NASSCO Lays Keel for Future Expeditionary Sea Base USS Robert E. Simanek

General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company recently laid the keel for the Navy’s next Expeditionary Sea Base, the service announced today. NASSCO on Friday laid the keel for the future USS Robert E. Simanek (ESB-7) at its San Diego, Calif., shipyard. “The ship is named for Private First Class Robert Ernest Simanek, who was […]

The Oct. 21, 2022 keel laying ceremony for the future Robert E. Simanek (ESB-7). US Navy Photo

General Dynamics National Steel and Shipbuilding Company recently laid the keel for the Navy’s next Expeditionary Sea Base, the service announced today.

NASSCO on Friday laid the keel for the future USS Robert E. Simanek (ESB-7) at its San Diego, Calif., shipyard.

“The ship is named for Private First Class Robert Ernest Simanek, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for shielding fellow Marines from a grenade at the Battle of Bunker Hill during the Korean War. The Medal of Honor was presented to him by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a White House ceremony in 1953,” the service said in a news release.

Simanek, who was also awarded the Purple Heart, died in August at the age of 92, according to The New York Times.

“We are honored this ship will celebrate the late Robert E. Simanek’s legacy as a Medal of Honor recipient and Korean War veteran and his dedication to our country,” Tim Roberts, the program manager for strategic and theater sealift within the Program Executive Office Ships, said in the Navy news release. “ESBs provide a critical capability to the fleet and provide for increased flexibility.”

USS Hershel “Woody” Williams (ESB 4) conducte maritime operations off the coast of Mogadishu, Somalia in support of Operation Octave Quartz (OOQ) on Dec. 22, 2020. US Navy Photo

The Lewis B. Puller class ESBs were originally going to have the United States Naval Ship designation, but the Navy in 2019 decided to commission them into service.

Ann Simanek, Simanek’s daughter, is the ship’s sponsor, according to the Navy.

The hulls are based on the Alaska-class commercial oil tanker, which were also built at NASSCO. The first two built for the Navy – USNS Montford Point (ESD-1) and USNS John Glenn (ESD-2) – were planned for use as mobile landing platforms that would transfer vehicles from roll-on/roll-off logistics ships to landing craft at sea. The service plans to decommission the two original MLPs as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 budget submission, USNI News has reported.

USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3) was modified from the original Montford Point original design to serve as a platform for special operations and mine countermeasures forces. Puller has operated in U.S. Central Command since 2017. USS Woody Williams (ESB-4) has operated extensively in Europe and Africa, USNI News previously reported. USS Miguel Keith (ESB-5) deployed to the Western Pacific earlier this year. The most recent ESB, John L. Canley (ESB-6) is under construction.

‘We’re Ignoring the Problem’ of Stressed U.S. Maritime Infrastructure, Says MSC Commander

ARLINGTON, Va. – The American defense maritime industrial base has atrophied to a point where the United States builds less than 1 percent of the world’s ocean-going fleets and has less than 4 percent of the world’s licensed mariners while China establishes itself as a maritime nation, Military Sealift Command’s top officer said Tuesday. Chinese […]

Military Sealift Command Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13) sails alongside the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Arlington (LPD-24) prior to a replenishment-at-sea in the Atlantic Ocean on Oct. 7, 2022. US Navy Photo

ARLINGTON, Va. – The American defense maritime industrial base has atrophied to a point where the United States builds less than 1 percent of the world’s ocean-going fleets and has less than 4 percent of the world’s licensed mariners while China establishes itself as a maritime nation, Military Sealift Command’s top officer said Tuesday.

Chinese President Xi Jinping challenged the West in his remarks on Beijing’s global ambitions at the recent Chinese Communist Party congress, Rear Adm, Michael Wettlaufer said, speaking at the Navy League.

Xi warned Taiwan and its supporters, including the United States, that China has the ability to take any necessary measures to bring the self-governing democracy under its control, Wettlaufer said.

That translates directly into a “contested environment” with China if the U.S. provides support to Taiwan in a conflict, Wettlaufer said.

Rear Adm. Michael Wettlaufer, Commander, Military Sealift Command, US Navy Photo

The command is well aware of the multi-domain challenges a contested environment presents sealift in the Indo-Pacific and Europe when 85 percent of American forces are based in the United States, he said.

“A single submarine will cause us problems … if we don’t know where it is,” he said.

Wettlaufer said the entire U.S. defense maritime “ecosystem is under stress” from shipbuilding to recruiting and retaining mariners, to shipyards and ports.

“I think we’re ignoring the problem,” he said.

He also pointed to the aging fleet of ships in his command, the Maritime Administration and the declining number of American-flagged commercial vessels.

He pointed to SS Gem State (T-ACS 2), a 65-year-old crane ship as an example of age. The “systems on this ship are [for] steamships” and they require specific skills to operate, which a dwindling force of mariners have. It also presents maintenance challenges because steam is no longer ocean-going vessels’ main propulsion system.

Wettlaufer said he expects Cape Arundel and Cape Cortes to be added to the Ready Reserve Force next year when modification work to bring the used roll-on/roll-off cargo vessels is complete. Both were in the American roll-on/roll-off Carrier program and are being transferred from Defense Department control to MARAD in the Department of Transportation.

“They need that modification to be militarily useful,” he said.

Wettlaufer praised the investments being made in building the National Security Multi-Mission Vessels for the five state-run maritime academies. The first Empire State VI, being built for New York’s SUNY Maritime Academy, was launched in Philadelphia in September with delivery expected next year. In addition to being able to provide up-to-date training needed for future licensed mariners, the ships can also be used to support humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

“I’m looking for a place to put [contested environment] training in those schools” that it already employs for civilian mariners, he said. Wettlaufer also called for a re-examination of the waivers given to graduates of the federal Merchant Marine Academy and the state academies from obligated service.

“It’s a three-legged stool … ships, cargo and mariners,” he said.
To remain viable, those three things need to be driven by other activity, such as subsidies for U.S.-flagged ships engaged in international trade and the need to adjust that to meet the rise in inflation.

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FreightWaves Classics: Ship honors Chambers, a Naval aviation pioneer

FreightWaves Classics profiles the USNS Washington Chambers, one of the ships of the Military Sealift Command.

USNS Washington Chambers. (Photo: Thoralf Doehring/navysite.de)

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On September 11, 2010, the dry cargo vessel USNS (United States Naval Ship) Washington Chambers was christened and launched. The activities took place at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO) shipyard in San Diego. NASSCO, which is a division of General Dynamics, has three shipyards that are located in San Diego, Norfolk, Virginia, and Mayport, Florida. The San Diego shipyard specializes in constructing commercial cargo ships and auxiliary vessels for the U.S. Navy and Military Sealift Command; it is the only new-construction shipyard on the U.S. West Coast. 

The launch of the USNS Washington Chambers. (Photo: U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command/marinelink.com)
The launch of the USNS Washington Chambers.
(Photo: U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command/marinelink.com)

Nearly 1,000 people attended the USNS Washington Chambers ceremonies. Loretta Penn, the wife of former Assistant Navy Secretary and Acting Navy Secretary B.J. Penn, christened the ship by smashing a bottle of champagne against its bow.

Captain Michael Flannigan was the civil service master for USNS Washington Chambers. During the ceremony, Flannigan highlighted the day’s somber anniversary (the ninth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States). “This is a monumental day,” he said to those in attendance. “We remember the 9/11 attacks and this great ship.”

The program for the christening ceremony. (Photo: nassco.com)
The program for the christening ceremony. (Photo: nassco.com)

“Just as Washington Chambers saw the need for modernization in the field of naval aviation, so too does our team embrace the need for change in our endeavors if we are to be successful when confronted with future challenges,” said Fred Harris, who was president of NASSCO at that time. “This morning’s ceremony is the culmination of thousands of individual efforts by the more than 6,000 men and women of the General Dynamics NASSCO-Navy shipbuilding team who are working hard on improvements to meet present and emerging threats to our national security.“

The USNS Washington Chambers was constructed for use by the Navy’s Military Sealift Command. The original crew for the ship included 129 civil service mariners and 11 Navy sailors. (Non-commissioned, primarily civilian-manned vessels under the Military Sealift Command, which oversees the Navy’s transport ships, have names that begin with USNS.)

U.S. Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers. (Photo: chinfo.navy.mil)
U.S. Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers.
(Photo: chinfo.navy.mil)

Captain Washington Irving Chambers 

The new ship was named after U.S. Navy Captain Washington Irving Chambers (1856-1934), who was instrumental in the development of the Navy’s aviation program.

Chambers served in the U.S. Navy for 43 years. Near the end of his Naval career Chambers served as the first officer to lead the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation, where he had oversight of the service branch’s fledgling aviation program. From 1910 to 1913 Chambers consulted and worked with “early aviation pioneers Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss; organized the first airplane landing (1910) and take off (1911) from a ship in collaboration with pioneer aviator Eugene Ely; recruited the first naval aviators; established aviator training; oversaw the first budget appropriation of $25,000 from which he purchased the first aircraft for the Navy; designed a catapult to launch aircraft from warships; and led a Board that recommended establishment of the first naval air station at Pensacola, Florida.” Chambers is considered by many to be “the Father of Naval Aviation.”

Preparing for launching of A-1 Triad Hydroaeroplane. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
Preparing for the launch of A-1 Triad Hydroaeroplane. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Rear Admiral Richard J. Hanlon, commander of Naval Air Force Atlantic, was also a speaker at the ship’s launch. He said, “Washington Chambers gave us a legacy of hard work and perseverance. Today, we honor him with a namesake that was not only built with his example at its forefront but a ship that will serve the Navy with the same example by which he served.”

A C-2 flying boat on the catapult launch from a barge in Pensacola. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)
A C-2 flying boat on the catapult, to be launched from a barge in Pensacola. (Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

The ship and the MSC

After a series of tests and sea trials, USNS Washington Chambers was formally delivered to the Military Sealift Command on February 23, 2011. USNS Washington Chambers (T-AKE-11) is one of the MSC’s Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ships.

Since joining the fleet, the USNS Washington Chambers has delivered ammunition, food, mail, dry provisions, limited quantities of fuel, repair parts, and expendable supplies to ships at sea. Re-provisioning at sea by Lewis and Clark-class vessels like the USNS Washington Chambers allows U.S. Navy ships to remain underway and combat-ready for extended periods of time.

The seal of the United States Navy Military Sealift Command. (Image: MSC Public Affairs Office)
The seal of the United States Navy Military Sealift Command. (Image: MSC Public Affairs Office)

The Military Sealift Command controls the replenishment and military transport ships of the United States Navy. It has the responsibility to provide sealift and ocean transportation for all U.S. military services as well as for other government agencies. 

Originally named the Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS), it was founded on July 9, 1949, and charged with the Department of Defense’s ocean transport needs. The MSTS was renamed the Military Sealift Command in 1970.

The MSC’s ships include a core fleet of ships owned by the United States Navy and others under long-term-charter augmented by short-term or voyage-chartered ships. The Navy-owned ships have hull numbers as an equivalent commissioned ship would have with the prefix T- and are primarily crewed by either civil service mariners or contract crews. Some ships may also have Navy or Marine Corps personnel on board for communication and special mission functions, or for force protection.

The seal of the USNS Washington Chambers. (Image: Public Domain)
The seal of the USNS Washington Chambers. (Image: Public Domain)

FreightWaves Classics thanks General Dynamics, the Military Sealift Command, NASSCO, the Naval History & Heritage Command, and the U.S. Navy for information and photos that contributed significantly to this article.

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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.

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