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History and Heritage

One Hundred Years in the Making:

The Birth of Military Sea Transportation Service

In 1946, the new chiefs of the Navy and Army, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, sat down to discuss a situation that had plagued their commands throughout the Second World War.

With the creation of the National Military Establishment, subsequently redesignated the Department of Defense, both these veterans sought to correct a shortfall that had existed since America's first overseas operation.

As early as 1847, the Quartermaster General of the Army, Brigadier General Thomas S. Jesup had to compete with the U. S. Navy for the chartering of American merchant ships. Following the successful outcome of the Mexican-American War, Jesup recommended that the Navy be given the responsibility for the water transportation of the military, in both peace and war-time. However, this divided relationship persisted through the Spanish-American and both World Wars.

In World War II, four different government agencies competed to utilize the commercial merchant marine -- the Naval Transportation Service, the Army Transport Service, the U. S. Maritime Commission's War Shipping Administration, and the Fleet Support Services. To oversee these organizations, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) established the Joint Military Transportation Command (JMTC), but this arrangement proved cumbersome. In May 1946, Nimitz and Eisenhower directed that the JMTC make a study of the situation and recommend a solution.
Three photo collage of historical UNREPS circa 1940s-1950s.

On December 15, 1948, the Secretary of Defense James Forrestal issued a statement, "all military sea transport including Army transports would be placed under Navy command." With the decision made, the details of the actual transfer and scope of the new command's responsibilities had to be ironed out. While the Army and Air Force agreed in the transfer of sealift functions to the Navy, they could not agree on how to distribute the costs.

The Army and Air Force felt that the Navy should be made to pay for the operations of the vessels, while the Navy felt that the services wanting to ship items should provide the necessary funds. This issue held up the matter till the new Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, issued a memorandum on July 12, 1949 that spelled out the financing, purpose, and responsibilities of the new Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS).

Secretary Johnson directed that the title of the Army's cargo and passenger ships be transferred to the Navy. MSTS would accept the responsibility of being a carrier service and assume the responsibility for the cargo once it was loaded. Operation of the ports would remain with the respective services. The final issue, funding, proved elusive till the service shifted to Naval Industrial Fund on July 1, 1951, whereby a pool of $100 million was provided to MSTS for operations. However, the respective services were required to backfill the fund for their shipping expenses.

The initial commander of MSTS, Rear Admiral William M. Callaghan (subsequently promoted to Vice Admiral), coordinated the transfer of the NTS with its commander, Rear Admiral A. J. Wellings (re-assigned as Vice Commander MSTS), and Major General F. A. Heileman, the Chief of the Army Transportation Corps.

Previous experience as the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations (Transportation), and Chief of the Naval Transportation Service, Callaghan proved an excellent choice. Graduated from the U. S. Naval Academy in 1918, he served as the commander of the battleship USS Missouri in the Pacific and on the staff of Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet during the Second World War.

Initially located in the Main Navy Building, situated on the Mall in Washington D.C., the command opened for business on October 1, 1949 when NTS was dissolved and its assets and personnel transferred to MSTS. The fleet initially consisted of 6 troop transports, 3 attack transports, 12 attack cargo ships, and 16 tankers. These ships, unlike today, were commissioned vessels in the U.S. Navy and manned by military crews.
Three photo collage of modern UNREPS between the U.S. Navy and Military Sealift Command.

The same day, 57 tankers of the Petroleum and Tanker Branch of the Chief of Naval Operations office (OP-422), joined the MSTS fleet. Unlike the ships of NTS, these were government-owned tankers, but contract operated by four commercial firms (Pacific Tankers, Inc.; American Pacific Steamship Co.; Tankers Company, Inc.; and Marine Transport Lines, Inc.) and with licensed civilian merchant mariners aboard.

Additionally four field offices were established in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and New Orleans, each commanded by a Navy captain and designated as Deputy Commanders of MSTS.

While Navy assets were quickly assimilated into MSTS, the transfer of Army assets took a while longer.

On March 1, 1950, 72 ships of the ATS based in the continental United States were redesignated from United States Army Transports to United States Naval Ships. Unlike the ships of the NTS, they possessed civilian merchant crews, directly employed by the government and known as civilian mariners.

Besides these ships, 19 commercial cargo ships under contract shifted to MSTS operational control. Four months later, on July 1, the ATS offices and assets based at Bremerhaven, Germany; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Balboa, Panama; Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii; and Tokyo, Japan joined the growing fleet. The last portion of the Army's fleet, ten ships stationed in Alaska joined on November 1, 1950, completing the initial Military Sea Transportation Service fleet.