A Tale of Two Keystone States

An auxiliary crane ship, the SS Cornhusker State, in 2009. US Navy by Petty Officer 1st Class Brian Goy. DIVIDS Photo ID 185724.

In the later years of the Cold War, the US Navy recognized the need to revitalize its seagoing transport capacity. During the Second World War, the military had built a massive fleet to support transatlantic and transpacific campaigns. Mothballed after the war, much of it had rotted away by the time reconstruction began under presidents Nixon and Carter and accelerated under President Reagan. One necessity for the new fleet was equipment to move cargo – especially containers – from ship to shore. After experiments with lifting by helicopter or balloon, the Navy settled on fitting a series of cargo ships with heavy cranes to unload cargo in ports that lacked the necessary infrastructure. The first ship to be converted was the SS President Harrison, previously operated by American President Lines, which was renamed the SS Keystone State (T-ACS-1) upon completion of its refit in 1984.

The Barge Derrick Keystone State (BD-6801) being towed by two Army Small Tugs during an exercise at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Aug 6, 2013. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Cal Turner/Released) DIVIDS ID 990511.

Confusingly, the T-ACS-1 is not the only US military crane watercraft named the Keystone State. In 1998, the US Army launched a engine-less crane barge BD-6801 with the same name, chosen to honor the 28 soldiers from Pennsylvania’s 14th Quartermaster Detachment killed in a SCUD attack during the first Gulf War (in this instance, BD stands for Barge Derrick). Operated by the Transportation Corps, the BD-6801 was built to help unload military cargo in any of the many ports around the world unequipped to handle the cargo. It carries a single crane with a reach of 175 feet and a lift capacity of 115 long tons which, unlike the cranes on previous army barges, is able to lift a 60 ton M1 tank off of a cargo ship.

Between 1985 to 2005, at least one Army floating crane like the Keystone State was always aboard the MV American Cormorant, a float-on/float-on (FLO/FLO) heavy lift ship at Diego Garcia that carried a package of Army watercraft for operating a damaged or unequipped port. The American Cormorant and its cargo deployed to many major crises as part of the army response, including the first Gulf War and Operation RESTORE HOPE in Somalia. Until the launch of the Keystone State, the crane barge carried aboard the American Cormorant was one from the BD-89T class, with an 100 foot reach and an 89 long ton (100 short ton) capacity.

The American Cormorant en route to the Gulf. Note the two BD-89T cranes on-board, only one of which was used in operations. From Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm: The Logistics Perspective (Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare, 1991), p.12. Courtesy of the AUSA website.

It was a BD-89T barge, the Algiers (BD-6072), which was deployed to be used by the Army 10th Transportation Battalion (Terminal) during the Gulf War. In addition to performing more than 1,500 lifts in Saudi ports, the Algiers was used to help clear damaged Kuwaiti ports of obstructions – harbor clearance being a mission shared between the US Army and Navy. After having built-up an extensive salvage force after the Second World War, changes to salvage doctrine meant the US Navy only sent one salvage ship and no heavy-lift gear to the Gulf. Commercial salvors being paid by the Dutch government took up much of the slack, but there were limits to what the contractors could do. With rental fees for barges and cranes running as much as $150,000 a day for a 600 ton Ringer crane barge, the Americans ended up mostly going without the heaviest equipment. The biggest harbor clearing lift involving the Algiers was a sunken Iraqi Osa II missile boat in the Kuwaiti port of Ash Shuaybah. Though small by seagoing standards, the Osa II was 127 feet long and displaced almost 200 tons in standard load. Even in combination with a quayside 140 ton crane, the crane barge couldn’t lift the ship whole. Only after army divers cut off the still-life missile launchers could the boat be raised. Looking back at the operation in the navy after-action report, perhaps with a little bit of envy, one of the navy salvage engineers called the army crane “very workable.” Other sunken craft the divers lifted at Ash Shuaybah, with or without the help of the crane, included a 90 foot sludge barge and two other boats.

The deployment of the Algiers during the first Gulf War is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the military roles played by American floating cranes, which since the conversion of the battleship Kearsage into Crane Ship No. 1 have worked to construct warships, salvage sunken submarines, and clear wrecks from the Suez Canal.

Source Notes: Much of the information for this post came from various sources around the internet, and in particular the website for the US Army Transportation Corps’ history office. The Corps’ 1994 official history, Spearhead of Logistics, was also useful. Details on the salvage operations during the Gulf War came mostly from the two-volume US Navy Salvage Report: Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, printed in 1992 and available online at the Government Attic (volumes one and two); the report’s chronology was the only place I was able to find which US Army crane barge was actually operated during the war.

The Oddly Weighty Story of Heavy Lift

I’m not sure how long its been available, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover the official history of US Navy salvage is now available online on the Naval History and Heritage Command website. Weighing in at a hefty 622 pages, Mud, Muscle, and Miracles (hereafter, M3) has everything you ever wanted to know about the organization, technology and key events in USN salvage history. In fact, unless you’re the kind of person who finds the odd details of logistics interesting just because they’re odd, it probably has far more information than you ever wanted to know.

If that comprehensiveness is both M3‘s greatest virtue and its greatest weakness, the fact that the book is well-organized and clearly written is a definite plus.

So what sort of odd facts does M3 contain? It turns out that in World War II, American navy tugs and early salvage ships weren’t equipped for vertical lifts—unlike their British counterparts. It turned out that lifting power was vital for harbour clearance, and after the war the navy made plans not to be caught out again. In 1965, the USN started leasing British 750-ton heavy lift craft for belly lifts, and followed up by converting large landing craft by into lift craft with 25-ton shear legs, buying two German heavy lift craft (renamed Crilley and Crandall) that could lift 2,400 tons each, and hiring two self-propelled heavy lift cranes (Thor and Roland) from the same German company.

(If this all sounds very complicated, it’s because it is. M3 explains most of this, but you may want to keep Google handy. To be brief: belly lifts involve pumping ballast into a ship so it sinks down, then cables are connected to the wreck below and the ballast is pumped out, lifting the ship and—hopefully—the wreck; a shear leg is a two-legged crane that uses a wire instead of a third leg).

The USN put all this money into heavy lift expecting that it would have plenty of harbors to clear in Vietnam, in Europe (if the Cold War went hot), and elsewhere in the world. It turned out to be less of a problem than expected. The smaller lift craft got a lot of work in Vietnam, but the swansong of Crilley and Crandall was the 1974 clearance of the Suez Canal—where they were noticeably outpaced by the cranes Thor and Roland.

It turns out that the need to lift wasn’t just an American one. During the 1984 Falklands War, the Royal Navy hired not just liners and cargo ships like the Queen Elizabeth II and the Atlantic Conveyor, but also a commercial anchor-handling tug. In the wildly bad weather of the south South Atlantic, the navy needed the Wimpey Seahorse to lay and adjust moorings off the island of South Georgia. Of course, Wimpey Seahorse wasn’t the strangest ship hired for the Falklands, but that’s another story (or two).