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The Evolution of Fueling at Sea

by Nov 30, 2019

Fleet Oiler USS Sabine (AO 25) refuels the carrier USS Enterprise (CV 6) while underway during the WWII Doolittle Raid operation in April 1942

Chester Nimitz first became acquainted with the problem of fueling at sea as a young Navy lieutenant serving aboard the USS Maumee in 1916.

During shakedown, the Maumee was engaged in delivering oil and water to a variety of vessels in the Caribbean. Under Navy doctrine at the time, that operation could only be conducted in protected waters with the vessels moored together. As Lt. Nimitz and crew gained experience in use of their ship’s specialized fueling gear, they discussed the possibility of refueling ships while underway.

In 1917, as World War I began, the USS Maumee was ordered to a position in the mid-Atlantic to serve as a fueling station for US destroyers heading across to aid the British fleet.

Lt. Nimitz, the ship’s XO and Chief Engineer was assigned responsibility for preparing the equipment that would be needed during that operation. He was assisted by Lt (jg) G.B. Davis, Chief Boatswain’s Mate M. Higgins, and Lt. F. M. Perkins. Together they devised a procedure for refueling destroyers while underway. The destroyer would be towed, riding abeam, or “broadside”, with two fuel lines secured between the vessels to minimize fueling time.

Their fueling gear consisted of a ten-inch towing hawser, two six-inch breast lines along with the three-inch fuel hoses. To keep the fuel hoses clear of the sea, they were supported by a wooden carrier suspended from the oiler's cargo booms.

Their first test was the refueling of all five ships of the Fifth Destroyer Division.

“Sea conditions during the operation were moderate, with a long cross swell that caused Maumee to roll from ten to twenty degrees, with considerable pitching. Although conditions were far from ideal, the Maumee was able to transfer almost twenty thousand gallons of fuel (at the rate of thirty-two thousand gallons per hour) to each destroyer.”

The entire operation was completed in ten hours and thirty-five minutes.

“During the intervening years the Navy perfected the riding-abeam method for refueling destroyers at sea, a procedure continually refined and practiced throughout the 1930s. Attempts were also made to apply this method for larger vessels, but these were quickly discontinued in accord with the recommendations of the officer in charge of the initial exercises.”

In October 1938, the CNO, Admiral William D. Leahy issued a memo to Admiral Bloch, Commander-in-Chief, US Fleet requesting plans and recommendations be submitted, and tests be conducted for refueling battleships, carriers, and cruisers while underway.

Admiral Bloch turned to Chester Nimitz, now a Rear Admiral. Within two weeks, Nimitz had prepared a detailed study and proposals.

Nimitz recommended that the broadside method be used despite the greater risk of collision, because of its potential to deliver fuel at a much higher rate while reducing the time required.

In the early morning on June 13, 1939, the aircraft carrier Saratoga departed the port of Long Beach in company with the oiler Kanawha to test the feasibility of broadside refueling of an aircraft carrier while underway.

“At 10:43 a.m., a breast line was passed to the Kanawha and made fast; it was quickly followed by a towing line, a telephone line, and two fuel hoses. Pumping of fuel oil from the Kanawha to the Saratoga commenced shortly after 11:00 and continued without interruption for several hours, the two ships steaming in company at seven knots and making at least one course change during the process. A separate hose for gasoline was also conveyed to the Saratoga so that this fuel too could be pumped aboard. When the Kanawha cast off at 1:48 p.m., the practicality of the broadside method for fueling aircraft carriers at sea had been conclusively demonstrated.”

The refueling method was quickly adopted by the fleet and subsequent testing and refinement of the fueling operation set the stage for successful Allied carrier raids and naval operations in the Pacific during WWII.

“It is unlikely that the procedures used to refuel carrier task forces at sea would have been developed had he [Nimitz] not had the confidence and foresight to recommend new tests of the broadside method for large ships.”

Key source: Chester Nimitz and the Development of Fueling at Sea , Naval War College Review, Vol. 46: No. 4; researched and written by Thomas Wildenberg; available online at: https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/nwc-review/vol46/iss4/6