FreightWaves Classics: USNS Watson launched 25 years ago

FreightWaves Classics profiles the USNS George Watson, part of the Military Sealift Command fleet.

The USNS George Watson. (Photo: navysite.de)

On July 26, 1997 the U.S. Navy cargo vessel USNS Watson was launched at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company shipyard in San Diego. (The vessel’s prefix USNS stands for “United States Naval Ship” – this designation is used to identify non-commissioned ships owned by the Navy but operated by one of the primarily civilian crews of the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, or MSC.)

The USNS George Watson during its construction. (Photo: navysite.de)
The USNS George Watson during its construction. (Photo: navysite.de)

The ship’s keel was laid down on May 23, 1996. As noted above, the ship was launched on July 26, 1997. At her launching ceremony, U.S. Secretary of the Army Togo D. West, Jr., was the principal speaker, and his wife Gail christened the ship using a traditional bottle of champagne. 

The ship was put into service in the Pacific Ocean on June 23, 1998. She is the lead ship of her class of vehicle cargo ships.

Mrs. Gail Berry West, Sponsor of Watson (T-AKR-310) breaks the traditional bottle of champagne across the ship's bow on July 26, 1997 to officially launch the vessel at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., San Diego, California. In attendance is her husband, Secretary of the Army Togo D. West Jr.; her daughter, Ms. Hilary West, Maid of Honor; and Richard A. Vortmann, NASSCO President. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)
Mrs. Gail Berry West, Sponsor of Watson (T-AKR-310) breaks the traditional bottle of champagne across the ship’s bow on July 26, 1997 to officially launch the vessel at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Co., San Diego, California. In attendance is her husband, Secretary of the Army Togo D. West Jr.; her daughter, Ms. Hilary West, Maid of Honor; and Richard A. Vortmann, NASSCO President. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

The ship’s use and mission

USNS Watson (T-AKR-310) is one of the MSC’s 19 “large, medium-speed roll-on/roll-off ships.” Including the Watson, there are eight Watson-class vehicle cargo ships used to preposition ground vehicles and she is one of the 33 ships in the MSC’s Prepositioning Program. 

The 950-foot-long USNS Watson and the ships of her class transport a variety of military vehicles, including tanks and helicopters. The ships are part of the fleet of vessels used by the MSC and are positioned strategically around the globe to provide supplies and other support to the U.S. armed services and the Defense Logistics Agency. Each ship in the USNS Watson-class has a beam of 106 feet; they were the largest vessels able to fit through the Panama Canal until its 2016 expansion.

The USNS George Watson underway. (Photo: navysite.de)
The USNS George Watson underway. (Photo: navysite.de)

Military Sealift Command

The MSC is an organization that controls the replenishment and military transport ships of the United States Navy. In addition, the Military Sealift Command is responsible for providing sealift and ocean transportation for all branches of the U.S. military services, as well as for other government agencies. It was created as the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) on July 9, 1949, when it became solely responsible for the Department of Defense’s ocean transport needs. In 1970 MSTS was renamed the Military Sealift Command.

MSC provides on-time logistics, strategic sealift, as well as specialized missions anywhere in the world, in contested or uncontested environments.

The official seal of the Military Sealift Command. Image: msc.navy.mil/images/logos)
The official seal of the Military Sealift Command.
(Image: msc.navy.mil/images/logos)

The Command operates approximately 125 civilian-crewed ships that “replenish U.S. Navy ships, conduct specialized missions, strategically preposition combat cargo at sea around the world and move military cargo and supplies used by deployed U.S. forces and coalition partners.” 

MSC ships include a core fleet owned by the U.S. Navy, as well as other ships under long-term charter. These ships are “augmented by short-term or voyage-chartered ships.” Just as in the civilian world, during a time charter, MSC takes control of a merchant ship and operates it for the chartered amount of time. During its charter the ship is crewed by civilian mariners and MSC pays for all expenses. Time-chartered ships are not subject to inspections by foreign governments when in port, and MSC has operational control of the vessels. 

The USNS Watson at Naval Base Norfolk, Virginia, on December 26, 2021. (Photo: Michael Jenning/navysite.de)
The USNS Watson at Naval Base Norfolk, Virginia, on December 26, 2021. (Photo: Michael Jenning/navysite.de)

Voyage-chartered ships are also crewed by civilian mariners, but MSC only pays a fee for transporting the cargo. Voyage-chartered ships are chartered for a specific voyage, are subject to inspections, and MSC does not have operational control of the ship. 

Ships owned by the Navy carry blue and gold stack colors. As explained above, these ships are in service with the prefix USNS, rather than in commission (with a USS prefix). The ships have hull numbers as an equivalent commissioned ship would have (with the prefix T-) and are primarily civilian-crewed by either civil service mariners (CIVMARs) or contract crews (as are special mission ships). MSC civil service mariners, the largest segment of MSC’s global workforce, are federal civil service employees

In addition, some ships may have Navy or Marine Corps personnel on board to handle  communications and/or special mission functions, or for force protection. Ships on charter or equivalent, retain their commercial colors and bear the standard merchant prefix – MV, SS or GTS, without hull numbers.

USNS Watson moored at Wharf Alpha at, Naval Weapons Station, Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, on October 7, 2014. USNS Watson is part of MSC’s Prepositioning Program. Afloat prepositioning strategically places military equipment and supplies aboard ships located in key ocean areas to ensure rapid availability during a major theater war, a humanitarian operation or other contingency. (Photo: Eric Sesit/US Air Force)
USNS Watson moored at Naval Weapons Station, Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, on October 7, 2014. USNS Watson is part of MSC’s Prepositioning Program. Afloat prepositioning strategically places military equipment and supplies aboard ships located in key ocean areas to ensure rapid availability during a major theater war, a humanitarian operation or other contingency.
(Photo: Eric Sesit/US Air Force)

Military Sealift Command is composed of eight programs: “Fleet Oiler (PM1); Special Mission (PM2); Strategic Sealift (PM3); Tow, Salvage, Tender and Hospital Ship (PM4); Sealift (PM5); Combat Logistics Force (PM6); Expeditionary Mobile Base, Amphibious Command Ship and Cable Layer (PM7); and Expeditionary Fast Transport (PM8).”

MSC has multiple reporting lines. It reports to the “Department of Defense’s Transportation Command for defense transportation matters; to the Navy Fleet Forces Command for Navy-only matters; and to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development and Acquisition) for procurement policy and oversight matters.”

George Watson. (Photo: navysite.de)
George Watson.
(Photo: navysite.de)

George Watson

Then-U.S. Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton named USNS Watson for George Watson, a U.S. Army private who served in the Pacific theater during World War II. 

Private Watson was born in Laurel, Mississippi, and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. He received a bachelor’s degree from the Colorado Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Colorado State University) in 1942. In September 1942, he was drafted and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 29th Quartermaster Regiment as a bath and laundry specialist (which reflected the limited opportunities that Black soldiers had in the military at the time).

He completed his basic training at Camp Lee, Virginia, and then his unit was shipped out from Newport News, Virginia, aboard the USS Hermitage bound for Brisbane, Australia and the Pacific theater.

At Brisbane, Watson boarded the Dutch steamer Jacob, which was headed to his unit’s final destination of New Guinea. Near Porlock Harbor, New Guinea, on March 8, 1943, the ship suffered two direct hits from a surprise Japanese bomber attack. With the ship listing heavily, the ship’s captain ordered all passengers and crew overboard as the ship began to roll over and capsize.

Many of the men from the ship were floating helplessly in the water, not knowing how to swim or were too injured to help themselves. It was then – and under harrowing circumstances – that 28-year-old Private George Watson “demonstrated the utmost courage under fire.”

Once in the ocean, Watson stayed in the water to help other soldiers reach life rafts. Forsaking his own safety, Watson swam through the deadly scene, selflessly pulling members of his regiment and sailors to the few available life rafts. The suction caused by the sinking ship made his efforts even more difficult. Eventually, Watson became exhausted from constant swimming amidst the chaos and drowned.

For his actions, Private Watson was the first Black soldier to receive the Distinguished Service Cross during World War II.  

The wreckage of the Jacob, March 8, 1943, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.
The wreckage of the Jacob, March 8, 1943. (Photo: Australian War Memorial.

Service in World War II by Black Americans

Approximately 1.2 million Blacks served in the U.S. armed services, which were segregated during World War II. None of those who served received the Medal of Honor during or after the war. However, in the late 1990s, the Army conducted a three-year review of the records of 10 Black heroes from World War II. The purpose of the review was to determine if any of the 10 met the standards for the Medal of Honor. Of the 10, the names of seven were submitted to Congress and the President for consideration.

On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton bestowed the Medal of Honor on the seven Black veterans of World War II. Only one, 77-year-old Vernon J. Baker, a platoon leader with the 92nd Infantry Division, was still alive to receive his award in person. The others had died during the war or in the time since and were represented by next of kin.

First Lieutenant Vernon Baker's Medal of Honor. Baker was the only living recipient at the January 13, 1997 ceremony. (Photo: National World War II Museum)
First Lieutenant Vernon Baker’s Medal of Honor. Baker was the only living recipient at the January 13, 1997 ceremony.
(Photo: National World War II Museum)

Most of those honored served with combat units – as infantrymen, tankers, forward observers, etc. – with one notable exception. Private George Watson’s assignment in the Quartermaster Corps meant that it was unlikely he would have served under arms if he had survived. He was also the only one of the seven to earn his medal while serving in the Pacific Theater. Watson’s Distinguished Service Cross was upgraded to the Medal of Honor 

President Clinton said, “Over and over and over again,” Private Watson continued saving others, “until he himself was so exhausted, he was pulled down by the tow of the sinking ship.”

Sergeant Major Eugene McKinney, the Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army, accepted Watson’s medal from President Clinton. McKinney said, “When Private George Watson’s ship was attacked by enemy bombers, over and over and over again he helped others to make it to life rafts so that they might live.”

Sergeant Major of the Army Eugene McKinney. 
(Photo:  ausa.org)
Sergeant Major of the Army Eugene McKinney.
(Photo: ausa.org)

Clinton also closed his speech after presenting the decorations with a particularly stirring reminder of the sacrifices of Watson and the others honored: “I think it might be an appropriate way to close to say that when I gave Mr. Watson’s medal to the Sergeant Major of the Army, he looked at it and smiled and he said, ‘This is indicative of the type of soldiers we have today, a group of people in our military, men and women, that really do reflect the vast and rich texture of our Nation.’”

In addition to the medals he was posthumously awarded and the ship that was named for him, Watson is remembered on a memorial at the Manila American Cemetery and by George Watson Memorial Field at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Since Private Watson had no known next of kin, his Medal of Honor is displayed in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum, which is located at Fort Lee, Virginia.

The Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to Pvt. George Watson. (Photo: history.navy.mil)
The Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to Pvt. George Watson. (Photo: history.navy.mil)

FreightWaves Classics thanks the National World War II Museum, history.navy.mil, navysite.de, navsource.org and Wikipedia for information and photos that made this article possible. FreightWaves Classics also acknowledges the sacrifices the men and women of the U.S. armed forces make daily to keep our nation safe.