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.

Michelson Reunion

If you are interested in having a Michelson crew reunion please email Marty Rombach at  Provide your complete contact details including address, phone numbers and include suggestions. We also ask that you pass this notice on to any other shipmates you may still be in contact with.  Based on your response we can determine interest level and hopefully develop plans.

Thanks in advance – we are looking forward to be hearing from you.

I'll be in My Stateroom

Unlike those in the real Navy, Michelson sailors bunked in staterooms. Just forward of the superstructure and down a ladder (stairs), the number three cargo hold had been converted into living and working spaces for Navy, oceanographers and tech reps. Staterooms were on the second deck, just below the main weather deck. Work areas were below, on the third and fourth decks.

Enlisted men had fairly spacious four man staterooms with built in bunks, bookshelves, large lockers, a sink, a writing desk and a connecting bathroom, known nautically as the head. Each bunk had a reading light and there were storage drawers under each set of bunks. There was plenty of space for uniforms and civilian clothes. Everything except for chairs and the wastebasket were bolted down in case of heavy seas. We also had a lounge with books, card tables and comfortable chairs. The ship’s dispensary and a little hospital were also on the second deck.

Most officers, chief petty officers and civilians had two man rooms. They had stewards to make up their bunks and clean their rooms. Enlisted guys did all this themselves.

When I was aboard Michelson the staterooms were not air conditioned, but had forced air ventilation with wall mounted fans. Air conditioning, sometimes really cold, was provided in work spaces to keep the electronic stuff cool.

Some thought went into making the accommodations comfortable. Survey ships spend a lot of time at sea. 

Bunks in one of Michelson's a Navy enlisted staterooms. There was plenty of storage space in large lockers and drawers. Occupants added bookshelves, bulletin boards, pictures and paintings as well as (sometimes) refrigerators and clandestine liquor lockers. The top compartments on the lockers were for life jacket storage. Photo from Chet Headley.

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.

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.

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 the elusive
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.