Transporting Retired Navy Flat-Tops

by Hans | July 25th, 2009

A 63-Year History Plus One Very Harrowing Moment for Foss While Transporting Retired Navy Flat-Tops

Foss’ entry into the aircraft carrier towing business began shortly after World War II when the U.S. Navy hired the company to tow the 872-foot aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-16), from the Bremerton Navy Yard to the U.S. Government reserve fleet in Everett. The 1,200 horsepower Barbara Foss and the 800 horsepower steam tug Wanderer were dispatched to Bremerton on a June day in 1946. With the assistance of several Navy tugs, the carrier was shifted out of its berth in Bremerton and proceeded under tow of the two Foss tugs on the 37-mile voyage to Everett

From left to right are the Foss tugs Barbara Foss, Wanderer, Foss No. 18, and George W., heading northbound for Everett with the USS Lexington in 1946.

Prior to entry in Everett Harbor, two additional Foss tugs, the Foss No, 18, and the George W joined the Lexington for the assist into the lay-up berth. The Lexington was decommissioned in 1946. Numerous other carrier moves were made in the Puget Sound area supporting the U.S. Navy in the late 1940s and again before and after the Korean War. The first record of Foss towing a carrier in offshore waters occurred in 1958 when the Agnes Foss (1,500 horsepower) towed the USS Core (CVE-13) from Bremerton to Portland. The 496-foot by 111-foot Core was classed as an escort carrier and nicknamed a “baby flat-top.” The 78 escort carriers, built between 1941 and 1945 did routine patrol work, scouting, and escorting of convoys that the larger carriers could not do. The “CVEs” provided fighter and close air support for amphibious landings and also served as aircraft transports moving from one theatre of action to another. These vessels were lightly armored, slower than the fleet carriers and had less defensive armament and aircraft capacity. Within a year of the ending of WW II many of the escort carriers had been mothballed at numerous locations around the United States. The USS Core, was mothballed in Bremerton in 1946, and remained there until towed out by the Agnes Foss in 1958. Captain Erskine “Nic” Nicol and his fourteen-man crew of the Agnes made the trip to Portland in three days with light seas at an average speed of 5 knots. The second recorded coastwise tow was another escort carrier, this time the USS Badoeng Strait (CVE-116). The 4,000 horsepower Craig Foss towed the twenty-seven-year-old vessel from Bremerton to Portland for scrapping in June of 1972. The Badoeng Strait had been built in Tacoma in 1945 and served in both WW II and the Korean War.

Captain Erskine Nicol, aboard the Agnes Foss, at the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, prepares to depart with the USS Core for Portland Oregon in 1958.

After several peacetime deployments it was decommissioned in Bremerton in May 1957, and sold for scrapping in May 1972. The first recorded coastwise tow of a “full-fledged” aircraft carrier by a Foss tug was in April 1971. Foss was contracted by Zidell Corp. of Tacoma to tow the former U.S. Navy carrier, Philippine Sea from the Navy reserve fleet in San Diego to Tacoma for scrapping. The Philippine Sea (CV-47), completed in 1945, was the first flat-top ordered from the U.S. to Korea at the outset of the Korean War in July 1950. Her planes flew 7,243 combat sorties and she’s believed to have had more landings than any other carrier off Korea. She was decommissioned in December 1958. The 5,000 horsepower Arthur Foss, with veteran Foss skipper Guy Johnson in command, departed San Diego on April 6, beginning the 1,350-mile tow. At the time, in 1971, Foss management commented that “this may be the largest tow undertaken, in size, by a single Foss tug. The “Sea” is 855 feet in length, with a beam of 93 feet, and registers a displacement of 27,100 tons. At the conclusion of the voyage, on April 19, Captain Johnson reported a top speed of 4.8 knots, and no significant problems. Weather held, for the most part. At one interval, the winds gusted to 40 knots out of the Southwest. He reported it was like a “donkey tugging at an elephant.” The Arthur maintained a course 100 miles offshore for the duration of the voyage. On arrival in Tacoma, the Arthur was relieved of her charge, and eight other Foss tugs eased the giant into Zidell’s berth. The tugs assigned to the docking were the Shelley, Shannon, David, Diane, Brynn, Peter, Myrtle, and Sea Queen.

On the morning of July 25 an unusual event occurred, as recorded in the official log.

Two months later on June 29, 1971, a local Seattle newspaper reported, “Chalk up a second record breaking tow for the Arthur Foss. Once again they made it look easy. It’s previous tow, the Philippine Sea, was heralded as the biggest one-tug tow in history. Yesterday (June 28) the Arthur brought in an even larger one, this time the USS Princeton.” The Princeton (CV-37), was commissioned in November of 1945, and with the exception of a two-year period from 1948 to 1950, she remained on the active roster of the U.S. Navy until decommissioning in late 1969.

The 5,000 horsepower Arthur Foss enters the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the aircraft carrier Philippine Sea in 1971.

The Princeton’s final claim to fame was being designated as the prime recovery ship for Apollo 10, the lunar mission that paved the way for Apollo 11, the first landing on the moon. The Arthur, once again under the command of Captain Guy Johnson experienced more moderate weather on the tow of the Princeton. Even though the displacement was greater, at 33,000 tons, they beat their own towing time of the Philippine Sea by twelve hours. Two years later, another carrier towing opportunity arose for Foss. Zidell had purchased the USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) for scrap from the Navy in May of 1973. The Bunker Hill was one of the Essex-class carriers commissioned in May of 1943. She measured 872 by 93 feet, with a displacement of 27,100 tons. It was of the same class and tonnage as the Philippine Sea. The Bunker Hill had been in active service for only four years when it was placed “out of commission, in reserve” in San Diego in January 1947. The Craig Foss, under the guiding hand of Captain Chuck May departed San Diego July 19, 1973, towing the Bunker Hill. The voyage proceeded uneventfully for the first 6 days. However, on the morning of July 25 an unusual event occurred, as recorded in the official log: “0800 noticed large bulk carrier overtaking Craig about 60 degrees abaft the starboard beam, and heading right for the Craig. They are about 7 miles away with no change in bearing. At 0815 called the first mate and began blowing whistles and blinking both searchlights. Rang general alarm at 0820. Bulk carrier port stern collided with the starboard bow of the Bunker Hill at 0830.” There was no damage to the Craig, but an area just below the flight deck on the Bunker Hill was damaged. The ship continued on its course after striking the carrier. It wasn’t until 1100 that the Craig was able to raise the bulk carrier via VHF radio. They reported damage to their port quarter above the waterline but fortunately no injuries. The remainder of the voyage was uneventful, ending in Tacoma on August 4, after seventeen days at an average speed of 3.6 knots. The Bunker Hill was safely moored alongside Zidell’s dismantling dock by the Craig, Deborah, Shannon, Brynn and Erik Foss. It was all quiet in the aircraft carrier towing business until September 1994 when Foss was awarded the tow of the decommissioned carrier Hornet (CV-12), from Bremerton to Long Beach. The 27,100-ton Hornet was completed in time to see service in the final year of WW II. It was decommissioned in 1947 and was re-commissioned in 1953 as an attack aircraft carrier (CVA-12). The Hornet remained on active duty until July of 1970 when it was decommissioned in Bremerton for the final time. It was sold for scrap in April 1993, and was towed out of Bremerton on September 10, 1994, by the Craig Foss, with an assist from the Garth Foss and Shelley Foss. Captain Art Hines reported an average speed of 3.8 knots for the fourteen-day trip. The weather “had its moments” as reported by Captain Hines. It was a slow and tedious journey for the tug and its crew. As an interesting sidelight to the story, the Hornet was never scrapped. The following year the Hornet was towed north (by another tug company) to Alameda where it was put on display as part of the Alameda Naval Air Station base closure historical preservation process. At the same time the “Aircraft Carrier Hornet Foundation” was formed to save it from eventual demolition. Their efforts were rewarded in 1996 when the foundation submitted a formal proposal to operate the Hornet as a museum. The proposal was accepted by the Navy shortly thereafter, and the ship was opened to the public at Pier 3, Alameda, in 1998. As for the Craig, it had an additional aircraft carrier assignment. This time, the tug provided escort services for the 226-foot Navy tug Navajo towing the decommissioned 1,036-foot carrier Ranger (CV-61) from Long Beach to Bremerton beginning September 25, 1993.

(By Mike Skalley)
Sources: Foss Maritime Towbits December 2003
Editor’s Note: Mike Skalley is Foss’ Manager of Customer Service in the Pacific Northwest, the company’s historian and the author of “Foss — 90 years of Towboating.”) 

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