Starboard side profile of USNS Michelson from the original drawings.
Not pictured are the #5 and #6 lifeboats, located on both sides just aft of the #4 hold. Installed at the stern was the "OC Hoist", which does not appear in photos of sister ships USNS Bowditch and USNS Dutton. When the ship was converted in 1958 the kingposts at #3 hold were removed. Only #4 hold retained its cargo handling gear.

Mouse over / hover over to see a detailed view of this deep ocean survey ship.

Panama Canal Photos

Michelson approaches the Gatun Locks

In the Gatun Locks

Gatun Locks control building. Note the sign commemorating the canal's 50th anniversary.

Chet Headley observing canal operations from what looks like the top of Michelson's 04 level.

After passing through Gatun Lake Michelson entered Culebra Cut.

Panama Canal waterfalls have become a tourist attraction in recent years.

Michelson in Culebra Cut.

The above photos taken by by Chet Headley document Michelson's daylight transit of the Panama Canal during the autumn of 1964. His most informative eyewitness account of the day can be found here. Thanks to Chet for permission to use his photos.

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.

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 .

Postcards from Ports of Call

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

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.

Michelson's Operating Crew

Michelson’s operating crewmen were civilian merchant mariners, employed by the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), now called Military Sealift Command. The crew was quite large compared with those on ships today. Generally there were three groups of seamen: the deck crew, the engineers and the stewards.
Perhaps this is W.T. Hatch (?)
Besides the captain, officially “the master”, deck officers included a first officer (chief mate), a second mate and two third mates, or one third and a fourth mate.  On most merchant ships the first mate is in charge of the deck, cargo, fuel and ballast. The second mate is the ship’s navigator. Aboard Michelson one of the third officers was in charge of safety and lifeboats. The second and two third mates stood watches on the bridge, four hours on and eight off. Traditionally, the second officer takes the four to eight o’clock watches, as during these hours ships usually enter  port.  The first mate was a day worker.

The deck department included both able seamen (AB) and ordinary seamen (OS). An AB stood watch on the bridge (or pilothouse) and steered the ship, acting as quartermaster, directed by the watch officer. Another AB and an OS were also assigned to each watch as lookouts or relief quartermasters. The bosun was in charge of another group of seamen who during the day maintained the decks and hull, scraping, priming and painting. Off watch seamen earned overtime pay doing this as well. One of the ABs also functioned as carpenter.

There were a variety of people in the engineering department. Under the chief engineer and first assistant engineer were three watch standing officers in the engine room, along with the oilers and firemen/water tenders. Day workers included wipers, a refrigeration engineer, machinist,  plumber, chief electrician and second electrician. Steamships required a lot of labor in the engine room.

The chief steward ran the ship’s housekeeping department. On a cruise ship this would be called the hotel staff. The cooks, one of whom was also a baker, messmen, mess assistants, laundryman and utilitymen reported to him. Utilitymen made the beds and cleaned cabins and passageways.

Other crew members included the radio officer, one or more yeomen who acted as department clerks, a purser and perhaps an assistant purser. Altogether, there were about 55 in Michelson's operating crew. The above information was more or less correct as of 1962-64.  I understand that in later years some job positions were combined or made redundant.

Michelson's Navy Detachment

About 20 to 25 US Navy sailors comprised Oceanographic Detachment Three (OCDET3). The group’s commanding officer (CO) was a lieutenant commander. Reporting to him was the executive officer (XO), a junior officer. Both were from the navy reserve. A third officer, usually an ensign, served as electronics maintenance officer (EMO). Eligible enlisted men with good technical skills were sometimes commissioned as electronics officers. Officers promoted from enlisted ranks are called "mustangs". I don’t know why such a small group of navy men required three officers to run it. Perhaps some matters required multiple signatures.

Most enlisted men were technical types, electronics technicians (ET), interior comm electricians (IC) and sonarmen (SO). They were aboard to maintain the electronics that supported the survey mission. A yeoman (YN), hospital corpsman (HM), photographer (PH), a storekeeper (SK) and one or two quartermasters (QM) filled out the navy crew. All had recently completed training for the mission or had years of experience in their fields. Most were first, second or third class petty officers along with one or two chief petty officers.

Navy men aboard Michelson were treated as passengers, having nothing to do with operating the ship. That was the job of the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) merchant mariners. 

Oceanographers and Tech Reps

Civilian oceanographers from the Navy’s Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) in Washington conducted surveys and collected the geographic data and sonar soundings, creating ocean bottom contour maps, called charts. Navy guys usually referred to NAVOCEANO people as cartographers. 

While underway and in the ship’s operating area one cartographer was always on duty in the survey control center. While surveying the duty cartographer had “the conn”, giving the mate in the pilot house directions as to course and speed. His NAVOCEANO comrades worked below in the room called hydroplot, later oceanoplot, charting the data.

Continuous readings of the earth’s magnetic field and gravity were collected. One person tended to the gravity meter more or less full time. Occasionally another one took ocean temperature and salinity measurements. The ten or so in the NAVOCEANO staff reported to the senior scientist, alternately called the party chief or senior civilian.

In 1962 through 1963 two field engineers From Sperry Gyroscope Corp. were aboard, one to offer technical help for the navigational computer, called NAVDAC, while the other supported the radio navaid (Loran C) that supplied control for the surveys. Sperry was a sort of an overall system manager for our mission.  

Michelson Drops the Hook
Survey Ship USNS Michelson at anchor, probably at Bergen, Norway c. 1959-mid 1962.
Photo from US Naval Institute.

Michelson was a converted Victory class (VC2-S-AP3) freighter built in 1944 as SS Joliet Victory. Significant visible external changes included removal of king posts, booms and cargo handling gear except at number four hold. Two additional lifeboats were located on both sides aft of number four hatch.

Technical spaces were added directly above the pilot house on the 04 level and on the starboard side just aft of the chart room (03 level). Installed at the stern was a huge lifting apparatus called the OC Hoist.

Additional berthing for the operating crew was built into the 'tween deck areas of number four hold, while number three hold became work areas and staterooms for the navy detachment and oceanographers. USNS Michelson (TAGS-23) first went to sea as a survey ship in 1958.

A photo taken in 1961 of USNS Michelson at sea can be found here.

What does USNS mean? Why the blue and gold stripes on the stack? Find out here.

Take a Trip on a Survey Ship home page here.  

Michelson on Sea Trials in 1958

USNS Michelson off the Philadelphia Navy Yard, December 1, 1958.

I recently (September 2016) found this photo on the US Naval History and Heritage Command website. It shows Michelson, presumably out on sea trials, on the first of December 1958, which would have been shortly prior to delivery to MSTS. This aerial view of the starboard side can be seen uncropped and in greater detail:

Medium resolution (JPEG, 1280x1280px, 301KB)
High resolution (TIFF, 6164x4954px, 29MB)

The definition of the huge TIFF image is excellent. You can see the curtains in the "picture windows" of the Survey Control Center as well as small dings in the hull plating. Missing is the "OC Hoist" apparatus at the stern and some of the antennas.