Fleet Tugs in World War II
By Cmdr. Edward H. Lundquist
A service of the Navy Office of Information
(703)695-3161/DSN 225-3161
Reprinted from: http://www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/wwii/facts/fleettug.txt

   They were the workhorses of the fleet--small auxiliary ships that helped to save some of the biggest and most powerful warships. They were, and are, the towing, diving, salvage and rescue ships of the U.S. Navy. Perhaps the best known among the ocean-going tugs of the World War II era were the 205-foot fleet tugs of the Navajo class, also referred to as the Indian class since they were named for tribes of native North Americans. There were 70 of these ships built, originally classified as ATs, but redesignated ATFson May 15, 1944.

   The lead ship, Navajo (AT-64), was built at Bethlehem  Shipbuilding Corp., Staten Island, and commissioned on Jan. 26, 1940. She was lost Sept. 12, 1943, when an explosion occurred at sea. Lost with her were 17 sailors.

    Sister ship Seminole (AT-65) joined the fleet in March 1940. Along with Navajo, she operated at Pearl Harbor during the hectic days that followed the Japanese surprise attack. She, too, was a casualty of war, lost a year earlier than the Navajo.
    Seminole was at Tulagi on Oct. 18, 1942, offloading aviation gasoline and ammunition with YP-284 (a yard patrol craft) in company. The two small ships were about three and a half miles east of Lunga Point when a trio of enemy destroyers appeared. Seminole immediately got underway, but was outgunned and outrun. Seminole and YP-284 both were hit, caught fire and sunk. Most of the Japanese bullets passed through the tug's thin skin and didn't explode, with the relatively fortunate result that only one Seminole crew member was lost.
    Nauset was lost in 1943 during the Sicily invasion, and Sarsi was lost after the war. As a class, however, these sturdy tugs were survivors.
    The 205-footers were well suited to their missions of open-ocean towing, emergency salvage and fire fighting in naval combat areas. They were long-legged ships with superb endurance resulting from the 96,000 gallons of fuel that they could carry. The four diesel engines used for main propulsion developed 3,000 shaft horse power from the electric motor. The 13-foot screw could tow large vessels long distances. Examples include drydock sections and damaged capital ships being moved to or from the theater of operations. These 205-foot tugs had salvage pumps, 8,000-pound eells anchors ideal for salvage work and other special equipment for conducting or assisting in salvage operations. They also had considerable fire-fighting capability. 
    The ATFs were distinctive ships with tall, straight bows, low freeboard amidships and a rounded stern above the single screw and rudder. ATFs 66-95 were built with a large stack, and ATFs 96 and later had a smaller stack with the main propulsion exhaust being discharged over the side at the waterline instead of through the funnel. 
    Call them tug boats, but ATFs were relatively large vessels, drawing 15 feet, and so not suited for close inshore work. At about 1,600 tons, these ships were not much smaller than early World War II destroyers and destroyer escorts. They were, however, rugged craft able to take punishment from working with damaged craft at close quarters, or from combat operations.
    These tugs had teeth, too! The main gun was a 3-inch, .50-caliber, slow-fire mount. In their wartime configuration, however, these ships had 20 mm machine guns on both bridgewings and 40 mm anti-aircraft batteries in gun tubs aft on both sides. Depth charges were carried to sink submarines, if one, by chance, were to stumble upon an ATF. In later years much, if not all, of this armament was removed.
       Before the Navajo class came into being, the Navy had a wide variety of older tugs. Some were unique civilian ships pressed into military service. Sixteen of them were Bird-class World War I minesweepers that were built on tug-type hulls, while some were one-of-a-kind naval vessels. During World War II, these ATs were reclassified as ATOs, with the "O" meaning old. A total of 36 ships carried the ATO designation.
    Floyd Mathews was only 16 when he enlisted in the Navy in 1919. His 30-year career saw him rise to the rank of Lieutenant Commander and command of the fleet tug Chickasaw (ATF-83). He also served aboard a battleship and seven submarines. He found tugs comparatively relaxed and informal, but the work was long and hard.
    "Salvage work was adventurous and gratifying," Mathews said. "But the work never ended until the job was done."  Mathews served on the converted minesweepers Bobolink (ATO-20) and Kalima (ATO-23); the rescue and salvage ship Deliver (ARS-5); and finally the Chickasaw.
    "You could be expected to get underway on a moment's notice on jobs such as search and rescue," he said. "Duty on a battleship was more of a rigid routine. You lived by the book," Mathews asserted.
    "You would speak to an officer only when spoken to, or by request. Not so in smaller ships." The happiest moment in his naval career, he recalled, was when he received orders to command his fleet tug.

    The smaller cousins of the ATFs and ATOs were the auxiliary tugs called ATAs. ATAs were a new class of tugs designed for action during World War II. Thirty-eight ATAs of the Sotoyomo class were built. At 143 feet, they were smaller than the ATFs, and usually had a crew of five officers and 50 men. They were also less capable than ATFs, but were able to conduct major towing operations, thus freeing up ATFs for more crucial and specialized duties.

    ATAs also had long legs, but they lacked the salvage or fire-fighting abilities of the fleet tugs. They drew less water, had half the horsepower, and carried lighter armament. ATAs were envisioned to relieve ATFs of vessels retrieved from combat areas, allowing the ATF to return to the action while the ATA brought the damaged vessel to a safe repair facility. 

    While ATAs were steel vessels powered by diesel engines, their close cousins, the ocean-going rescue tugs, ATRs, were mostly wooden-hulled ships with steam power plants. They, too, were built expressly for the war, to rush to the scene of a disabled vessel, such as one torpedoed by an enemy submarine in coastal waters. They did not have the same endurance as the other ships, but did possess considerable fire-fighting capabilities. The steam-driven ATRs were hot, recalled Elwood Gould, who served aboard ATR-31. "You couldn't sleep in the crew quarters when the ship was in the tropics. The steam line ran right through the berthing spaces."  "We always slept on deck because of the heat," adds George Bretz, who served aboard ATR-36 between 1945 and 1946. "When we used our steam salvage pumps, we didn't have enough steam to get underway," he added.
    The ATR was 116 feet long, displacing about 1,200 tons with a wide 34-foot beam. She was crewed by three officers and 50 men, Gould said.  "She was built with a million board feet of lumber," Gould remembered. "Our frames were spaced very close together, just 10 inches apart, so she was sturdy." Gould said the armament on ATR-31 included a 3-inch, .50-caliber gun, two sets of 20 mm machine guns, and some extras. "We also stole a 50 mm and a 100 mm gun from the beach. When the war was over, we dumped the guns and ammo because we weren't supposed to have them."

    During World War II, a large number of rescue and salvage ships called ARSs joined the fleet. Some were converted Bird-class minesweepers and others were wooden ships built for the war. But the Navy knew that steel salvage ships were more rugged than wooden ones.  Some of the rescue and salvage ships of the Bolster class
are still active in the fleet today. Originally, 22 ARSs were built, with ARS 44-49 being cancelled. Between the ATFs, and the ARSs, the Navy had a formidable towing and salvage fleet for combat operations. The ARSs displaced about 2,000 tons and were a little longer than the tugs at 213 feet overall. Today, there are ARSs active in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, in the Naval Reserve Force and in the Coast Guard.  After their vital service to the fleet during World War II, fleet tugs had a presence at the war's end. Wenatchee (ATF-118) was present at Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally surrendered.

Commander Edward H. Lundquist is director of the Navy's Fleet
Hometown News Center in Norfolk, Virginia. He served aboard the
Tawakoni (ATF-114) 1977-1978.

Navy & Marine Corps World War II Commemorative Committee
Navy Office of Information (CHINFO)
The Pentagon, Room 2E352
Washington, DC 20350-1200
Go To ATR-7 Page