Tuesday, March 13, 2012

USS Robert L. Barnes (AK-11, AO-14, AG-27)

Figure 1: S.S. Robert L. Barnes in merchant service circa 1917, before acquisition by the US Navy. Alexander McDougall built her as the prototype "rectangular ship" or "sea-going canal boat," with a plain, low hull and a superstructure that could be removed to pass under canal bridges. This steamer was placed in commission as USS Robert L. Barnes on 19 October 1918. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Robert L. Barnes (AO-14) at Guam, probably in 1932. Note the extensive use of awnings. Collection of Roscoe C. Stevens. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Robert L. Barnes (AO-14) at Guam in the 1920s or 1930s with the usual awnings rigged over her deck. Courtesy of Mr. & Mrs. Berle Spurlock, 2007. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Robert L. Barnes (AO-14) at Guam in the 1920s or 1930s. Note the ship's barge, with sailing gear rigged, in foreground. Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1970. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Captain Alexander McDougall designed the 5,380-ton civilian steel tanker SS Robert L. Barnes for the Robert Barnes Steam Ship Company. The ship was built in less than four months in 1917 by the McDougall-Duluth Company at Duluth, Minnesota, a company that was little more than a large blacksmith shop. What made SS Robert L. Barnes unique was that it was a prototype for a “rectangular ship,” or “sea-going canal boat.” The ship had a simple, low hull with a “portable” superstructure that could be removed to pass under the bridges of the New York State canals. McDougall had previously invented the unusual “whaleback” freighter, of which more than 40 were built. The whalebacks served as both steamers and barges and were built between 1888 and 1898. Robert L. Barnes had a simple design and was fitted with a steam engine that was built in 1888. This unusual vessel also was built 42 feet short to pass through the Welland Canal on her trip to New York from Duluth. Robert L. Barnes was approximately 258 feet long and 43 feet wide, had a top speed of 8.5 knots, and had a crew of 46 officers and men. Originally designed to carry 3,000 tons of coal, the ship was converted to carry oil soon after construction was completed.

Robert L. Barnes was inspected and taken over by the US Navy on 29 June 1918 and was commissioned as an oiler at New York on 19 October. US Navy inspectors, though, noted that she was probably not “structurally strong enough” for seagoing service with the Naval Overseas Transportation Service (N.O.T.S.). Despite that, Robert L. Barnes was assigned to the Fifth Naval District and left New York on 12 March 1919 for Hampton Roads, Virginia. After making a visit to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the ship returned to New York and then steamed to Norfolk, Virginia, on 18 April 1919 to begin an extensive overhaul at the Norfolk Navy Yard. On 4 September 1919, Robert L. Barnes was assigned to the Naval Overseas Transportation Service. After being overhauled and almost re-built, Robert L. Barnes left Norfolk on 21 November 1919 for San Pedro, California, via the Panama Canal.

Robert L. Barnes eventually left California and delivered a shipment of diesel fuel to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The ship left Pearl Harbor on 8 April 1920 with a load of fuel oil for the naval station at Guam. Robert L. Barnes arrived at Apra Harbor, Guam, on 27 April and continued serving as an oil storage vessel at Apra Harbor. Robert L. Barnes was assigned to be the “Station Ship” for Guam, but was designated a cargo ship (AK-11). In July 1921, she was re-designated more accurately as an oil depot ship and her designation was changed to that of an oiler (AO-14). Robert L. Barnes remained at Guam during most of the years leading up to World War II, except for a few years (1920, 1921, 1922, 1923, 1930, and 1934) when she was towed to the Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines for overhauls. Her designation was changed once again to miscellaneous auxiliary (AG-27) in July 1938. While at Guam, Robert L. Barnes assisted in the salvage of the grounded US Army transport U.S. Grant in May 1939.

Robert L. Barnes was floating peacefully at anchor at Guam when war broke out in the Pacific on 7 December 1941. The next day, Japanese aircraft attacked the island, bombing and strafing the old oiler. Although the Japanese didn’t score any direct hits, the ship sustained much damage topside and was leaking badly. But the ship was still afloat when the Japanese invaded the island and Robert L. Barnes was captured by the enemy on 10 December 1941, after she was abandoned by her crew. The Japanese repaired the ship and used her as an oiler. The ship somehow managed to survive the war, even though she was officially struck from the Navy List on 24 July 1942. Robert L. Barnes was sold to British mercantile interests and served as SS Fortune and M.T.S. No. 2 from 1945 to 1949. The ship then was scrapped in 1950. Not a bad career for a former “sea-going canal boat” that originally was built to simply navigate the canals of New York State.