. “The Forgotten Bastards of Iceland,” and survived a strong (hurricane-force) storm there in January 1942.
After a refit on the East Coast, she would spend most of the rest of 1942 and the first half of 1943 running around much warmer climes, delivering aeronautical material and men to naval air bases in the Caribbean and the Pacific coast of South America, as well as in the northern South Atlantic.
Her relatively fast speed enabled her to keep ahead of U-boats and she, ironically, would carry back captured German submariners from sunken boats– killed by patrol bombers– to POW camps in the U.S.
Her role as a high-speed aviation transport continued with convoys to North Africa in 1943, delivering 29 dive bombers on one such trip.
Post War Mushroom Collecting
In May 1945, just after VE-Day, she was detailed to begin carrying flying boat squadrons from the Atlantic Theatre to the U.S. for transfer to the Pacific Theatre, which was still active. Likewise, our broadly-traveled seaplane tender was planned to receive extra AAA mounts and gear in preparation for her own transfer Westward to take part in the final push to Tokyo. Her sistership, Curtiss, had a much more active war in the Pacific, being in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and going on to earn seven battlestars supporting island-hopping operations.
However, VJ-Day halted things and, when Albemarle finally arrived at Pearl Harbor in November 1945, it was to join the “Magic Carpet” fleet returning American veterans home from the Pacific. This would include carrying the entire 658th Tank Destroyer/Amphibian Tractor Battalion back from the Philippines, landing them at San Francisco on 13 January 1946.
She went on to support Operation Crossroads Atomic tests, moored in Kwajalein lagoon during the Able and Baker drops at Bikini Atoll, and otherwise taking part in staging for and follow up from those mushrooms from May to August.
After a brief East Coast stint, she was back in the Pacific with Joint Task Force Switchman, arriving at Eniwetok in March 1948 to serve as a floating lab ship for the triple nuclear tests during Operation Sandstone– “X-Ray” with an experimental 37 kt A-bomb made from a 2:1 mix of oralloy and plutonium. (15 April 1948), the 49 kt oralloy “Yoke” (1 May 1948) and 18 kt oralloy “Zebra” (15 May 1948) bombs.
Swapped back to the East Coast after the conclusion of the tests, she was attached to the New York Group, Atlantic Reserve Fleet, decommissioned on 14 August 1950 and berthed at Brooklyn where she rested for six years. Meanwhile, sistership Curtiss, who had operated helicopters in Korea, was decommissioned on 24 September 1957 and would only leave mothballs again in 1972 when she was scrapped.
Albemarle was recommissioned at Philadelphia on 21 October 1957 after a 20-month conversion to be able to operate the planned Martin P6M Seamaster jet-equipped flying boats. Intended to be a nuclear deterrent, the Seamaster program was one of the Navy’s top priorities.
However, as Seamaster never reached the fleet, Albemarle ended up spending the next three years quietly tending more traditional Martin P5M Marlin flying boats off and on while participating in operations with the Atlantic Fleet. As Seamaster was canceled– it turned out the Polaris FBM submarines were a better idea– she was placed out of commission, in reserve, on 21 October 1960 before being laid up with the James River Fleet. Transferred to MARAD, Albemarle was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 1 September 1962 and likely would have been scrapped.
However, her special services were soon needed by someone else.
Vietnam War – Project Flat Top – USNS Corpus Christi Bay
On 7 August 1964, MARAD transferred ex-Albemarle back to the Navy and six months later she was transferred to the Navy’s Military Sea Transportation Service (which became today’s MSC in 1970), entered on the NVR as USNS Corpus Christi Bay (T-ARVH-1). She was sent to the Charleston Naval Shipyard for an $11 million conversion to become a maintenance depot at sea for Army helicopters in Vietnam.
The idea was that, instead of shipping damaged helicopters back to the U.S. for refit, Corpus Christi Bay could, with her 32 on-board repair and fabrication shops, blueprints for every model helicopter in service, and cargo of 20,000 spare parts, could rework them. Meanwhile, her sister Curtiss, which had been laid up since 1957 and had been stricken in 1963, was robbed of everything useful to keep Albemarle/Corpus Christi Bay in shape.
Delivered for sea trials in December 1965, on 11 January 1966 she was placed into service.
Dubbed an Aircraft Repair Ship, Helicopter as part of “Project Flat-Top,” Corpus Christi Bay lost her seaplane ramp, had her superstructure reconstructed to include a 50×150 ft. landing pad to accommodate just about any of the Army’s choppers. Damaged helos could be dropped via sling loads from CH-47s or CH-5s or barged out to the ship and lifted aboard by a pair of 20-ton cranes. All her remaining WWII weapons were removed. She picked up extensive air conditioning, a cobbler shop, barbershop, modern dining facilities, a dental clinic and medical center staffed by Army flight surgeons, and other amenities that the Navy’s flying boat aviators of 1940 could have only dreamed of.
The MSTS crew would be just 130~ civilian mariners and 308 green-uniformed helicopter techs of the Army’s specially-formed 1st Transportation Corps Battalion (Seaborne), which she picked up at Corpus Christi, Texas on 22 January.
As a lesson learned from the sinking of the former Bogue-class escort carrier-turned transport USNS Card (T-AKV-40) in 1964 by Viet Cong sappers, the MSTS made assorted security changes to vessels operating for extended periods in Vietnamese ports. This included helmets and flak vests for topside personnel, sandbags around the bridge, grenade screens secured on portholes, extra medkits and firefighting equipment kept at the ready, bilge and ballast pumps warmed up, and towing wires ready for a tow without assist from the ship’s crew. In addition to this, her Army techs maintained an extensive small arms locker to include several machine guns to replace damaged ones on gunships.
Corpus Christi Bay operated out of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam as a Floating Aircraft Maintenance Facility, or FAMF, arriving 2 April 1966, and would remain overseas until 19 December 1972, spending almost seven years overseas, rotating crews and Army maintainers out regularly.
As a seaborne asset of the United States Army Material Command, she was designated a floating Helicopter Repair Depot. Ostensibly manned by civilian merchant mariners of the MSTS, she was still owned by the Navy but, for all intents and purposes, was an Army ship.
Army Veteran Peter Berlin remembers her fondly and in detail:
The Floating Aircraft Maintenance Facility was designed for use in contingency operations, initially for backup direct support and general support and provided a limited depot capability for the repair of aircraft components. It was equipped to manufacture small machine parts and also to repair items requiring extensive test equipment operating in a sterile environment such as avionics, instruments, carburetors, fuel controls, and hydraulic pumps. The mobility offered by the ship also contributed to the effectiveness of aircraft support since it could move from one deep water port to another as the density of aircraft units shifted with changing tactical situations. The guys aboard this FAMF could fix anything..
Ultimately determined by MSC to be “in excess of current and future requirements”. Corpus Christi Bay was taken out of service in 1973 and berthed in ready reserve status at Corpus Christi, Texas.
Corpus Christi Bay served six tours of duty in the Republic of Vietnam and earned four Meritorious Unit Commendations. Determined by MSC to be “in excess of current and future requirements,” she was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 31 December 1974, just two weeks after she returned to Corpus Christi from overseas. On 17 July 1975, she was sold to Brownsville Steel and Salvage, Inc. for the princely sum of $387,777 and subsequently scrapped.
The Army is a good caretaker of the vessel’s relics, with a scale model, the ship’s bell, and other artifacts on honored display at the Corpus Christi Army Depot in Texas, an important cradle of Army aviation maintenance. Former members of the ship’s crew meet at CCAD from time to time.
The U.S. Army Transportation Museum this month unveiled a large scale model of Corpus Christi Bay, saluting her service.
A private Facebook group, the USNS Corpus Christi Bay Alliance, is out there for Vets to reconnect.
Her Navy war history and logbooks are digitized in the National Archives while the Army has numerous films of her Vietnam “Project Flat-Top” days in the same repository.
And, of course, you didn’t come all this way and not expect this:
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