It’s amazing to me that the smartest planners in the world did not see the need for toilet paper as they planned for the defense of the free world.
Okay, that might be a bit exaggerated, but the need to supply the ships and airplanes that would end up fighting totalitarianism was not evident in the types of support vessels that were built during the period between the wars. The emphasis on the naval building plans was heavily weighted on warships. There were budget limitations to deal with because of the great depression and an overall attitude of disarmament that followed the first war. But as the Japanese continued to build ships and expand their empire, it should have been obvious that the war in the Pacific would be fought over extended supply lines.
This account comes from the post Second World War report by Rear Admiral Worrall Reed Carter, USN called “Beans, Bullets and Black Oil”. It’s a fascinating read about the trajectory of the United States Navy as it faced unprecedented challenges all around the globe during the war. The first chapter deals with the situation before the war.
Chapter I Pre-World War II
“From 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, until they admitted defeat in August 1945, our fleet continuously grew. During those stirring and difficult times, the accounts of ship actions, air strikes, and amphibious operations make up the thrilling combat history of the Pacific theater. Linked inseparably with combat is naval logistic support, the support which makes available to the fleet such essentials as ammunition, fuel, food, repair services–in short, all the necessities, at the proper time and place and in adequate amounts. This support, from advanced bases and from floating mobile service squadrons and groups, maintained the fleet and enabled it to take offensive action farther from home supply points than was ever before thought possible, and this is the story which will be told here. But before telling this story, let us examine some of the ideas and accomplishments of fleet logistics in the years before World War II.
“The advantages of logistics afloat and near the fleet operating area had long been recognized by many naval commanders, and no doubt by others who gave the matter analytical thought. There was some selfish opposition to its development by local politicians, merchants, and shipyards because of the wish to keep the activities where the disbursements would benefit the local shore communities directly. Also, there was some opposition in naval bureaus, and there was some skepticism on the part of some officers within the naval service as to the feasibility of accomplishing many of these services afloat. For example, it took a long time to satisfy everyone of the practicality of fueling under way at sea. Also, there were those who were skeptical of the capabilities of tenders and repair ships. Such vessels were looked upon as able to accomplish a certain degree of minor repair and upkeep, but for support of any consequence a navy yard or shipyard was for years thought necessary.
“The era was one of rapid change and progress. In 1925 the operating force of the Navy consisted of 234 vessels, including 17 battleships, 15 cruisers of different types, a second-line carrier and 2 second-line mine layers, 6 destroyer-minelayers, 103 destroyers, 80 submarines, 1 fleet submarine in an experimental stage of development, and 9 patrol gunboats. To service these units afloat we had 75 other craft: Oilers, colliers, tenders, repair ships, store ships, 1 ammunition ship and 1 hospital ship, 25 mine sweepers, 2 transports, 8 fleet tugs, and miscellaneous small craft, a total of promising size. A good start had been made, the principal objections to formation of this element of the Navy had been overcome, and the Base Force had been established as a definite part of the United States forces afloat.
“Unfortunately, just as we were ready to move to further accomplishment the depression years arrived, funds were severely restricted, and the Base Force came to a slowdown without opportunity for improvement and advancement in operating technique. This period was immediately followed by the Roosevelt years of emergency. The sudden expansion of all categories of naval personnel left little opportunity for anything but the fundamentals. In consequence, not great advance in Base Force technique or organizational coordination of fleet logistics was made until the war was in its second year.
“The Navy Department knew that expansion of the fleet called for a proper balance in its auxiliaries; but, because of the lack of detailed knowledge, there was no sound formula for finding that balance. So it was estimate and guess, with the authorizations always a little on the light side because of the need for combat units whose construction alone would tax the capacity of the building plants. As a result, in 1940 the operating force consisted of 344 fighting ships, and to service them afloat 120 auxiliaries of various types. While in the 15 years from 1925 to 1940, destroyers, cruisers, and carriers had more than doubled in numbers, the auxiliaries had not. The most notable increase had been in seaplane tenders and oilers, but there were too few of the latter to permit their being kept with the operating units long enough to improve their at-sea oiling technique. Instead, they had to be kept busy ferrying oil.
“During the first year of President Roosevelt’s declared limited national emergency–1940–there were authorized 10 battleships, 2 carriers, 8 light cruisers, 41 destroyers, 28 submarines, a mine layer, 3 subchasers, and 32 motor torpedo boats–a total of 125 combat fleet units. Because of the lack of logistic knowledge and foresight, the auxiliaries ordered to service this formidable new fleet numbered only 12: 1 destroyer tender, 1 repair ship, 2 submarine tenders, and 2 large and 6 small seaplane tenders. The war plans, it is true, included the procurement and conversion of merchant ships for auxiliary and patrol purposes, but nothing came of this provision. Because of the shortage of merchant shipping, little could be done without causing injury elsewhere.
“That same year–1940–the Oakland, Calif., Supply Depot was acquired, and the existing port storage depots at several points, notably San Diego, Calif., Bayonne, N.J., and Pearl Harbor, T.H., were expanded. Still no one seemed to give much consideration to the delivery and distribution of supplies to ships not at those bases to receive them. The Base Force war plans for an overseas movement visualized two somewhat vague schemes. One was that the fleet would fight at once upon arrival in distant or advanced waters and gain a quick victory (or be completely defeated), and the base would be hardly more than a fueling rendezvous before the battle. Afterward (if victorious), with the enemy defeated there would be plenty of time to provide everything. The other idea was that the advanced location would be seized, the few available repair and supply vessels would be based there, and the remaining necessary facilities would be constructed ashore. The action there was no assurance that the base could be held with the fleet not present. On the other hand, the fleet if present could not be serviced without adequate floating facilities while necessary construction was being accomplished ashore. So the idea of fleet logistics afloat was becoming more and more firmly rooted; only time was needed to make it practical, as our knowledge and experience were still so meager that we had little detailed conception of our logistic needs. Even when someone with a vivid imagination hatched an idea, he frequently was unable to substantiate it to the planning experts and it was likely to be set down as wild exaggeration. How little we really knew in 1940 as compared with 1945 shows in a comparison of the service forces active at both times.
“In 1940 the Base Force Train included a total of 51 craft of all types, among them 1 floating drydock of destroyer capacity. By 1945 the total was 315 vessels, every one of them needed. The 14 oilers which were all the Navy owned in 1940 had leaped to 62, in addition to merchant tankers which brought huge cargoes of oil, aviation gasoline, and Diesel fuel to bases where the Navy tankers took them on board for distribution to the fleet. No less than 21 repair ships of various sizes had supplanted the 2 the Navy had 5 years before.
The battleships had 3 floating drydocks, the cruisers 2, and the destroyers 9, while small craft had 16. Hospital ships had risen from 1 to 6, and in addition there were 3 transport evacuation vessels, while the ammunition ships numbered 14, plus 28 cargo carriers and 8 LST’s (Landing Ship, Tanks). The number of combatant ships had increased materially, and it is natural to ask if the auxiliaries should not have increased comparably. The answer is, of course, yes. But the increase of combatant ships had been visualized, and the building programs were undertaken before the war began. It flourished with increased momentum during the early part of the war, long before the minimum auxiliary requirements could be correctly estimated and the rush of procurement started.
“The original planers had done their best, but it was not until the urgency for auxiliaries developed as a vital element of the war that we fully realized what was needed, and met the demand. Merchant ships were converted whenever possible, and this, with concentrated efforts to provide drydocks and other special construction, produced every required type in numbers that would have been considered preposterous only a short time before.”
The fleet today is much more balanced and the lessons of the war have not been lost on current planners.
Even with the advent of nuclear power, ships are largely dependent on fossil fuels and the need to provide adequate supplies to support the men and women that man these ships is never far from anyone’s mind. There will always be passion and zeal to produce and ride the sleek warships that take the battle to the enemy. But the lack of supplies for the crews and fuel can change the outcome of any adventure in a short period of time. Hand salute to the warriors who deliver the goods and keep the sea lanes free and clear.