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USNS Corpus Christi Bay (ARVH 1)

USNS Corpus Christi Bay (ARVH 1).
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Design (original): Navy AV-4
Displacement (tons, original): 8,671 light, 13,475 max
Dimensions (feet): 527.3' oa x 69.25' e x 21.3' max
Armament: None
Accommodations: 129 MSTS civilians, 380 Army soldiers
Speed (kts.): 19.7
Propulsion (HP): 12,000
Machinery: NYSB Parsons turbines, 2 screws

1CORPUS CHRISTI BAY1964NSY CharlestonAug 1964--Dec 1965

ARVHNameTDecommStrikeDisposalFateMA Sale
1CORPUS CHRISTI BAYT197331 Dec 197417 Jul 1975MA/S--

Class Notes:
The history through 1963 of this ship, including her conversion in the mid-1950s to handle the large P6M seaplane, is given with the rest of the CURTISS (AV 4) class in the World War II section of this site. In the absence of all but a few archival documents these Class Notes are based primarily on the secondary sources listed below.

During the Vietnam War (1960–1973) the U.S. Army flew thousands of helicopters, of which the UH-1 Iroquois (aka Huey) was the most basic and by far the most numerous. In 1961 the Army established the Army Aeronautical Depot Maintenance Center (ARADMAC) at Corpus Christi, Tex., to perform depot-level maintenance of this force. On 20 August 1962 a board convened by SECDEF proposed changes to Army doctrine that greatly increased the role of helicopters in combat operations. At that time helicopters and components in Vietnam had to be transported halfway around the world when they were damaged or reached their flight hour limits. In response the Director of Production Control at ARADMAC, LTC John F. Sullivan, developed a concept called the Floating Aircraft Maintenance Facility (FAMF) to bring many of ARADMAC's capabilities closer to the battle zone. The concept was based on Sullivan's experience in 1944-45 with six Liberty ships converted under Operation IVORY SOAP into Aircraft Repair Units-Floating (ARU(F)) to support B-29 bombers and their P-51 escorts as the U.S. advanced across the Pacific. Sullivan gained the approval of General Frank S. Besson, commanding officer of the newly formed (1 August 1962) United States Army Materiel Command (AMC). A Project Management Office called Project FLAT TOP was established at ARADMAC under Sullivan to implement the FAMF concept.

The original FAMF concept was to activate a mothballed WWII escort carrier (hence the name of the project). A special team crawled through 17 mothballed World War II vessels including escort carriers, tank landing ships, cargo ships, and seaplane tenders, and concluded that the cost of reactivating one of the escort carriers would be prohibitive. They also reasoned that the aircraft destined for repair would not be in flying condition and that a seaplane tender already came equipped with some shops. They finally chose the recently decommissioned World War II CURTISS-class seaplane tender USS ALBEMARLE (AV 5). The Navy agreed to provide the ship as long as the Army paid the costs of converting it. Funding remained a problem until Sullivan contacted Congressman Mendel Rivers of South Carolina, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and an ardent supporter of the military and the war in Vietnam. Sullivan proposed to Rivers that the ship conversion be assigned to the Charleston Naval Shipyard in his district, and Rivers persuaded SECDEF Robert McNamara to fund the project. Project FLAT TOP was awarded $11 million in 1964 to convert ALBEMARLE at NSY Charleston into the first FAMF. On 17 June 1964 Besson assigned LTC Sullivan full time duty as project officer of Project FLAT TOP, and in August 1964 he directed the Transportation Materiel Command to explore the feasibility of using a ship as a floating maintenance facility to provide helicopter support in the Far East. While the ship was being converted the Army Materiel Command also activated the 1st Transportation Corps Battalion - Aircraft Maintenance Depot (Seaborne) to perform the repair work aboard the ship. On 7 October 1966, the Second Transportation Battalion (Seaborne) was formed at ARADMAC and the two units then rotated about every 12 months.

In response to an Army request dated 16 October 1963, MARAD on 1 November 1963 temporarily transferred custody of ALBEMARLE to the Army on a 90-day loan basis to be tested as a floating maintenance aeronautical facility at the Charleston (S.C.) Army Depot. On 7 August 1964 MARAD terminated the loan to the Army and permanently transferred the ship to the Navy for conversion. On 27 March 1965 the ship was reinstated on the Naval Vessel Register as an Aircraft Repair Ship (Helicopter) and was renamed USNS CORPUS CHRISTI BAY (T-ARVH 1) after the location of ARADMAC and the ship's future home port. She was undocked during conversion on 29 June 1965 and machinery dock trials followed in late July. The one remaining WWII seaplane crane was removed, being replaced by two more compact 20-ton cranes. Helicopter components forwarded to the ship by boat (usually an amphibious truck or a LCM) were to be hoisted aboard by the cranes. The aft end of the ship was built up into a 24′ deep working area containing maintenance shops, topped by a 50’x 150′ helipad. It was served by a hatch big enough for an airframe to be craned down into the work area and also by a small freight elevator. The forward deck had a much smaller helicopter landing area for passenger traffic and light cargo called the "admin pad" with two secondary cranes. The foremast was fitted with two radars, externally similar but operating in different frequency bands. One was capable of basic surface search while both were optimized for air traffic control. Atop the forward superstructure a small air traffic control tower was built on the spot previously occupied by the director for the 5″ guns. On the foremast above the radar antennas was a huge periodic log-style antenna called the "Three Four" for transmitting high frequency radio communications. The internal repair area aft had 26 production shops and 16 support shops which could accomplish most kinds of repair that a helicopter might need. In practice the ship concentrated on major repair of aircraft components and minor repairs to airframes, while badly damaged airframes were sent to Texas. The ship underwent a successful INSURV inspection on 5 January 1966, was transferred to MSTS for operation on 11 January 1966, completed all conversion and trials on 12 January 1966, and arrived at Corpus Christi on 22 January 1966 to embark soldiers of the 1st Transportation Battalion along with supplies and equipment for installation in the shops.

CORPUS CHRISTI BAY departed Corpus Christi on 18 February 1966 and arrived at Cam Ranh Bay on 2 April 1966. She had two Hueys assigned to her full-time for administrative use and transporting light supplies with callsigns FLATTOP 086 and FLATTOP 045. In March 1967 CORPUS CHRISTI BAY moved to Vung Tau from which she would periodically move up the coast of South Vietnam to Qui Nhon and Da Nang. On these trips, cargo was unloaded and unserviceable components taken aboard. Later on the ship moved back to Qui Nhon to be closer to the 1st Cavalry. The ship moved back to Vung Tau in 1970 which was in the vicinity of her parent 34th General Support Group and operated about 1 mile off the coast.

As it soon became clear that the FAMF concept was valid, Project FLATTOP sought a second such ship. The most natural choice was ALBEMARLE‘s only sister ship, CURTISS (AV 4). She had been fitted with an "admin pad" during the 1950s for use in Antarctica and had decommissioned in 1957. On 2 November 1965 CNO responded to a letter sent by Congressman Rivers on 25 October 1965 protesting a delay in the start of the overhaul at Charleston of USS THOMAS EDISON (SSBN 610) from January to October 1966 and suggesting the introduction of a second seaplane tender conversion for the Army (CURTISS) to prevent job layoffs during that time. CNO replied that there was uncertainty as to when the Army's proposal for a second seaplane tender conversion might be approved and that it was highly unlikely that decisions and design details could be worked out in time for an early 1966 start. The Navy would also be unable to accept a high priority for CURTISS over other work in the yard (notably the SSBN) as had ultimately been done for CORPUS CHRISTI BAY. Instead the Navy planned to add two diesel submarine overhauls at Charleston to take up the slack created by slipping the SSBN 610 overhaul. As of January 1966 the press reported that final authorization for a second ship was awaiting an evaluation of CORPUS CHRISTI BAY which prohahly would take several months. In August 1966 the Army and Navy agreed on conversion of a second ARVH. Project FLATTOP however found CURTISS to have deteriorated physically much more than anticipated (she had been cannibalized for the conversion of ALBEMARLE), making reactivation costs prohibitive, and the Defense Department did not include the project in the Fiscal Year 1967 program. For the following fiscal year the Army requested conversion of CURRITUCK (AV 7) as the next FAMF. The CURRITUCK class had followed the CURTIS class and was similar enough so that most of the development work on CORPUS CHRISTI BAY could be recycled. A Corpus Christi newspaper reported on 5 February 1967 that President Johnson has asked Congress to authorize a second repair ship which probably would be named the USNS OSO BAY after a tributary of Corpus Christi Bay. COL Sullivan was relieved as head of Project FLATTOP in May 1967. CURRITUCK was decommissioned on 31 October 1967 and by 15 November 1967 the commitment of the ship to the Army had VCNO approval, but the Navy had learned that the Army could not get approval to use CURRITUCK until FY 1970. As of 12 June 1969 AV 7 was still earmarked for the Army's Project FLATTOP, and at one point PINE ISLAND (AV 12) was to have followed as a third ARVH conversion. However in 1969 the Army Materiel Command was restructured, reducing the influence of the FLATTOP office, and later that year the Army stated that no further FAMF funding would be allocated. By 24 Sepember 1970 all four remaining large Navy seaplane tenders were considered in excess of requirements and were proposed to be stricken.

By 1971 President Nixon’s efforts to shift more of the war’s burden onto South Vietnam coincided with a change in the nature of US Army helicopter repair needs. The number of severely battle-damaged helicopters was declining - they seemed to be either getting shot down completely or incurring damage which could be repaired at local forward bases. In 1972 the Army decided that the ship’s mission was at its end, and CORPUS CHRISTI BAY departed South Vietnam after over 6½ years in theater. On 19 December 1972 the ship returned to Corpus Christi, Texas, and ended her career as the Army’s Floating Aircraft Maintenance Facility (FAMF). In July-September 1973 CORPUS CHRISTI BAY (code named POT LUCK) provided helicopter support to WHEELING (T-AGM 8, code named POCK MARK) during Operation HULA HOOP 1973 in monitoring French nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll in the south Pacific. En route to Mururoa, CORPUS CHRISTI BAY suffered a cracked hull in a typhoon and started to leak badly, earning her an emergency port call in Tahiti for repairs. She was taken out of service later in 1973 and berthed in ready reserve status at Corpus Christi, Texas. The FLATTOP office was terminated in 1974, and with it any further Army interest in the ship. On 11 November 1974 MSC reported to CNO that it had determined that CORPUS CHRISTI BAY was in excess of its current and future requirements and requested authorization to transfer her to MARAD for disposal. On 31 December 1974 CORPUS CHRISTI BAY was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register and on 31 January 1975 she entered MARAD's Beaumont, Tex, National Defense Reserve Fleet and temporary custody of the ship was transferred from the Navy to MARAD. On 17 July 1975 she was sold by MARAD for scrapping with title to the ship simultaneously passing from the Navy to MARAD. On 21 April 1976 she was withdrawn from the Beaumont reserve fleet and handed over to her buyer.

Ship Notes:
1CORPUS CHRISTI BAYEx ALBEMARLE (AV 5), comm. 20 Dec 1940. Decomm. 21 Oct 1960. Stk. and to MA 1 Sep 1962. From MA 7 Aug 1964, reinstated 27 Mar 1965 as CORPUS CHRISTI BAY (T-ARVH 1). Declared surplus by MSC 11 Nov 1974. Sold by MA 17 Jul 1975 to Brownsville (Texas) Steel and Salvage Inc. to BU. To buyer 21 Apr 1976.

Page Notes:
Compiled: 15 May 2024
© Stephen S. Roberts, 2024
Special sources: wwiiafterwwii.wordpress.com/2020/11/16/uss-albemarle-usns-corpus-christi-bay/; Wikipedia articles on USS Albemarle, Project FLAT TOP, and Operation Ivory Soap; laststandonzombieisland.com/tag/flying-boat/; www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXPf9ucebT8 (a 28-minute Army publicity film on the ship produced circa 1966); srialumni.org/newsletters/2010/AlumNews-Apr-2010.pdf (HULA HOOP)