By Captain George Stewart, USN (RET)
In 1959 I was coming up on three years service aboard USS Halsey Powell (DD 686), a Fletcher Class Destroyer home ported in San Diego. I had augmented into the regular navy a year earlier and I was coming up for rotation. We were just finishing an overhaul at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in Long Beach, California. My detailer gave me a number of choices. The most attractive one appeared to be an assignment as executive officer of USS Force (MSO 445) an ocean going minesweeper home ported in Long Beach. That was where I had met my wife and it was where we had gotten married. We had moved up there temporarily while my ship was in overhaul so it obviously appeared to be the most attractive choice. My orders included a three week stint at Minesweeping School in Charleston, South Carolina.
This provided a good opportunity for me to take my wife and baby son up to meet my parents in Maine prior to reporting to Charleston. So we decided to book a cross country flight to Boston on a brand new Boeing 707, one of the first to enter service. From there we took a train to Portland where my aunt met us at the train station. My parents were in the process of moving from Braintree, Massachusetts (where I grew up) into their retirement home on Peaks Island, where my mother grew up. After about a week, I left my family there and took a flight to Charleston.
At the time the Mine Force Atlantic (MINELANT) was located in Charleston and the Mine Force Pacific (MINEPAC) was in Long Beach and all of the ocean going minesweepers (MSO) were home ported in one of these two locations. The school itself went by pretty fast and I was soon headed up to meet Mena in New York from where we flew out to California. After we had settled in, I went down to report to the ship.
There were quite a few Naval Facilities in Long Beach at the time, including the Naval Shipyard, Naval Station, and several piers. A number of destroyers were home ported there as well as all of the Pacific force minesweepers. Force was assigned to Mine Division (MINEDIV) 72. We were referred to as “Can Do 72”. The other ships in our division included:
- USS Firm (MSO 444) – Division flagship
- USS Prime (MSO 466)
- USS Embattle (MSO 434)
- USS Reaper (MSO 467)
USS Force (MSO 445) was an Aggressive Class ocean going minesweeper. It was built at J.M. Martinec Shipbuilding Co., Tacoma Washington and it was commissioned on 4 January, 1955.
The ship had the following major characteristics:
- Displacement – 775 LT (Full Load)
- Length – 172’
- Beam – 35’
- Draft – 10’
- Propulsion – 4 main diesel engines driving twin controllable pitch propellers – 2400 SHP
- Speed – 14 Knots
- Complement – 70 (5 officers and 65 enlisted)
- Range – 3000 nm@ 10 Knots
- Armament – 1 40 mm mount and 2 50 Cal machine guns.
Force was of wooden hull construction with non magnetic diesel engines and other equipment. Minesweeping equipment included:
- Moored Mines – Oropesa (“O” Type) gear
- Magnetic Mines – Magnetic “Tail” supplied by three 2500 ampere mine sweeping generators
- Acoustic Mines – A Mk4(V) and A Mk6 (B) acoustic hammers
Note that the ships of the MCM 1 class are also fitted with this type of equipment along with more modern Mine Neutralization Vehicles (MNV).
The ships had a rather complex engineering plant including a total of 9 non magnetic diesel engines located in two engine rooms. All main propulsion equipment was located in the After Engine Room while the Forward Engine Room contained diesel generators and auxiliary machinery.
The main propulsion plant consisted of four Packard 1D1700 non magnetic diesel engines driving twin controllable pitch propellers (CRP). This was one of the earliest CRP installations in the navy. Each of the two packages consisted of a pair of engines coupled to drive a propeller shaft by means of a common reduction gear. The engines were connected to the reduction gear by way of hydraulic clutches. The two outboard engines also drove magnetic mine sweeping generators which were fitted with large flywheels. The flywheels were necessary because the generators delivered their output to the magnetic “tail” in pulses.
This configuration imposed some definite limitations on propulsion plant operation. The hydraulic clutches took about 2 minutes to fill with fluid and 5 minutes to dump. Because of the large flywheels the shafts could not be readily stopped in the event of either an engine or propeller pitch casualty. For this reason all of our harbor maneuvering was done with only the inboard engines on the line. My office was located on the port side immediately above the After Engine Room where I could hear the engines being started. It was easy to tell which engine was being started because the inboard engines would fire right up whereas the outboard engines had to be cranked up for about 15 to 20 seconds before they would stabilize at idle speed. This is the major reason for the use of an independent gas turbine driven magnetic minesweeping generator on the MCM 1 Class.
There were a total of five diesel driven generators located in the Forward Engine Room. These included a 185 kW ship service generator which was normally used when underway and 100 kW and 60 kW sets for use in port. There was also a third magnetic mine sweeping generator set which was identical to the main engines plus a 300 kW variable frequency generator which supplied power to the acoustic minesweeping equipment. Ship’s heating was from a pair of oil fired auxiliary boilers located on a flat above the engine room.
The non magnetic diesel engines had a history of poor reliability and required constant care and feeding. The original Packard engines aboard Force were later replaced by Waukesha engines as part of a major re-powering program in the 1960s.
A combination of the wooden hull construction and the presence of 9 diesel engines plus two oil fired boilers resulted in a significant risk from fire. At least 8 ships of the class suffered significant damage due to machinery spaces fires and three of these, including Force itself in 1972, were lost for this reason.
At the time Force had a complement of 5 officers and 65 enlisted men. My Commanding Officer, LCDR Chris Herbert was a native of New Orleans, LA. He proved to be an excellent instructor and I can truthfully say that I learned as much from him as any CO that I ever had, particularly in the areas of seamanship and ship handling. My duties as XO also included that of the ship’s navigator. One problem with this is that at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, none of us engineering graduates had ever taken any courses in navigation. I had to teach it to myself in a hurry. Fortunately I was assisted by a very good First Class Quartermaster.
There were only three other officers in the wardroom, the Operations Officer, First Lieutenant, and Chief Engineer. At the time that I reported aboard, all three were Ensigns. The First Lieutenant had charge of the mine sweeping equipment and he also the collateral duty as the Supply Officer. We only had two CPOs, a Chief Boatswains Mate and a Chief Engineman. These were two of the most critical billets on the ship.
The ship was not scheduled for any major deployments although we were occasionally scheduled for significant fleet exercises, usually in conjunction with the amphibious forces. In order to keep us occupied, the Commander Mine Force, Pacific (COMINEPAC) had a list of annual underway exercises that we had to complete. One of my major duties turned out to be responsibility for making out the ship’s schedule which we had to submit on a quarterly basis. Obviously I had to build it around any significant fleet exercises and leave enough time for upkeep. Much of our underway time would be spent conducting exercises in the area immediately off Long Beach. Rather than steam at night, my CO preferred to anchor in Pyramid Cove at Santa Catalina Island.
Long Beach itself was an excellent place to learn ship handling. There was not much in the line of wind and tidal currents and with twin CRPs and rudders the ship was very maneuverable. Engine response was almost instantaneous. While most engine operations were conducted from the Engine Room, control of propeller pitch was from the pilot house. At the time it was obvious that a number of significant modifications had been made to the propeller pitch control system in order to obtain reliability.
In November, 1959 we were scheduled to participate in a major amphibious exercise off Kodiak, Alaska. So we headed north accompanied by our division mates plus the USS Greer County (LST 799) which had been converted into a mine warfare mother ship. This was my first crack at celestial navigation, although I never got very proficient at it. I do not remember very much happening in Kodiak as most of the exercise events had to be cancelled due to weather. Finally we received orders to return to Long Beach. Our division commander decided that we would go home by way of the Alaska Inland Passageway, with a stop at Vancouver. It sounded attractive, but there would be complications.
We laid out the required charts. It turned out that we had to use about 25 of them to lay out a track to our destination. We headed back across the Gulf of Alaska. The weather was as rough as I have ever seen it. We bobbed around like a cork but we did not experience any major difficulties with the exception that when I went up to the bridge, I found the OOD passed out on the deck so I took over the watch and informed the CO. It turned out that we would have to declare him unsuitable for sea duty due to chronic seasickness.
On the Greer County it was a different story. The seas were coming directly on the bow and it was really crashing around. A couple of times it lost propulsion and I was told afterward that the people on the ship were very scared. Finally I saw a stretch of bright blue shoreline in the distance which proved to be Glacier Bay National Park. We entered the Inland Passageway just to the south of it. Although we were in calm waters, our adventures were just beginning.
The Inland Passageway is quite scenic. It is a favorite route for commercial cruise liners and Alaska State Ferries today. Once we entered the passage, rather than keeping us in formation our commodore left it up to the individual ships as to whether to remain underway or anchor for the night. This resulted in a chaotic situation where it was unclear where the other ships always were. My CO preferred to remain underway at night. But on one occasion the captain of one of the other ships and several of his key crew members went ashore on one of the islands in order to conduct a barbecue and they ended up being trapped there for several hours when the tide ran out. The Greer County ran aground at the wrong end (stern) when making a sharp turn. Several of our ships suffered propeller damage due to striking floating logs of which there were many in the Passageway. By the time we reached Vancouver, virtually every ship in our group had suffered some damage. The Greer County carried a team of divers who were kept busy during our port visit straightening out bent propeller blades with C-Clamps. Upon our return to Long Beach, COMINEPAC convened a board of investigation about the whole operation. Fortunately we had only suffered minor propeller damage and my CO suffered no direct repercussions. However I believe that our commodore was ultimately held responsible for the incidents.
From this point we returned to our normal cycle of operations. This included participation in at least one exercise where we were required to sweep a drill mine field. This involved some very precise navigation through narrow strips of water. Bear in mind that in those days this was primarily accomplished by taking visual bearings to objects ashore. Satellite navigation systems were many years in the future. Note that, while these developments have resulted in a major reduction in labor on the part of the ship’s crew, the decision process remains exactly the same, as evidenced by the recent USS Guardian incident.
Three other incidents that occurred during my tour included.
- Because of their limited range, getting the ocean going minesweepers to distant locations has always presented a problem. One proposed solution was the temporary installation of an inflatable fuel bladder on the O-1 Level aft. Force was chosen as a test ship for this program. A few weeks after the installation we encountered a following sea. Suddenly there was a big bang and the bladder ruptured, spilling the contents over the after portion of the ship. That was the last that we ever heard of that program although it was apparently re-instated later on.
- During an overhaul at a small local shipyard that was located on a basin at Terminal Island we were in the process of being shifted out of drydock by a local commercial tug when the tug master got into an argument with the shipyard personnel and abruptly left us adrift in the middle of the basin. We ended up being towed into our berth by a fork lift.
- One day when my CO and I were walking down the pier we noted that the USS Reedbird, a small coastal minesweeper (MSC) that was moored ahead of us appeared to be sinking. The ship was used for training reservists and it had only a limited crew on board. I immediately ran back to our ship and had them call away the damage control party. It turned out that the problem was that a sailor had decided to fill the fresh water tanks from shore but had forgotten to turn off the water supply causing the tanks to overflow resulting in significant flooding in the after part of the ship.
My tour aboard Force ended in January, 1961. In 1972 the ship’s home port was changed to Guam. Unfortunately the ship was lost by fire in the After Engine Room on 24 April 1973 while enroute from Subic Bay to Guam. The fire apparently was caused by a leak in the fuel line on one of the outboard main engines. A contributing factor appears to have been the difficulty in getting the engine stopped due to the inertia of the large flywheel along with some questionable damage control actions on the part of the crew. More details concerning the loss of the Force and the results of the subsequent investigation can be found on the Navy MSO Association website entitled “MSO Casualties.” This web site also provides information concerning losses and major casualties experienced aboard other ships of the class.
George W. Stewart is a retired US Navy Captain. He is a 1956 graduate of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. During his 30 year naval career he held two ship commands and served a total of 8 years on naval material inspection boards, during which he conducted trials and inspections aboard over 200 naval vessels. Since his retirement from active naval service in 1986 he has been employed in the ship design industry where he has specialized in the development of concept designs of propulsion & powering systems, some of which have entered active service. He currently holds the title of Chief Marine Engineer at Marine Design Dynamics. He served as Executive Officer of USS Force (MSO 445) between 1959 and 1960.