Starboard side profile of USNS Michelson from the original drawings.
Not pictured are the #5 and #6 lifeboats, on each side just aft of the #4 hold.
The kingposts just forward of the superstructure were removed.
Only #4 hold retained its cargo handling gear.
The OC Hoist was installed later at the stern.

W. T. Hatch and Other Foibles

Some saltier navy guys used to find it a source of innocent merriment to play silly pranks on greenhorn newbies. As in most endeavors new people get sized up by the old timers. Aboard ship the gullibility quotient of a new crew member was measured by how quickly they responded to mystery missions. Examples: 
  • "You have the mail buoy watch. Get a pair of binoculars and go out to the bow. Look carefully for it as everyone is waiting for letters from home!"
  • "Go down to the engine room and get some grease for the relative bearings."
  •  "Go see the bosun and ask him for twenty feet of shore line."
  • "You are on CGU11 ("See-Gee-You-Eleven" = sea gull) watch. Go out on deck and report when you see any". (Or B-1-RD watch ("Bee-One-Are-Dee" = bird.)
  •  "Go down to the engine room and get a left handed pipe wrench." (Or a brass magnet, or some bulkhead remover.)
  •  "Ask the second mate for some starboard lamp oil. Make sure that it's green!" (Or "ask him if you can borrow the sun line".)
  •  "Go down to the engine room and ask for a BT punch." (BT=the boiler tender on watch.) Alternately, "go find the chief boatswain's mate. Ask him for a bosun's punch".
  •  "Find the chief electrician and tell him the sound powered phones are getting weak and need new batteries."

And there was the elusive shipmate W.T. Hatch. While said to be nonexistent he signed official looking notices, appeared as your relief on whimsical watch lists and checked out parts and tools. And you could never find W.T. when you were looking for him. 

An Albatross

The morning after Michelson left Oakland, headed for Japan, somebody in the navy mess said "have a look, there's an albatross following the ship!". Well, sure enough, there was this large seabird with a very long wingspan gliding along a short distance aft of the stern. I had never seen one before. Seldom flapping its wings, it just sort of soared up and down and from side to side, cruising along behind us a couple of hundred miles from the nearest land.

Periodically during the day I checked on the bird. Yes, it was still there, following us, presumably awaiting a fresh garbage handout. And my avian friend was there every morning, as Michelson steamed further and further across the Pacific.

Then, one day about two thirds of the way to our destination, the albatross was gone! This was disappointing. Where did the wandering bird go?

  • Turned around and caught a vessel steaming in the other direction?
  • Found a ship with better quality garbage?
  • Decided to quit spying on Michelson?
  • Shot by an ancient mariner's crossbow?
  • Returned home as it was nearing mating season?

My next albatross encounter was 38 years later on the north shore of Kauai. Mature Laysan albatrosses spend the winter months in what is sometimes called the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. This 1000 mile long string of  uninhabited islets and atolls, officially the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, extends up to Midway, where albatrosses were once called "gooney birds". For some reason more birds are migrating further south, expanding their territory into golf courses, parks and front yards in very much inhabited Kilauea and Princeville. In 2002 my wife and I moved from Texas into our Princeville house, planning to retire.

The albatross mating ritual begins with wing flapping and a dance (left), then concludes with beak clicking. Young birds don't breed until they at least are five years old, while the supposedly monagonomous adults lead a solitary life at sea until returning home to their birthplace in the autumn. These photos and those below were taken in 2005-07 near our house in Princeville, on the north shore of Kauai. 

Breeding season starts in October or November. The tame and unafraid albatrosses build simple nests wherever they choose, always on the ground, in the open. Homeowners are stuck with their uninvited guests, having to avoid disturbing the nests, mowing the grass around them. The birds are a protected species. A uniformed albatross inspector from some federal agency walked around the neighborhood nesting areas with a clipboard, checking on the birds. 

Both albatross parents take turns incubating a single egg and later both help feed and care for their young chick. The young are vulnerable to attacks by feral cats and domestic dogs. Six months may elapse before young birds can go to sea and feed themselves. 

According to an Associated Press report (11/26/15), the world's oldest known seabird, an albatross first banded in 1956 had recently returned to Midway. That bird, a female, is estimated to be about 64 years old.

I never figured out how the golf course operator kept birds from nesting on the fairways. Perhaps they quietly moved them away into the rough under cover of darkness. While many of our Princeville neighbors found albatross nests on their lawns, we did not, but we took plenty of photos.

Laysan albatross in nest with chick (left) and young bird alone, awaiting feeding by parents.

The gooney bird name may have come from their odd behavior when taking to the air. An albatross, like an airplane, needs a runway to take off. It is amusing to observe the rapid wing flapping along with little web feet hopping along as the creature struggles to get airborne.

Anyhow, perhaps this explains what happened to Michelson's albatross of fall 1964. The feathered creature suddenly remembered that it was time to head for its annual trip home.

Sign found along the main road in Princeville, probably placed there by the federal albatross inspector. 

The Michelson Mission

Ocean surveys on Michelson involved obtaining continuous depth, time and geographic position information while at sea in the ship's operating areas. Every effort was made to insure measurement precision within the limits of mid 1960s technology. All of this was used to create paper maps, known nautically as charts, of the ocean bottom. These showed an amazing variety of hills, ridges, sea mounts and undersea canyons. In some areas the bottom was very flat.

Nautical chart of the Norwegian Sea from the British Hydro Office.
Another chart of this area can be seen at at greater detail here.

Charts were created right on board the ship by civilian cartographers working for the Navy Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO). Data on the earth's gravity and magnetic field were also collected. Occasionally we stopped at various mid ocean locations to obtain water temperature and salinity information as well as bottom core samples.

Michelson's operating areas during my tenure aboard included the North Atlantic ocean (in winter!), above and below the arctic circle. Later we surveyed in the Mediterranean for a few summertime months. During sea trials of new equipment, Michelson spent an extended amount of time around the Bahamas working out of ports in Florida. At the time I left the ship, we were conducting surveys in the Western Pacific.

Michelson was operated by the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), the transport and special missions arm of the navy. MSTS ships were manned by civilian merchant marine officers and crewmen. MSTS is now (since 1970) known as Military Sealift Command (MSC). 

Besides the actual crew and NAVOCEANO civilians, a small (20-25) US Navy detachment was aboard to maintain the survey electronics and provide logistical support .

An Old Ship

A WW II era recruiting poster for US Maritime Service
Michelson was already getting to be an old ship in 1962. Originally launched in Portland, Oregon in June 1944 as SS Joliet Victory (type VC2-S-AP3), only five weeks elapsed  from laying of the keel to launching! Various shipyards built over 500 of these Victory class cargo vessels toward the end of WW II. Considerably stronger and faster than the Liberty ships constructed earlier during the war, they had five holds, three forward and two aft. 

While strictly functional, Victory ships had a certain style, with a raised bow and rounded "cruiser stern" plus a curved forward superstructure on both port and starboard sides, sort of a small attempt at graceful streamlining. Most Victory ships were named for American cities, others for colleges and universities.

There was an old sea story, frequently repeated, about Victory hulls being built for one trip only. Perhaps this was true for the Liberty ships, but during both the Korean and Vietnam wars dozens of VC-2 vessels were taken out of the reserve (mothball) fleet and restored to service. Three of them are still alive today as museum ships. More on this later! 

Joliet Victory saw some WW II duty. Later it was operated as a commercial freighter by various shipping lines. It was taken out of service and joined the mothball fleet for several years, then resurrected in 1958, and converted to a deep ocean survey ship at the Charleston Naval Shipyard in South Carolina. It was renamed USNS Michelson after Albert Abraham Michelson who in addition to having been a US Navy commander and professor at the Naval Academy, was the first person to accurately measure the speed of light. Michelson received the Nobel prize for physics in 1907.

Statistics include: length (455 feet), beam (62 feet), draft (23 feet) and displacement (13,050 long tons, fully loaded). Two boilers, a cross compound steam turbine, double reduction gears and a 18 foot diameter propeller gave Michelson a speed of 16 knots, although it could cruise at 17 knots flat out.

Seagulls on the fo'c'sl. Photo by Carl Friberg.
Michelson was operated by the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), the transport and special missions arm of the navy. MSTS ships were manned by civilian merchant marine crews. MSTS is now (since 1970) known as Military Sealift Command (MSC). 


Reporting Aboard

#A few days after Thanksgiving in November 1962 Michelson was tied up starboard side to a pier at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast, Northern Ireland. After a long transatlantic flight in propeller airplanes via Gander, Newfoundland and Glasgow, Scotland I arrived in the middle of the night. An empty chair greeted me at the top of the gangway. Nobody was in sight. Poking my head through the hatch, I found a few of the merchant marine crew hanging out in the bosun's cabin. One of them told me "just go down those stairs over there ... that's where the Navy is". Thus began a most memorable two year cruise on a survey ship.

Flying Tiger

How I traveled from New York to Northern Ireland, or Flying With the Tigers.

Along toward the end of November in 1962 I reported into MSTS (Military Sea Transportation Service) Atlantic, which then resided in a massive collection of huge warehouses, piers and railroad tracks on the south Brooklyn waterfront. This was the Brooklyn Army Terminal, once the home of troopships and freighters transporting war materiel. MSTS was the navy's own steamship company, operator of survey ship USNS Michelson.

Brooklyn Army Terminal, probably c. 1950.

I was there to receive back pay and travel authorization to reach Michelson which I understood was in port at Belfast, in British Northern Ireland or to be there soon. Two other sailors destined for TAGS ships were in attendance, one headed for Barcelona to meet Dutton and the other destined for Athens, where Bowditch was expected at nearby Piraeus.

The MSTS disbursing office handed me a minor windfall of cash, as I had been on an independent per diem assignment for about three months in Rochester, New York, attending Friden Flexowriter school. Following that, they gave me my travel papers.

Before leaving the Army Terminal, I had a quick look at the travel authorization. It had me going to Athens instead of Belfast. This was a problem. While it might be an interesting trip it would put me in the wrong place, headed for the wrong ship. Perhaps I could get a free tour of Europe this way. And maybe captain's mast. No, not a good idea.

As all this was clearly incorrect, it was back to the MSTS travel office. My complaint was met by a scowl rather than an apology. An hour later the problem was sorted out. All I had to do was appear at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on the following Sunday for my flight across the Atlantic. I was free to leave. Saying goodbye to the other navy guys, one of whom I was to see again in Barcelona, I headed for my parents' house on Long Island.

On Saturday I took the train to New York. I was going to stay in a hotel overnight to avoid missing connections. It was kind of a long Greyhound ride down to McGuire AFB, which was adjacent to Fort Dix, then the army's boot camp. 

Lockheed L-1049H Super Constellation. Typically, five were needed to fly it: captain, first officer, 
radio operator, flight engineer and navigator.

A happy surprise was that my transatlantic trip was to be aboard a chartered Flying Tiger Lines Lockheed Super Constellation rather than an MATS (Military Air Transportation Service) air force transport plane. There were a few other things I didn't know:
  • The Flying Tigers had been crashing these graceful looking planes quite frequently.
  • The transatlantic trip would take 14 hours, including a refueling stop at Gander.
  • This flight was going to Scotland, while I was supposed to go to Northern Ireland.
  • Piston powered planes make a dreadful droning noise if the engines are not synchronized.
By 1962 all the major airlines had switched to planes with jet engines, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. The big holdout was TWA, which kept on flying their Lockheed Constellations pending arrival of Howard Hughes' choice of jet transport, the very fast but commercially unsuccessful Convair 880. So, the military got to ride on the surplused slower planes with propellers. Oh well.

Most flights stopping to refuel at Gander, Newfoundland were westbound, but our Flying Tiger headed east toward Scotland stopped there anyway. It was evening by the time we arrived. A truck with a lighted FOLLOW ME sign greeted us upon landing. We followed him to the terminal. There, another lighted sign, this one much bigger, read GANDER, which I recall seeing in some semiforgotten movie.

Ours was the only plane there. The terminal was empty but the gift shop, restaurant and bar were open. Thinking to have a drink (or two) of the local libation, I told the barman "I'll have a Canadian ale". Years later I learned that screech, a distilled spirit like rum, was the local stuff in Newfoundland.

An hour later we were off again. I had brought the Sunday New York Times along to have something to read. One of the flight crew walking by told me "you should hang onto that until you get where you're going ... they'll like to read it". He was right.

Dinner was a baloney sandwich, apple and candy bar, all served in a little white cardboard box. Apparently this was the standard egalitarian form of catering on MATS planes, so we got the same on our charter flight just to show us we were nothing special. 

Our flight arrived at Prestwick Air Force Base (now Glasgow Prestwick airport) in Scotland at around dawn. There a UK customs official lectured the military passengers against bringing in contraband items then let us go. The helpful military travel office there provided me with directions to get to Northern Ireland. No one else was headed there.

I was to take a taxi into Paisley (they pronounced it "Pees-lee") where I was supposed to catch a train to Glasgow. Then I had to make my way to the BEA (British European Airways) city ticket office where I could hang out until a bus connected with my flight from Glasgow's Renfrew airport to Belfast in the evening. Simple, huh?

I left my stuff with BEA and walked around Glasgow a bit, had lunch, then spent the rest of the day relaxing and waiting in their office/city terminal. From somewhere two MSTS merchant mariners appeared, both headed for Belfast and Michelson. One was a relief first mate, the other guy I don't remember. We were all waiting for the same flight.

One of BEA's Viscounts.
Our airport bus appeared at around sunset. BEA's short flight to Belfast was on a Vickers Viscount. BEA and BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corp) merged in 1974, renamed British Airways.

All three of us shared a taxi from the Belfast airport to the Harland & Wolff shipyard. There in the yard where RMS Titanic was born was USNS Michelson, to be my home for the next two years.

Blue and Gold Stack

surveyship.blogspot.comSo, what does USNS mean? That’s United States Naval Ship, meaning a Navy owned vessel operated by a civilian merchant marine crew rather than by naval personnel. These are generally auxiliary support ships: oilers (refueling tankers), transport ships and replenishment vessels supporting the fleet. Some are special mission ships, including those conducting ocean surveys. 

Why the stripes on the stack?  First of all, blue and gold are the official colors of the U.S. Navy. All shipping companies and cruise lines have their own proprietary stack insignia, helping in identification and as a form of advertising. Except for hospital ships, which are painted white, a USNS vessel generally looks pretty much like the regular navy except for having blue and gold stripes added around the smokestack. This is the insignia of the Navy's own sea transport company the Military Sealift Command (MSC), previously known as Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS)

MSC/MSTS's forerunner the Army Transport Service once operated troopships. This business was turned over to the Navy in the late 1940s. 

MSC operated ships have a "T" prefix before their classification symbol and hull number. Michelson's was TAGS-23.

Those ships designated USS (United States Ship) are commissioned, meaning they are manned by traditional crews of navy officers and enlistees. 

Today, with defense budgets shrinking, more navy auxiliary ships are being operated more economically by MSC with civilian merchant marine crews.  

Michelson at Sea

Starboard side view of USNS Michelson (TAGS-23) in 1961.  Click image for large view.

Three Survey Ships

Michelson was one of three survey ships put in service in late 1958. All were Victory class cargo vessels (VC-2) converted in much the same way with similar deep ocean survey equipment and electronics. All were dedicated to the same project. The Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), now known as Military Sealift Command (MSC), operated them with merchant marine crews, US Navy detachments and civilian oceanographers.

Initially, USNS Bowditch (TAGS-21), USNS Dutton (TAGS-22) and Michelson (TAGS-23) operated out of Norwegian ports, principally Bergen, surveying in the Norwegian Sea.

Bowditch and Dutton were named for the authors of the two standard American textbooks on shipboard navigation. Michelson’s name commemorates the discoverer of the speed of light, Albert Abraham Michelson (1852-1931), a Polish immigrant who became a US Navy commander and professor of physics at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.

Both USNS Bowditch and USNS Dutton had long survey careers, steaming until 1988 and 1989, respectively. Michelson was found unseawothy by the US Coast Guard and was taken out of service in 1975. It was replaced by USNS H. H. Hess (TAGS-38), a C4 hull (ex. SS Canada Mail) in 1978. Hess suffered a boiler meltdown and in 1992 it too went out of service.

Postcards from Ports of Call

Click on a postcard to visit one of Michelson's ports of call.