By Matt Cheser, Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
Everyone likes “firsts.” These moments represent transformation and progress and change our understanding about what we are capable of. The Navy also keeps track of its “firsts.” One “first” of great pride deals with the underway refueling of a United States warship, an operation that the Navy would later perfect during World War II. Underway refueling allowed the Navy to combat the Japanese Imperial Navy over the vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean and win World War II.
Today underway replenishment allows the Navy to project force and sustain operations across the globe. Many claim that the first of such operations was conducted in the early days of World War I. The United States, having entered the war on the side of the allies, rushed its destroyer force to British waters to combat the submarine menace. By 15 May all of the largest of the American destroyers, the so-called “1000-tonners”had either departed for Europe or were otherwise occupied. These vessels had the fuel capacity to complete their trans-Atlantic voyage without refueling. The next destroyer division that the Navy intended to dispatch to the warzone consisted of the older, smaller, 742-ton “flivver” destroyers. These vessels did not have the luxury of a large fuel capacity. To complete their passage from St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada to Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland, the vessels required refueling at sea. On 28 May 1917 Maumee (Fuel Ship No. 14) refueled the six destroyers of Destroyer Division Five mid-ocean, an event often trumpeted as the first operational underway fuel replenishment in U.S. naval history. But was this operation truly the U.S. Navy’s “first” underway refueling?
The oiling of Destroyer Division Five was the culmination of years of American experimentation. As early as 1914 the navy tanker Arethusa and destroyer Warrington (Destroyer No. 30) tested methods to transfer oil underway. By 1917, Lt. Cmdr. Henry C. Dinger and Lt. Chester W. Nimitz of Maumee developed methods to advance the procedure. They settled upon a method of towing destroyers abreast fifty feet apart, with the fuel ship and the destroyer secured together with a bow spring and two lines. The fuel ship passed two three-inch diameter rubber hose lines in a suspended wooden carrier to the destroyer. The destroyer crew placed the hoses down a manhole and into to the fuel bunker. The fuel ship pumped fuel simultaneously through the two hoses until replenishment was complete. The two vessels matched speed at approximately five knots throughout the operation. The fueling of Destroyer Division Five followed this method, and despite being conducted under difficult weather conditions, the operation was entirely successful.
Though sometimes mentioned as the first underway fuel replenishment, this event was no such thing. “Firsts” in history are difficult to establish and often subjective. The Maumee replenishment is no different. The refueling 28 May was certainly not the first underway replenishment in U.S. Navy History. In some form, underway replenishment had been practiced since the Eighteenth Century and fuel replenishment existed in primitive forms for decades prior to Maumee. By 1917 the Navy had even established underway replenishment of destroyers, a relatively new addition to the fleet. Twelve years earlier, underway refueling assisted the trans-Atlantic passage of U.S. Navy destroyers when the Auxiliary Cruiser Buffalo replenished the 1st Torpedo Flotilla with coal on their way to the Asiatic Station. In October 1916 collier Jason (Fuel Ship No. 12) transferred oil to destroyers in tests off of Newport, Rhode Island.
If Maumee’s crew were to claim the underway replenishment on 28 May as a “first” it would have to be preceded by a list of qualifiers: perhaps the first wartime, operational, oil refueling by U.S. Navy vessels. But the documentary record even disproves that distinction. Written histories overlook that while Destroyer Division Five was crossing the North Atlantic, further south two more 742-ton destroyers, Sterett (Destroyer No. 27) and Walke (Destroyer No. 34) were engaging in their own trans-Atlantic passage accompanied by the navy collier Jupiter (Fuel Ship No. 3). The vessels were on mutually supporting missions; Jupiter was to deliver supplies and the United States Navy Aeronautical Detachment No. 1 to France, while the destroyers were to protect the collier from submarine attack. Like their sister ships in Destroyer Division Five, Sterett and Walke required refueling to reach Europe. Therefore the Jupiter took on oil at Norfolk, and on 25 May at a point approximately 450 miles east of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, she passed a line and pumped 13,000 gallons of oil to Sterett. This underway replenishment, occurring three days prior to Maumee’s refueling of Destroyer Division Five, was the true first American operational underway replenishment of World War I.
What then can we say then about the 28 May refueling accomplished by Maumee? We could add further qualifiers to preserve its place as a “first,” but perhaps its best to dispense with titles and recognize her crew’s accomplishments on that day as simply revolutionary. While Jupiter pumped 13,000 gallons to Sterett at a rate of approximately 6,000 gallons per hour, the new methods pioneered by Maumee’s crew refueled Destroyer Division Five at between 31,000 and 40,000 gallons per hour. In addition Maumee refueled the Division during difficult conditions, a moderate sea with a long cross swell and a five knot wind. Previously recorded attempts, including Jupiter’s, had been with calm seas. Although Jupiter had to refuel Sterett and Walke four times during the passage, Maumee only refueled the division once. While one would be hard pressed to treat the refueling of 28 May 1917 as a “first,” it was an essential forerunner to the underway replenishments conducted around the globe by the United States Navy today.
The author thanks Dr. Peter C. Luebke, Dr. Dennis Conrad and Dr. David Kohnen for significant contributions. For further reading of the significance of the Maumee’s pioneering work, look for Dr. David Kohnen’s forthcoming article on the subject.